Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

After my last post, I wanted to tell you that my Dad is back in his house and, thanks to my sister, he has a new housemate: a 6-month-old kitten. He’s named her Susie but he calls her Elliot. Whatever works. They fell in love on the first day.

Dad is happy to be sleeping in his own bed under his own roof, even though he knows his stay is temporary. You could say that about all of us. After six weeks of rehab in a nursing home where quiet never reigns, Dad is thrilled to be sitting again at his kitchen table, drinking Lipton tea, eating Oreos, and thinking again, as he has for 40 years, that he doesn’t like the wallpaper. Soon it’ll be time to watch another rerun of Gunsmoke.

When I have a photo of Dad and Susie, or Dad and Neo Elliot, I’ll post it.

In the next few posts we’ll look at some much lighter subjects, such as singing drummers, Las Vegas-style versions of rock songs, why Herbie Hancock is a musical minefield, and marriage. Until then, go in the kitchen right now and make yourself a nosh. You deserve it.

 

My Dad brought home his first pet when he was 85. His family had collies when he was growing up, but when Dad married Mom and they moved to the country, they had human creatures, not creature creatures. The reason for this is unknown, though for years Mom could unintentionally start an argument by wondering, “Why didn’t we have a dog when the children were small?”

When Dad was 85 and Mom was 82, my sister and her daughter, who were visiting, spotted an ad in the Sunday paper for a kitten who needed a family. They urged my father to go look at that cat first thing Monday morning. “This house is dead,” Gayle told him. “You need some life here.”

Elliot was the sole survivor of a litter left behind by a feral cat. Dad, who often said, “I never thought I could love a cat,” loved Elliot beyond all measure. Adopting Elliot was one of Gayle’s best ideas and one of the best things Dad ever did, because as my mother slipped into dementia and eventually into a nursing home, Elliot took her place.

Elliot gave Dad a reason to get up in the morning. Elliot created movement in the house. Elliot spoke Yiddish with Dad. Elliot was always waiting when Dad came home. In his excitement at seeing Dad, he’d stand on a table by the back door we always used and claw at the metal venetian blinds over the back door window. Dad eventually sliced the blinds until he had cut an Elliot-sized gap.

Recently, when Dad had a fall in the kitchen, Elliot stood guard beside him until the ambulance came.

My father will be 91 in May. He’s currently sharing a room in the nursing home with my mother. We’re hoping he’ll get strong enough in physical therapy to go back to his house.

I went to visit last week. I stayed in the house. The first night, Elliot hid. The second night, a few minutes after I turned out the light and rolled onto my side, there was a thump beside me and then paws started punching my back, trying to mold me into a more Dad-like lump. Then he rucked up the blanket, because that wasn’t right, either. Then he curled into a ball and began to purr like he was motoring across Lake Michigan.

(I’m allergic to cats, but I have a new combination of meds. Dad had been worried about Elliot being alone. Elliot is an indoor cat who lives a quiet life. I did my best to keep the little man company.)

This went on for three nights. Around 4 a.m. each morning, Elliot put on his miniature hard hat and reported to various work stations around the house, banging on objects, racing from Point A to Point B, and fighting a war inside a paper bag.

On the last full day of my visit, my parents’ caregiver, Melissa – another hero in my parents’ story – brought Elliot to the nursing home. Dad, who is in a wheelchair, held and kissed Elliot. Mom, who is on a walker and who was never a fan of cats, was happy for Dad, I think. Elliot, like all cats, was unimpressed.

Melissa was about to put Elliot back in his carrier when he went limp. She screamed. She put Elliot on the floor and ran for a nurse, as you can’t leave Mom alone and we were about to drive to an emergency vet down the road. There I was, holding the cat on the floor while it convulsed, shouting his name, with my father three feet away. I knew Elliot was dead. Melissa returned and we ran for the car. She drove. I held Elliot. I had never held Elliot until this moment. He was silky. I used to make fun of his excess weight, but now he felt tiny.

The vet couldn’t revive him.

Elliot, the one factor in my Dad’s situation that we all thought was a constant, the cat who would surely outlive a 90-year-old man, was a couple of weeks short of his sixth birthday.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was face my father on our return. He was waiting at the nursing home, in his wheelchair, by the back door we always used.

It’s difficult to know how Dad is feeling. How can we understand the emotions of people this age? I doubt that anyone reading this blog has 90 years of ups and downs trailing behind them, with all the emotions that follow along. Sometimes Dad is teary. Sometimes he reminisces. Mostly he’s calm. Once he said, “Now I really am alone.”

“I’ll miss him,” Mom said, and then asked if Elliot was a cat or a dog.

You could say, if you’re a Christian, that God has a plan for everything. Was it a plan to give my father a heart attack? Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Then how do you explain Donald Trump? Depeche Mode said that God has a sick sense of humor. I’m tending toward Depeche Mode.

But in fairness to that bumbler, God, at least Dad was able to say goodbye, even if he didn’t know it at the moment. What if I had come home that night to a dead cat in the kitchen? How would I explain that?

Why am I telling you this?

I’ve been writing this blog since 2010. In 2011, I asked you for money. I am asking you again. I want you to make a donation in memory of Elliot Bieler to the Town of Swansea Animal Shelter, 68 Stevens Rd., Swansea, MA 02777, swanseashelter@yahoo.com. These are the people who saved the abandoned kitten who saved my father.

Thank you. If you have a pet, please give it one of those treats you hold for special occasions. With Elliot, it was herring.

 

 

I’m applying for a job in Trump’s cabinet. Why not, at this point I have as good a chance as anybody. I could hang in there for 10 days, do something I won’t admit with a porn star named after the weather, and play chess with the Russians (they’ll collude to let me win). I guarantee you that no one in that confederacy of dunces knows anything about ’80s music, except for Rick Perry, who still dances in his underwear to “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go).”

Yes, I’m leaving soon for a trip to D.C., and then I fly to Massachusetts and Antique Parent Land, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are middle-aged. I won’t be back for a while. But before I go, I have to settle something, and that something is the challenge I threw down in my last, very exciting post about spare change. Somebody won. Bigly.

I have a friend who goes by the handle Accused of Lurking. He’s also a superhero who fights disorganized crime as Khaki Man. Accused of Lurking is one of the scariest people I know. He’s so organized that the Library of Congress, knowing they need help, keeps him on a retainer. (When Lurk was 12, they paid for his retainer.) If you give him something, he will not only save it, he’ll cross-index it. Accused of Lurking is the only person I know with the stamina to interview 15 contractors and input their data in a color-coded spreadsheet before he decides who is going to paint his fucking house.

Facts stick to Lurk and never fly away. He could break Jeopardy. Things stick to him, too. Rosebud! He lives with every computer he’s ever owned, including the Apple I he bought out of Steve Jobs’ garage in Los Altos in 1976. (He also lives with a woman who, on the occasion of their marriage and through total force of will, compacted her name from 20 letters to seven. She’s scary, too.)

Thus you won’t be surprised (but you will be frightened) to learn that Accused of Lurking has almost exactly guessed how much money my jar holds when it’s full.

Drum-machine drum roll, please.

The amount in the jar varies based on my impatience to go spend the cash already and how many quarters I steal from myself while the coins are building up. But the range never varies: $65 to $68. I write the dates and the amounts on the inside of the lid.

$65.85 on January 22, 2018
$65.35 on September 23, 2016
$68.98 on June 9, 2014

Accused of Lurking’s winning entry: “My mayo jar guess is $65.”

Second place goes to my friend mikenr with $51.43. “Given the parameters of your story,” mikenr writes, “your mayo jar should hold $51.43. But my official guess will be – one cent (virtually, no, literally, guaranteeing me an interview-free interview, merciless or otherwise, which is a ‘prize’ I do not care to win. But it’s the journey that counts, right?).”

In third place we have my friend Mr. Seaside, who sent this story:

Looks like $21.73 (though this estimate may be as much as $3.47 too high). Gallon glass jars are the way to go in coin accumulating. I had a friend who picked up all of the coinage he found on his daily walks. After decades of doing so he had 5 or 6 large jars of cash with coins dating back as far as the 1920s. Then he ‘cashed in’ before he was able to cash in the coins. Just a small part of his legacy.

Nice try, boys, but you will never be as scary as Accused of Lurking. As Count Floyd used to say, about something that wasn’t scary at all, “Vazn’t that scary, kids?” before pretending he was being filmed in 3D by repeatedly lunging at the camera. To commemorate Lurk’s triumph, he will receive a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat, and a lousy copy of our home game. No, he will be mercilessly interviewed. No, I think I’ve done enough of that already. He’ll receive something, because he deserves it. Perhaps an ash tray from my first cabinet meeting, but not the contents of my jar the next time I empty it.

When I get back, we’ll explore the House of Herbie Hancock, spin the most depressing albums of the 21st century (that post will not be required reading), and I’ll unveil my latest innovation in marriage technology: Anti-Wife Movie Night.

Until then, Ryan Zinke says, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

 

I had a boss in the 1970s who once told me, when he wasn’t yelling at me or grabbing the ass of his favorite female subordinate, that every night he emptied the change from his pockets into empty tuna fish cans on his bureau. He claimed he harvested two or three hundred dollars a year from this happy system.

Remembering what I do of this gentleman, I’d guess that his hundreds of dollars went straight up his nose. I wish that Mr. Boss Man had said “Buy a U.S. savings bond every payday” or “Someday, everyone will have a computer in their home” or even “Yoga.” But he said to save your change, and it sounded like something I could do, and it involved money, which I like, so I did.

Humans are generally bad at long-term projects. We lack experience. We’re too easily distracted. But throwing coins every day into an empty tuna fish can is something any human can do. That includes me.

I eventually grew tired of the empty tuna fish can aesthetic and graduated to an empty mayonnaise jar. In the ’70s and early ’80s I paid for most things with cash, so my mayonnaise jar filled three or four times a year.

(It was difficult to get a credit card in the 1970s. The banks feared that we cardholders would fall into debt and not be able to repay what we owed. They hadn’t figured out that they’d make more money if they pushed us into debt and we never repaid them.)

I collected about as much money as the boss said I would. I took my coins to the bank, the bank handed me the cash, and I immediately spent it on books or music or my favorite female subordinate.

(Editor’s note: She’s not actually my subordinate. That is a literary construction. #Justkidding #Nothimtoo)

Futurists have long predicted the paperless office and the cashless society

If you work in an office, you know paper isn’t going anywhere. But we’ve made progress toward a cashless society. It now takes me almost two years to fill the jar, even with the help of my wife and sometimes my Dad, a kid from the Depression who never met a penny he didn’t like.

Last month, I decided my jar was full. I took it to my credit union, Unitus, the one bank in town that still offers the use of a no-fee coin-counting machine to its depositors. I poured in the metal tide, the machine funneled everything through a series of sluices, channels, and gates, ejecting Canadian coins and anything that had been beaten flat by a truck or a train, and spat out a receipt. I took the receipt to the teller, who handed me cash on the barrelhead. As they sang on Portlandia, the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland.

It occurs to me that my habit of dropping coins in a jar and spending the jarful might be a metaphor or a psychodrama. I grew up in a family where our unofficial mission was to stockpile objects (in Latin, “Multa res accumulare,” or literally, “If I get rid of this, I know I’ll need it in 20 years, and then where will I be?”). You stockpiled objects until they disappeared and were forgotten, and then you had the pleasure of stockpiling the same objects all over again.

Maybe filling and purging my jar is my way of undoing the family chaos. Then again, sometimes a jar of coins is just a jar of coins.

Tonight’s challenge: How much money does my empty mayonnaise jar hold? The person who comes the closest to the average figure will be mercilessly interviewed for this blog.

Random Pick of the Day
Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (1972)

You will never tire of blasting “Superstition” out of your boombox, your stereo, your computer, your tablet, your phone, your gramophone, your car, your scooter, your bike, your Segway, your yacht, your car ferry, your jet pack, or the nanoprobes Google implanted in your neural core while you were downloading that cat video. Talking Book belongs in every music library between here and the Kuiper Belt.

If you were a teenager in the 1970s, this record was part of the soundtrack of your life, as every song in this set made it to AM and FM radio. A couple of the ballads are slow; “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” occupies what would shortly become Billy Joel territory, if not Tony Orlando & Dawn territory. But any complaints melt away before the majesty of the closing track: “I believe when I fall in love with you/it’ll be forever.” C’mon, let’s fall in love.

Random Pan of the Day
Bell Biv Devoe, Three Stripes (2017)

Their first album since Bell Biv Devoe in 2001. The first few tracks rock hard. The rest of the album is mostly crooning. The one thematic element that unites their material is their refusal to stop saying their own name. They’re really just a gospel group that likes loud music.

 

In 1980, one of my stories appeared in a science fiction anthology called New Dimensions. I was a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America at the time, and the following year I learned that two people had recommended my story for a Nebula Award.

I never got anywhere in this process, so I don’t know the details, but I believe it ran approximately like this: If you collected enough recommendations, your story was entered in the playoff bracket. There followed a series of competitions, involving singing, dancing, evening wear, swimsuits, and hand-to-hand combat with erasers and typewriter ribbons. The stories that survived the playoffs entered the medal round. One story eventually won a Nebula. It all started with someone taking the trouble to say that she or he liked your story.

One of my two recommenders was Marta Randall. I’ve always appreciated this, Marta, wherever you are today, but since you’re the editor who bought the story for New Dimensions this was not a surprise.

The surprise was the other person: Ursula K. Le Guin.

What? The author of The Left Hand of Darkness, which taught this teenage boy that science fiction could be about something other than rockets and robots and fearless North American white men defeating dark-skinned alien hordes with the help of a few comic Irishmen, liked something I wrote?

“The only sensible ends of literature,” Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and lastly, the solid cash.” Not bad, Nat, but you forgot something: The otherworldly feeling you experience when something you wrote speaks to someone you don’t know.

Eventually I met Ursula and spent some time with her. I’m unsure how this began. Deborah had taken three of her writing workshops in Oregon – in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, on the McKenzie River, and at Cannon Beach; Ursula had a fine sense of place – so it must’ve been in the wake of the first one.

We had dinner a couple of times with Ursula and her husband, Charles. We met their cats. We stayed overnight at their Cannon Beach beach house, where our dog Emma, who had her moods, totally charmed them. Ursula thought that Emma, racing around us on the beach, looked like Isadora Duncan, her scarf jauntily thrown over one shoulder.

Benjamin Franklin said it best in his Autobiography: “When first you wish to make a favorable impression on a new acquaintance, send in your dog.”

In a discussion with Ursula about writing I referred to my challenges in getting published. I was probably making a joke, but she listened seriously and said, “I’ve never understood that.” She wasn’t being nice. Making nice was not her thing. Ursula could be quite sharp. In her presence, you never wanted to say something stupid (my forte). These four words were enough to make me worship her, but of course I already did.

We never saw them often, and in this century even less. An occasional email. Christmas cards. She drew pictures of funny cats and dogs in the style of Thurber. She called herself “Buntho.” She called Deborah “Gort” because she’s tall. She called me “Dominant Male” (misspelled “Donimant”) because I am. (Shut up.) She was there in the background of our lives, writing another book I want to read (Lavinia, Buffalo Gals), giving another interview or talk.

How lucky we all were.

Au revoir, Ursula. Thanks for the vote of confidence in me. If I had gotten as far as the swimsuit competition, I would’ve given it my best.

 

 

I just saw Thor: Ragnarok. The studio chose “Ragnarok” instead of “Ragamuffin” or “Turmoil in Asgard!” or “Domestic Disturbance, Call 9-1-1” because Ragnarok sounds like an evil Norwegian metal band plus it ends with “rock” so you know this film is going to RAWK!

Ragnarok didn’t, though it was far better than I feared, thanks primarily to everyone in the cast who isn’t Chris Hemsworth. Chris’ older brother, Luke, was particularly good at playing an actor playing a big blubbering God of Thunder.

But Ragnarok did display the usual trends in superhero and sci-fi movies. Like how they all resemble The Lord of the Rings. Ragnarok comes complete with orcs, a Balrog, the Army of the Dead, and thousands of Australians with perfectly feathered hair.

These films also resemble Star Wars. “Asgard is not a place,” Odin tells us, in his best Obi-Wan-explaining-The-Force-voice. “Asgard is its people.” It is not. You spent the first two Thor movies convincing us that Asgard is a special place because it’s the crossroads of the universe and the home of the gods. Now you say it was just an address and you’re going to find a new home on Earth? That’s so original, not counting Battlestar Galactica. I suppose the next movie in the series will pit Thor against Trump over immigration.

But let’s set these resemblances aside and ask why superhero movies are always about the fate of the world. Doesn’t that make them all the same movie? Can’t superheroes take on criminal masterminds who rob banks or steal identities? No, sorry. Gotta build a big spaceship. But whatever spaceship we build, the villain will build a bigger one in the next movie. He’ll name his ship Endowedbadguy1177.

I love you, man
Speaking of men, of which this film has too many, Ragnarok proudly maintains the science fiction tradition of fractured father-son relationships that miraculously resolve in the final scenes. Yes, this time around, Thor and Loki find out they have a sister, Hela, the Goddess of Death. I don’t know where you seat the Goddess of Death when she comes over for Thanksgiving. But even though Hela is out to rule the cosmos, and even though you can dress Cate Blanchett up as anything and she’ll be smashing, it’s all just a plot device that forces Thor to admit to Odin, “I’m not as strong as you,” so Odin can tell him, “You’re stronger,” which finally teaches that blond dickhead a few things about relationships and responsibilities.

Odin can now die in peace, but of course he’s already dead. He’ll reappear with an encouraging word whenever Thor is once again trying to stop Mr. Wrong from destroying the world, which locates us comfortably back in Star Wars.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor showed some talent at physical comedy, but without his hammer and hair he’s just another doofus in a cape, and as usual he was outplayed by almost every other actor in Ragnarok. This includes Jeff Goldblum’s hybrid Bill Murray/Stanley-Tucci-in-Hunger-Games dictator and Mark Ruffalo’s impersonation of Woody Allen. Praise the costumers for dressing Ruffalo in Tony Stark’s Duran Duran T-shirt and the Hulk fans in green. Almost everyone else in this film wears black. Almost everyone in outer space wears black. When everyone wears black, wearing black means nothing. Give me a Star Fleet uniform any day.

I unexpectedly enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok, though I would have enjoyed it much more if it had been half an hour shorter. As it stands, it’s way shorter than Blade Runner: 2049 and light years funnier. Go see it? Why not. It’s perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Need a bathroom break at the halfway point? You won’t miss a thing!

Tip of the day
Stay through the credits – all the credits; there’s about a kilometer of them – for the best speech in the movie. It rawks.

 

Last night I went to an 8:15 p.m. showing of Blade Runner 2049, a 2-hour-and-44-minute endurance contest. I didn’t fall asleep, possibly because the film features the loudest soundtrack since All the World’s Garbage Trucks, and unlike the 17 other people in the theater I didn’t take a break to visit the bathroom.

Was this evening well-spent? Is New Blade Runner an improvement on Classic Blade Runner? Was Deckard’s dog real? Can you sit through a 2-hour-and-44-minute movie without going to the bathroom? Let’s see if we can answer some of these questions by running New Blade Runner through the 7 Deadly Sins of Science Fiction Movies meat grinder.

Sin #1: The plot revolves around/humanity owes its survival to an evil genius white male billionaire.

Look, people, in today’s world, science gets done in teams. There wasn’t one white male who invented the Cassini probe in his garage, sold it to NASA and the ESA for billions of dollars, and then became evil. Science is too complex and expensive for one man to create international havoc on his own. The last major scientist to work by himself was Nicola Tesla, and he’s been dead since 1943. No grant, no angel investors, no science.

New Blade Runner and Classic Blade Runner are both guilty here. In Classic Blade Runner, the evil genius white male billionaire is killed by one of his creations – another reason why you need a team.

Sin #2: Women of the future have one of two roles. They can be naked or they can be men.

New Blade Runner satisfies both requirements on the Hollywood diversity checklist.

Sin #3: No matter how advanced the technology, all conflicts will be resolved with a fist fight.

In New Blade Runner, the replicants played by Ryan Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks fight in the surf outside the Los Angeles sea wall. This is obviously director Denis Villeneuve’s homage to Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making love in the surf in From Here to Eternity.

Sin #4: All post-apocalypse cities look like Soylent Green. If you venture underground, they look like THX 1138.

Those movies were made in 1973 and 1971, respectively. I guess you can’t beat ’70s science fiction, huh? (Oh yes you can: Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and this is just crud from the USA!)

New Blade Runner: Yes and then some. However, I have to admit that the junkyard was awesome. I want to be their artist in residence.

Sin #5: Never hire a writer. If you do, find ways to work around him or her.

The main writer on this picture was Hampton Fancher, who was the main writer on the original. He’s either lost a step since 1984 or he was stymied by the natural reticence of these characters. Most of them are not talkers. Gosling in particular is playing his introverted character from Lars and the Real Girl, except now he can shoot people.

The dialog is colorless, except for what was written for Sylvia Hoek’s Luv, who should’ve been a villain on Downton Abbey, and Jared Leto’s evil genius white male billionaire, a super-annoying mansplainer who thinks he’s too sexy for his shirt.

Robin Wright and Harrison Ford rise above the script. Edward James Olmos has about three minutes of screen time and we get no full view of his face, and yet, in his monochromatic way, is dominating. And Ford’s dog is brilliant. I want to teach my dog to stand malevolently in the shadows instead of racing ahead to get loved up.

Blade Runner goes to the beach.

Non-Blade Runner goes to the beach.

Sin #6: The villain always reveals his secret plans to the wrong people.

This is a specialty of superhero movies. It runs like this:

VILLAIN: Let me explain my plan. I haven’t carried it out yet, I just love the sound of my own voice.
SUPERHERO: Thank you. With this information, I was able to stop your plan.
VILLAIN: So that’s how it works.

New Blade Runner: Leto’s character couldn’t possibly spill the beans, because he speaks in riddles. He’s the son of David Clennon’s evil genius white male advertising exec from Thirtysomething, who was also super-annoying.

Sin #7: Men are terrified of sexually aggressive women.

This is a specialty of Star Trek. The poor men trapped in these scenarios turn into maladroit middle-schoolers when faced with women who want what they want. This isn’t screenwriting, this is memoir.

New Blade Runner: Sexually aggressive women are just fine, but don’t expect us to talk much afterwards, or even at all. We barely said anything when you walked in.

Final score: Five out of seven sins. It’s hard to be a saint in the city.

Final word: New Blade Runner is unexpectedly involving but, in the end, totally unnecessary. Classic Blade Runner said it all (and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? said even more). I’m not sorry I saw it, and I enjoyed my walk home in the starry night, and now I don’t have to think about it again.

The dog was a hologram.

I hope this helps.