As a lifelong fan of all things Woody Allen, I expected a pleasant evening when we got tickets to hear his New Orleans style jazz band play in Seattle. I hadn’t anticipated the joyous love-fest that filled the Paramount Theatre for two hours, as Woody and his band of top-notch musicians performed haunting melodies and foot-stomping tunes with hardly a pause for breath between numbers.
As the winner of numerous Oscars for his brilliant writing, Woody Allen has earned a place of honor in the American lexicon of filmmaking, but one of the most remarkable things in nearly all his films has been the soundtracks, all of which share the distinctive blend of classic songs from the golden age of American swing and jazz. It is from this rich storehouse, and from a deeper, less well-known reserve of blues, gospel, and dance hall tunes from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s that Woody Allen’s repertoire derives its evocative power. This is music that can make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the space of a single song.
In his critically acclaimed 2011 film “Midnight in Paris,” Woody created a sublimely beautiful vision of the Paris every romantic has imagined, but it’s the soundtrack that works the magic, effectively transporting the audience from the crass materialistic sensibility of the modern world to the enchanting mystery that was Paris in the 1920s, when many of America’s best and brightest flocked there to partake of the city’s physical beauty, its cultural richness, its intellectual energy. Some of the soundtrack was performed by the same band members who just played in Seattle.
We’re still a long way from Paris, but it felt closer last night.
At this time of year it’s customary to see a spike in the belief gauge. We all need to believe in something, even if it’s only the infield fly rule.
But the majority of believers aim higher. Truth, justice, freedom, salvation – these are the flickering candles held aloft on the dark nights of a long winter.
Yet it doesn’t take much to snuff out a candle. Torches, on the other hand, burn longer. Your unruly mob wields torches. Hopeless lovers, ditto. Rebels and romantics share a taste for reckless passion.
Unfortunately, reckless passion will only take you so far. Once your unruly mob has gotten out into the streets, they need a plan, or at least a strong sense of direction, to accomplish anything. And I’m not talking about a GPS system, although the view from the stars can be instructive on a lot of levels.
When the first astronauts sent back the breath-taking photos of our small blue planet there was a momentary pause in the surface strife, only a blink perhaps, but a certain readjustment took place as all the various believers and scoffers took note of the view from above. Notably absent in that view are the dividing lines over which humankind has fought and died for millennia.
Like children with crayons who scribble freely at first, all humans learn quickly, from their parents, their schools, their cultures, where the lines are, and who’s allowed to cross them. Our maps have grown more accurate as our technology has grown more sophisticated, but the arbitrary nature of the lines we draw between countries, states and cities, remains as quirky and imaginary as ever.
And yet, we go to war for these lines. Our parents fought and died for them. Our children die for them. Will we ever reach the end of the lines?
There are no lines between the stars. The imaginary figures that astrologers produce by connecting the dots of light in creative patterns are no more real than the border between Mexico and Arizona. It’s a crazy world, but not many people get shot for being Sagittarians.
The daily headlines reveal all too clearly how far we have to go before we learn how to love one another. Some say hope is for fools. I say to hope is human. Look up. Connect the dots. We could spell peace in the stars.
It was the slogan “Let’s Merry!” that pushed me over the edge.
I’ve got nothing against Starbucks. They’ve raised the bar on coffee quality and encouraged a whole new economy, which isn’t always a bad thing. But their slogan, which transforms another innocent adjective into a dubious verb, irked the placid English major dozing inside me.
It used to be that only sports broadcasters and financial gurus made a practice of taking respectable nouns and turning them into hotrod verbs. Now everybody’s doing it. And one part of me says, yay! As a child of the fifties I was born and raised with a healthy appetite for jargon and the glamour of commercial lingo. As a lover of literature I value the organic muscular nature of English, its rough and ready quippery, the slippery DNA of its slang, even the gobbledygook of acronymic nonsense.
But whether it’s something in the holiday atmosphere, or the eggnog, in this season of mirth and marketing, the wanton verbing (yes, mea culpa) of law abiding nouns is getting out of hand. Perhaps to deck the malls with crowded folly you gotta learn to urbify the wordiage. Verbify the messaginistic wave of urgency defying all buzz-killing ratiocination. You gotta spendify to splendify!
And if you buy into the madness that is Christmas marketing, ’tis the season to cast your credit limit to the winds.
But suppose you find yourself a bit cash-strapped, or afflicted by a nagging conscience about the morality of spending like there’s no tomorrow when, really, there’s plenty of evidence which, while blithely ignored by a vocal segment of our fiercely independent nation, nonetheless strongly suggests that our current self-indulgent ways may turn out to be a self-fulfilling strategy to ensure that there will, in fact, be no tomorrow?
Of course contemplating all of this is fatiguing to say the least. Thus, as the days get shorter and darker, and clamorous with the chanting of the discontented and the incessant Christmas music, some weary souls may feel the urge to let go of the tiller on the good ship Reason and fling themselves headlong into the drink.
But wait. There’s light at the end of this holiday tunnel.
How to cope? In a word: cookies.
Yes, Virginia, there are Christmas cookies. Long after all faith in the fat man has vanished, along with dreams of world peace, or true love, or even a modestly satisfying one-night stand, the simple pleasure of a well made Christmas cookie endures.
When I was young, so much younger than today, my father worked in a small law firm where the annual Christmas party was a family affair. For my brothers and me there was only one memorable aspect to this event. We called her The Cookie Lady. You know the type. Before Martha Stewart and all the modern blogging kitchen vixens overwhelmed us with their clever and arty creations, there were always women like The Cookie Lady, who somehow found time and energy to make dozens and dozens of fantastic cookies – and I don’t mean just the typical iced sugar cookies. We’re talking bars and logs and layered confections, dipped in chocolate, rolled in nuts. These weren’t some slice n’ bake, prefab bland biscuits. These were ethnic, ancient, evocative cookies with a past. Proust would understand.
Perhaps a cookie seems a trivial thing on which to plant a flag of hope. It would have to be a small flag.
But that’s kind of the point. When the holiday season inflates expectations so far beyond the scope of our short time here on Earth, a step back from the edge can work wonders. Even in these mega-sized, over-priced, under-nourished times, a certain measure of comfort and joy can still be found in something as small and fragile as a home-made, hand-made Christmas cookie.
Take a moment. Take a bite. Try to remember when a cookie was enough.
People who don’t get sports sometimes don’t get that it’s not just about winning.
It’s about playing. Being in the game. Being part of a team. Kind of like being human.
While many great films have been set in and around the world of sports, it’s the rare film that uses sports to convey a broader message about what it means to be fully human.
In cautious sectors of the film industry the popular trend embraces repetition. The Hangover leads to The Hangover Two, Mission Impossible leads to Mission Impossibler , Zoolander spawns Twolander, etc.
Yet there are some films, critically lauded as they may be, which you know will never be shadowed by a sequel. The simply stunning Winter’s Bone, a gray brooding brilliant story of survival on the edge of our country’s crumbling economy, is a fantastic film, but hardy likely to start a franchise. Yet it’s the real thing – proof that America still has filmmakers able to drill deep and tap into the true grit that fuels this nation of passionate extremes.
Thomas McCarthy is one such filmmaker. He’s also a gifted actor and writer (he wrote the story for Up, and wrote and directed The Visitor, among others). In McCarthy’s most recent film, Win Win, for which he also wrote the screenplay, he offers another finely observed portrait of a man losing his grip on his own moral compass as he tries to support his family without losing his soul.
The peerless Paul Giamatti holds it all together, even as his character falls apart.
As offerings go on the cinematic menu, Paul Giamatti is a bit like Brussels sprouts. Not as universally popular as, say, French fries. I love Brussels sprouts. And I’ve been a Giamatti fan ever since he blew me away in the underrated Duets, in which he played a downtrodden traveling salesman whose life is unexpectedly altered by a chance karaoke experience.
In Win Win Giamatti is again cast as a kind of loser – a struggling small-time lawyer whose only emotional outlet comes from his role as a part-time coach for the local high school wrestling team. When a young kid with a troubled past and a gift for takedowns shows up in town, the plot veers into deeper waters. In other hands, this kind of material could have easily devolved into the predictable drivel of the standard Lifetime Channel tearjerker.
But with a steady hand and a clear eye director McCarthy has crafted a quiet study of the universal need for dignity. At times funny, thrilling, and ultimately moving, the film never lapses into maudlin clichés or cloying cuteness.
Some moviegoers may fail to see the appeal of a film without a single car chase, with no pyrotechnical explosions, no raunchy sex scenes and no computer-generated special effects.
But for those who enjoy a well-wrought, thoughtfully directed small independent film, Win Win is a winner.
The twin stars in the firmament of Seattle are the Space Needle, which hovers over the downtown skyline like some abandoned probe left by interstellar tourists, and Mount Rainier, a majestic snow-capped magnet with its head in the clouds most of the time.
These two iconic sights provide a kind of branding device for many who hope to make a buck in Seattle. And because these images are about as much in the public domain as it’s possible to be, anyone with a T-shirt or a toothbrush to sell can use them and set up shop, or at least launch a start-up table on the sidewalk. This is both the beauty of capitalism and its Achilles heel.
Anyone can play, if they can get a foothold in the marketplace. But when the physical market space is limited, or over-priced, breaking in becomes almost impossible. And when opportunities shrink, while population keeps growing, there’s trouble ahead.
The continuing spread and evolving character of the Occupy Wall Street movement reflects the great disconnect between the haves and the have-nots, not only in this country, but around the world. While we in the United States like to pride ourselves on our democratic principles, the current playing field is warped and hobbled by a labyrinthian legal system and the fundamentally flawed nature of humanity.
We are not a perfect species. Greed, fear and laziness hold us back. We could be so much better.
In the District of Columbia, the other Washington, the tall pointy pillar which lures tourists is named for the nation’s first president, a man who didn’t particularly want the job, who didn’t have to spend a gazillion dollars to win it, and who never could have imagined the reality show aspect of our modern electoral system. The Washington monument itself is kind of a ho-hum structure, though it works well enough as a backdrop for fireworks, mass demonstrations and political hay-making.
Occupying it might be a challenge. But if we really want to change things for the better it might be a good iea to put the message where it will get the most bang for the buck.
One minute you’re walking around the corner of a typical neighborhood block, small houses crouched in the shadows of burly new condo developments, and then, a sliver of silver on the sidewalk catches your eye. You turn and see a crescent moon gleaming in the concrete. And beyond, tall evergreens frame of view that goes on for miles.
This is Fremont Peak, one of Seattle’s treasured pocket parks. Though it’s only been open since 2007, it already has the grace of ages thanks to the vision of the designers who gently inserted new art into the half-acre site perched high above Ballard. It’s a good spot to watch sunsets over the Olympics. In one direction you can see the ships passing through the locks, while to south the skyline of downtown Seattle rises beyond the ridge of Queen Anne.
The limitations of a pocket park – its diminutive size, its lack of recreational facilities – are outweighed by its intimate scale, the thoughtful details which give the space the character and charm of a beloved retreat.
Some parks speak to us in bold fonts, with grandeur and the broad strokes befitting public settings. In contrast, a pocket park whispers, its message, one of stolen moments, secret pleasures, as if to say: This time, it’s personal.
Others insist everything’s been done before, it’s all cyclic, we survived the Great Depression we’ll survive this, etc.
For many of us addicted to the 24/7 news feed, the signature tune of this dawning century, it’s hard to find hope. Unless you turn away from your TV, step away from the computer, recycle your newspaper and look to the sky.
There, the clouds roll by, as they have for millennia. The sun rises, shines and sets, as it is wont to do. If you live around here, rain comes with the territory. But never so much rain that we have to flee to higher ground, except for the few who choose to live along the rivers. Sometimes our decisions affect our lives. Other times, our lives take shape due to forces and decisions far removed from our sight or control.
The disturbingly unsettled economic miasma currently oppressing much of the planet came about through the machinations of a tiny portion of the population who, having much already, decided that having more would be even better. For them.
Now, as the rest of us struggle to readjust the balance, it’s important to remember that for a huge segment of the world’s population having almost nothing is the norm. They don’t have Black Friday sales in Uganda, for instance, where an entire country was decimated by the ruinous misrule of a corrupt leader for decades.
War, terrorism and civil unrest are inevitable until we can wipe out hunger on the planet. It’s a huge goal. So huge most of us give up after a few attempts to make a dent in the wall of indifference. But for this very reason, the small successes of determined efforts by various international aid organizations should be celebrated and honored.
Heifer International offers a chance to give a life-changing gift to the poorest people on the planet. As the holiday season bears down upon us here in the land of good and plenty, it’s worth considering. If instead of lining up on the day after Thanksgiving we sat out Black Friday and put just a fraction aside for those far less fortunate than the activists who can afford to wear Gore-Tex while protesting the iniquities of Wall Street, it might signal a turn in the tide.
Sure, it wouldn’t change the whole world overnight. But stranger things have happened from small beginnings.
People admire eagles. They respect hawks. They bill and coo over doves.
Coots don’t get a lot of respect.
Generally speaking, when you hear the word coot, it’s preceded by the qualifiers “crazy old.” This seems unfair to me. At least to the birds.
I’ve been thinking a lot about coots lately. Also short-tailed shearwaters, flammulated owls and Himalayan snowcocks.
Coots I see on a regular basis, as they dip and dive in the still waters of Green Lake. Those other birds … nope. Never seen ’em. Highly unlikely to. Those being the kind of hard-to-find fowl that drive a certain kind of old coot nearly insane with a rare form of bird lust known as A Big Year. There’s a movie out now, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, based on a true story called The Big Year, which follows the obsessive lengths to which three passionate birders went to see the most birds in North America in one calendar year. It hasn’t been causing much of a stir among film critics, though reviews for the book by former journalist Mark Obmascik were unanimous in their praise for the writer’s entertaining style, and his engrossing account of a quirky subject.
I just finished reading it. I could appreciate the brisk writing style and the somewhat self-indulgent comic slant with which Obmascik attempts to keep readers from throwing the book across the room and screaming, “Who cares?”
I do care about birds. And I have always assumed that people who are birders, those who spend hours staring up into the trees in the hope of seeing some brief flash of feathers, or hearing some telling trill of birdsong, were even more passionate about birds than I. But the more I read about these guys who engage in bird watching as a kind of competitive sport – he who sees the most birds gets the glory – the more irritated I became. Well, really it was only two of them that irked me. The two who seemed to have limitless amounts of money and free time to spend, flying all over the country, throwing money around like confetti. It reminded me a little too much of modern political campaigns, where whoever has the deepest pockets can buy the most votes.
What kept me from giving up on the book was the compelling portrait Obmascik drew of the long shot – the guy who maxed his credit cards and worked killer overtime to buy himself the precious time to pursue his passion. And there was more to his story than a mere desire to win bragging rights in the birding world. His was a personal quest, undertaken in a time of personal turmoil and suffering, and for my money, he was the soul of the story.
I don’t usually read this kind of book (okay, I admit, the picture of Owen Wilson on the cover influenced me in the airport bookstore). But I’m glad I read it. Not least because of all the amazing things I learned about the birds of North America.
I might just have to get some binoculars. For the birds. Really.
Halloween plays differently in our nation’s capital.
In a city where politics is the dominant industry, wearing masks and acting out in public are commonplace. But even so, the sidewalk palette shifts a bit from the usual red, white and blue to a range more orange and black. The police loom on every corner in Georgetown on the eve of the annual parade and party. It wouldn’t do for any rowdy goblins to disturb the carefree tourists jostling for camera angles in front of Georgetown Cupcakes.
Meanwhile, a few city blocks away in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, the indefatiguable participants in the Occupy DC movement continue to demand justice and jobs for all.
As much as Congress seems to care, they might as well be trick-or-treating.
But it’s too soon to count them out. Big waves grow from small drops, even teardrops if enough people are hurting.
When the ones being shut out of the political dialogue begin to make some noise, the well-fed folks in the comfy chairs by the fire may eventually feel compelled to respond. Whether they decide to work toward a more equitable society remains to be seen.
For now it seems the fat cats are content to follow in the well-worn path of earlier aristocrats and over-privileged classes. While jobs vanish and the ranks of the poor swell, the number of cupcake businesses shows no sign of decreasing.
On Halloween night, as the sidewalks filled with with carefree young people dressed as psychopaths and pixies, no one seemed concerned about politics. Many Americans worry about terrorists, rare diseases and higher taxes. This seems a bit short-sighted to me. Historically, the big issue has always been hunger. As Bob Marley and many others have pointed out, “A hungry man is an angry man.” And cupcakes just aren’t going to cut it.
Jobs matter. Even if we have to raise taxes to create them.
I used to love Halloween when I was a kid. It was the one night of the year when you could dress up and go out after dinner and run around in the dark with a paper bag and total strangers would give you candy to fill it up. Fairly cool.
But of course all of this has changed. Very few people allow their children out into the night unattended any more. By the time I had kids of my own I wouldn’t let them run around loose, even though we lived in a relatively safe rural neighborhood.
In recent years the celebration of Halloween has exploded in our culture, with lights, cameras and all sorts of activities, from lavish parties and parades to corn mazes and some genuinely frightening haunted houses. Halloween has turned into a minor marketing bonanza.
What does this say about us as a nation? It seems a bit paradoxical that on the one hand we are ever more cautious and fearful of threats from enemies both real and imagined, while our “entertainment” goes to great lengths to scare the pants off us. And apparently, we love it. I guess the rush from fear-generated adrenaline must be even more addictive than the sugar rush from candy.
I still love the costumes and the pumpkins and the adorable little witches who come to my door on Halloween night. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for make-believe, whatever the season. Yet what I like most about Halloween isn’t the candy or the horror movies – it’s the way the holiday has evolved into a kind of festival of creativity for people of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you choose to ignore it, or go whole Hogwarts, it’s a party for anyone who wants to join in.