Posts Tagged ‘Big Night’

Rebirth

Monday, June 25th, 2018

lunch break

Outside My Office Window

A few weeks ago, the large four-year-old doe with a nest in a remote corner of our property sauntered by the house followed by her two fawns—our first glimpse of her babies. Nature makes baby mammals extra cute for some reason, or humans think baby mammals are cute for some reason. In any case, the baby deer struck me as ultra-cute. And small. I marveled at their smallness.

Then at dusk a few days later, I looked up from my desk and saw two fawns running by, only they seemed much smaller and cuter than I remembered them being. These were micro fawns. Or was I mistaken? Were these the same fawns appearing smaller in the last light of day, or different fawns? And were they cuter or just smaller? Is cuteness a function of smallness?

Another day passed, the young doe paraded by, and coming along behind her were two enormous fawns, enormous compared to those micro fawns I thought I’d seen. And then that afternoon, the mystery was solved. The oldest doe hereabouts, a deer at least nine-years-old with a badly deformed mouth, trudged by followed by those two micro fawns, and I realized that their smallness and ultra-cuteness were probably due to the old doe not being as viable a mother as the big healthy young doe, which means these tiny fawns might not make it through the summer for lack of nourishment and being easy prey for predators.

But maybe the micro fawns will survive the summer and winter and mature into small deer who live for ten or twelve years until the natural ends of their lives, just as there are small humans and small banana slugs and small heads of lettuce and small carrots. Sometimes things come out smaller than the same kinds of things that come out larger.

In any case, we currently have four super cute fawns gamboling around the property these days, and every time I see them, I marvel at their cuteness and their obvious delight in being alive.

getting the drop

Speaking of rebirth, we recently had a visit from the piano technician Michael Hagen. He came all the way from Rohnert Park to Mendocino and spent thirteen hours over two days regulating and voicing the fifty-year-old grand piano we bought from our friend Carolyn. I spent most of those thirteen hours watching Michael work on the piano, and I marveled at his mastery of the complex process. The result of his mastery, which I am tempted to call wizardry, is the rebirth of our piano.

When I first sat down to play our newly regulated and expertly voiced beauty, I was wholly unprepared for how easy she was to play and how gorgeous she sounded. The keys no longer impinged on each other, the overly bright jangly tones were gone, and gone was the resistance to my light touch. I stopped playing after just a few minutes because my brain was having a hard time reconciling this mellow nuanced instrument with the obstreperous old cranky thing I’d been trying to get used to.

earth is round

In other rebirth news, to celebrate the Summer Solstice, I walked to town via Big River Beach and found the beach completely different than it was just a few days before the solstice. Well, not completely. The far inland reaches of the sand will remain unchanged until next winter’s storm surfs reach those inland expanses and shift the many massive logs around, carry some logs away, and add new ones to the collection.

But the bulk of the beach was transformed. This is the glorious nature of our beach—a swiftly flowing tidal river conspiring with the high and low tides to reshape millions of tons of sand every twenty-four hours—a creative fun fest for the forces of nature. As of today, the river has carved two distinct routes to the sea, this split of the outflow and inflow causing all sorts of new shifts in the sand mass—a brand new landscape every day.

Speaking of brand new, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I find myself playing several seriously groovy songs I wrote long ago and never recorded, and I’m so curious about why I didn’t record these groovalicious tunes when I was so zealously recording songs ten years ago.

My current theory is that I didn’t record these catchy tunes because the time was not right. Is the time right now? Or has the window of viability closed for my songs composed in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s? Isn’t a great song or book or movie or play timeless? Maybe not. Maybe there is Art of the Moment and Art For A Generation and Art To Last Three Generations and Art To Last A Thousand Years.

What if artists are merely pawns of the unseen creative forces of universe? What if these groovy songs were given to me to record, but only when the universe wants them recorded? What if the universe is waiting for me to be whoever I am at the moment of the recording, if that recording ever happens? Why do we do the things we do when we do them?

Speaking of when we do things, we recently watched the movie Big Night again, one of my all-time favorite movies, and not having seen Big Night since 2006, I worried the opus might have fallen into the Art of the Moment category and would fail to pass the test of time.

But I’m happy to report that for my taste Big Night is better and more pertinent today than it was when it came out in 1996. To say they don’t make movies like Big Night in America anymore is a humongous understatement. This is a classic European film made by Americans in America—the pace, the dialogue, and the unfolding of the story and relationships languid and lovely and astute and complex—a rare dramatic comedy.

When I lived in Berkeley circa 2001, I was introduced to a woman at a party, we liked each other immediately, and when a fellow came by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres—scallops in mint sauce—we each took one. Delighted by the delicious comestible, I couldn’t help referencing a scene from Big Night by saying with my best Italian accent, “That was so good, I have to kill myself.”

“My favorite movie,” said the woman, gasping in delight. “I’ve watched Big Night dozens of times with my kids. We know every line by heart. We act out the scenes when we cook dinner and breakfast. And next year we’re going to Italy on our Big Night tour.”

“A Big Night tour? What’s the itinerary?”

“Bologna, of course,” she said, her eyes aglow. “Where the food is so good you have to kill yourself, Rome, and…”

I don’t remember what else she said, but I will never forget her wild joy.

Off The Map

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Green Chair oil Nolan Winkler

Green Chair oil on canvas by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.” Chris Hedges 

Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan from Netflix, and many of the movies we watch are foreign films and documentaries. For my taste, most of the American films made available to the public in the last thirty years are so badly written and badly acted and poorly directed, I want no part of them, though once in a while a miracle occurs and I am reminded of how vibrant and creative American cinema used to be before the televisionization of everything.

A couple months ago, Marcia suggested, “What about the one where the IRS guy goes to audit the family living in the middle of nowhere?”

Never having heard of such a film, I entered movie about IRS guy auditing family in middle of nowhere into my favorite search engine and up came Off The Map (2003), directed by Campbell Scott, the co-director with Stanley Tucci of one of my favorite American movies of the last few decades Big Night (1996). To our delight, Off the Map was available from Netflix (which is not true of many films we wish to see), and a few nights ago we watched Off the Map, which I found genuinely funny and touching and thought provoking and full of beautiful imagery.

One of the main thoughts this tenderly made movie provoked in me was how terribly impatient people have become as the result of the massive and ongoing reprogramming of our expectations of how life should be, as opposed to how Nature actually is. This reprogramming, carried out by the mass media and by the mass incarceration of children in mind-numbing schools and by fear-driven previously reprogrammed parents, is at the heart of our collective dissatisfaction and depression and abnegation of our true natures in service to an economic and social system entirely disconnected from Nature.

Off The Map is an insightful portrayal of the healing power of kindness and generosity and cooperation and patience, not with the usual Hollywood flourishes and swelling music, but through the graceful capture of hundreds of reflexive acts of kindness and sharing by a few good people living far enough off the map, literally and figuratively, that they have reconnected with the founding truth of human society, which is that we cannot survive in any meaningful or satisfying way without being of service to each other, and even if we could survive without helping each other, what fun would that be?

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Ronald Reagan

In distinct contrast to the movie Off The Map is the play Other Desert Cities, which Marcia and I just saw performed by the Mendocino Theatre Company (performances continuing through April 6.) The big reason to see this play, as far as I’m concerned, is to watch Sandra Hawthorne, who is so extraordinary and impressively real in the central role that the difficulties I had with the play’s story and writing pale next to her remarkable performance. If you go, try to sit close to the stage because the acoustics in the venerable Helen Schoeni Theater severely suck. If I ever strike it rich, I will endow MTC with sufficient funds to have local sound wizard Peter Temple install a few excellent microphones and speakers in the appropriate nooks so actors’ voices may carry with ease to the far reaches of that sound absorbent little box.

Other Desert Cities was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, which is vivid proof of the current silliness of that prize, and though the dialogue in Other Desert Cities is far superior to the awful speechifying in the last play we saw at MTC, Time Stands Still, the dialogue in Other Desert Cities suffers from far too much on-the-nose expository telling and not nearly enough nuanced character-revealing showing, which is true of all new American plays that find their way into production these days. Subtlety and complexity and shades of gray, not to mention dialogue reminiscent of how people actually speak to each other, are apparently suspect now in contemporary American theatre, and companies large and small seem to operate on the assumption that their seats will be filled, if they’re lucky, with not very bright children trapped in the bodies of adults—and maybe those theatre companies are right.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about the movie Off The Map: the author, Joan Ackermann, and director Campbell Scott, completely ignored the dominant trend in American books and plays and movies today, which is to speak down to the audience—down down down into idiocy. On the contrary, the makers of Off The Map (a film I’ll bet lost money) trusted that people watching their movie would possess sufficient intelligence and imagination to come to their own conclusions about much of what happens in the film, just as we come to our own conclusions about the myriad mysteries in life. What a concept.

“A man of great common sense and good taste—meaning thereby a man without originality or moral courage.” George Bernard Shaw

In the play Other Desert Cities, one of the characters, a television producer, is incredulous when his sister claims she has never heard of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a highly unlikely claim given that she is a New York sophisticate, a literary writer, and is about to publish an excerpt from her lurid memoir in The New Yorker. Her brother opines that her saying she has never heard of Tolkien is either a lie or snobbery or both. This was a most telling moment in the play for me, and I was eager to see how their conflict would progress, but the subject was summarily dropped and never broached again.

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

Yesterday I was having a cookie at the Goodlife Café & Bakery when I was approached by a man I’ve known for several years who prefaces all our conversations with, “I see you’re still writing for the AVA,” though he has never divulged if he reads me. Curious. Anyway, this fellow seems to think that because I am a writer, I must also read piles of popular contemporary books, which I do not. Every time I bump into this guy, he enumerates the many bestselling books he has consumed since our last meeting, each title followed by the name of the author and a one-word review such as “important” or “heavy” or “painful” or “sobering.”

This man is repeatedly dismayed to learn that I have not read any of the books he enumerates, and my explanation—that I read very few books these days because I spend so much time slaving over my own hot lines—does not console him. He is adamant that it is my duty to read the current darlings of corporate publishing in order to…what? Learn from them? Imitate them? I dunno.

“Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Charles Bukowski

A reader recently wrote to suggest I add book recommendations to my weekly articles. I explained to her that I no longer recommend books or movies or much of anything to anyone because so many of my past recommendations proved grave disappointments to those I sought to please. For instance, I used to zealously recommend Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to anyone who would listen to me, prefacing my recommendations by saying I’ve read Kim several times and continue to imbibe the blessed tome every couple years because for me Kim is more than a novel but a holy text, a gorgeous epic poem, and a timeless masterwork.

Alas, nearly all the women who, on my recommendation, attempted to read Kim loathed the book and said the story was sexist, racist, outdated, confusing, adolescent, boring, a guy thing, and unreadable. Guy thing or not, most of the men who tried to read Kim on my recommendation said they found the book confusing, imperialist, irrelevant, childish, implausible, clunky, outdated, and unreadable.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.” Alan Jones

Those words by Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, perfectly elucidate the guiding theme of the movie Off The Map, as well as the guiding theme of all my favorite novels and stories and plays and movies.

Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place is available exclusively from UnderTheTableBooks.com

$1.50

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

1.50

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Once, during prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” W.C. Fields

This just in: Ben Affleck, the movie star, is going to try to survive for five days spending only one dollar and fifty cents per day on food. He is lending his celebrity to the Live Below the Line Campaign to bring attention to the plight of millions of people in America and hundreds of millions of people around the world who try to survive on a dollar-fifty or less for food every day of their lives. Several celebrities I’ve never heard of (I’m old and don’t watch television) are joining Affleck along with twenty thousand other Americans voluntarily partaking of the five-day ordeal. The organizers of the event recommend that anyone wishing to attempt this amazing feat spend their entire budget of $7.50 at the start of the five days by purchasing “pasta, lentils, rice, bread, vegetables, potatoes and oats.”

Clearly, these folks don’t shop where we shop. Pasta? Forget it. Largely empty calories and too expensive. Bread? Are you kidding? At nearly six dollars for a decent loaf? Vegetables? Maybe a few carrots won’t bust the budget. Potatoes? Perhaps a russet or two. Oats? No way. Much ado about nothing. Rice? Brown rice. Yes. A big yes. Lentils? Sure, but be prepared for profound farting, and in lieu of lentils, how about pinto beans with that same fart disclaimer.

Eating for $1.50 a day would be a much more meaningful exercise if the well-fed Affleck tried to live on that amount per day for five weeks or five months, but I salute him for helping illuminate the plight of so many of our fellow earthlings. I mentioned to Marcia that Ben was going to be making this incredible sacrifice for five whole days, and she, too, reasoned that rice and beans were the way to go if Ben wants sufficient sustenance for so little money. In surmising how we would try to survive on such a small food allowance, Marcia and I are limited in our thinking by our adherence to buying organic produce, so our $1.50 purchases almost nothing. Yesterday, for instance, I bought three navel oranges, six big leaves of kale, and a little bag of millet flour, and my bill was eight bucks. So…

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw

When I lived in Berkeley, I worked for a wonderful woman named Helen Gustafson who was, among many other things, the tea buyer at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous eatery. I was Helen’s part-time editor and secretary for several years until her death in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times proclaiming Helen to be the tea pioneer most responsible for fine green and black tea being served in the many good restaurants in America now serving such tea.

Helen had carte blanche at Chez Panisse and took me to lunch and supper there on numerous occasions. I would never have taken myself to Chez Panisse because a simple meal in that groovy joint cost as much as I spent on two-weeks-worth of groceries, and if my meal included a glass of wine and dessert, make that three-weeks-worth. Because everything was free to us at Chez Panisse, Helen ordered lavishly and encouraged me to do so, too, but I couldn’t. Knowing that the diminutive ultra-delicious goat cheese salad cost as much as a belly-busting three-course meal at nearby Vegi Food (Chinese) made it impossible for me to order much at all, so Helen would order several appetizers, two or three salads and two or more entrees, and then delight in watching me eat my fill.

The wine I drank at Chez Panisse, the only white wine I have ever liked, cost twenty-seven dollars a glass and induced in me a state of well being akin to swimming in a high Sierra lake after a long hot hike. I am allergic to alcohol, more than a sip of wine usually makes me ill, but my allergy did not manifest when I drank that particular French wine, the name of which I intentionally chose not to remember.

I liked to walk home after dining with Helen at Chez Panisse, the downhill jaunt to the house I rented in the Berkeley flats enhanced by my mild hallucinatory state courtesy of that particular French wine and the delectable comestibles combusting so agreeably in my organically bloated tummy. Helen always insisted I take home the sizeable amount of food (and several handmade chocolate truffles) we had not consumed in the course of our feasting, and it became my habit to invite my neighbors over to partake of the Chez Panisse leftovers that they, too, would never buy for themselves.

Thus there was secondary feasting on the fabulous fare, minus the magic wine, with much oohing and ahing and marveling at the culinary delights usually reserved for the wealthy. One of my neighbors, a great amateur chef who volunteered to cook several meals a month at a homeless shelter, savored each little bite he took of the Chez Panisse ambrosia, attempting to discern the spices and secret ingredients that went into making such delicacies.

“So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” Franz Kafka

In 1970, in Mexico and Guatemala, almost every day for six months, my traveling companions and I encountered people who did not have enough food. When it was safe and feasible to do so, we shared our food with these people and gave them a little money, but on a number of occasions we found ourselves in villages where everyone was desperately hungry, and the fact that we had a little food and the villagers had no food made it necessary for us to skedaddle pronto.

One day we arrived in a remote village in Mexico adjacent to some Zapotec ruins we hoped to explore, and were greeted by a group of men who were so hungry their growling bellies sounded like a chorus of bullfrogs. Their leader demanded we pay him a large sum if we wanted to see the ruins. “We are starving,” he said to me, murder in his eyes. “The government promised to send food, but no food has come. We thought your van was the government truck.” I apologized, gave him the equivalent of ten dollars, and we sped away before the angry men could surround the van and keep us from leaving.

I was forever changed by those six months among so many desperately hungry people. Today I know several people who spend their winters in Mexico and Central America, enjoying the warmth and inexpensive food and lodging, but I would not feel right doing that because I know too well that my government’s agricultural and economic and political policies are largely responsible for the massive suffering in those countries. I am also no longer comfortable with culinary extravagance, which always reminds me of the hungry little boys who followed me everywhere in Mexico and Guatemala, starving children hoping I would buy them some bread.

“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” Calvin Trillin

My housemate for two of my eleven years in Berkeley was a cook at a popular restaurant. She was unquestionably the finest cook I have ever had the pleasure of cleaning up after. Though she gave me no formal training, I learned many things about cooking from watching her perform in our kitchen. She was an extremely private person and we spoke very little in the two years we lived together, though we shared hundreds of exquisite meals she prepared, mostly late morning breakfasts and late evening suppers. She concocted her dishes using whatever she found in the larder, some of which she bought, some of which she got from the restaurant where she worked, but most of which I purchased. And though she rarely told me what to buy, I knew that if I kept our cupboards and refrigerator stocked with promising ingredients, especially fresh vegetables, she couldn’t help but produce the most delectable meals.

She was a bold improviser and an absolute wizard with spices. She had four frying pans—seven, eight, ten, and twelve inches in diameter—and often employed all four in the making of a dish or dishes to go with the brown rice I cooked. She said I made good rice, and because I considered her a culinary master, her assessment of my rice made me feel talented and worthwhile.

One evening I came into the kitchen and saw that in her smallest pan she was browning almond slivers, in her other small pan she was sautéing diced onions and garlic in sesame oil, in her medium-sized pan she was simmering cauliflower in a red wine sauce, and in the large pan she was fast-frying a great mass of spinach leaves in olive oil and water, all this to be combined with eggs and other ingredients to create a stupendous frittata-like thing. And I remember thinking as I watched her cook: she never hurries and she is entirely free of doubt and fear.

“A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” W.C. Fields

I hope Ben Affleck is positively transformed by his experience of eating for five days on $1.50 a day. If I could speak to Ben before he begins his five-day experience of Spartan eating, I would say, “Simmer a few cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil and pour that over your brown rice. Don’t forget cumin and ginger and turmeric to make your rice and beans more interesting. And while you’re counting the hours before you go back to dropping two hundred bucks on dinner for two, watch the movies Big Night and Mostly Martha. With luck and skill and inspiration, maybe one day you’ll make a great food movie that is more than a food movie and uses food to open our minds and hearts to the fantastic powers of compassion and creativity.”