Make My Millennium

Sock It To Me

Okay, so here’s my guilty secret. I like movies where things explode.

Not all movies where things explode. But when Bruce Willis, or someone of his stripe, sets off to save the planet with a quip and a smirk, I enjoy the payoff as much as any backyard commando. Maybe more, since I have no personal illusions about being able to pull off anything remotely qualified to feature in an action flick. When I take action these days it’s usually in the kitchen, or, if I’m lucky, in the garden.

Yet much as I like action movies where things explode and steely-eyed heroes step in and light the match, I recognize these stories as fiction.

Fiction is something I understand. Reality, not so much. Perhaps that’s why it simply blows my mind that there are actually people in the “real” world who think it’s a swell idea for the United States at this point in the progress of the civilized world to build a so-called “Death Star” to protect us from anticipated alien attacks.

And here I thought I was delusional.

Well, it’s possible, I suppose, that the paranoid  legions will have the last laugh when the aliens start bombing and scorching us with their death rays, but I feel fairly confident that at the rate we’re killing each other off down here on Earth there won’t be much for aliens to conquer, when and if they ever arrive.

I was comforted to read in The Washington Post today that the Obama administration “does not support blowing up planets.” Good to know.

In the meantime, that estimated $850 quadrillion which the proposed “Death Star” would cost (and you know how it is with estimates – nothing comes in under the estimate) could come in handy as we try to pay down the national debt, solve the problems in our education, health care and aging infrastructure.

And after we end hunger, poverty and injustice, then we can get that Death Star project up and running. Sure we can.

Coming soon to a theatre near you.

Burning Blight

So I see that Ang Lee has made a movie out of Yann Martell’s brilliant fantasy The Life of Pi.

This seems a bit ambitious to me, but then, Ang Lee is a genius, so perhaps he can handle it. Yet when I read the book about a boy who survives 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, I heard much discussion about what, if anything, the tiger symbolized. Was it a metaphor for death? A figment of the boy’s fevered imagination? Or some divine manifestation of the power and majesty of God?

I wanted to believe the tiger was real. You know, like Calvin’s Hobbes but with claws and teeth.

Friends told me I was hopelessly naive. No doubt they were right. Yet now I’m curious to see how my reading of the novel compares with Lee’s visualization.

In fiction, as in life, point of view can clarify or obscure. When you’re high up, looking down, the patterns of human behavior are easier to observe, but only when you’re down on the ground, in the boat with the tiger, can you get a feel for the hunger, the anger, the despair in people’s eyes.

For most of us, our point of view limits our ability to understand one another, and, as history and the daily news remind us, the inability to empathize can be fatal. When point of view provokes point of gun, everyone loses.

This is what the tiger means to me.

The tiger is the cornered beast, the itchy trigger finger that lurks deep in the psyche of every soul. And we are all in this boat together.

Unless we tame our tigers, the outlook is bleak. As the fires of bigotry and religious fervor rage hotter across the world, we would do well to remember that absolutes rarely are. Everything depends on perspective. Now more than ever, as the world tilts toward chaos, it’s imperative that cooler heads prevail.

It’s harder to make peace than to provoke war. But to stir up hatred for political gain is the lowest form of evil – the methodology of fascists.

So let’s all take a deep breath and look this tiger in the eyes and try not to make any sudden moves. We could still make it to the shore if we don’t panic.

But never forget, tigers can swim.

Where Am I?

It’s not as easy as it once was to get lost in this world.

In these technology infested times, the proliferation of gadgets that can tell you where you’re going, how to get there, and what it will cost you has taken some of the zest out of travel. Still, most of us would gladly trade the thrill of the unexpected for the assurance that we’ll get where we want to go without undue bother. And after hearing about the recent mid-air mental snaps of some airline staff, I find myself warming to the idea of a quiet book by the fire.

But, like it or not, sooner or later all of us have to get out of the chair and go places, even if it’s only to the dentist. This is why maps will never go out of style.

I love a good map. I can spend hours perusing Rand McNally, marveling at the curious names of tiny hamlets, the abundance of rivers and streams and mountains between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the sheer expanse of our nation.

Yet part of the magic of maps lies in all that you can’t see in them. The personal, political and social history played out in states and cities, to say nothing of the immense physical changes which take place at a pace too slow for our human eyes to fully appreciate. You can get a sense of it at the Grand Canyon, but if we were able to view the rest of the world through that same staggering perspective we might have a better understanding of how long history is, and how short our share of it.

Of course, we’d rather not think about that. We are the center of the universe, after all. The crown of creation, etc. Uneasy lies the head.

But maps – those flat, two-dimensional renderings of the world as we see it – allow us to feel some measure of control. We know where we’re going. We’ve got a map.

Would that it were so easy. The comforting illusion of control that maps provide allows us to function in a world of restless dark matter.

Much as I love maps, I never fully trust them. Everything changes. Roads close, new roads get built, shorelines change, lakes and rivers dry up. The physical landscape has a life of its own, and while our attempts to keep track of it have  improved dramatically since the age of satellites and computers, there’s still a gap.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the maps I enjoy most are of imaginary places. As I child I delighted in the map of The Hundred Acre Wood drawn by E.H. Shepard for the Winnie-the-Pooh books. Since then I’ve always had a fondness for a good imaginary map. I love it when a writer takes the time to fully imagine a world, complete with place names that ring true. Most recently the maps in George R.R. Martin’s brilliant A Song of Fire and Ice have been especially satisfying, and very helpful to a reader embarking on the journey through the epic five-volume (and counting) fantasy.

Of course, in order to create a map of an imaginary place, it helps to have a vivid imagination. To believe in such a map can serve as a coping strategy: “when reality fails and negativity don’t pull you through” (thanks be to Bob) you can always retreat to someplace imaginary until the next election.

Camped out on the far northwest edge of the nation, Seattle sits on a faultline between the real and the imaginary worlds. It’s easy to cross that line here. That’s one reason I included a map of Seattle in my recent fantasy novel, The Goddess of Green Lake. A map of Seattle is a map of an imaginary place. Here people carve out curious niche lives that couldn’t find a toe hold in Kansas, or in New York City, for that matter.

But here, where the moss grows faster than the national debt, crazy  ideas can relax and put down roots. There’s a fair amount of live and let loon attitude. As Mal Reynolds, the noble renegade captain in Joss Whedon’s space-western Serenity once put it: “We’re all out here on the edge. Don’t push me and I won’t pull you.”

While the political stew bubbles and spills with daily infusions of invective and innuendo, it’s helpful to step back, squint your eyes, and try to see the bigger picture. All of this has happened before. Apocalypses come and go. Sooner or later we all dance with the stars.

Hungry for Peace

Before I had kids, I remember talking to my mother about how I worried about bringing kids into such a dangerous world, and she told me that she had felt the same way during the years she bore five children. That was back when people actually built bomb shelters in their basements, preparing for the nuclear war many felt was only a matter of time. At Westlawn Elementary where I was in first grade, we had regular air raid drills, during which we had to go out into the hall and crouch away from the windows, waiting for the all-clear signal.

Of course, the attacks didn’t come then. Or for the next forty years. And the lull, rather than making us feel secure, encouraged many of my generation to feel suspicious of government and cynical about “the establishment,” as we called it then. Famously, we didn’t trust anyone over 30.

Now we’re the geezers, worried about our jobs, anxious about global unrest and domestic decay. And a new generation is growing up under the shadow of new plagues, more deadly weapons, and a global economic melt-down. Yet, in the face of these threats, the young adults of today amaze me with their resilience and optimism. Sure, there are always some examples of people who collapse from the tension and pressure of modern life. But that only makes the courage and determination and creativity of the rest more admirable.

To what can we credit this new generation of problem solvers? Their parents, in part, their teachers, their mentors. But I think credit is also due to some of the authors who have been creating Young Adult literature in the past twenty or thirty years. I’ve heard it said that literacy is on the decline in this country, and perhaps in some regards that’s true. But it all depends on how you define literacy. If you consider it as the awareness of great stories, epic narratives which reflect the values of a nation or a culture, then I think that, though there has been a shift in the way these narratives are delivered, the message of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the recognition of loyalty, faith and compassion as core values for our continuation as a species, is still being carried forward in works of literature and film.

Next month the film version of Suzanne Collins’ brilliant, violent, and riveting dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games will open in theatres across the nation. I just finished reading it, and I don’t care if it’s labeled Young Adult fiction – these books rocked my world with their stunning evocation of a society so corrupted by imbalances of power, wealth and justice that torture and terror have become  government’s go-to tools to maintain the status-quo. Sound familiar?

The heroine of the story is a teenage girl with an independent spirit and an impulsive nature who never gives up fighting. Katniss Everdeen is a heroine for our times. She embodies the anger and frustration felt by the disenfranchised, the homeless, hungry, abandoned and abused people whose suffering is ignored by the ruling elites and the passive citizens who don’t want to have to think about who pays the true cost of their indulgent lifestyles.

In the world of The Hunger Games the control of the ruling class depends on regular televised spectacles of children engaged in combat to the death, which lull the populace into accepting an inherently immoral system. And although Katniss is forced to participate, she eventually fights her way to the realization that “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children to settle its differences.” I couldn’t agree more.

This is strong material, worthy of the attention of full grown adults. When the film opens in March, no doubt a new crop of readers will be turned on to the books. Suspenseful, mesmerizing and propulsive as a rocket launcher, The Hunger Games delivers an anti-war message with a new edge.

Will it be enough to cut through the miasma of politics and profit that keeps the military-industrial complex in control of our country? Probably not. But it might get a few kids thinking.

The Up Side of Losing

Let's Go To A Movie

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.

Why a Coot?

Coot Force

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.

Cute Coot

Sword Play

The face that launched a thousand pirate quips.

Seattle loves pirates. Don’t we all?

Not, of course, the real, bloodthirsty, unwashed, yellow-toothed criminals who robbed and raped their way around the high seas back in the day. No, the pirates we love are the cute and cuddly comedians whose sense of fashion is matched only by their quick way with a quip.

It wasn’t always thus. Those of us who grew up watching the great Robert Newton as Long John Silver, with his squinty eye and peg leg, snarling at young Jim Hawkins in the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island, had an entirely different impression of pirates. Charm didn’t enter into it.

But all that changed in 2003 when Johnny Depp minced across the deck of the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Pirates have been in vogue ever since.

Seattle was way ahead of this trend. The city’s love affair with pirates dates from 1949, when the first Seafair Pirates, an all-volunteer group of hearty swabs, splashed ashore during the city’s annual summer celebration of all things seaworthy. The Seafair Pirates have been around here long enough to have become a beloved institution. You have to apply to become one, and they don’t take just anyone, though one assumes that if Johnny Depp wanted to prance in, no questions would be asked. After all, Captain Jack Sparrow  won the heart of many a discerning film critic. It’s hard not to love a guy who can make fun of himself while wearing eyeliner and wielding a cutlass. And don’t forget those boots. As if.

In Seattle pirate chic never goes out of style, but there’s no doubt that one of the highlights of the piratical calendar is today, September 19th, better known as Talk Like A Pirate Day. This fabulous idea began spreading like a YouTube hit before YouTube existed, thanks in part to a hilarious Dave Barry column which ran in the Miami Herald in 2002 and kicked off the concept, a brainchild of two very funny guys, Mark Summers, aka Cap’n Slappy, and John Baur, aka Ol’ Chumbucket.

Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket have since penned several books designed to help pirate wannabes set sail with style. Their first how-to book, Pirattitude, with an introduction by Dave Barry, is a must-have for those wishing to make a pirate statement. A more recent release, The Pirate Life: Unleashing Your Inner Buccaneer, could change your life. Or at least keep the neighbors guessing where you’ve buried the treasure.

Lend Me Your Ears

Where does enchantment lie?

Some say the eyes. Some say the lips. Still others succumb to the seductive spell of great hair.

Ears rarely enter into it. Yet, in the vast canon of fictional heroes, one character alone ranks above all others in the ear category. Mr. Spock’s greenish skin, slanting eyebrows, and air of self-control helped set him apart from the rest of the crew of the original Star Trek when the show began in 1966. But it was Spock’s pointy ears that caught the public eye and won their hearts.

Next week, on April 2, one of those legendary ears will be auctioned off in Los Angeles. Bids are already rolling in, and experts predict the ear will go for at least one thousand dollars. Detached from Leonard Nimoy’s stately head, the silicone latex prosthetic attachment looks like a broken half of a fortune cookie, and hardly more valuable. But of course, the value of memorabilia is in the mind of the beholder.

Spock’s ear symbolizes the triumph of reason over emotion, wisdom over folly, sanity over the other thing. The sort of calm clear-headedness Spock’s character embodied remains an elusive goal for most of us ordinary humans. As a general rule, we can maintain calm, reasoned thought for only so long. Inevitably life’s slings and arrows poke us just once too often and off we go, flying into the irrational emotional tailspin represented on the original Star Trek in the all-too-human characters of Captain Jim Kirk (William Shatner’s defining role) and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Mr. Spock’s iconic ears resonate beyond the generation that grew up when Star Trek was new because succeeding generations still cling to the idea that brains can trump brawn, in spite of the continual evidence that it is by no means a sure thing. Perhaps that’s why we’ll pay a thousand bucks for a limp fake ear. Because, as James T. Kirk was fond of saying, we humans need to believe in the possibility of the impossible. We need belief. In ourselves, in our friends, in our nations, and in our dreams.

Another famous symbolic prop emerged in the golden era of Hollywood film when Dorothy donned the legendary ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Of course, there were several pairs created by the props  department, and over the years a few have been auctioned off. At the first auction by MGM in 1970, the red slippers went for $15,000. At the most recent sale in May 2000 they sold for $666,000. And they’re not even real rubies.

Of course, it’s not simply the shoes that people want. It’s the evocative power of their back-story, and the line that will forever be connected to them: “There’s no place like home.” That one goes deep into the well of human longing. E.T. longing. Thomas Wolfe longing. Eden.

On the face of it, Spock’s greenish pointy ears might not seem as embedded with significance, unless you step back, way back, lunar probe distance, and take a long look. From that perspective you can see, “There’s no place like space.” The final frontier. And it could be, if we don’t stop poisoning this planet.

The current unfolding nightmare in Japan should be enough to alert any rational human to the dangers of creating massive amounts of toxic waste for which we have no clean-up solutions. Yet the starry-eyed nuclear energy advocates insist we’ll figure out a way to deal with it eventually. It’s been more than sixty years since we started spreading radioactive waste around, and there is still no “solution” in sight.

Rational voices fall on deaf ears of corporate and political powers focused only on short-term profits at the expense of long-term planetary suicide. Perhaps the nuclear advocates sincerely believe that Science will somehow find a way to rewrite the laws of physics and biology, or, failing that, when we completely contaminate this planet, we can start over on another fresh planet.

Our continuing investment in nuclear energy is like a balloon mortgage on our planet. When it comes due, there’ll be hell to pay.

Where is Spock when we need him? Obama’s got prominent ears. If only they were a little more pointed.

Rant Cant

Peace lovers placed this statue of Sri Chinmoy beside Lake Union.

I chanced to see Network again last night and was riveted by the impression that what passed for satire 35 years ago has become business as usual today.

In 1976, when the film won four Oscars and was nominated for another handful, Paddy Chayefsky’s sharp skewering of the corporate struggle for media domination offered a fresh take on what was going on behind the curtain in Oz.

But now, with “reality” programming smearing the line between truth and fiction, aided and abetted by the constant streaming of opinion and rumor on “social” media such as Twitter and Facebook, the distinction between satire and real reality has become harder to detect.

Watching Peter Finch as the outraged news broadcaster on a struggling television network deliver the classic rant, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,”  I couldn’t help wondering if that rabble rousing cry didn’t somehow lodge in the subconscious of an entire generation of budding talk show hosts. We’ve all heard their names. I prefer not to add one more twig to the bonfire of their vanities. But as the daily news continually illustrates, rabble rousing is a risky business. Mobs aren’t known for clear thinking. And regimes confronted by mobs can’t be expected to behave rationally either.

So far, it looks like we got lucky in Egypt. The people who got mad as hell were allowed to vent and the response was measured, not as violent as it could have been, and the hope for peaceful progress remains alive. However, it remains to be seen whether the domino effect in the region will lead to greater peace and freedom or worsening oppression.

Network ends on a cynical note of violence that was too shocking to be taken seriously in its time. But these days, when everyday violence seems as inevitable as the dandelions in the lawn, it’s harder to believe that peaceful solutions can succeed. Perhaps that’s why the jubilation in Egypt, however short-lived it may be, offers a breath of hope in a dark world.

Here in Seattle there are plenty of people who enjoy a good rant. The topics run the spectrum, from the economy to  civil liberties or lack of same, to the vast conspiracy theories burning endlessly, pilot lights on the fires of contention.

But peaceniks still carry on, lighting candles, saying prayers, offering flowers. You might say that we’re dreamers. But we’re not the only ones.

Paradise Found

Number four on my Go-To Author list: Stella Gibbons.

Even though only one of her books remains readily available in print, such is the charm of her writing that I sometimes forget that not everyone is a fan of witty parody. After all, the bestseller lists are crammed with works of dark and vicious crime stories, thrillers crafted to make you turn pages at breakneck speed, and twisted fantasies aimed to keep you from ever having another sweet dream.

But for those of us who read to escape the grim violence and numbing predictability of heartbreak inevitable in this fragile human sphere, there still are some writers who attempt to lighten the weight of it all with humor. Some people might consider this frivolous in view of the brevity of life and the gravity of the current world situation – some might say we were teetering on the brink of extinction, etc. However, be that as it may, we can all use a laugh from time to time. And when that time comes for me, I like to curl up with an author who shares my view that the world, while not perfect, still contains some amusing bits.

Stella Gibbons wrote “Cold Comfort Farm” in 1932, a time when the world was recovering from one World War and heading toward another, when the Great Depression cloaked American optimism in a cloud of Dust Bowl fallout, a time before modern technology had stripped the gears of civility and before capitalism had completed its slash and burn takeover of the world economy. It was, in other words, a more innocent time, in some ways.

“Cold Comfort Farm” is a delicious send-up of all the sappy literary conventions of that brief time, when the world still seemed on the verge of becoming a brave new one. The plot revolves around an orphaned young woman who goes to live with her rustic distant relatives in rural England and gradually solves all their problems in spite of their initial resistance.

This description, of course, falls far short of the brilliant triumph of style and characterization which give the novel its timeless charm. But to appreciate it, you must read it. Or, if you have lost the will to deal with printed pages, you could rent the 1995 film which offers a remarkably faithful version of the story. I must confess that I saw the film before I knew the book existed, and I adored the film so much that when I discovered the book I was almost afraid it wouldn’t live up to the screen version, in which Kate Beckinsale delights as the fearless heroine Flora Poste and Rufus Sewell is delicious as the barnyard Lothario Seth Starkadder.

I need not have worried. The book is all that the movie is and more. It entertains with style and wit, without sinking into vulgarity or cheap shots at easy targets.

You could probably get it out of the library if you live near a good library. But if you want to own a treasure, seek out the 2006 paperback version published by Penguin Classics which features an introduction by Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” Truss puts the “Cold Comfort” phenomenon in perspective, and her insights on the book and Gibbons are a pleasure to read.

So. There you have it. Another Book Which Is Not For Everyone. But, for those of you who like this sort of thing, and I trust you know who you are, I strongly recommend spending some time on “Cold Comfort Farm.” It’s more fun than it sounds.