Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Goodbye to All That

Last night I said a temporary goodbye to Farscape with the final installment of The Peacekeeper Wars, the big, loud, messy, sprawling mini-series that winds up all the loose threads (and gives them a pounding for good measure) left hanging when the series was canceled.

No doubt the Sci-Fi network wanted something more actionful and less cerebral than the original series, and that is what Brian Henson (Jim's kid), Rockne O'Bannon and David Kemper served up. Spiny spaceships breathe fire and guns blaze at every turn. Blam! Boom! Enough already. Farscape was many things, but it was never boring, and the mini-series teeters on the edge of that precipice just for being so packed with running, punching and shooting.

The time could have been used much better and more imaginatively. The plot elements that need to be covered were originally meant to play out across the entire fifth season -- having to compress it all into just three hours puts a strain on the proceedings.

And yet, it's still Farscape, warts and all. One of the things I always liked about the series is that they clearly subscribe to Lester Dent's theories of Pulp Fiction. No matter how bad you think it is now for our heroes, don't worry, it's about to get much worse. "Make sure the hero gets it in the neck at every turn," quoth Dent, the man behind Kenneth Robeson and the creator of Doc Savage.On Farscape, the crew of Moya doesn't just get it in the neck -- they get full-body Trouble by the wagonload.

There's something soothing about this, in a perverse way. It's the same draw that a good Soap Opera has: the troubles that the characters experience make what you're going through seem petty by comparison.

The Peacekeeper Wars continues that trend with things like John and Aeryn birthing a child under heavy gunfire, and an alarming number of Major Series Characters who don't make it to the end.

For all the sound and fury that precedes it, the final third is actually near-perfect. Everything that the series has been hanging itself upon is contained in John Crichton's head, and we finally get to see what that looks like. It doesn't disappoint. Even Scorpius, who has spent three seasons doing every dirty thing in the villain's playbook to get that information, is suitably impressed.

And the ending is wonderful. All this time, we've been asking the Dorothy in Oz question: "Will John ever get Home?" It turns out to be the wrong question entirely. Home is not the place you go to. Home is where you make it.

Now I have to find something else to fill my Monday nights for a while. With all the packing I still have ahead of me, I've promised myself not to buy anything, not even a single DVD, until after I am moved. So it'll have to be a re-run. Y'know, I kind of have a hankering to spend some time with my old friends John Steed and Mrs. Peel. It's been years.

-- Freder

Monday, November 29, 2010

The day the fire died

Yesterday I found, neatly packed in a box in the basement, a terrific hooked rug that my mother made in 1962. The design was almost Mondrian-boxlike, with a different element in each box: half a sun, my mother's name, and more. I'd forgotten all about it; had half-forgotten that she ever worked in that medium.

She was so creative and did so many different kinds of things. Signs, clothing, handbags, papier mache fruit and flower arrangements, wooden carvings, wire creations, toys, jack-in-the-boxes, engraved leather work -- and sometimes combinations of all those things. She made the papier mache clock sign in the picture above. She was always working on something, in between raising us kids and doing many antique shows every year.

She sold a lot of it. I remember the summer she got the commission from Unionmutual to do hand-tooled leather bags to be given away at a company event. The arrangements sold at antique shows, as many as she could make. Some of her pieces are still on display at a pancake restaurant in the state capital. Her Jack-in-the-boxes were exhibited at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, which is otherwise notable for its collection of the work of three generations of Wyeths.

And then, suddenly, she stopped.

This was in the early eighties, right around the time she and my father divorced. The flow of creativity just stopped dead in its tracks, and another flow began, as she started to fill every corner of the house with antiques, toys, books, magazines, Disneyana, vintage games, Disneyana, dolls, teddy bears, and more Disneyana. Whether or not it was antique didn't matter. If it tickled her or struck her fancy, it came home with her.

She claimed to be claustrophobic, but she created a house that had one narrow path to allow a person through. In a way, the house itself became her magnum opus, a collage of Fun Things done on a colossal scale. It wasn't like the homes of hoarders you see on television. It was all neatly and artfully arranged, until after the operation to amputate her right leg robbed her of her ability to venture very far into the house.

When she ran out of money and couldn't afford to buy anything anymore, it made her so sad that she cried.

It was as if she was filling the empty space inside of her that was created when she stopped making art of her own.

My uncle O____ once said to my father, "You broke her heart."

It was a cruel thing for one brother to say to another, but it was true.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Great Man Takes Wing

Why MCA's DVD release of The Big Broadcast of 1938 came as part of a Bob Hope set is beyond me, when Fields gets top billing and is clearly the only reason to watch the movie! Oh, sure, Bob introduces his signature tune, "Thanks for The Memories," and it's a nice scene. But Fields gets much more screen time and makes the most of it. And, since Edith Head designed the costumes, it's nice to see The Great Man look dashing for a change.

The plot concerns a trans-Atlantic race between two steamships. That's pretty much it: just a clothes horse to hang novelty numbers and comedy scenes on. The novelty numbers are, alas, particularly uninteresting -- most likely the reason why I didn't remember any of them.

Never mind. Fields gets things off to a smashing start with a whirlwind round of golf, careering around the course on a rocket cart and shouting "Get out of the way!" to a throng of cowering caddies, before putting the wings down and literally taking to the air. As the bad-luck brother of the owner of the steamship Gigantic, Fields is meant to sabotage the other boat simply by gracing it with his destructive presence; instead, he lands on his own ship and promptly shuts down the new radio-power invention that was guaranteed to win his company the race.

Dorothy Lamour is on hand, but she can't wait to get rid of Hope so that she can sing and smarm over Leif Erikson as the Young Inventor. Hope's three former wives are also present to insure their alimony payments. Hope himself is the emcee of the Big Broadcast of the film's title, which seems to go on endlessly.

Of course Fields gets a snooker sequence, cheating outrageously and blaming the other fellow. Martha Raye arrives, powering a lifeboat with her own Mighty Lungs, and turns out to be Fields's even more disaster-prone daughter. Fields tries to leave her abandoned at sea.

The race is all but lost before Fields realizes his mistake and assumes command, piloting the boat through a maze of icebergs with approximately the same level of caution that he piloted the golf cart earlier on.

With its gimmicks and effects, this is more like Never Give a Sucker an Even Break than it is like My Little Chickadee or The Old-Fashioned Way, both of which are better comedies. But when Fields is on-screen, he fills it with gusto, even though his health was already starting to wane.

Also on the bill was a Little Rascals comedy, with Alfafa murdering "The Barber of Seville" right and left, and an uncredited Henry Brandon as an evil agent. Brandon was then under contract to Hal Roach, and went on to play the horrible Mister Barnaby in Laurel & Hardy's Babes in Toyland, among other notable but small roles.

And I'm nearing the end of the 1943 "So Bad It's Good" Batman serial from Columbia. Columbia's serials were the bottom of the barrel in most every way, but they had the buying power to outbid Republic on both Batman and Superman. Their Superman literally turned into a cartoon every time he flew, while Republic's Captain Marvel, filmed years earlier, soared convincingly. You can bet your bottom dollar that a Republic Batman would not have been the chubby, frumpy guy in the ill-fitting and ill-tailored Halloween Costume that you see above! Every episode opens with some nifty mysterioso mood music, but once the action starts I keep expecting Graham Chapman to show up with his swagger stick and shout, "Stop that! It's silly!"

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The first of the auctions

Finding this on the web just now really made me sad. It's the notice for the first of three auctions to be held around my mother's estate. Click here for the listing. Be sure to look at the image gallery. It's coming right up, on December 7. What a day to choose.

Anyway, here's your chance to own a piece of the funhouse. Or for me to buy it back.

-- Freder.

Mountains to Move and Thanksgiving Redux

Well. Thanksgiving.

I am actually thankful that I have a lawyer who is a nice person and was concerned enough about me to invite me to her festivities. And I'm thankful that Whitey and Honey, at least, loved the turkey I gave them.

The actual festivities. . . I've had better, I've had worse.

The worst ever was a holiday fete at least a decade ago with my then-girlfriend and her extended family. This was like something out of H. P. Lovecraft. They all looked exactly alike, as if they had been deeply inbred, and this impression was reinforced by my then-girlfriend's confession, prior to the event, that while in her twenties she had conducted a lengthy sexual affair with her own cousin -- and had gone back to him after her divorce from her first husband. And, yes, the guy was there at the family event.

I can think of one really good word to describe the affair: **SQUIRM!**

The only really squirmish factor about this Thanksgiving was being the odd man at a family gathering. J____ had another guest, thank goodness, K_______, a woman visiting for the week from Florida. She had a deep Southern accent and turned out to be quite social, even forward. You might even say that she was close to being a Dirty Old Woman!

But I learned that between 2008 and 2009 she had had herself a Bad Year that put my Bad Year of 2010 to shame. Her husband died, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her younger brother killed himself, her nephew died playing something that she called "The Choking Game," (I do not want to know the details), and more.

She must have the Cheerful Gene to come through all of that and be as open and upbeat as she was.

I do not have the Cheerful Gene, as those of you who know me are well aware, and I tend to be Eeyore in the best of times.

There was one more nice thing about the afternoon. One of the people was a thirty-something woman, and midway through the afternoon she started looking at me. That way. I didn't discourage it. It's been years and years since a woman looked at me That Way. I'll admit I enjoyed it.

Of course she's married to my lawyer's son, so it's a complete non-starter, but that's okay, too. A little innocent flirtation never hurt anyone.

I came home, gave the cats their treat, made myself a pizza, had my movie night, and didn't fall asleep on it.

The next day was All For Packing. The new house had better actually happen, because I have started to pack For Real and in ways the make the house even more depressing. I have one room basically done, and a good start in several other rooms.

Mainly, yesterday was all about packing up boxes full of books. I went through most of my mother's books and sorted what I wanted to keep from what I wanted not to keep, then started in on my own shelves. I packed up eighteen large boxes of books, carried them downstairs to my "staging area," and guess what? If you look at my shelves you would never know that I had packed anything at all. I realized that "I Have Not Yet Begun" to pack books! Funny -- it was so easy getting them in to the house!

But -- that picture up above? That's all boxed up and the shelf is down in my mother's bedroom, waiting to be loaded up. As soon as the Closing happens on the All-New, All-Different Duck House, I will be ready to start moving.

Fingers Crossed, I hope that it happens this week.

Hope all of you out there in the interwebs land had yourself a good holiday.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving with Strangers

My mother loved Macy's annual Thanksgiving Parade. I liked the floats and balloons, but didn't have the patience to sit through the tedium of all those marching bands and teen celebrity singers in order to see them. Anyway, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays for Happy People.

Maybe you can understand why I am not in a very thankful mood this year. My mother and I struggled through another lousy New England winter, and just as Spring was coming, she died suddenly, alone and in terrible pain. I drank my way into the hospital, all the while enduring violations from my sister, who never lifted her finger to help while Mom was alive, from the creditors, from the auctioneers, and even from my employer. I'm living in the midst, literally, of the crumbling remains of my mother's former life, trying to make the best of things, piecing together my scrapbook of memories.  I suppose I could be thankful for the prospect of a better future, but that's still uncertain.

I can't even be thankful for a day off. My lawyer has twisted my arm into spending Thanksgiving at her house, with her relatives, all strangers to me. I'm not comfortable with any part of this. All I wanted was to spend the day packing and cleaning, to maybe buy a pre-cooked breast of turkey and share it with my cats. Instead I have to be "thankful" in a group of people that I don't know and have nothing in common with. If anything will test my ability to refrain from drinking during the day, this will be it.

Not sure if I will even try to watch the parade this year. The day will be depressing enough without it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

All done with wires

The cinema this weekend was especially good. I'll start with Sunday night, only because this is such a great photo of Cooper and Stanwyck that it had to go at the top. Last night I wanted to write about their faces. Today I see that I don't need to: the picture says it all.

Yup, it was Meet John Doe, a Capra offering that had eluded me until now. It's a pretty hefty slice of cheese -- but, first of all, what's wrong with cheese? I really like the stuff, if it's good cheese like Cooper or Hoffman's Super Sharp, or in this case, Meet John Doe. Second, if you've put cheese on the menu, for heaven's sake, get Frank Capra to direct. He'll hire the best actors and the best photographers, and he'll heat it up just right, leaving you in a warm cheesy glow.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck sell this one hard. Cooper runs the gamut from quiet dignity to laconic hayseed to outraged indignity as the man on the wire, while Stanwyck manages the transition from the most persistent and dishonest of reporters to regret and love in a way that actually makes it believable. Her high energy is grounded by his steadiness. But really, everyone in the cast is excellent -- Capra had access to a wonderful stable of character players, and he used them so wisely.

I really didn't know how it was going to end. At a certain point you think to yourself, as Cooper's character undoubtedly does, "Well, he's got to jump now. The choice has been taken away from him." At the same time, you know that it can't end that way -- this is a Frank Capra movie! But the question remains -- how are they going to stop him in a way that still allows them to put the villain in his place? Capra's solution is elegant and -- dare I say it? -- subtle. For Capra, that is.

Saturday night was something I've seen many times, but not recently. I just had a hankering to revisit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's not the martial arts action that sends me (although it's beautifully done) -- it's the deep, repressed romance, the emotions that can only be expressed in flight and dance against exotic backdrops. It's not how they're fighting -- it's why and when; it's not about crushing the opponent, it's about wanting something so badly that you won't allow anyone to stand in your way, to ruin your one slim chance at happiness.

This is Shakespeare without the poetry. . . or, rather, with flight in place of poetry.

Some people object to the flying, but for me it's a central element of the drama. It even develops the characters: flying comes as an effort to Shu Lien, as a game to Jen, and as Peace to Li Mu Bai.

I must say that Michele Yeoh is a Goddess. There are popular actresses working today who are not as accomplished at their craft as Ms. Yeoh -- and they can't do any of the other things that she can.

-- Freder.

I was going to make a crack about Wounded Knee but thought better of it. . .

Hey, now! You want to hear the latest? I've sprained my knee!

It is exquisitely painful and it turns all of life's humdrum activities (like getting dressed and feeding quats) into a real adventure!

I have no idea how it happened, but I think it involved my fat quat Pandy Bear sitting on me.

For two days I did what guys do -- ignored it. It kept getting worse. Finally on Sunday I thought to myself, "Do you think. . . ?"

Obviously, the answer is, "not much, and not very deeply."

I checked in with "Dr. Google." They said not to walk on it.

Riiiiiiiiight! I live alone in a house the size of the Ponderosa with five hungry quats! My bedroom is about a mile and a half from the kitchen. Don't walk on it!

So I spent Sunday in bed as much as I could, with an ice pack on my knee. This did help -- I can now walk without screaming. Can't remember the last time I spent a day reading. I did ultimately become engrossed in the book, but at first it was just frustrating. I have so much to do around the house, and it all involves getting down on my hands and knees. Also, I cope pretty well with grief as long as I keep busy. Lying in bed reading is a nice thing to do, but it's not the same.

The temptation to drink during the day was as strong as it has ever been. Pain killer and grief-number. But I've been beating that temptation down long enough that it's getting easier. Just read and sip on your Ginger Ale, idiot.

The book was The Last Greatest Magician in the World, a biography of Howard Thurston and, around the edges, an account of his mild rivalry with Harry Houdini.Thurston was by all indications hands down the better magician, so why don't we remember him? As Walter B. Gibson, creator of The Shadow and editor of a magic magazine, puts it, "All of Thurston's publicity was aimed at getting people into the theater; all of Houdini's publicity was aimed at creating a legend."

Thurston was welcoming and urbane on the stage -- but what a life he lived! He was a con artist, a hobo, a carnival barker, a rough character; it's doubtful that anyone in the packed houses of his later career dreamed that he was a more colorful person than they imagined.

On Saturday, the crew from Auction House number two came around to "clean me out." The less said about that, the better. I limped around the periphery, and didn't let them in the house, but even having them  pick just from from the shop and barns, it still felt like an assault. They tried to take my roller skates from my childhood! Plus, I was in pain. There were a lot of tears this weekend. Glad to get back to work. Especially since the boss is out!

Oh, and the car? Yeah, it was the battery. That guy from Triple A needs to get a new tester!

-- Freder.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Torture-Proof Man

"Strange we hold on to things that have no grace or power
While death holds on to us much more with every passing hour

And all the time you thought it would last
Your life, your friends would always be
'Til they're drunk away or shot away or die away from you."

-- George Harrison

I'm proud to point out the obvious: you don't see many Family Portraits like this one. I found it the other night while going through a box full of stuff that the auctioneers had thrown together during those awful three days. I hadn't seen it in years.

It was taken at an Antique Show at the A________ Civic Center, probably thirty years ago. Mom always put up an elaborate booth, usually with the wooden "house" flats that she'd painted herself, but for a while she displayed this circus sideshow banner, and this one time we dressed for the occasion. My mother is the clown, I'm the Ringmaster, and my sister is in the lion costume.

This is actually quite appropriate, because for the last thirty years she's been lyin'.

Sam Pennington, the editor of the Maine Antique Digest, was tickled by our act, and he insisted on taking the picture. You can see it in full size at my Flickr account, just follow the link in the sidebar.

I still have the vest and tailcoat, but don't fit into them anymore, and my leather top hat tooled with a black rose was taken by the auctioneer's crew, sometime when I was distracted, along with my winter leather jacket! The clownish jacket that my mother is wearing is something that she made. I'm sure I still have it. And the lion costume is safe with me. Here he is in color:

The Torture-Proof Man sideshow banner is the real thing, a genuine relic from a nameless circus of long ago. I tried to find it in the weeks and months after Mom died, but had no luck. So I was actually pleased when the auctioneer's crew did find it, and laid it out on the front lawn. It wasn't lost after all. Perhaps it was under her bed. That wouldn't surprise me!

It's going to be auctioned off early next year, and I hope it gets a good home. I'm OK with that, because it was too big for my new home (and, psst! Don't tell the auctioneer or anyone else, but I withheld a second, smaller sideshow banner that will have a special place somewhere in my next life!)

Who was it said: "Damn it all. Damn everything but the circus."

-- Freder

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dreams of the Departed

This morning I talked to my mother in a dream. We were shopping in a Disney store (one of her favorite activities in her later years, until the Disney Company closed down the stores). She was walking on her own two legs, and looked better than she had for some months. This was an idealized Disney store, they had just about anything anyone could want. I found an animated movie on DVD about the adventures of a Steampunked-up Mickey Mouse. Mom wasn't interested in that.

(When I went to find an image for this post, I Googled "Steampunk Mickey Mouse" and look what I found. Apparently the Disney Company really is doing something along this line. How odd, on so many levels, that I knew nothing about this, and dreamed it, and it's real. Here's a link to prove it.)

We didn't talk about anything serious. We never did. Our life was all about escaping from serious things. Mom was in her element and enjoying her newfound freedom to buy anything she wanted. She had loaded up the checkout counter with a pile of things (I've actually seen her do that in real life). But then something happened. The scene was suddenly colored with a deep sadness. It was almost as if she knew that she could not take any of these things home with her.

She disappeared, and my dream went in a different direction. I woke feeling sad, anxious, and with a bad case of the shakes.

This is not the first time I have had this kind of a dream. The first time was years ago. As with today, it was early morning and I was on the way to waking up. Then Sandy P_____, a former co-worker and a friend, entered my dream. I knew that she had been suffering from cancer for a long time. The last time I had seen her (in real life) she was in a wheelchair, bald from chemo, horribly diminished, but her spirits were, remarkably, still high.

Now, in my dream, she looked great, just like her old self. I asked, "How are you?" and she said, "I'm great, I'm completely recovered! They were getting ready to put me in a pine box, but I showed them!"

We sat down at a picnic table and talked a while. Then suddenly the scene was colored with the same sense of sadness that I recognized last night. Something was making me understand that I had to go. I said good-bye, walked away from the picnic table, and woke up -- remembering everything clearly.

Half an hour later the telephone rang. It was my former boss, Ellen R________. She told me that Sandy had died during the night.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some days it pours!

My car is about as reliable as Professor Fate's, here: from The Great Race.

Yesterday ended so well. I spent an hour on the phone lining up homeowner's insurance (by combining it with my auto insurance I save $$$!), talked with the current owner of the house (he said the loan officer had called him to say she anticipated being able to close in three weeks), had a halfway decent dinner, drank less than usual, and got to bed on time with the anticipation of being at the new house early to sit in on the home inspection.

But today went, ehm, differently than planned.

I was supposed to be at the inspection at 9:00 AM. Actually, I was going to get there half an hour early and take some snaps of the interior.

I waded through another one of the torrential downpours we've been getting (sure hope we get out of this weather pattern before it turns really cold!), got in my car, turned the key -- and nothing happened. We've all had these moments, I know. I'm just saying. Why do these things always happen when you have to be somewhere unusual and the weather is hideous?

There was no electrical power at all -- couldn't even unlock the doors by the switch.

I swam back through the growing typhoon and called the home inspector. After all, I had the keys and was supposed to let him in. No answer. Left a message. Then called Triple A.

This was a little bit worrisome because I had it in my head that we'd canceled Triple A on all the vehicles after my mother died. Fortunately for me, it turned out I'm still a member.

Long story short: I got hold of the inspector, he swung by to pick up the keys, and in due time the mechanic came, did a battery test (it passed) and started the car. All's well that ends well, right? I can even make most of the inspection, right?

If you believe that, you haven't been paying attention!

I was crossing the river into W_________ when the car suddenly died. We're talking D-E-A-D dead. I'm shooting along the bridge at about forty miles an hour with no power steering or brakes, nothing. The window immediately started to fog up so I couldn't see where I was going. Couldn't open the windows to let in air.

I coasted along as far as the car would take me, then turned onto the shoulder. Actually, I was pretty lucky, ending up at the bottom of the off-ramp, just a couple of hundred yards from a credit union. This was vital, because I do not own a cell phone. I don't like the telephone at the best of times, why would I want to carry one of the bloody things wherever I go?

To call for help, obviously.

It was another forty minute wait at the credit union, and when the tow truck pulled in, it was driven by the same guy who started the car back home!

Towed it to the dealership, they gave me a ride to work, where I arrived soaking wet but grateful. After all, it could have been so much worse. Actually, I had just one moment of real despair during the whole experience, while I was cooling my heels at the credit union. It struck me that I didn't have anyone to call.

Oh, and the house? Seems to have passed the inspection with flying colors. I'll let you know about the car!

Sex in Cinema -- 1934 style

Six of a Kind is the movie equivalent of a cookie. It's fun, light, easy, and it's over fast. The re-teaming of W. C. Fields and Alison Skipworth (whose earlier teaming in Tillie & Gus is fondly remembered by me, though it's another missing link on DVD) was my main reason for wanting to see this picture, but just look at the rest of the cast -- and they all get equal opportunity.

I'd never thought about it before, but the picture is actually pretty racy for the time: the entire plot centers around a middle-aged couple's "second honeymoon" and the continual frustration of their efforts to sleep together. The movie even ends with Charlie Ruggles leaping enthusiastically into the bed where his wife, Mary Boland, is already ensconced.

So we can assume it's a happy ending, although Ruggles and Boland are of a certain age and this was in the days long before Viagra!

Burns and Allen play an unmarried pair of congenial control freaks who force their way into the Ruggles Honeymoon and do everything in their power to annoy, frustrate, misdirect and otherwise ruin the vacation. Fields plays "Honest John," the sheriff of a small backwater, while Skipworth owns the local hotel. The situation is complicated by a sub-plot involving a bag of stolen bank notes that's foisted onto Ruggles by the actual thief. Once the money is discovered, Fields and Skipworth naturally want a piece of it, while Burns & Allen immediately shuck themselves of Ruggles and hightail it out of town by commandeering the car of another feckless couple.

Ruggles and Boland are actually pretty darned good at their kind of frippery, while Burns and Allen get a chance to lend a mild dark side to their act. Fields gets his moment and a chance to show off his skill with a pool cube in a sequence that seems to have been filmed without much interference from the director.

This is a picture that I needed to upgrade from VHS, and it came with two other Burns & Allen pictures in one package. I have my doubts about those: I can only take Burns & Allen in very small doses (Gracie sometimes walks an awfully fine line between funny and annoying) ; it will be interesting to see if the pair can actually sustain a picture by themselves.

-- Freder

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


"Giff mee yourrr FUR-nicherrr! Giff mee your MAIMaries! I VANT yourrrr SHTUFF!"

Tonight the owners of the secondary auction house are coming over to see what's left for them to take.

There's a significant amount in the two barns, but the main house is going to be an issue. They are going to want to pull things out of there now, whereas there are only a few things that I can allow them to take. I need for them to wait until after I'm done moving, then come by and pick up whatever is left behind. I won't know until I get in to the new house whether some of the furniture is coming with me or not.

There's a large green icebox in the kitchen that I can't use, but I still don't want them to take it now. It would be too disruptive, the whole kitchen would have to be moved, and besides which, my cats like to jump up there to look out the window. Until we're gone, it stays.

For my part, I am just GOD damn sick of strangers traipsing through my house, looking at everything.

In a seemingly-unrelated matter, it comes as a surprise to discover that I must be weather-sensitive. All it takes is one dismal, dreary day, and the black dog is once again on my doorstep.

Now I want to say a giant "thank you" to all of you. I check the stats every day, so I know you're out there, some of you from as far away as Denmark, Russia and Japan. I don't know why you're reading this drivel, but you are. And that means something to me. The only time that I don't feel completely alone is when I'm working on this crazy blog.

-- Freder

Monday, November 15, 2010

Something's Coming. . .

A funny thing happened on Thursday morning.

I felt fine! No anxiety, no depression -- I felt (dare I say it) chipper. Even cheerful. I can't remember the last time this happened. No, I mean I really can't.

What could be the cause of this sudden sense of okay-ness? Most likely, it's to do with "my" new house. I've been by there two mornings in a row in order to sign papers for the current owner, and both times I've left with a refreshing sense of anticipation.

It's literally three minutes away from my job. This means I'll be getting an hour back out of my life every day, not to mention the savings on gasoline. It means I can go home at lunchtime and feed and talk to the cats.

Folks have looked at the pictures and are saying things like "That's a lot of house" -- and it is, but compare it to the manse I am living in now. My mother's house has six bedrooms, four and a half baths, a pantry, a workshop, a large kitchen, a dining room, a living room, a front sitting room, and a study. The new house has four bedrooms, two baths, a small kitchen, a study, a dining room, a living room, and a side sitting room. The latter rooms sort of evoke the ones in my mother's house, but they are significantly smaller.

There won't be an echo!

It has something my mother's house does not: a three-season screened porch. My kitties will LOVE that!

The loan officer I spoke to is positive that the mortgage will go through. She thinks they can turn it around in as little as three weeks. If not -- then the closing is no later than December 31. The payments will be a little steep and tight at first, but as soon as the money comes in from the estate I can pay down at no penalty and re-negotiate to payments at a much more manageable level.

My father is helping, in the short term, but he will be repaid sooner rather than later. I don't mind owing the bank money, but it drives me crazy to owe him and his wife. The one who really made this all possible is my mother. You've seen the pictures (if not, go look now). Late in life she had terrible cash flow problems, and I often wondered why she didn't just sell the stuff and lay her worries to rest. Instead, she came crying to me every other month, asking for money I couldn't easily spare. She kept saying she would pay me back.

She'll do that, with much interest, but I wish it hadn't happened this way.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bread & Circuses

This is an article I wrote years ago for my long-defunct literary zine, Millennium. I dug it out of mothballs because I watched the documentary Circus on PBS last night, and it made me sweek with glee. Wherever possible I've hyperlinked names with their entries at Circopedia.


While the rest of the nation spends their Sunday afternoon watching a gaggle of hulking hyper-thyroid morons battering each other senseless in a contest to decide if football can possibly make us dumber than, say, watching football, I shall be watching an angel triumph over gravity. Video tape was made for Super Bowl Sunday, and thanks to video I can take my Day of Athleticism in the form of the Circus.

Where team sports represents the suppression of the individual and the crushing of one’s opponent into the dirt, the modern circus presents a team of an entirely different sort, where individual strengths are always given the chance to shine, and the goal is common attainment of flight. Where football fans dream of breaking bones, the circus dreams of breaking natural laws, of aspiration, of stretching flesh and bone to the limits of the heart and mind. This is nothing more or less than evolution in the purest sense: the effort of man to haul itself bodily out of the limitations of clay.

There are good circuses and there are not-so-good circuses, the latter almost certainly giving rise to the myth of the Circus of Darkness or evil as personified in Ray Bradbury’s masterful Something Wicked This Way Comes. It is the good circuses that concern us here -- and North America is fortunate to have at least three Very Good circuses alive and thriving as the datebook turns over its latest page. In one form or another I’ve been fortunate to see the work of all three.

The three-ring circus is purely American in design: growing out of the idea that more is better and that audiences served up with more than they can possibly digest in one sitting will come away from the performance in a state of effulgent dizziness, sated beyond all the dreams of gluttony.

Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey is to other circuses what the United States Government is to, say, the Government of Finland: huge, tentacled, sprawling, and layered with level upon level of support systems. And damn do they put on a show.

We saw the 124th Edition in Boston nearly four years ago. Our reservations about three-ring circuses were well-founded: because there’s an inherent unfairness about them for the performers, who must try to hold the attention of the audience over two other acts (and sometimes many more) simultaneously in performance. In theory this is probably designed to spur them on to greater heights, but we doubt that’s how it works in practice.

The featured act that year were the baby elephants Romeo and Juliette, and as a featured act they were kind of a bust. Never mind. In a three-ring circus there is always more to see. There were dancers spinning about in spiderweb ropes thirty feet above the ground, hanging by their toes or their teeth, balanced on one hand; there were dozens of acrobats flying over, around and through each other at dizzying speeds, creating an atomic effect on a grand human scale; there were Cossak riders and plate balancers and animals both wild and tame. In Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, the moral seems to be not so much that the natural laws of space and gravity can be broken, but they can be broken easily, repeatedly and en masse. Even the clowns, many experts in their craft, came by the dozens: because of their Florida Clown School, Ringling is able to turn out highly skilled clowns in numbers that would choke even one of those little VW Cars that spits out clowns in  alarming quantity. There’s no time for subtlety in this kind of Clown Show: we are provided with an entire race of the things, each moving through their performances with the precision of an aerialist.

In 1995 we were honored to witness the “Grandma Meets Mummenshanz” edition of The Big Apple Circus, an unusual edition of an already unusual circus.

Easily the greatest and classiest of one-ring American circuses, Paul Binder’s Big Apple Circus is unbelievably intimate in atmosphere compared to the Ringling Production, not only for the smallness of the tent and the closeness of the seats to the ring, but for the one-on-one interaction of the performers with the crowd.

In a beautifully designed tent layered with cloth and canvas, stars and stripes, a modern band played on a platform above the ring and the acts rolled out one by one. With a refreshing lack of pretension the performers (each of them among the best in the world) went through their paces before and above us: because The Big Apple takes a traditional approach to the circus arts, and takes them more seriously than any of the small American circuses, the audience was given a complete array of acts presented with straightforward dynamism: the idea being that acts themselves are dazzling enough without a bunch of unnecessary glitter. Highlights included an amazing three-person strength/statue act, the lovely Elena Panova on trapeze, horses, balancing, high-flying and an elaborate juggling setpiece. Only the pig act disappointed; the oinkers did not seem to be co-operating that afternoon.

Perhaps in a concession to the open artiness of La Cirque du Soleil, this edition of the Big Apple Circus included performances by the panto group Mummenshanz, which proved that they can be as engaging circus performers as any. In one sequence they worked closely with featured clown Barry Lubin, who appeared throughout in his justifiably famous Grandma character (Lubin is one of the two or three greatest living Clowns, a national treasure on par with Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly). The combination was electric, adding a note of unique specialness to this edition.

There are those who view Canada’s Cirque du Soleil as avant-garde, or nontraditional; but to our minds the Cirque is about as traditional as they come. The question is which tradition. There are no animal acts, which is a departure; and the tone owes as much to Cirque artistic directors Franco Dragone and Guy Lalibert√©’s background as street performers as it does to the circus. The effect is entirely European, and in that regard the tradition that Cirque follows may go back farther than any other circus in the world.

Like The Big Apple Circus, Cirque du Soleil plays in a single ring under a tent that seats a relatively intimate crowd. Lacking the animal acts, it combines feats of almost inhuman skill and daring with world-class clown performers, exciting original music, dramatic lighting, loosely structured plot settings and an unusual “Greek Chorus” of brightly garbed, masked onlookers. We have seen them only on video: the best of these (We Reinvent the Circus, Nouvelle Experience and the just-released Quidam) represent shortened versions of the tours -- and the best that circus arts have to offer.

In Quidam, La Cirque repeats a device from an earlier show: the inhuman visitant who bestows a Magic Hat upon a frustrated and drab want-a-lifer (in this case a young girl whose parents hide behind newspapers), who then experiences ecstatic visions of human attainment: the clear message being “We can do this: we can touch the sky: and by extension, so can you.”

Standout acts include a man inside a wheel -- just like a European toy from the last century -- the obligatory but always astonishing statue act (as literal a metaphor as you will ever find for man’s ability to mold elegance and symmetry out of raw clay), some very fine clowning and, best of all, an aerial act of exquisite beauty in which a woman suspends herself thirty feet above the ground merely by wrapping herself in silk.

But then, circus aerialists are the most beautiful women in the world, for dreaming and daring and flying above us all. Try getting that from a football game.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tiger Whitestockings -- FAIL!

The experiment of bringing Tiger Whitestockings into the house was already going south (see post: "The Whitestockings Case"), but last night it crashed and burned spectacularly.

I woke up in the middle of the night to Whitestockings picking and scratching on my comforter. Then I caught the dreadful pong of urine. She had gone to the bathroom on my bed, right next to me!

Any cat that urinates in the same place that it sleeps (not to mention IN MY BED) is too wild to bring indoors.

So I was up at 5:00 AM doing a complete change of the linen, and scrubbing the mattress. After that chore was done I was so wide awake that I knew I would never get to sleep without a drink to relax me. I shouldn't have done it, but I did.

This morning she went outside. She went willingly, even happily, even though it was cold. When I brought out her breakfast, she was on the other side of the yard, sniffing the leaves on the bushes with her tail in the air. She came running for her food, and I haven't seen her looking so contented since I brought her in.

Some things just are what they are. I hope she can adjust to a new yard.

-- Freder.

A Theatrical Epic

Clocking in at just over three hours -- an almost unheard-of runtime for a picture made in the middle '30s -- and splashed with truckloads of sequins, The Great Ziegfeld is both a zestful discovery and an ordeal.

It's like getting two pictures in one: the first is a pretty good, fun biopic chock full of familiar faces; the second is almost a documentary re-creation of some of Ziegfeld's great shows.

William Powell is always worth watching, and here he delivers an engaging characterization of the great theatrical impresario, warts and all. Although second-billed, Myrna Loy doesn't appear until well into the final third of the film, as Ziegfeld's second wife Billie Burke, she of the quavering voice, Topper and the land of Oz. Without trying to imitate Burke, Loy evokes her splendidly, and grounds the movie so well that the billing is deserved.

But the whole cast is wonderful, really -- we get a much larger taste of Frank Morgan than in The Wizard of Oz, we get Will Rogers and Fannie Brice and Ray Bolger not just playing themselves, but recreating the very acts that attracted Hollywood to them; and it's all contained by a solid drama that Ziegfeld himself created as surely as he created his own shows.

The man was financially irresponsible to say the least, too fond of the female exterior, and too shallow to produce works of any depth. He was all surface, and so were his shows. "More steps!" Powell whispers as a cadre of Ziegfeld angels guide him out of this life. "I've got to have more steps!"

The musical numbers are indeed as spectacular as any ever filmed, but after a while, much like pornography, their sameness becomes apparent and they begin to become monotonous. Another cluster of girls arranged artfully on another spectacular set, not doing much of anything other than standing there and letting the light play over their sequin-studded costumes.

This was made and marketed as a "spectacular," and oh, how it tries. From an extravagant opening in an idealized sideshow to its final scene with Ziegfeld dying in a tiny room while the lights of his own theater glitter through the windows like a Heaven that's just out of reach, it marshals all of MGM's considerable resources to throw glamour at the screen by the trough-full. The Great Ziegfeld isn't -- not quite. But it has a lot to offer, and for the most part it rewards the endurance required to sit through it.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Falling Apart

This morning a huge chunk of ceiling plaster fell in the front room. I swept the rubble aside, no time to clean it up properly. Now there's a gaping grey hole there, with the floorboards visible from the room above. When are the blows going to stop?

It's almost as if my mother was the glue holding this place together, and as soon as she died it began falling apart, like the tower of Barad-Dur in Lord of the Rings. With the home inspector coming sometime soon to check the place out, I'm a little concerned that this could kill the deal.

Still and all, it made me feel better about signing the Purchase Agreement on the new house, which I did today on the way in to work.

It's official. If the mortgage comes through I will be moving into a nice two-story Victorian sometime midwinter. It feels like the right decision, and the right house, but it's too bad I'm being pushed so hard by my father, my sister, and even the house itself.

Want to talk about feeling overwhelmed? I'm there. I'm trying to think out the logistics of the move, but sometimes I despair of managing it all by myself.

Meanwhile, I had Quat Warfare last night in my end of the house. Tiger Whitestockings decided that she liked the comforter on my bed even better than she liked the quilts of the sofa. I warned her that she was treading on thin ground, but did she listen to me?

The upstairs, especially including my bedroom, is Honey's Domain, and she guards it fiercely. I was typing an email at the computer when I heard a shriek and the rumbling of feet. The two cats shot down the stairs and between my feet, moving so quickly I didn't even see them. All of a sudden I heard them behind me, and then Whitestockings shot back upstairs with Honey in hot pursuit, fur flying.

I found Whitestockings cowering on my bed, with Honey looming over her, getting really aggressive, ready to pounce. You can bet I broke that one up! I carried Whitestockings back downstairs, put her on the quilts and told her, "It's best you stay down here."

I wonder how Honey is going to react  to the move. All of a sudden she won't have Her Dominion anymore, she'll be on even footing with all the others, in a strange new world.

The Whitestockings Case, Readying for Winter, and More Navel-Gazing

Tiger Whitestockings has decided that there are some virtues and benefits to being an inside cat, especially this time of year. I had to hunt for the longest time, but I finally found her in what my mother used to call the Horse Room: the pickers had piled up a whole bunch of rugs, throws and quilts on top of the sofa, and there she was, snoozing happily, just like the Princess and the Pea.

She’s made a couple of “mistakes,” but that’s not too bad for the amount of time she’s been in the house. I keep showing her the cat trays and hoping that she’s catching on.

The larger problem is that she isn’t even trying to interact with the other cats, has sequestered herself in one end of the house, and won’t even walk through the living room / dining room to get to the kitchen where the food is. For two days, I carried her out there, but that’s got to stop. This morning I tried to force her to walk in there. I know better than this: you don’t force a cat to do anything.

I wish I wasn’t trying this as winter sets in. If she ultimately fails the test, how can I put her out into the cold?

In the meantime, there have been lots of things to do and think about.

I put the yard to bed for the winter: moved aside the big white rocks, carried all the lawn ornaments into the barn, covered the basement doors with a tarp and some bricks, put on one storm door and all the storm windows. This has always a sad time, and this year I can't help but realize that this was the last time I’d ever do this at this house.

It was also another big weekend for laundry, and just eyeing the things in the house, mulling over a moving plan.

I’ve never done this before, can you tell? Any advice appreciated!

I wanted to do some real writing, too -- but, again, that didn’t happen. On at least one level, this blog is not working out the way I had hoped. The habit of writing is coming back, and that is all well and good, but I still feel unable to take on any more significant project.

Not to get all high-flown, but your spirit has to be at ease in order to write anything worthwhile. Mine is not.

I used to be able to simulate a state of ease with alcohol. I wrote very well under the influence of one or two drinks; more than that, not so well.

I have to re-learn how to write sober. It’s not going to be easy. Even with the Prozac, I am never exactly at ease. Ideas need to flow from a place far down in the subconscious swamplands, and the way is barred. I don’t remember my dreams anymore.

It’s probably too much to ask, to just get right back into the swing of things, when I’m in such a complicated transition, literally ending one life and beginning another.

But if I’m ever to know what that new life is going to contain, I’ve got to get busy and discover what it’s going to be made out of.

Where Quats Come from: Remember B. Kliban?

I use the word "quat" a lot here and on Facebook. Most of you already know this, but just in case you really were born yesterday, I didn't make it up. The late B. Kliban did.

He once said, "I like cats all right. I just don't like drawing them."

In that case, what a curse it must have been, making pots and piles and truckloads of money from his drawings of Quats!

I'm sure he derived more satisfaction from being a Playboy cartoonist, and Hefner paid better than anyone in the business. There's one particular Playboy cartoon that I remember that combines Kliban's interests: two male Kliban Quats are standing on the street, watching a fetching female Kliban Quat go by, and one quat says to the other, "There goes a heckova nice pussy."

When I tell my little Honey that she's a heckova nice pussy, she pirouettes and swishes her fluffy tail around as if it was a boa.

-- Freder

Monday, November 8, 2010

Paris in Polychrome

An American in Paris really is just like a straight-up shot of Happiness. The songs are among Gershwin’s best, the design and settings are so vibrant and full of life (if unrealistic -- the final ballet makes it clear that Mr. Minnelli isn’t making any attempt to show us Paris; rather, he’s putting us into an Impressionist painting of the city); this really is the way color should be utilized in cinema.

Gene Kelly is such a cool cat that I can’t even hate him for being such a cool cat. Leslie Caron is possibly my favorite movie musical leading lady (why in God’s name can’t they get Lili out on DVD? That, my friends, is one of the best ever). And Oscar Levant is a hoot essentially playing a milder version of himself.

Kelly’s choreography is free and easy and full-blooded. Unlike Astaire, whose style is so light and airy that it’s almost other-worldly, Kelly is earthy, flaunting his physicality and his All-American enthusiasm.

The story? Feh. It’s just boy meets girl. But what a boy meeting what a girl in what a place, in dazzling clothes against dazzling backdrops, in dances that caress, collide and withdraw.

Kelly even comes with his own personal spotlight: that big, unending smile. An American in Paris is just infectious, and it accomplishes that which modern cinema seems to have forgotten how to do, even with all the bells, whistles and computers at its command: It charms.

P.S. – Y’know, I never thought of it this way, but if Fred Astaire is Air, and Gene Kelly is Earth, then Cyd Charisse is definitely Fire and Ginger Rogers has got to be smooth, flowing Water. The four elements of Movie Dance!

-- Freder.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Introducing Quats of the Duck House, part one

This is my little Honey. I love her so much.

She was a spring kitten born to the outdoor "feral" cats. Early on she contracted a terrible eye infection. Long, long ago, we had decided that caring for the indoor cats was enough, and that the outdoor cats would get food, milk and water -- but beyond that they were on their own.

So this little kitty, who did not even have a name, was condemned to a summer of terrible suffering.

She kept to herself, or was ostracized, and lived all alone under the bushes in front of the house. The eye infection was advanced and a terrible and pathetic thing to behold. I didn't even like to see her. I wanted to take her to the vet to be put out of her misery, but somehow that never happened.

Then, as summer drew along to an end, her eye infection began to heal. In a relatively short time for something so horrible, it cleared up entirely. She was obviously blind in that eye, but it didn't appear to trouble her and we agreed that she was quite cute.

But we didn't bring her in. We had enough indoors cats to last a while!

One morning in November, my mother didn't make her rounds as normal. I found her in the kitchen, in terrible pain from her right leg and foot. After two visits to the doctor who had done the bypass in in both of her legs, and a round of tests and X-Rays, Dr. B_______ told us that my mother's right leg would have to be amputated.

My mother was very brave. I don't believe that she ever cried in front of me. She came home and tolerated the pain as long as she could. In December, just at Christmastime, she went into the hospital.

She did not come home for three months, and I spent the winter alone in the house. Every morning and afternoon I visited my mother (usually bringing food!), and every night I came home and fed the cats indoors and out. The little kitten who was blind in one eye was always out there, alone. She never went to the barn or tried to find real shelter. She sat behind a drift of snow, as much out of the wind as possible, close to the house, waiting.

One night I could not stand it anymore. I held the door open for her. If she came in of her own volition, she could stay.

She came in.

I set up a cat tray in my bathroom and kept her closed up in there for the first week, during the days. She was so happy to see me at the end of the day; and at bedtime I would let her out to walk around a bit.

She started sleeping with me every night, right on top of me, curled up on my chest under my chin. I named her Popeye, but that didn't take. She was too cute and huggy for that name. In the end, she just started answering to Honey.

She's much too big now to sleep on my chest, but she still sleeps with me every night, snuggled up at the head of the bed, right beside me, under my arm. I always wanted a nice kitty to snuggle with on a cold night. It's strange to think that the poor sick kitten that I wanted to put down would turn out to be my favorite cat ever.

-- Freder

Friday, November 5, 2010

Playing with Paper, and a Petrified Pussycat

More photo prints of the defunct house and a big ol' jar of India Ink arrived Wednesday night.

I dove right in, using the India Ink to blacken the pages of the ledger book I am turning into a photo scrapbook of the house. This is better quality ink than the last bottle I had (love the name: Black Cat), or else the stuff in my original bottle was just so old that it had congealed a bit and lost its potency. It covers  everything! By the time I had finished about eight pages in the front and back of the book, my fingers were black all the way down. With much scrubbing, it came off of my skin, but my fingernails made it look like I was headed to a goth club! All day at work I tried to keep them hidden. "It's not black nail polish, people! It's India Ink!"

I've probably typed it before, but working on the scrapbook is what Martha Stewart would call A Good Thing. It's a positive activity that allows me to look back without regret.

Along with the prints, I got five more 8 X 10 enlargements. These turned out wonderfully well. Much more so than the regular size snaps, they really convey the physicality of the house and its contents. I wish I could blow them up to room-size and paper the walls with them!

Actually, I could project them onto a wall and do a mural. That's not such a bad idea for the new house, whatever it turns out to be.

One of my student workers said that I could get one of those "I Spy" books out of these pictures, and the enlargements have convinced me it's a smashing idea. Too bad that higher quality pictures can't be taken. It's history, now.

Tiger Whitestockings is in the house. Unsupervised. I hope the place isn't getting torn apart while I'm at work. I didn't mean to keep her in for the whole day, but that's how it worked out.

It was raining cold and hard when I got home last night, and Tiger Whitestockings was soaked through, crying at me out of the dark. Still, she wouldn't come in when I held the door open for her. I finally said, "I really think you should come in," and grabbed her!

I showed her the food and the cat tray, and she promptly disappeared. She stayed hidden for a couple of hours. I was watching the final episode of Farscape (with John finally proposing to Aeryn just before they are blown to smithereens, yes, smithereens, by a UFO -- no wonder the fans were pissed when Sci-Fi canceled the  show!) when I suddenly noticed her at my feet. I pulled her up onto my lap and she settled right down and purred and purred.

But when I went in to work on the scrapbook, she disappeared again, and I haven't seen her since. There was no time to look for her this morning: I overslept and was running dramatically late. No time to clean the cat trays. The house will be a pit when I get home!

-- Freder.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

By the pricking of my thumbs. . .

I've thought about it, and decided that Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes must be one of the ten greatest novels in the English language, and one of the five greatest American novels. Its horror is set in the American heartland, but Cooger and Dark's sideshow is about much more than just giving you the shivers. It asks all the big questions about life, death, youth and age, time and history, regret, and the setting aside of regret.

The dark ones feed off tears, and I have been giving them an awful lot of sustenance lately. That has to stop. Tears do not honor the dead.

All of this is due to my recent viewing of Jack Clayton's film version of the book, scripted by Mr. Bradbury himself. It's just about as good as any film adaptation could be, at least on this budget, benefiting greatly from a deeply felt performance from Jason Robards and a tightly controlled one from Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark.

Their main confrontation in the town library, with Dark literally ripping the pages out of Robards's book of life, is probably the film's best scene, coming straight from the book, a confrontation unlike any other I can think of on film. Robards plays a man choked with regret, but one wise enough to refuse Mr. Dark's offer of "help."

For Mr. Dark only gives gifts that take away. He lives to turn children into sad old people, and to bait victims with dreams come true in order feed on their pain when the dream turns to ashes.

This was to be my movie for Halloween night, but it was delayed until two nights later. It was exactly the right story to revisit in the fall of 2010. I thought it would make me sad, but it had the opposite effect. When Robards urges his young son to stop despairing -- "That's what they like! Come on! Whoop it up! Make some noise!" -- it's almost a moment to make one leap out of the chair and applaud.

And now with the October Country behind me it's time for me to turn away the dark in more ways than one.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fly away home

It doesn't look like much from the air. And the photo was not taken during a green season. This has been my home for almost 35 years. Under the Purchase Agreement that I signed on Monday night, I have the right to stay until June (in fact, the new owners would prefer it if I could stay that long. They cannot take occupancy until that time, and would have to drain the place if I wasn't there). Then, ready or not, I have to leave forever.

My head tells me that it's for the best. I do not have the resources or abilities to restore the house to its former condition, and it makes little sense to sink money from the estate into it, money that we most likely could not get back out. It's too much house for me, clearly. We always said that it needed the efforts of more than one person, and I've been doing it essentially alone now for more than five years while my mother gradually failed and faded away.

The new owners can bring everything to the place that I can not. They're decent people and big Disney fans -- so Mom would like them.

But I'm so tired of saying good-bye. It seems as if this year has been about nothing else.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Snow in October

It was not a good Halloween, but Halloween had a good one on me.

I woke to a heavy snowstorm blanketing the yard. It ended by 11:30 and melted away shortly after, but it's the principle of the thing, damn it! Snow on  Halloween day! Another punch in the face.

This was going to be my day for me -- some time to get a few things done, but also some time to write: not just emails or the blog, I wanted to start in a small way on completing a short story that has been sitting on my computer desktop for a year.

It didn't happen. Phone calls, emails, chores that took longer than they should have. I was just sitting down to warm up by doing a blog post when my sister turned up in the yard.

She wanted to go through Mom's clothes. I felt like telling her that she'd had her chance. But I figured that letting her do this would get it out of the way, and then I would never have to see her again.

The whole time she was going through the clothing, she kept asking me when I was going to move. I kept answering "I don't know." Because nothing is final yet and I'm not packing one box until I have a completed deal. And then I am going to move at my own pace. I am tired of being pushed on every damn thing.

She asked if I'd spoken to my neighbors about selling the place. I said no, and for the same reasons. I don't want to have the place sold out from under me when I have nowhere else to go.

She seemed unwilling to accept this answer and started pushing me again to go down there and speak to them. I said I didn't want to. She said, "I know R____, really well, I'll go down and talk to him. Do you want to come with me?"

I said I wished she wouldn't. She chose not to hear me. She demanded that we load up her truck with all the clothes it could carry so that she could "help" me by taking it all to Goodwill. I said I didn't need or want her help. She chose not to hear that, and started loading up her car.

I gave up at that point. I just wanted her gone. I started helping her load just so that she would go away, let me have what remained of my Sunday, and the next time, if there was one, it would be easier to control the situation just by not letting her in.

It must have been three-thirty or later when she finally left. I breathed a sigh of relief, and started to try to pick up where I'd left off. I had a load of laundry in the washer and a VHS that had finished duping, so I set about shutting down those operations for the day.

She hadn't been gone ten minutes when there was a knock at my door.

It was her again. She hollered in at me, "R____ wants to see the house, it's his step-son that's interested and they're leaving for California tomorrow!"

I couldn't believe it. I started cleaning up. My sister hollered in at me to get the keys to the barn. She started going through my key rack. "Which one of these is the right one?"

"None of them," I said. In truth, the keys on that rack (which my mother made many years ago) are for decorative purposes only.

There were two men standing in my yard. One of them introduced himself as the step-son.

They walked through the barns and then they came into the house, Claudia leading the way, giving them a hard-sell sales pitch the whole way, never shutting up. They went into my mother's room. They went down the basement and into the outrooms. Claudia said nothing about the window I'd boarded up after she broke it entering the house illegally.

I didn't want her to go into the main house. I didn't want her to see what I had kept and how I was making the place comfortable again. But there was no way to stop her without making a scene, she was in full carnival barker mode.

When she entered the living room she saw the head of the lion costume and said, "Oh, there's my lion costume! -- Ours!"

It never was hers or ours. It belonged to our mother. She merely let us use it once in a while (usually with reluctance!). It's not mine even now. I'm just its caretaker. That means I have to protect it from my sister.

She didn't remember half of the things that Mom had made, just as she hadn't remembered her own WAC costume from her childhood when we found it in Mom's closet. But she kept saying "Our mother made most of this stuff!" to the men as if it meant something to her.

They went upstairs and looked in all the bedrooms. When they looked in what had once been Claudia's bedroom, but which has been an extra room for me now many years, I heard Claudia exclaim, "Oh, you saved my old desk! My desk! Hmmm, I wonder what I could do with it. How could I use it?"

I thought: It hasn't been your desk for thirty-five years, you bitch. Now it's coming with me, or it's going to the auction house.

When they were done, Claudia took them down through the back field to see the pond, and I stood just behind the closed door and sobbed.

But I wasn't rid of them yet. Ten minutes later I saw them in the front yard, all talking. They went out into the driveway and talked some more. I kept going back to the window and finding them still there and thinking to myself, Why don't they go?

After what must have been twenty minutes I saw them coming back to the door.

I made the mistake of opening it. The guys were very polite and friendly, and I suddenly realized that they were a gay couple.

"J____ and J____ have something to say to you," my sister said.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pop Culture blather: just to take my mind off of all the other stuff...

Where have John Brahm and Laird Cregar been all my life? More to the point, with all the old movies I've watched and all the time I've spent reading about them, why have I never heard of these two men before?

With Cregar, at least there's an excuse. He died quite young, not even living to see the release of his final picture, Hangover Square.

But Brahm appears to have had a long and varied career, and if the three films I watched this weekend that bore his name as director are any indication, the man was a true stylist, and a great unsung talent.

First up was The Lodger, Fox's 1944 version of the often-filmed story about Jack the Ripper. You know that you're in the hands of a master from the opening shots, with the camera creeping about London's night streets, following its inhabitants through a variety of tableaux until the first murder happens right under everyone's noses. The papers immediately rush out a new edition and the newsboys carry the word from the slums to the homes of the once-wealthy.

And then Cregar lurches out of the darkness to select his new name from a gaslit street sign. Cregar was a giant of a man, six foot three and three hundred pounds, and his presence is imposing to say the least, even when he's playing mild-mannered. His performance as the Ripper is mesmerizing and covers a wide range of emotional territory. At no time are we in doubt as to his guilt; only his motivations are in doubt, and these seem to be driven by a sweeping Romanticism fixated around his own brother. You get the sense that Cregar is a runaway horse straining to control itself. I won't spoil the final scene, but I will say that Cregar holds it all in his eyes and on his very considerable shoulders.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke is also in the movie, almost unrecognizable under a beard, and Merle Oberon does the blithely seductive thing: she is the meat dangling as bait to draw the Ripper into final confrontation.

The whole picture is so striking that I wonder why it has been so little shown and is so little known.

But wait, the goodness continues. Hangover Square is a virtual second helping. Cregar (who was desperately trying to remake himself in ways that directly led to his death) had slimmed down considerably by this time, and gets to play for more sympathy in this picture, but he is no less imposing in stature and his performance is no less remarkable. This time the killer is a somewhat meek composer who is driving himself so hard that sometimes experiences blackouts -- periods in which he does things that no one ought to do.

Once again, Brahm is directing, and once again the opening sequence contains an exceedingly well-staged and chilling murder. Once again there's no doubt as to the identity of the perpetrator. And once again the "hero" ends in a smashing self-inflicted downfall, this time to the music of the great Bernard Herrmann. It's all so well done that you feel like you're waking from a dark dream when the end title rolls.

And oh, that Linda Darnell!

But wait: the goodness doesn't stop: The Undying Monster is a nifty little murder mystery cum werewolf story (again directed by Brahm); it's so restrained that you don't even see the monster until almost the final shot -- and what a shot it is. There's no Laird Cregar to give a crashing performance that roots it to the floor, and the investigator is played particularly poorly. But there is a very strong heroine to drive the picture, and many, many wonderful shots of characters plunging through the darkened moors, both in pursuit and being pursued.

These three pictures were all brand-new to me, and hands-down the best part of my Halloween weekend. They come in a box set from Fox, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes, em, this sort of thing.
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