Monday, January 31, 2011

The Light at the End

It's nearly over at the old house.

I still have some things outside, buried under three feet of snow (a concrete garden bench, a bird bath, some tiles that I will have to write about at another time, and the jailhouse -- ditto), and I still have some things in the two barns -- yard ornaments, mostly -- but inside the main house I am done.

It's hard to believe, really. . . Everything from the house is moved.

I made my last sweep through the basement, workshop and generator room. As expected, there wasn't much that I wanted: barring only the laundry that was hanging on the line and piled in the sinks, the things I took didn't even fill two boxes. I expected to find more tools and useful things in the workshop than what I did. Most likely, my sister or the auctioneers beat me to them.

The whole sweep took less than an hour. I brought one load back with me on Saturday, then made three trips out and back on Sunday, clearing out not just the things in the house, but a good chunk of the yard ornaments in the big barn. This last required a lot of repacking and fussing during the final load of the day. There were particular things that needed to come out right away. With the barn now shoveled out and no padlock on the doors, my sense was that I'd better take the things that meant the most to me, because they might not be there when I get back.

My car is still full, because I can't fit anything more into the house. The laundry room that I'm using as a staging area is full to the ceiling with boxes, baskets, totes, and even a Christmas Tree. Some of it (like the tree) is going straight up to the attic. That's Job One for me tonight.

I still have to get the auctioneers over to the old place, let them have their last sweep through, and then I will be ready to turn the keys over to the new owners. I'm actually looking forward to that. Heating two large houses is for the birds!

I got through it mostly without tears. I learned that controlling the tears meant controlling my thoughts. If I thought too long about the fact that this was it, the end, done, that this was basically my Good-bye to the house and all the years that it contains, then I'd break down, every time. But if I just kept focused on the task, the packing, the loading, the seeing to it that I had everything I needed and that it all went into the car in the right order (the last of the plants, including the old geranium, had to be the last into the car, due to the cold) -- then I was all right.

By the time I'd been out and back three times, I knew I'd put in a day's work. It was time to kick back. My dinner came out of the freezer. I flopped into my office chair and launched one of the cheap games that I picked up the day before at Wallyworld, just so that I would have something that I could actually do with the new computer. Killed an hour. Watched an episode of Dark Shadows (one of their more turgid efforts: yeah, guys, we get that Maggie has been attacked by a very special vampire). Enjoyed having Patches and Whitey sit on my lap in the new home. Walked through the place and looked at everything I've done over the last two months. Discovered that the sofa in front of the bay window is a really neat space, and one where I will want to spend some vacation time, just reading. It looks out over the drive at the row of pine trees lit by the street lamp.

Went to bed early.

Just under two months. Even though there's much left to do (and still no phone or internet!) the quats and I are firmly installed in the new diggs. The past is the past. Over. I just have to keep on plodding towards the light.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Introducing the Quats of the Duck House, Part II

When my boss saw pictures of Whitey, she said "Next time you name a cat 'Whitey' make sure it's actually white."

But Whitey is named for a character on Leave it to Beaver, not for his color.

He showed up one day in our yard, so people-friendly that he followed us everywhere -- so obviously, someone dumped him.

It's their loss. Whitey is the sweetest cat with the best disposition ever. He doesn't do bad things. Oh, he loves to play and would like the other Quats to share that enthusiasm, but he never ever fights, even when Patches is batting him in the face because she doesn't want to play with him, or share my lap.

He is the smartest cat I ever knew. In the early days, when he was following us around absolutely everywhere outside and I was afraid that he would go under the car and get his damn self killed, I would make a firm STOP sign with my hand and say out loud "Stop." -- and he learned right away what that meant and he obeyed just like a dog.

But in those days he would fight with the other outside cats, or they would fight with him and he would not back down. He was always getting wounded. One day when we came out to feed them, we found Whitey so badly wounded (with a deep, bloody gash down the back of his neck) that it was clear to us he would die if we didn't do anything.

Mom was determined to save him. We took him to the vet and they sewed him up, kept him for a week pumping in fluids, etc. When he came home he came into the house, and that is where he has been ever since. You can still feel the raised scar under his fur where he was hurt.

He is so affectionate, always bumping me in the leg and wanting to be picked up and hugged. In later life, he has developed a curiosity about shadows, and when the lights come on in the evenings he follows me all around the house, boxing my shadow on the floors and walls, whipping his tail around happily.

About a year before Mom's death, I came into the kitchen one morning and found Whitey very sick and sad, obviously in pain, drooling a foul ooze from his mouth. We took him to the vet again, and she discovered that his teeth, all of them, were very badly abscessed and would have to come out. All of them. The operation itself turned out to be much less expensive than quoted, because his teeth were so bad and came out so easily.

Whitey did not mind the loss of his toofies at all, and in fact began to eat a lot better once the pain was gone. He was always sleek and svelte before, but since his toofies were pulled he has gotten notably tubbier! He likes to eat turkey and chicken with Honey, and to sit on my lap at night. With Honey behaving much less territorially about the upstairs than she did in the old house, he has even started sleeping with me.

He was Mom's absolute favorite -- and I love him a lot, too.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Importance of Milestones

The walk to work is not bad, when the weather is good. On the other hand, the walk home from the supermarket (which is actually shorter) is not good at all.

It's not just that coming home from the supermarket I generally have a heavy load to carry. It's that C____ Street is a long straight street with no landmarks or milestones, just one anonymous side lane after another. It's possible to get a third of the way along and  feel as if you haven't made any progress at all. Only at the very end do the landmarks pop up: The Water District, the Nursing Home where my mother stayed for four months following her amputation, the church; but all of these are right next to each other. Once the stoplight starts to come within range, you can measure your progress and I know that I'm getting close to home. But that doesn't happen until the walk is nearly over.

By contrast, the walk to the college is filled with landmarks, milestones, stages. W_____ Avenue starts with two gentle curves; S & C's house is at the apex of the first. Beyond the second, a stoplight comes into view at the intersection of W_____ Avenue and First Rangeway, which I cross, and start up to the top of a small hill that marks the halfway point of my journey. The avenue is quite narrow at this point, but just beyond the hilltop it takes a sharp right turn into what I think of as a funnel and then suddenly opens up for two-lane traffic. A short walk down to M______ H_____ Drive, then I turn left and start up the broad curving slope that ultimately takes me to the campus.

Humans need to know that they are making progress when they take on a task. That's what milestones are for. Without them, it's a long slog in darkness.

-- Freder.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Renaissance of Renaissance (or, The Power of Music II)

A Song for All Seasons, the 1978 release from Renaissance.

Last night was a watershed of Renaissance at my place! About a week ago I had the same experience that I'd had earlier with Melanie, that is, remembering that I'd forgotten. Again, I hadn't listened to their music in years and years -- again, because I have it all on vinyl but nothing to play it on. Again, I hopped on line and ordered up some CDs. Last night they arrived. . . but I also had a nice surprise from my friend BC (more on him in a moment), who sent me not one, but four other albums from the band, albums that I never owned! BC is a danged nice guy when he isn't hammering me about calendars ("That's, ah say that's a joke, son!").

I went from zero to eight in about ten seconds!

I even turned off the PBS News Hour so I could instead listen to Annie and the boys while my dinner cooked. It felt like coming back to life after a decade-long sleep.

I started with Ashes Are Burning, an early effort from the reconstituted second group, and found that it had some additional music beyond the vinyl version. When the group sang "We all are atanding unafraid | On the Frontier" I had that same thrill of recognition that comes with rediscovery. It's a great feeling.

Y'know, even English Muffins are better when you haven't eaten them in a long time. Not that that has anything to do with music.

What used to be side one (do you remember the days when records had sides?) is good, but what used to be side two is great, with the perky ballad "Carpet of the Sun," the mourning, minor-keyed "At the Harbour" and the long title track. I played "Carpet" twice and sang right along with Annie. It's been years since I sang along with a recording. We sounded great!

Come along with me
Down into the world of seeing
Come and you'll be free
Take the time to find the feeling
See everything on it's own
And you'll find you know the way
And you'll know the things you're shown
Owe everything to the day

Later in the evening, I put on A Song for All Seasons, one of my favorites of theirs. It's a completely unified album, with a fanfare, overture and finale, but the individual songs are wonderful, too. Chief among these are "The Paper Lads," a theme song the group did for a British TV show that I'd love to see someday, and "Northern Lights," a real upbeat, Romantic piece.

Destination outward bound
I turn to see the Northern Lights behind the wing
Horizons seem to beckon me
Learned how to cry to young, now I live to sing
The Northern Lights are in my eyes
They guide me back to you

Renaissance have been labeled "progressive rock," but that's a meaningless term that tells you nothing about what their music is like. Their work has a strong vein of Classicism running through it, along with other sorts of "isms" -- Romanticism, Positivism, and a good dose of musical theatricality. Their lead vocalist, Annie Haslam, is not a great singer, but she is the perfect voice for the kind of music the band creates: clear, upbeat and expressive.

On many of the albums a full orchestra backs the group up, but don't let that fool you: Renaissance were no studio band, they could do it live and did so frequently, with Annie often vocalizing the orchestral parts to great effect.

Falling around me lay, parts of my life
I'm leaving them all behind
We leave with the night
Living in strange ways
Has cast me aside
I cry in another world now
I must search for all my days gone by

I first heard them on a PBS radio show called, if I remember correctly, The BBC Rock Hour. This was just such a live performance. I tuned in late, and so did not know anything of what I was hearing, only that I liked it. I quickly slapped a cassette tape into the radio and recorded the rest of the hour. It was only then that I learned the group's name. I wore that cassette tape out over time, and tracked down my first Renaissance album (Novella) at a now-defunct record chain called DeOrsey's.

Sold, said the man to the many
Work for me -- I'll only steal your time.
Quarter time for treble days
The only way to sell your soul
Midas Man
Midas Man

Most of the time, it's my friends who introduce me to bands or singers. But this time, this one time, I was able to go to my friend BC and introduce him to the group. I think he became as big a fan as I was. That's how he came to have all those Live CDs that he sent to me. He's being the opposite of Luddite me, though, and burning all his CDs onto his Ipod. That's how come he doesn't need them anymore.

Thank you, BC! I will give them a good home!

Now then, speaking of Annie. . .

My friend BC is the Associate Editor at The Library of American Comics, and also in the package was the latest volume of their spectacular hardcover reprint of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie. I told you he was a danged nice guy!

The Library of American Comics is reprinting, in archival quality and often for the first time, the great classics of American Newspaper Comic Strips from Dick Tracy and Terry and The Pirates to Blondie and Bloom County. After the delightful King Aroo, my second favorite is Little Orphan Annie, a sprawling Depression-era fable about a kid with nothing but spunk, grit, determination and a great dog. Each volume in the series contains approximately 1,000 daily strips (most shot from the original syndicate proofs), nine complete stories. The Sunday strips are reprinted in gloriously restored color. BC writes most of the scholarly and entertaining introductions to these volumes (including an "introduction" to the work of Noel Sickles that could fill a book by itself!), but the Annie supplementary material is written by Jeet Heer. These beautiful volumes belong on the shelves of anyone who takes “graphic novels” (I still call ’em comics) seriously.

'Nuff said! as Stan Lee used to say. . .

-- Freder.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Time like a river

All I could think last night was, how can we really be halfway through President Obama's first (and hopefully not last) term? And that, when we both listened to his first State of the Union Address, I would never have believed that my mother wouldn't be around to hear the second.

I'll digress from the main subject here to say that I felt President Obama knocked another one out of the ballpark last night. Best State of the Union address ever. But it was just a speech. A brilliant one, perhaps, but will it take? Will positive change come out of it? That remains to be seen. It was, I must say, deeply refreshing to see the Democrats and Republicans sitting together, sometimes rising in unison, sometimes in waves, but never in that awful lopsided "one half of us likes this, the other half is going to sit here with frowns on our faces and our arms crossed, glowering" stance that has been the norm in recent years. At least the Republicans gave President Obama the respect that he is due, and didn't shout "Liar!" from the Peanut Gallery, or talk back from the Supreme Court section.

Now then. It's time -- for Time.

I have been saying the same thing to friends -- and recently to students -- for years now. It's my favorite quote that I ever invented: "Nothing in the first twenty years of your life prepares you for how fast the next twenty go by."

I might add, the decade that follows goes even faster, and as for Twenty-Ten (and Eleven, so far), it's just been a blur of disastrophes flowing by at about a million gallons a minute.

I'm so involved in the move, with no real down time, that January has made that Phhhhhhitt! sound in passing. I missed paying my credit card bill entirely, and was late with the oil bill and the insurance bill and the DirecTV bill and gawd knows what all else. When I got dunning emails from two of those companies, I thought to myself "What? What day is it?"

I thought it was somewhere around the eighteenth. In what I laughingly refer to as the Real World it was the twenty-third.

The fact is, I never even opened the DirecTV bill. I thought I had more time, and one thing I do not have time for is paper mail.

Ten years ago I never dreamed I would type a statement like that. I loved getting paper mail, I loved sending and receiving long letters. I guess if I got mail like that anymore,  I would make the time for it. I did receive a nice card from my Uncle (Mom's brother) and Aunt in Florida. I opened that and it made me happy.

But the rest of it? I don't open a bill until it's time to pay it (that was my mistake with the TV bill: it was the first one, I didn't know the due date), the majority of what remains is Junk Mail, and as for the steady stream of envelopes that I receive from my father, they get scaled into the bill stack unopened as well. I know what it's going to be: either a "Friends and Family" letter in which he will reveal things about me that I don't want revealed to his entire list (a perfect example: at first I did not tell him that I had moved out of the old house, because I didn't want The Wolf to know. When I did tell him, I swore him to secrecy and even said "You can't even put it in a friends and family letter!" -- so of course, that was the first thing that he did), or it will be newspaper clippings on subjects that I'm either not interested in or already know about. I appreciate that he's thinking about me, and I believe that is the message that he's really trying to send, but I don't need to open the envelopes anymore to get that message, especially now with so much on my plate.

It will be February before I know it. I wanted to be completely out of the old house by then. But that is not going to happen.

Just as I was not allowed to take any time off in the month following my mother's death, now, with the move in its last stages and the need to close it off so urgent, I am not being allowed any time off to bring it to completion. In fact, I'm being asked to work six days and extended hours for the next two weeks.

It seems that the big events of my personal life are all coinciding, lately, with the big events at work It is Book Rush coming up, that busy time when the students return to campus and mob the bookstore for one week. My boss wants me here. I can understand that, but would one weekday towards the end be such a horrible thing to give me? It's not merely the emotional and physical stress of the move, but I have to heat that house until I turn in the keys, and it's costing me a small fortune.

I am contractually obliged to be out of that house by the end of February. When I signed that agreement, I thought: No problem! I'll be out before that!

But Time gets past us. It's the real golden rule.

One thing I have decided: I must, in future, make the attempt to use my time in better ways. Blogging has helped. It's given me a focus that I did not have. Many thanks to all those of you out there tolerating it.

One guy I know doesn't have to worry about time getting past him, but he's a fictional character: The Doctor. One of my favorite quotes of all Time is his:

"One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine."

-- Freder.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's. . .

I seem to be using much of my recent DVD time in re-visiting Olde Friendes. This past Sunday, as a preface to the series, I put on Life of Python, the 30th Anniversary Reunion show that they made in 1999. The date gave me a shock; it means that the thirtieth anniversary was more than ten years ago, and The Flying Circus is now forty-two years old!

. . . and Grahame Chapman has been dead a long time.

It also strikes me (although I must have known this at some point) that Python didn't hit in the USA until several years after the show had gone off the air in Britain.

My first exposure to the Pythons was on the summer replacement series for The Dean Martin Show, produced by Martin's company and hosted by Barbara Feldon of Get Smart! fame. I'm not sure about this, but it must have been the summer of 1973, one of the first summers that our family spent in the old house.

The summer series that year was devoted to British comedy, and Monty Python's Flying Circus was not the only featured show. The great Marty Feldman also had a series at the time; his format was similar to the stand alone two-reel comedies of Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges: a different, stand-alone situation every week, often in the style of silent comedies. His shows were every bit as brilliant as what the Pythons were doing, yet I've never seen them since.

On those cool summer nights I would lie on the floor in front of the television and literally roll around in laughter. I would have been about fourteen or fifteen years old, and probably did not know the meaning of the word anarchic, although I was learning the definition just by watching. Once in a while, something comes along down the cultural pipeline that doesn't just connect with you, it splices itself to your DNA and warps you for life. Such a show was the late Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, and such were the shows that I was introduced to that year on the Dean Martin Summer Replacement Show. Thank you, Mr. Martin!

If the reunion that I watched on Sunday night wasn't quite the genetic-splicing thing that it commemorated, still it's good to see the boys working together again and giving it the old college try. I would guess that they've put together about fifteen to twenty minutes of new material, which is used as a shell around a full-length documentary about the show and its origins, hosted by Eddie Izzard (who, try though he may, isn't remotely funny: just weird), followed by a Michael Palin-style Travelogue, hosted, oddly enough, by Michael Palin, about the locations where the show was shot, and a brief segment hosted by Meat Loaf about the Python recordings. Throughout, a forceful BBC chat-show host advertises a gathering of all the surviving Pythons on his stage. This turns out to be the final joke, and a good one.

Much of the new material is a re-working or re-combination of bits that seem familiar, grafts from earlier work, and if there's any real disappointment in the show, it's simply that the Python's haven't come up with anything powerfully new, but instead seem to be imitating themselves. That's all right. I suspect this was just a lark for them, a chance to celebrate their own success, work together again and raise a glass to the halcyon days. They're entitled to it.

There was one later reunion that I'm aware of: a still photo that appeared in GQ magazine a while back. I have it hanging on my closet door. It's a shot taken from above, of all the Pythons, in character, more or less lying in their coffins. Except Terry Jones has a naked lady with him in his, and they're all interacting with each other in very funny ways. Even Graham Chapman was there for this reunion: Terry Gilliam is leaning half-out of his coffin, sweeping Chapman's spilled ashes into a vase.

-- Freder.

Just another just another. . .

I walked to work this morning, about a mile through yet another snowstorm. When I called the dealership from there, I was told that I'd blown a hose on the power steering, but that the pump didn't seem to be working, either. They were looking into pricing the parts and would get back to me.

None of this surprises me. This particular dealership always finds "something else wrong" that they can make a little scratch on. So it'll probably take another day, and be costly.

A year ago, I'd be really upset by this. Now? Eh, after what I've been through in the last few months, and what I still have hanging over me, this is just one more thing. A pebble. If they have to keep the car again overnight, it'll be a fine excuse to not go back to the old house tonight. I'm still exhausted from Sunday.

I had a call from someone at the telephone company. He said that the house might be unplugged at the box, and that I might be able to solve the problem myself.

I'm thinking: "With my luck? I'll probably electrocute myself."

Keep your eye on the papers. I could end up in one of the Darwin Awards books over this one.

It brings to mind something that happened after the big Ice Storm knocked out the power in the old house for fourteen days, more than a decade ago. A huge branch of the maple tree had broken and needed to be cut down. I borrowed my brother-in-law's chain saw.

A chain saw and I do not belong in the same sentence. I had no ladder tall enough to reach the branch, so I climbed up into the tree and sat astride an adjacent branch, with the saw raised over my head, cutting away. When the branch finally broke free, I saw to my horror that some moron had wired it to the tree.

The next couple of seconds happened in slow motion. The falling branch caught, swung in a wide arc away and back, and the butt of it that I had just sawed through slammed into my left leg with what felt like the force of a piledriver.

Somehow, I hung onto the saw, and managed to avoid performing a self-amputation. But you can bet I screamed like a banshee! I was never one to suffer in silence, as you might have guessed by now.

So if you see a headline reading "Idiotic W_________ Man Mistakes Power for Phone Line, Electrocutes His Damn Self," you'll know it was me.

-- Freder.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I was going to title this post "Ashes Are Burning," after the song by the British band Renaissance, but decided that it sounded more defeatist than I felt. Instead, I'm going with the book by Judith Viorst. Just substitute me for Alexander.

The agenda (get out to the old house and keep on with Operation Clean Sweep) was bad enough. But I left the house without my wallet or checkbook and was unwilling to go back and get them. It was good of whomever is doing it that they had plowed the driveway again. From there, things went as well as could be expected, though there were tears. I finished in the kitchen, the pantry, the supplies closet, and my mother's bedroom, headed upstairs and started in on the long hallway with its many drawers and the equally long closet that runs its length. This seemed to take forever, but I found some treasures, including several pieces that my mother made. I swept through the guest room -- nothing much there -- and started on the attic. But by then it was three PM and time to load the car.

I had parked too close to a snowbank on the passenger side. When I started up the car to move it, I heard a POP, thought What the hell is that? and knew the answer immediately: I had no power steering. Fluid all over the snowy ground.

No wallet meant no Triple A card, which meant I would have to drive it home that way and risk breaking the whole column. What to do? I finished loading, though the frustration level had ramped up a notch or two, and was not helped by the extreme cold.

By 3:30 I had finished, and went inside to grab a shower. One of the few things I dislike about the new house are the bathrooms and the water pressure in the upstairs shower. I'm paying to heat the water at the old house anyway, so I might as well use it when I can, right?

I suspected nothing because I had hot water for the duration. Still, it had been a few weeks since the oil tanks were filled, so I went down to take a look at them. And my jaw flopped open. They were bone dry, on the coldest Sunday of winter.

I called the oil company (which has the worst name that an oil company could ever hope to have: Dead River). got their emergency line, and the woman I spoke to put the call out. Then I realized there was three feet of snow in the front yard, closer to five feet beside the road where the town plow had piled it up.

I started talking to myself, and what I said, over and over, was "You're in a hell of a mess!" I went out and started shoveling.

This ramped the frustration up several more notches, and made me tired in the bargain.

By the time I finished, no one had called back. I walked down the hall to the attic just long enough to carry out one box, and by the time I got back there was a message on the phone from a very dull-sounding man, saying "Ayuh, I god a call from dispatch to call you." [Pause] "Guess I'll call back laytah."

A far cry from "We'll send a truck out right away."

I called Dead River again and got a different person. I was getting somewhat frantic by this time. I said "I just missed his call" and the man said he'd call again and tell them I was available now, but that I should stay by the phone.

The phone was in my bedroom. My stripped, dirty, empty, sad bedroom. The sun was going down. I don't even have a light in there now. I waited on my knees by the phone and nobody called. When my legs started to hurt I got up and started pacing in the darkening room. I was still talking to myself, asking that bastard in the clouds the Oliver Hardy question, "Why don't you help me?". I waited for what must have been ten or fifteen minutes. By the end of that time I was shouting and screaming at the phone, "Why don't you fucking CALL?!"

That must have done the trick. The man at the other end of the line was much more lackadaisical than what I thought the situation required. I said that the house was out of oil and he repeated after me and said nothing more. I said that I needed oil delivered and a person who could bleed the line and get the furnace and water heater going. He said "I've got someone who can do both of those things."


"How much d'you want?"

I thought that this was a ridiculous question. Enough. As much as you've got. Before I could think of an answer, he said, "Be sure that someone's there to pay the driver."

I said, "Pay the driver?"


"I don't have my wallet or checkbook with me, I don't live here anymore, we normally pay on account, this happened once before a couple of years back and we didn't have to pay the driver!?" When I get frantic I tend to run on a bit.

He said, "You don't have an account?"

"I d-DO h-have an account we've been a customer for thirty five years!" I was beginning to stutter.

"How much d'you want?"

"W-w-well, h-how about five hundred gallons?"

"Five hundred gallons?"

"W-we h-have two five hundred gallon tanks, that should be about half. . ."

Honestly, I don't remember where the conversation went from there. But it ended soon after, and the wait began. I went out to the attic and decided that this was it: I wanted so much to be finished with this ordeal that I made a very quick run through there, packed a few things, carried the boxes down and called it done.

Done. I still have the basement, with laundry on the line and dirty laundry in the sinks, and the workshop and generator room, where I don't expect to find much. But in the main part of the house, I am done.

Done. Maybe one more day of packing, maybe three or four more loads in the car, get the auction house out there to take what they want of what's left, and then I can take the keys down to R___ B______ next door and tell him I am out, the responsibility will be his and his son-in-law's. I'll still have things outside and in the two barns, or course -- that's maybe two or three more additional trips. But --

Done. I pulled the phone out of my bedroom and brought it to the kitchen, so that I would never have to go beyond the living room, ever again.

As the darkness closed in on the house, it became even more horrible. I packed up the last clothes in my bag that I'd found in the attic, and started piling boxes in the kitchen hall. I began sobbing, then wailing and screaming. The tears were literally dripping off my face, snot was running from my nose, I tried very hard to stop but every time a wretched shriek climbed up out of my gut and I was off to the races again. The level of frustrations and the stress and tiredness, and the relief and sorrow of knowing that I was "done" had all built up to the point where I couldn't control it anymore. It was a total meltdown that went on for half an hour or more.

The oil truck arrived just after five. He spent an hour filling the tanks and starting the machines (it turns out that the house has two 275 gallon tanks, not two five hundreds. We settled on 250 gallons). He told me the most horrible story.

It came about because he asked why I was so out of breath. I couldn't tell him that I had been behaving like a crybaby and had only just stopped. I told him the rest of the truth.

He was a young man. He seemed very much at peace. He said, "Once you get past this, I bet you'll see that things all turned out for the best. I really believe that there's a plan for everyone." Then he told me that his younger brother had died of leukemia five years ago, and that he had recently lost his father.

He said, "We took him into the hospital to have his big toe amputated. It got infected and they had to take his whole foot. Then that got infected, and they took his leg up to the knee. Then that got infected and they took it up to the groin.

"When that got infected again, they said they were going to have to cut off everything below his navel.

"Well, it was just my sister, my older brother and me. He was already in a medically induced coma. I said, 'He would never forgive us if he woke up to that.' And they all agreed.

"We told the doctor no. He said, 'In that case, he's probably going to die within a month.' We told him our thoughts, that dad was a very active outdoorsy man who would not want to live like that. And he said, 'In that case, you're probably making the right decision."

He said, "Someday, you're going to reach a place where you'll be able to just put your head back. . ." And here he put his head back, spread his arms, sucked in some air and smiled widely. ". . . and say, 'Everything's great!' Just try to focus on the good things in life."

Both the furnace and the water heater were roaring away by this time. He said, "My friend, you're all set," and we shook hands.

It was six-fifteen when I finally pulled out of the drive. And I do mean pulled. On the highway, the gentle curves were easy to manage, but on the side roads and in town the turns required quite a lot of muscle.

I was so glad to finally get home. I hugged and kissed the quats until they were quite sick of it.

This morning I drove over to the dealership and left the car with them, so that's in progress. I called Fairpoint from work. They said that my phones had gone online on Friday as expected. I said, "No they didn't." She put me on hold and after a bit came back to tell me that the lines tested fine right up to the house, which means that a service appointment is needed: $95 for the first half-hour, $45 for every half hour beyond. The earliest they could schedule me for was the second of February. I took it.

When I told my boss, she basically said, "Nuh-ah!" That Tuesday is the first day of book rush, and she wants me here every day, extended hours. I had to call Fairpoint back and push the date forward to the 8th.

As Mr. Vonnegut so aptly put it, "And so on." Me, I'm just looking forward to that day when I can put my head back, spread my arms wide, and say, "Everything's great!"

-- Freder

Saturday, January 22, 2011

What's new at Azooza Zoo? or, Stuff an' Nonsense

I need to start taking new pictures of life in the All-New, All-Different DuckHaus. I was looking for a shot of the quats, but all I have were taken in the old place, and looking at those pictures makes me sick.

Strange things are happening in the new house. For instance, Patches and Honey are co-existing. Honey used to be very territorial, and would chase others (especially Patches) out of her upstairs domain with the forcefulness of an angry cop. She's not doing that anymore. Patches even slept on our bed with us all last night, and Honey didn't trouble herself over it at all.

Whitey has found the studio bedroom, and goes in there at night by himself to sleep happily on the comforter. Pandy Bear likes it, too, but he prefers the sofa in front of the gas fire. Pooky will sit anywhere that's soft. She's not going upstairs as much, and I'm just as happy with that, although I still cover my bed with newspapers every day, just in case.

I still have no telephone or internet service. The third deadline came and passed yesterday with no change. When I tried to call Fairpoint from work today, I jumped through all the hurdles they put you through and finally got the message that the office was closed. I went to their website and found a way to contact them by email. I did not hold back in my wording. I tore them a new one. I'll follow up with a call on Monday. Fairpoint is very much living up to their reputation. Their confirmation email arrived with a list of "helpful" links at the bottom. When I clicked on a link I was taken to a webpage that had nothing to do with the subject I'd selected.

Unpacking is proving troublesome. Nothing that comes out of a box that I packed in one room of the old house is actually going into a corresponding room in the new one. For every single thing I unpack, I have to stop and think about where I want it to go. Even the books: it suddenly dawned on me that there was no reason at all why all of "my" books had to go upstairs, in and around "my" room. I could put some in the dining room if I wanted. I could put them anywhere. It's all my room. So now, every single book has a decision attached to it. Which shelf, in which room, does it belong on? Is this book good enough for the dining room? Is that one good enough for what I'm calling the Library, where I am keeping all the vintage Oz books and the Poppy Otts? This is a reference book -- all reference books are now going in the study, except for my mother's books on art, antiques and collectibles, which are going in the library. All scary books are now going in the Halloween room. Children's books -- where in hell do I put them? Probably the studio.

I get long, rambling emails from my father containing paragraphs like this one:

"I really am sorry to give you this long lecture, probably for the eighth time, but Claudia has me very worried; I do not think she can be trusted; I think she can become irrational, and all that just makes my heart break and weep, but has to be faced as a possibility. In a nice way I have said much of this to J____, but she is so close to her Brother that she cannot conceive how virtually all of your Mom's estate could be eaten up (Claudia's lawyers taking the case on spec, ie fee to be paid by estate) once things really blow up. YOU MUST BE VERY CAREFUL AND NOT LEAVE ONE CRACK FOR "THEM" TO EXPLOIT. These are the real vampires of our age. They will start by asking for an accounting and will get a court order if it is not forthcoming, or that accounting is not creditable on its face. To the extent they have to use time or money to get that accounting, their fees for doing so will be paid by the estate. NOW are you starting to understand? I considered making J____ a copy of this e-mail, but decided that you should decide the extent you want me involved with her."

I got this (and two even longer, more rambling paragraphs) in response to the question "should I keep the family silver? Is it an heirloom? I don't really need it for myself." I also don't need the answer that I got!

He wrote, in a separate email:

"I used to read cases involving family estate disputes; so glad I am not Executor because Claudia would be ready to eliminate me."

 Talk like that does not help me!

Yesterday's storm left eight or nine inches of fresh snow on the ground. It's beginning to pile up. My plow guy hadn't come yesterday afternoon when I got home from work; the only reason I made it up the driveway was because it was such light and fluffy stuff.

I shoveled off the front and back steps; tonight I need to do the garage door and a path to the oil and gas tanks for the delivery person. Tomorrow I will have to shovel out the old house, yet again. I so want to get done with that phase of the move. The new house desperately wants cleaning after a month of my occupancy and the assault from the movers, but there's no time for all the other work that needs to be done.

I'm getting used to the gas stove. At first it was touch-and-go; I actually burned one of my skillets because I wasn't expecting the burner to heat up so fast. I put the skillet on the burner, turned the burner on, turned away to fix myself a drink. I thought I had time for that simple action. I'm used to a burner taking, maybe, days to heat up. The next thing I knew, I was hearing "Pop! Fizzle! Ping! Pang! Pop!" The pan was smoking.

I've learned to be very careful with the "HIGH" setting!

I see Tigers Grumpyface and Whitestockings every night. I still don't know where they go by day, but I see pussycat footprints in the snow going around behind the barn and over to the neighbor's yard. Whitestockings, at least, seems content.

-- Freder.

"You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent."

I knew it only from the clips of Betty Davis's famous line, the clip they always show, as if, foolishly, it was the only memorable scene in this very memorable movie. But last night Fox ran All About Eve, and at last I know what I was missing.

I'm not a fan of voiceover narration, belonging to the school of "Show me, don't tell me," so the opening scene went badly for me, and I thought, "This is All About Eve? This is the great classic?" But then Anne Baxter rose to accept her award, and in her eyes was a horrible reptilian gleam, and I knew I was in for that bumpy night that Davis keeps on warning us about. Once the awkward freeze frame passed, and the story began, the movie began to take hold.

Eve Harrington is one of the great monsters of screen history, right up there with Dracula and Imhotep. Baxter is masterful in the part, giving us just enough so that we can see her movements, like an alligator coiling through the swamp. It's part of the pleasure that we can see it coming when no one in the movie suspects; not even Bette Davis's Margo Channing, until it's too late. Only George Sanders's urbane Addison DeWitt has her number from the start, and when he finally opens up on Eve near the end of the picture, it's a scene that's both triumphant and repugnant.

This picture is what they mean when they say, "They don't make 'em like that anymore." They can't. Let a writer drive a movie these days? It's unheard of. Even if it happened, nobody in Hollywood is capable of writing dialogue like this anymore, where almost every single line is both quotable and perfectly rendered for the characters and situations. It's not a coincidence that has an entire, lengthy page of quotes from the movie; All About Eve features some of the most exciting writing I've heard from a movie in years and years. "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."


In her early forties, Bette Davis is as magnificent as DeWitt proclaims her, half harpy, half goddess and all woman. It's easy to see why Gary Merrill fell for her during the making of this picture, and she makes a man envy Merrill for this part of his life.

(In later years, Merrill lived alone in a lighthouse near Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the town I grew up in. We drove past the place once, and my parents pointed out that this was his home, "He was married to Bette Davis." That was his claim to fame. He still worked occasionally; I remember his appearance on an episode of Kung Fu. I "met" the man years later. He came to the bookstore I was working at to sign copies of his new autobiography. He was friendly and polite. No one came to speak to him or to buy his book. No one. I felt so badly for him. He looked sad and lonely. Had I been then the person that I am today, I would have spoken to him, asked about the book and indirectly about his life. But in those days I was even more socially backward than I am today, and I minded my own business, only glancing once in a while at the forlorn old man behind the little table. He died the very next year.)

The actors all seem to know what a juicy script they have to work with, and they run with it. Celeste Holm has a marvelous moment when Davis says to her, "It's not as if you drained the gas from the tank yourself," and continues to be squashed by guilt in the powder room as Anne Baxter allows Eve to drop in and out of her various selves. So palpable are her feelings of guilt that the outburst of relief that finally comes is infectious, I found myself laughing with her. There are no throw-away characters or by-the-numbers scenes in this picture. Even Marilyn Monroe, in a bit part that any other actress would merely slink through, comes out with guns blazing, an up-market Eve in her own right.

I've always loved theater stories, but this one is probably the single classic of the genre. Wisely, Mankiewicz never shows any of the actors onstage. Their big performances come not on the boards, but in their lives.

-- Freder.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Me and My SHADO

As you can tell from the photo above, Gerry Anderson's completely wonky '70s SF series UFO had just about everything a fourteen-year-old boy could want.

By today's standards, the show is almost laughably sexist. Although women are shown in command positions, it's rarely a higher rank than lieutenant, it doesn't come without frequent harassment from the self-styled lady's man Col. Alec Freeman (George Sewell, and an unlikelier lady's man you never will see) -- and just look at the uniforms they have to wear!

'Way back at the end of November, with Farscape behind me, I decided to revisit UFO for my Monday night dose of SF. With one thing and another, I've only managed to get a few episodes into the run. Oddly enough, it's the futuristic fashions (by Sylvia Anderson) that have aged the most.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson are better known for their "Super-Marionation" puppet shows, Fireball-XL5, Stingray, and others, but UFO is very much in the same line as those shows, only featuring "live" actors (I have to use quotations, because sometimes I think the puppets displayed a broader range of expression than the cast of UFO!). To the Anderson's credit, it doesn't try to model itself on Star Trek or Lost in Space; its conceit is that Earth is under attack by humanoid aliens who harvest human body parts for transplant. Our only line of protection from the invasion is SHADO, a super-secret special ops branch that has its headquarters under a film studio, and brings the latest, most advanced technology to bear in its defense of the planet. Under the sea, on land, in the air, and from its base on the moon, SHADO seeks 'em here, seeks 'em there, seeks those aliens everywhere -- but still they get through!

The show is full of gadgets and flying things, and many of the effects hold up to this day; some of you already know I'm a believer that model work is more effective than CGI at just about everything. The alien craft and Skydiver (a submarine that launches a jet into the stratosphere) are particularly good effects.

As Commander Straker, Ed Bishop (an American actor who turned up a lot in British films) makes William Shatner's Captain Kirk look easy-going and lax. Bishop's whole performance lies in looking as steely-eyed and determined as possible. The series gets off to a rocky start with an episode that was so violent that it needed to be re-cut for syndication, and two more episodes that merely stick the shtick, all machines, all the time. But within three episodes Col. Paul Foster (Michael Billington) is introduced, and the scripts get markedly better as Foster is allowed to become the single three-dimensional continuing character on the show.

It's nowhere near as good as Star Trek or Farscape at their best, but the Andersons never scrimp on style, and most of the episodes hold your attention. But it's also very much a period piece, and a modern viewer needs a mental ride in the Way-Back machine to stomach some of the styles and attitudes on display.

It helps that I still have the mind of a fourteen-year-old boy.

-- Freder.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Every Day in Every Way. . .

On the last day that the auctioneers were taking my mother's house apart, we finally opened the door to the pantry, which had not been opened (it had not been possible to open it!) in at least a decade.

Inside was an Oasis. Books and collectibles that I had forgotten about, old tins and even unopened food products. Hanging from the light was the in-store display piece pictured above, depicting a scene from the Mickey Mouse cartoon Plane Crazy. I think Mom got it because she was friends with the manager of the Portland Disney Store -- she was certainly a good customer there!

I would not let the auctioneers take it. I figured it wasn't worth much, and it was a spectacular reminder of the Wonderland that my mother had created in her house. I hung it over the dining room table, so that I would have something to make the empty house feel like home.

It's quite large, so it was a tough job fitting it in the car and still loading up with other things. But on Monday night I brought it back out to the All-New, All-Different DuckHaus with me, and on Tuesday night, after a nicely relaxing evening making and eating a pizza and watching Pioneers of Television on PBS, I hung it up again over the dining room table, where it now belongs.

It looks great there, even better than it did in the old house.

Every little thing that I do in the new house makes it feel happier, homier. Every book that I unpack marks the place as mine. I've begun putting my mother's collection of seashells out in the bathroom. It's starting to be good.

But then, settling in has never been a problem for me. Anywhere I go, anywhere I work, I mark places to make them mine.

Saying good-bye, leaving things behind, that's what's always been my problem.

I am thinking about using some vacation time next week, if the weather improves, to really bang away at the old house and git 'er done, so that by the end of January I can put it behind me, and sever the connection forever. That would be a good thing on so many levels. The old house is nothing more than a millstone to me now. Heating two houses is incredibly expensive. It's time to make it a memory.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Morning Mood

Edvard Grieg wrote a lovely piece of music for his Peer Gynt suite going by that title. I won't say that my morning moods are worthy of that music even now. . . but something is changing.

I've written elsewhere in this blog that mornings have been a black time for me. Often, I have greeted morning with tears, frequently with whining, begging and pleading for the punishment to stop, usually with a mean temper.

It's been different in the last couple of weeks. I've been -- as a friend once said of a solo album by Annie Haslam of Renaissance fame -- "incredibly okay."

I haven't screamed at Spooky. I haven't moaned and whined as I cleaned out the cat tray. I haven't been overcome with despair. I haven't felt the black grip of depression around the base of my spine.

Mind you, I'm still not exactly dancing a jig. But there is a difference, and I have to wonder what is the cause?

Certainly getting the furniture late last week was a big help. And just looking at what I have accomplished, all alone, is a point of growing pride. But that can't be it.

Is it the house itself? With all of its big windows, I get a straight shot of sunlight when I walk into the kitchen every morning, and it's the same in most all of the rooms. Could it be the increased morning light? Could it be the physical size of the place, which is just about right for me: not cramped, and not overwhelmingly large as the old house was, especially after my mother's death and the removal of her collection.

Or is it just that I am slowly moving away from that dark time?

Whatever the reason, it does not come without feelings of guilt. If I am becoming content now, why could it not have happened while Mom was alive? Why did she have to bear the brunt of my moods? Why did she have to die for something good to happen to me? Why should I have peace now? I don't deserve it. I'm not even sure that I want it at that cost. There isn't an hour of the day that I don't think of her, and wish that I had made her last years happier.

"Why don't you two just Play Nicely?"

Last Thursday night at 7:00 PM I drove to the local UPS facility to pick up my new computer. It was an eerie place after dark, no lights on in the lobby, people shuffling about like zombies, trucks lined up outside, empty cars with their lights on.

The box was both bigger and skinner than I thought it would be.

It was the simplest thing in the world to unpack and set up. Like the original IMac, this is all one unit, but as you can see, it looks just like a stand-alone monitor. It's been designed to the hilt, all the way down to the packaging. The power cord passes through a circle in the stand. The mouse and keyboard are both wireless. The keys on the keyboard are small and flat, very science fictional. The DVD-ROM drive is a slot on the side. There's also a slot that will allow me to insert my camera's memory card direct.

The screen is ginormous, easily the largest computer screen I've ever worked at, and wide instead of square. Fast doesn't even begin to describe it. I will be surfing the infobahn in style with this puppy.

Except that I can't do anything with it!

I have no phone line, no internet. Three times I've called the phone company, and three times they have said "oops," given me a new phone number and a new date. The latest is this coming Friday. It had better work, because I have fewer than fifteen days to register my software, and you have to be online to do that!

I also don't have any of my old files. As I discovered when I was disconnecting the old computer, it still works after all (the USB hub that was connected to it was apparently causing the problem -- go figure). That's a good thing -- I haven't really lost any files at all. Yay!

But try as I might, I cannot get the new Mac to talk to the old one. I've connected them by ethernet, which should do the trick, except that the new Mac expects certain software to be on the old one, and I can't install that software on the old one because it doesn't have a DVD-ROM drive. System 9 is no longer supported. My new Mac looks at my old one and says, "Feh!"

Nor will the new Mac recognize my Jaz drive, which is where everything is backed up. It connects by USB, so there really shouldn't be a problem -- it's just media, not formatted to any particular operating system.

So I can't work with any of my existing files. I suspect (and hope) that there is some computer business in town that will, if I bring the old computer to them, download and burn all of its files onto a CD, and that I will be able to transfer them that way; but even that isn't a sure thing.

Damn new technology anyway! Here I have a computer with enough horsepower to have filled a room a decade ago, and all I can do with it is take pictures of myself hugging Honey.

-- Freder

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A link of bones

A colleague posted this link on Facebook. I'm sharing it here. It's very much appropriate to the core topic of this blog:

Gang-Banging the FF

I did not start reading comics until late 1976, that is, until after I had read Faulkner and Orwell and Dickens and Twain. Even then, my preference was for Howard the Duck, Warlock, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man. I did not become an instant fan of The Fantastic Four. By that time it hadn't been "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" for more than a hundred issues, and it wasn't until I had the chance to read the first seventy or so issues that I understood what all the fuss was about.

But I'm not here to write about Stan and Jack's greatest creation. I'm here to ask a question of the people who made Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and that question is, "What does it feel like to fuck the Fantastic Four?"

I can ask that question because I watched the movie last night, on a station called FX, just to be able to say that I had sat through it, just to know that my instincts about it were right, just to give myself the moral right to dump on what I imagine is the worst comic-book movie adaptation of all time (but I haven't seen the first Fantastic Four movie, so I could be wrong).

If you look back on the sorry list of funnybook movies, including dreck like Conan the Barbarian and The Spirit, calling this one the worst is saying a lot! There are some really stinking bad films based on comic book characters out there. Few of them have pissed me off as much as this pile of cow manure.

What's right with it? OK, the Silver Surfer is a well-realized special effect. Michael Chiklis's performance (but not his make-up) as Ben Grimm is acceptable (but not great). That's as far as it goes.

What's wrong with it? Everything else. Everything. Everything. I'm so glad I didn't pay any money to see it.

Let's start with the casting. It's inept, all the way down the line. No one looks like the characters they are supposed to be playing, and they certainly don't act like them. Jessica Alba as Sue Storm? She's a Latino fer crine out loud! Sue Storm is supposed to be whiter than snow. Nothing about her is right. Not her face. Not her hair. Not her body. Not her imperceptible degree of talent.

Iouwnn Griffgdthkdth or whatever the hell his name is as Reed Richards? He's about twenty years too young for the part, and plays Reed like a Frat House boy. Even the streaks they put in his hair are wrong.

That Nobody playing the Torch? Don't even get me started.

But the worst, the nadir, is the absolute clown they have playing Victor Von Doom. Even his voice is wrong.

Oh my, and then there's the script. They are adapting, in this film, what is quite possibly the Holy Grail of comic book stories. If The Fantastic Four were Jack and Stan's greatest creation, then the Galactus Trilogy as it has come to be known is the best of the best. All the filmmakers had to do was follow the story, perhaps making a few minor adjustments to account for the absence of a character called The Watcher.

But no. They turned it into a military hunt for the Silver Surfer, and they turned Galactus into a cloud.

I would have thought that Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have taught Hollywood a very basic lesson: that clouds do not make particularly menacing villains. For one thing, they do not have brains and cannot speak.

Finally, whose idea was it to let Tim Story into the Director's Union, let alone allow him anywhere near the First Family of Comics? He doesn't have a clue about how to develop a story, let alone how to present characters and make us love them. He doesn't even know how to frame a shot. He should have the camera dropped on his fingers.

Why did I keep watching? Because, as this train wreck of a movie unfolded, I was savoring the pleasure that I would get today from throwing a pie in its face and, in the words of John Cleese, farting in its general direction.

And now, to end on a positive note:

As ineffably minor as was Roger Corman's 1994 version of The Fantastic Four (that it was shot in a month for under a million dollars, and was never intended to be released, should tell you something: it was made only so that the film company could retain the rights for another few years), it looks like Shakespeare compared to the picture I saw last night. And Rebecca Staab is still the perfect actress for Sue Storm.

-- Freder.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Beginning: Operation Clean Sweep

Apologies to The Sisterhood for the picture I selected for this post. It's crass and chauvanistic and the reptile in me likes it very much.

No, I'm not cleaning and I'm not sweeping. But I am using my weekend days at the old house to make a systematic sweep through the place, room by room, packing everything that I need and everything that I want. The move was delayed so many times that I already had a start on this. With the furniture cleared out, it's going faster and Operation Clean Sweep is showing signs of progress.

I've divided the house into halves: front and back. I'm done with the front upstairs and well along with the downstairs. Then I'll start upstairs again and sweep backward through the hall with all its closets and drawers, the guest bedroom, the attic (I really dread that!) and down the back stairs.

Then it's the basement, and the workshop, and finally the barns. It sounds like a tall order, and it is, but remember I'm not doing anything with the things I don't want. I'm hoping that four full days out there will do the trick, plus evening trips in the two or three weeks coming.

Then it will be time for the auction house to come in one last time and take away everything that remains.

Will I clean the place and sweep it then, or leave that task for the new owners? Depends on what kind of a mood I'm in when the time comes.

I got through yesterday without tears, again. It is getting easier, because I'm not tearing down home anymore; that place is history. This has more the curiosity factor of an archeological dig. I'm finding things that I haven't seen in years, things that had significance once, significance that has in most cases faded away. In my closet I found my wooden toy fort from when I was just four or five years old (did I keep that? Hell, yes!); I found old drawings and stories from my teen years (did I keep them? Hell, no!); in the linen cupboard I found Christmas decorations that hadn't seen the light of day in years; I found leopard-patten sheets that used to go on my bed back when we lived at Turkey Hill Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

For years after we lived there, I pined for Turkey Hill Farm and Cliff House both. The latter especially. They became places in memory. The house in Albion is taking on the same dimension. The house that I see when I go out there now is not he house that I remember.

The last good-bye is finally on the horizon.

In the Heat of The League, With Love. . .

There's still so much left to do (including yet another run out to the old house tonight after work -- another storm is predicted for Tuesday and Wednesday, so it has to be tonight), but last night I reached the point where I just. . . couldn't. Couldn't unpack another box. Couldn't shelve one more book. Couldn't lug one more tote into the house. My wheels just rolled to a stop, and I collapsed into my comfy chair, and watched In the Heat of the Night on TCM from start to finish.

Of course I knew it by reputation, but I'd never seen it before. It's been on my DVD-to-buy list for years, just never got around to it. Now I don't have to!

In the end, I can't give it top marks because the murder mystery -- the plot -- ends up being so unsatisfactory. Realistic, yes, but if you've ever read Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, you know that a good murder is deeply complicated and creates ripple effects that impact all the characters in the story -- even (sometimes especially) the detective. But the murder that everything hangs on In The Heat of the Night ends up being almost perfunctory: a spur-of-the-moment thing perpetrated by a low idiot who manages to take another life for no reason before the final credits roll.

All that said, the picture is well-directed in a deeply laconic style by Norman Jewison, and gorgeously photographed by the great Haskell Wexler (who also shot American Graffiti and seems to be a master at photographing cars that pass in the night).

But the reasons to watch, obviously, are the two monster performances at the core of the movie, from Poitier and Steiger, and the depictions of a racism that is so casual as to be horrifying. The movie sets you right down into the character of Mister Tibbs, in a way that I don't think any other movie had done up to that point. The man is a Gladiator, and not by choice.

It helps that Steiger's character, Gilespie, is not a cardboard cut-out nor the raging bigot that he at first appears to be. He is out-leagued and out-classed, and he knows it. . . but he's capable of learning.

Before that, before I ran out of steam, I caught a part of To Sir With Love, and was less impressed with that. Not less impressed with Poitier, mind you, but I didn't buy a lot of what the picture was selling. The song's still great, though. . .

On Saturday night, between rounds of unpacking during the commercials, it was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on American Movie Classics. First -- what's happened to AMC? They used to be a good station. They used to run movies that really are American Movie Classics. To say that League doesn't fall into that category is stating the obvious, but it doesn't end there. It seems that all AMC is showing these days is contemporary crap, including a grisly Carnivorous Zombie series that doesn't stint on the gore, even in the commercials. I expected to be glued to that station (as I am to TCM) -- instead, I mostly avoid it.

Now then: I don't think I've heard one positive review for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I'm not going to break from the pack except to say that it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected and that I've sat through lots worse (Van Helsing, anyone?). Actually, I found it vaguely diverting. Yes, it's nonsensical, yes, the CGI is shoddy. . . and Captain Nemo is an Arab? Granted, it's been a while since I read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, and my memory may be corrupted by images of James Mason and other Anglo actors in the part, but. . . really. . . since when?

I suppose what I responded to were the vestiges of Alan Moore that remain in the film: there's a really good idea at the core of the picture, and it doesn't get completely lost amid all the action set-pieces. For that reason alone, it's smarter than its competitors. But it ultimately fails, because if you're in the business of making "Gosh-Wow" adventure movies, you'd better make certain that the audience is thinking "Gosh Wow!" as the credits roll -- and I wasn't. Guess I'm not alone in that!

Sean Connery? Eh -- they needed his star power and they got what they paid for, but Connery has been slacking and collecting his checks through a lot of half-hearted performances lately.

-- Freder.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Moving Daze

Laurel and Hardy did it. Mickey Mouse did it. I'm surprised that the Three Stooges never did. By definition, comedy usually involves pain. The kind of pain that isn't so funny when it happens to you!

But, really, the final phase of the formal move came off as well as could be expected. I now have furniture!

When I saw the truck pull up I grabbed the cats before they could know what was happening and locked them away again in the bathroom. Much complaining from behind the door! Then I noted that the truck had not pulled up in front of the house as expected, but backed into the driveway.

I was told that the town would not let them park in the street, and that I would have to shovel the sidewalk. I said, "That's baloney! I've seen at least two moving vans parked in front of this house in the last six months! They do it all the time! It'll take me an hour to shovel this out!"

In the end, they parked in front of the house and started off-loading, and I got busy shoveling in case a cop came along and ordered them away. A cop did come along, but he paid them no attention, and I shoveled the sidewalk for nothing (the town snowblower came down the walk just a short while after I finished!)

The movers poured sand all up and down my front walkway and soon were tracking it into the house with wild abandon. Footprints everywhere. I still haven't cleaned it up; I had higher priorities. Once again Mister Complainer let his partner do the lion's share of the heavy lifting.I pitched in and lugged a bunch of stuff myself. After all, they were being paid by the hour. We loaded up the house, then they moved the van and we put the lawnmower and wheelbarrow and the garden dog and my mother's flats (display pieces that she painted to look like buildings -- she used them at art shows to display her paintings way, way back when she was pursuing art full-time while raising us youngsters) into the garage.

They came inside and assembled the beds, starting with mine. As soon as it was ready I made it up, and flopped down on it in relief. I said, out loud to the room, "This is hot!"

It was all over by around 12:30. I paid them off ($1,039.50) and waved goodbye, hoping never to need or see them again! I went inside and let the quats out.

Honey was first out the door as usual, zooming at slightly under the speed of sound, but doing it in that low, distressed crouch. "What's he done now? What's he done now?" she seemed to be thinking. I followed her upstairs. She jumped on the bed with a look of disbelief, sniffing about. "Is it? Is it really?"

Downstairs Patches was not asking questions. She knew, and was jumping on every single piece of furniture with a happy look on her face. Everyone else was sniffing, but contentment was the overall tone.

For my part, I felt suddenly exhausted, almost too weak to stand. I flopped in my comfy chair before the telly and just sank into it. I hadn't been that comfortable in a solid month. I turned on TCM.

I must say that TCM is becoming my favorite channel. In the early days of video and DVD, it was a pleasure to track down movies that I knew about and knew that I wanted to see, but TCM is a different experience entirely: I'm getting to see pictures that I never heard of, never knew I would like. Yesterday it was Two Knights from Booklyn, a 1949 comedy with William Bendix and Grace Bradley (an actress I've never encountered before that I know of, but man-o-man, whatta cutie!). It was pretty dumb, but also genuinely funny in the way that modern dumb comedies are not. I don't think I've seen Bendix do comedy before, but he's hysterical in a good-natured way.

I was not feeling any stronger, and finally realized that I hadn't eaten anything all day. I made myself breakfast and I made myself lunch, one after the other, and wolfed it all down while watching the movie, which kept going off on a new tangent just when I thought it was over. I like it when movies do that.

Eventually, TCM followed it up with another Bendix comedy, Kill The Umpire, and that was when I turned off the set and started getting on with my new job: unpacking!

This move is far from over! But anyone who has done this would know that. I wonder if anyone unpacks like me, though: I get started in one area, then something comes to light that belongs in another part of the house. I take it to where it belongs, then immediately see something that needs doing right away, get involved in that, and forget all about what I was originally doing. Shake vigorously and repeat. In the end, no one room really got done, but something got done in all the rooms, with the result that the place is really starting to shape up. It does feel and look like home now.

A dirty, messy, box-strewn version of home, but home!

And apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Honey slept with me last night, all of her own volition. She left once to use the bathroom, but jumped right back into bed with me after she got herself cleaned up. I didn't have to go looking for her in the night.

Oh -- my friend Jean is doing well, and out of the hospital.

-- Freder.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Why don't you do something to HELP me?!"

Many thanks to my friend FlickChick (who has a much more entertaining blog than mine) for the heads-up that TCM would be running a Laurel and Hardy marathon from Tuesday night into Wednesday. The parts of it that I was able to catch have easily been the best part of the last two days -- and they reminded me of something as well, the only perspective I've been able to maintain in the chamber of horrors that I've been trapped in during that time: Life is a Laurel and Hardy comedy: one nice mess after another.

It's better now. Really, the only real concern that I don't have an answer for at this point is that my friend Jean is in hospital and I hope she's doing well. The rest of it -- the nice messes that made up yesterday -- is all being worked on.

Let's start with the easy stuff. I still don't have a computer. On Monday they tried to deliver at the back door, so I left a note there the next morning. On Tuesday they instead tried to deliver at the front door. So on Wednesday I had notes on both doors -- when I got home and struggled up the stairs (more on that latter) I noticed that the note on the back door was gone. . . but there was no package!

And I still don't have telephone service. It was originally supposed to start a week ago Monday. When it didn't, I called from work and they gave me a new number, and a new date: yesterday. Yesterday came and went, and still no phone service.

Yesterday was also to be my moving day -- so of course the weather weenies were calling up a storm. They said that it would start after midnight and be terrible by morning. So I was overjoyed to wake at 7:00 AM and find that nothing was happening. Yippee! I thought. It's not going to be as bad as they predicted!

You can see it coming, can't you?

I drove out to Albion and loaded up the car while I waited for the movers to arrive. And waited. And waited. By the time I was finished loading, the snow had started to fall. Still no movers. I waited until after nine, then called the company and said, "Once again I am here and you're not!" The woman said that they were on their way, should be there any second, that they had left at a quarter after eight.

It took another ten minutes for them to arrive, and by that time the snow was beginning to get serious. It gathered on their boots and blew into the house -- all I could think of was the empty winter home in Doctor Zhivago. I helped them where I could, and kept their ramp swept clean, but the snow was coming down at the rate of an inch or two an hour and toward the end I had to stand out in the storm full time just constantly sweeping the ramp clear. That was miserable, but just as well -- I had managed to get through all of my weekend hours at the old house without tears, but yesterday I broke down several times. It was better to have a focus, even on a task such as that.

The downstairs went quickly enough, but upstairs there were four beds to take apart, and that was time consuming.

By the time everything was loaded and we were ready to hit the road, it was near one o'clock and there was probably six to eight inches of snow in the driveway. The moving van was stuck. My car was stuck. With much effort, we got out and onto the road -- which had not been plowed or treated in any way. It was a case of putting your tires in the tracks of the vehicle ahead of you and hoping for the best.

This was probably one of my ten worst winter driving experiences ever. It was white-out conditions all the way. For much of the drive, I could not even see the moving van just in front of me. The main roads were not much better than the town roads. The blower on my car was not working well enough to handle the cold, and I had to wipe down the inside of the windshield several times.

Once again, my plow guy had not been along. I was able to get most of the way into my driveway, but at the end it makes a sharp left turn and goes up an incline to the garage. With nine inches of snow on the ground, the car could not handle that, and I got stuck there again.

I went into the house, rounded up the cats and threw them into the bathroom, then grabbed my shovel and did the fastest job on the front walkway ever, only to have the movers suggest that they take the load back to the moving company with them and deliver it on Friday.

I wasn't going to have any of that. I asked them to do it right then and there.

Have you ever noticed that on any given working crew, there's always one guy who does less work than anyone else, and complains the loudest? This one went into full complaint mode. They off-loaded two and a half pieces of furniture and then flat-out quit on me. There was nothing for me to do but head inside and let the cats out.

The plow guy came along as I was shoveling out my car. He "helped" me in exactly the way that Stanley helps Ollie. He helped the car right off of the driveway and into the ditch, where it remains as I write this. I could not call Triple A because I had no phone.

Also, I could not drive to the store. I had meant to do that in the evening, after the move. I was low on some basic supplies.

So I walked. Three quarters of a mile one way to the supermarket, through the storm. What the hell, I was wet already, had been wet all day. The walk out wasn't so bad. The walk back was into the wind. The snow caked into my hair, my eyebrows, the whole front of me was white. My gloves were wet. By the time I was halfway home my fingers were so cold they were on fire.

When I got home I made the mistake of sticking them under the faucet. The pain as they thawed out was horrific. I laid down on the floor and screamed.

But it passed in about five minutes. I puttered around, unloaded the groceries, did my chores, then remembered Laurel and Hardy. With Stan and Babe and the cats for company, I made an early dinner (my only meal of the day) and wound down with a couple of drinks. By six o'clock it felt like eleven. I needed to get that day behind me. I went to bed early, leaving the dishes in the sink, and slept like the dead.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Return of Miss Bianca and Bernard the Brave

I blogged about Margery Sharp's Miss Bianca series a few weeks back -- it wasn't a very good post, I was tired and distracted. Thankfully, you don't need me to write about this subject any more, because just yesterday I learned that the New York Review of Books (an imprint of Random House) is bringing the first book in the series, The Rescuers, back into print this summer, in a nice hardcover edition!

Run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and order your copy today! Discover for yourself why I love these books unreservedly. If enough folks buy this one, I've no doubt that NYRB will follow up with Miss Bianca and The Turret, books two and three. I know it says "Children's Collection" on the front, but these are not just for kids. Anyone who likes a good gothic, romantic adventure will appreciate these stories. Just put the Disney movies right out of your heads, and step right up to Miss Bianca's Porcelain Pagoda for your ticket into a richly imagined world, where platonic love, honor and redemption are still possible for the smallest among us.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Mixed Nuts

Not much in the way of pop-culture blather to report. Last night TCM ran Mark Rydell's film adaptation of William Faulkner's last novel, The Reivers, but I tuned in late, and it was dinnertime so I was away from the telly for most of it. In any case, I realized that my memories of the novel were too vague for me to have any meaningful notion of how good an adaptation it was. I must have read the book at least a quarter-century ago, and I admit I didn't get as much out of it as I should have. I was a big fan of Faulkner's, and went into it with the wrong set of expectations, not realizing until many years later that it was intended to be a comedy, not the kind of southern gothic drama that I was used to from Uncle Billy. I kept asking myself, as I read, what was wrong with this picture? Well, what was wrong was me.

Beyond that, all I can say for certain is that Steve McQueen seems an odd choice for Boon Hogganbeck, but Will Geer is just perfect for Faulkner, and Burgess Meredith's narrations are a pleasure.

After that, I watched just enough of last year's "re-imagining" of Sherlock Holmes to know that it wasn't worth wasting any time out of  my life over. I normally like Robert Downey, Jr., but he's woefully miscast here, and with his fake British accent I couldn't understand a word he was saying. That was actually the best part of the movie. I could tell from the opening frames that this was going to be a stink bomb, but I toughed out about ten or fifteen minutes before I turned off the set and got back to unpacking.

Oh, and I did sit through the remake of Ray Harrihausen's Clash of the Titans on Saturday night. It's better acted and more dramatically sound than the original (Lord Olivier really sleepwalked through that one), although it's still quite nonsensical -- and I'm sorry, but although it allows the director more fluidity in which to frame a shot, the computer-generated special effects don't hold a candle to Harryhausen's techniques.

I spent most of Saturday and Sunday at the old house, packing and packing so that I would have enough not just for a load each day, but enough so that I could swing by on Monday and Tuesday and just load up the car without having to take the time to pack more. I'm really making strides. All my books are packed, the big closet is cleaned out, the built-in shelves are bare. The house is growing more and more eerie, an empty, silent place. I believe that I'll only need a couple more weekends to pack up everything that's coming with me. Then the auction house needs to be called back in, to clean out what they want. Still, there will be quite a lot left over. My lawyer says she knows someone who will take the rest. But I'm tempted to just throw the keys in my sister's face and say to her, "It's all yours. Take anything you want and clean the rest out, give the keys to the new owners when they come. I'm never coming back."

I was able to get a light carriage sofa into my car, now the cats have something comfortable to sit on in the new house. I'll have to move it when the real furniture comes in, but for now they like it much better than just a blanket on the floor!

The move is scheduled for Wednesday. Of course, the weather weenies are predicting snow. I've reached the point where I don't care. I need my furniture now. If the moving company cancels on me one more time, I'm going to use a different moving company. I can't find anything because I can't unpack. Boxes are piling up where the furniture must go. This move has reached critical mass.

I enjoy living in town. I've typed this before, but it bears repeating: winters at the old house were made harder by the feeling of living on the moon, being in the middle of nowhere. Our nearest neighbors were half a mile away. The forests and fields were barren and still when covered by snow. I would look out of the windows on a soundless night and feel completely alone.

In town, it never gets completely dark. There's a streetlight at the end of my driveway, and many of my neighbors never turn off their porch lights. I'm sure that the Tigers Whitestockings and Grumpyface appreciate this, as do I. There's an ambient glow to the night sky from all the lights, public and private. I look out of the windows and see just enough trees and woodland to make it seem homey and comfortable, but I also see the homes of neighbors, windows discreetly curtained, and cars rolling up and down the hill. I am still alone, but I am alone in the world instead of out of it.
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