Friday, August 31, 2007

Law, Order and Politics

August 31, 2007

They say that Tennessee actor/politician is going to make the announcement of his run for the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party next week. Republicans, once jubilant at the prospect of another actor in the White House, seem to have cooled on this particular thespian, and I can see why.

Like most Americans, I have devoted quite a bit of time to watching the tv series Law and Order over the past 15 years or so. I watched the stage actress S. Epatha Merkeson play a police supervisor all this time; I watched when Michael Moriarty had the Sam Waterston role; when Jerry Ohrbach so convincingly played the troubled recovering alcoholic police detective Lenny Briscoe; when a trail of beauties from Angie Harmon to Carey Lowell worked in the D.A.'s office.

I still lament the exit of the best District Attorney New York ever had, the complex yet avuncular Steven Hill. Hill was one of those solid New York actors seldom seen on the screen, a founder of the Actors' Studio and an early proponent of Method Acting. His own personality melted into the characters he played, and his mental acuity and intensity permeated his every performance. In Law and Order, the character he played was based on real life New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whom he is said to have captured perfectly in his nuanced and elegant style. His Adam Schiff was a man you respected without question, a man of integrity and wisdom, and, although a bit jaded by his job, a man with a big heart. He was detached without being bloodless.

The actor was one of the most interesting men ever to work in television. Born Solomon Krakovski, he was appearing as Sigmund Freud in A Far Country on Broadway when he confronted his own heritage. A character screamed the line "You are a Jew!" to him in the play and the experience sent him right back to his roots. Hill realized the impact of his Jewishness and embraced it by becoming strict Orthodox -- he began observing a kosher diet, wearing specially lined clothing,and strictly observing the Sabbath. This made Hill unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances and effectively ended his stage career and closed many roles to him in the movies most notably The Sand Pebbles.

Nevertheless, Steven Hill has had a good career without ever becoming a household word. He felt that artists needed to take breaks from their work for years at a time to refresh and he practiced what he preached.

He had undergone one of those long breaks before taking on the role in Law and Order, and it served him well. His work on that show was a seamless as a bolt of fine fabric. He was as real as an actor can be. If you missed the show under his reign, try to find a re-run that old. He was just wonderful.

Law and Order replaced him with Dianne Weist, an excellent actress who never seemed at home in the role. It was a rare misstep for both the show and Weist, who just didn't have much gravitas and was somehow unconvincing as the boss of the heavy, knowledgeable Jack McCoy as played by Waterston. Of course, her biggest problem was that she was being set up as a replacement for a man who had owned the show for some ten years.

In comes stolid Fred Thompson to replace Weist. Here is an actor with so little range, so little charisma, so little energy that he seems to have gotten the role just based on the fact that he looks likes everybody else. That is, there is nothing about him that looks actorish (like, say, Ronald Reagan), or nothing about him that seems wise (like Steven Hill) or even anything that looks complicated, like Dianne Weist.

I await his political announcement. I would love to hear something original from him, something that would put a spark in the upcoming Presidential race. Unfortunately, I don't think it's coming. Even his credentials as an actor are in question. The charm that usually goes with that territory is decidedly missing. If the election were to be held tomorrow, I'd probably write in Steven Hill.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Fateful Day

August 29, 2007

I knew I was in for it. Today I had an appointment for a second mammogram, and that had never happened to me before.

I told myself it was probably the wrong file. Or, if it was my actual x-ray, there was some smudge on the film or some technical error on the part of the hospital. Then I tried another tack: If this was it, the big one, then I'm as ready to go as I'll ever be. I've had a good long life, longer than some of my best friends, and now I would have the chance to see what actually happens next.

There was a backlog of patients at the hospital, so I had nearly an hour's wait divided between the downstairs waiting room, with its dogeared old Time Magazines and disconnected sections of today's newspaper, and the smaller, cozier room upstairs with a few Better Homes and Gardens and Mobile Bay Monthlies. Time to think about how I really felt about this and how I didn't. But what seemed most important was to keep busy reading everything I could in those publications. An old People told of Kate Hudson breaking up with Owen Wilson, and declared that they're still friends. That's good. I wouldn't want either of them to take a life challenge too seriously.

Then I went to the mammography room. Here I know the drill pretty well; after all, I was just there two weeks ago. A very exciting moment was when the technician showed me the previous mammogram -- there was actually something visible there, a whitish spot in an otherwise clean x-ray. "Let's get a really good picture this time," I told her.

"We sure will, and then you'll go down to get a sonogram," she said. Neither of us sounded a bit worried. I wondered if this was it for my future, more hospital dates, more procedures, more lab results. For the next ten years. A little pain, then a lot, then lights out.

Others had been there before me. Friends who had had to have lumpectomies, mastectomies, hysterectomies, and lots more. All this time I had been sure nothing like this would ever happen to me. There is no family history -- no, wait a minute, my aunt Gladys died of cancer, and so did her son my favorite cousin Kevin. For all I could remember her sister Adah did too. But I had gotten most of the genes from my mother's side of the family. Most, but maybe not all.

What would the world do without me? What would my grandsons grow up to be like? I have always counted on my departure being quick and painless. Was it, instead, going to be a lot of hospital visits, operations, medications, and long illness?

I was waiting for the sonogramist. (Is that a word? Oh, well, I won't need to know, where I'm going.) More magazines. Oprah tells me how to love my life. Oh, there's a letter here from a lady who says a sonogram saved her life. That's good. Maybe this will do it. Here she comes, and here we go. I'm wearing a little hospital gown that they've offered to tie down the back, and the sonogramist asks if I want to put another one over the open area at the back. What do I care? We're just going down a hospital hall. But she prevails and I am duly covered.

She tells me to uncover the offending breast and lie on the stretcher. "Have you ever had a sonogram before?" When I said no she assured me it was the easiest test I would ever have. That it was, beginning with a hot gel and ending with her telling me she didn't see much "except for a little cystic area," and she would take it down for the doctor to examine.

When she came back about five minutes later she said the doctor didn't think there was anything to worry about but that he might want me to have another sonogram in six months.

I felt fine when I got home. You might say, a little euphoric. I stopped on the way home to buy some of that delicious homemade Granola at Greer's, and I started eating it in the car. By the time I got home it was almost gone. But I had to do serious grocery shopping so off I went to the supermarket, and before I left I took a glance at the ice cream aisle.

Now I haven't had ice cream in over a year. I'm on a diet, you know. But Haagen Daz was on sale 2 for $5 and I had to try the new Sticky Toffee Pudding flavor. So I bought one of those and my all-time favorite ice cream flavor, Crême Brulée. I am compelled to eat ice cream as soon as I get it home, while its still a little soft, too see if it's toxic or for some reason must be returned at once to the store, so as soon as I got in I opened the Sticky Toffee Pudding and put the other carton in the freezer. I would try the Sticky Toffee, but only have a bite or two.

Half the carton is now gone, and I'm lucky all of it isn't. I'll have a nice salad for lunch, but I've been munching on everything I can get my hands on ever since I got in. A handful of walnuts, some more of that Granola, maybe just another bite of that ice cream...

I'm learning something about myself. Well, I guess I always knew this: I eat when my mood is heightened. I eat when I'm happy, I eat when I'm anxious, I eat when I'm relieved. I eat when I'm depressed too. But now I'm feeling very good. I wonder if I'll ever get around to making that salad.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Breaking the Guitar

August 24, 2007

The phrase "breaking the guitar" may not mean what you think it does.

I had it explained to me on a lovely spring evening at Michael Rosenthal's apartment on West 4th Street in New York in the 1960's. From Michael's front window was a perfect view of the apartment across the street.

"Used to be a couple of English girls who shared that apartment," Michael said to me. "I'd see them coming and going, and I'd think about what they must be like, what their lives were. I ached to meet them.

"Then one day I was at the deli when I saw one of them come in. I invited them both over for drinks. They came, I gave them some nice wine, we talked a little. Very little. It was boring. They were ordinary. I really had nothing to say to them; they weren't what I expected. I had broken the guitar."

I told him I had never heard the expression "breaking the guitar."

"Well, I used to have this guitar. It was my life. I worked at it. Tried to learn how to really play it. It was a shining symbol to me -- my life as a guitar player. Man, I loved that guitar.

"I loved it so much when I got really mad at the way things were going I would say, 'I'm gonna break that guitar!'"

"The day came when I could control my rage no longer -- rage at something relatively insignificant, I might add. I said, 'I'm gonna break that guitar!' and I did it. I smashed it.

"Trouble was, then I had no guitar. It wasn't satisfying to break it either. The reality of a broken guitar was that I now had a useless guitar. No point."

For years I used the expression "breaking the guitar" to describe a dramatic action that disappoints. A big, longed-for gesture that brings no satisfaction except in the fantasy before it happens. But whenever I talked about breaking the guitar, I had to tell the Michael Rosenthal story, and then explain it. Nobody ever seemed to understand. I gave it up until now.

If you've broken the guitar, or been tempted to, maybe you'll get it. I don't use the expression much, but I would if it had caught on, or if my listeners had. I offer it to you to see if its time has come. Otherwise, I've just broken the guitar by telling the story.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Hurricane Season

September 2, 2007

No matter what the hurricane pundits declare, the official hurricane season begins when the first storm heads through the Gulf toward land. Officially and unofficially, that means that with Hurricane Dean on the 18th of August, hurricane season 2007 began.

We who live on the Gulf Coast get a little blasé about these storms -- by "we" I mean those of us who were raised here (Newcomers totally freak out). If it's not coming our way we wait until the one that is before we get worried.

Now we have Hurricane Felix, which at this point it has yet to touch a corner of land anywhere, and has the Yucatan Peninsula and the Bay of Campiche to terrorize before its trek across Mexico or its turn through the Gulf. Forecasters have come up with an intriguing visual device they dub "the cone of uncertainty" as they track the projected path of a hurricane -- a path that stretches wide enough in both directions to give them a huge margin for error. We in hurricane country are well aware that this cone has little to do with the reality of whether or not the storm will come our way or not. The cone allows for, but does not help predict, the size or direction of the wobble a storm almost always makes right at landfall. The wobble, we who await the wrath of a hurricane know, the wobble is the determining factor.

I go back to the days before hurricanes were identified by categories -- even before they were given names. When they began naming them, it was decided by some naming bureau or other to give them women's names, then I suppose Women's Liberation sensitized the guys at the bureau and they decreed that the names should be divided equally between masculine names and feminine ones. I remember a column by Mobile's beloved newspaper man Mike McEvoy suggesting the storms be named after medicines, like "bicarbonate of soda" or "castor oil." I remember the column but don't remember the point. The bureau would have run out of generic names soon enough if they had tried that, and manufacturers would not have appreciated having hurricanes named after branded products. Let's just say it was a lousy idea. Kinda like, a few years back, when the bureau came up with the French Georges for a hurricane's name. Local weathermen in Mobile had a time with that one. One pronounced it George's, as written.

A reader inquires why natural disasters occur. What is God's plan in such random acts? I've been over this territory before, but this particular reader, a self-identified "oaf," still implores me to explain it, since I seem to think I'm so smart.

One more time. The earth is a natural place with its own laws. There is a higher power which, you might say, owns the property. Man is a tenant -- and not a very good one -- who sometimes oversteps the boundaries. This higher power, and I won't say "God" this time for fear it will call a picture to your mind of a bearded man in the clouds with lightning bolts in one hand. There is not a man at all; that image, as pointed out by Margaret Atwood, was based on ancient drawings of the pagan god Zeus. It is not Zeus, doling out punishment by causing earthquakes, tsunamis and Hurricane Katrina. On the other hand, it is nature doing what we know nature does. We, mankind, have these brilliant scientists who tell us in February that there will by 19 hurricanes beginning in June (although Joe Schmoe on the street in Mobile can tell you there's not likely to be any activity before August) but those scientific experts are not quick to point out that man should not be living in cities below sea level, and that if he is, he'd better attend to his levees and have evacuation plans in place before the first hurricane of any season hits.

In other words, we ignore what we know to be a fact, that certain localities on the planet, while affording beautiful views (or tasty ways with seafood), may not be suitable for permanent year-round residence. We are convinced that we can control nature, and that if we are good the man in the clouds will protect us from harm.

I have said this before: It doesn't work that way. This does not mean there is no god, no power greater than us. It means that we have to work to be in tune with this power and have the good old-fashioned horse sense to get out of the way of an oncoming catastrophe, whether it comes from above in the form of rain and wind or is of man's own devices as in the train wreck. There are risks we take. We have our own decisions to make. Most of us are aware that we are as likely to be hit by a drunk driver as we are to get killed by a hurricane, excessive heat, or other forces of the weather. We live in our own cones of uncertainty. But we take our chances and we name our poisons.

The laws of nature allow us to do just that. If we think there is a power that will keep all problems at bay if we just learn to manipulate it, we are in for a lot of big disappointments. If devising a belief system that works for us, say, "There is a reason for everything," we'll spend a lifetime looking those reasons, tons of them, and end up with the inevitable, "There are some things we are not meant to understand."

As hurricane season goes into full swing -- around here at any rate, largely because the law of averages works in our favor this year -- we have a fair hope that we'll dodge that bullet -- for now. This wisdom is lost on insurance companies, who now refuse to cover anything close to any waters, it would seem. Hurricanes have real effects, whether or not their damage hits home.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dog Day Morning in Lower Alabama

August 16, 2007

It's just one of those almost-unbearably-hot days that August brings to Fairhope every year. Too hot to be alive, the locals say. But we're alive anyway, kept moving by air conditioning and gasoline (fueling the air conditioned cars), and, although productivity is low, everything else is moving along.

It's too hot to sell a house because nobody is buying houses. The heat has something to do with it, and if you have a little oddball house like mine on a wonderful lot but without the Viking Range in the kitchen and even without a second bathroom, the market would be slow in the best of times. The right buyer has yet to have a look at it. In fact, the house has been on the market for over a month and only two people have looked at it. The first proclaimed the rooms too small and the second wasn't really ready to move at all.

To say nothing of the stock market, real estate mortgages, the War in Iraq and all the other reasons that people are staying in their air conditioned houses waiting for a better climate to walk out the door. Our TVs inform us that hurricanes have indeed begun to churn up in the Gulf. All this and Elvis is still dead.

Then there's the Imus thing. He got a settlement from CBS who broke its contract with him, and now he's being sued by one of those basketball players who says she wants her life back. I wish I could sue somebody to get my life back too. I'm sorry to say the litigation-happy lady (woman? girl?) is the same Kia Vaughn who did so well the first time around in this little charade, saying "Unless there's a new definition for the word 'ho' then that's not who I am." Now she says having been called that -- even once, even by a man who has apologized publicly and privately, over and over -- has ruined her life and a little monetary compensation is in order.

I've been wishing Imus could get his life back too, and be back on morning tv putting the screws to the politicians courageous enough to appear on his show, and working on his ranch for children with cancer and his fund-raising for the S.I.D.S. Foundation and for autism. He may indeed get back on the radio, but those days of that edgy and often offensive wake-up show are gone for good.

Well, let's all take our power back. A little hot weather won't hurt us. We can survive a little drop in our investment portfolio; a little less tv and more personal creativity might be good for us. And even though Elvis is still dead, at least Johnny Depp is still alive.

Unlike the people in Mark Twain's day ("Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it), we can do something about the weather. We have seen the worst of hurricanes and survived. We can find fair hope that we shall again. And that all of this shall pass, leaving us to reminisce about warm weather and the lazy days of summer.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Host Who Would Be Guest

August 13, 2007

I was sorry to hear that Merv Griffin had died. He was on the list of people I would have invited if I could have one of those cosmic dinner parties with a guest list of people I would invite if I could. This mythical party has been in my mind for years and includes people from all walks of life, people you really want to spend more time with, people you want to have in your home for a good time.

I used to have Merv Griffin in my home every afternoon in his early talk-show days in the 1960's. He was intelligent, charming, always ready for a laugh -- and really "into" his guests. He seemed to ask the questions I wanted him to ask. And he had such a lineup of interesting people to interview, from Richard Pryor to Orson Welles. I wrote in blogposts over a year ago about his getting into the discussion of duende, Garcia Lorca's concept of the mischievous quality later to be called charisma. Who had it and who didn't became almost a parlor game after duende was introduced to the American public by Griffin's show.

He surprised Richard Pryor by inviting his drama coach from childhood, the recreation director at the community center who pulled Richard out of the ghetto by believing in him. She was smart, no-nonsense and her meeting with Pryor made for great live television. Griffin asked pointed questions of people in politics without really getting political. He had that Irish gift of being genuine and loving to laugh that made him easy to watch and sometimes amazing by what he was able to get people to reveal.

I learned from today's New York Times obit that liquor was served up in the green room of his show, loosening the lips of many a guest. They were willing to say things to this man that they might not have said without it, certainly not before an audience of thousands. They all became our friends and neighbors, over for an afternoon chat.

In those days the talk-show format was, unlike today, more talk than commercials. A segment with any one guest might go on for much longer periods of time. And without the annoying, shrieking commercials, they had a natural, easy feeling. They were like little parties.

And -- with all the other achievements of his lifetime -- Merv Griffin was one of the best at the genre; with a gift for intimacy, a personal charm (and, yes, some duende of his own), and a non-threatening intellect that seemed to really care what his guests were saying. Even though he hadn't done a talk show for decades, I always missed him. I'll miss him more now.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Way We Were

August 10, 2007

It's not just an ordinary picture, you must admit. It's a photo made when I was in my late 20's, by Roy Schatt, the show business photographer whose biggest claim to fame was that he had palled around with James Dean when they were youngsters struggling in New York and gotten some great shots of the kid.

I was a young hopeful when someone recommended Schatt to me as one of the best to get some good headshots. Abysmally unphotogenic, I was pleased with a number of the pictures he got. This one was the best of the lot and probably the most astonishingly flattering picture ever made of me. I thought, when I get old I'm gonna want this one. Not that it looked that much like me, but that I could at least tell people it did.

Then it went missing. I submitted it to be used in a brochure and the printer lost it in the early 1970's. Years later I tried in vain to find it. I was living in Geneva and felt a yearning for a look at that picture that showed me the way I wasn't and had never been except for that instant that the shutter snapped. I got a friend in New York to call Schatt and ask him if he still had it on file. He said he didn't keep pictures that long.

I had kept the contact sheet, waiting, I suppose, for personal computers to be invented. Yesterday I looked through the box of old pictures of myself to cull the best to keep and I remembered this one. I remembered the whole story, but was sure I still had the contact sheet.

Long story short -- here it is, folks. That was your author. Something happened over time; the eyes got smaller, the lips got thinner, the face got considerably fuller, the nose got a little bigger; that girl got swallowed up by the passage of time, lost to her own self-obsession. I try not to dwell on what I used to look like, so let's just say that's it. Once and for all.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Worth Repeating: A New Day

August 9, 2007

This, a post from June of last year, which I called "A New Day Dawning":

I just got to thinking...what if this were 100 years ago? This house wouldn't be built yet -- it went up in 1916 -- Marietta Johnson's school was not yet a reality -- it was to begin in the fall of 1907 -- the unpaved streets were full of chickens, goats and other livestock -- and there weren't many trees, since the area had been timbered out in recent years.

A scraggly little town, built on the Utopian dream of a few who had relocated from Iowa just 12 years before, Fairhope palpitated with possibilities. But it was probably a warm morning, the first day of summer, 1906, no hope of turning on the air conditioning later in the day, and no idea of where the fair hopes of the original colonists would take the town in its first century.

As I write, the sun has come up and there is a little puff of a pink cloud turning orange against the blue sky. It could have been that kind of dawn a hundred years ago, with sound effects of the cackle of the occasional chicken and bleat of a goat. I can hear an owl myself -- maybe his ancestor was here.

Marietta Johnson was a frequent visitor at this time. She and her husband, a farmer, had bought a pecan farm in Mississippi, and they discovered Fairhope through Socialist friends in St. Paul. They had begun visiting Fairhope in the winter of 1896, and she had become fast friends with Lydia Comings, who urged her to move here and start the school she dreamed of. Mrs. Johnson studied the writings of Rousseau, Frederich Froebel, and the work of her contemporaries, John Dewey, C. Hanford Henderson and Nathan Oppenheim. These latter names are those leaders who were creating the study of early childhood development, and advocated redesigning the school to suit the nature and needs of the child rather than trying to force the child to conform to an arbitrary mold defined by a group of adults. Mrs. Johnson, a lifelong teacher, saw the simple elegance of this notion and advocated nothing less than a retrenching of the whole educational system to make it operate this way. She thought she could achieve this by starting a school based upon that principle. It would be a year more of talking (and she was superb at that) to make her dream of such a school a reality.

The town had a library with books donated by the former bohemian Marie Howland. Mrs. Howland was now a settled old lady in her sixties, having sown her wild oats in the 19th Century among the free thinkers, social reformers, and feminists in New York and in France in a commune that purported to be the wave of the future, with one large house encompassing many families but no kitchen. She left reformist colony in Mexico disenchanted with its Puritan strain which scowled on her tendency to bathe nude in the sea for the revolutionary Single Tax enclave in Fairhope.

There was already a Fairhope Courier, then published weekly and sent around the world to proselytize for the Utopian colony, and Marie Howland had a regular column in it. Her feminist leanings would make her quite at home in Fairhope, where women always had the vote (on local issues) and, according to Paul Gaston in his little book Women of Fair Hope, she stands out in Fairhope history "for her advocacy of cooperative living, kitchenless homes, and scientific child-rearing as means of liberating women from household drudgery and male exploitation." She was to become a great friend to Marietta Johnson.

A hundred years ago there would be no cars driving by. What was at one time the Gaston Motor Company at that time was a livery and harness shop. It is now a trendy restaurant. There have been so many transmutations of the "uptown" area that it is pointless to make note of them now. There was a bluff park, a municipal pier, a grassy knoll just to the east of the bluff, always called "Knoll Park." Knoll Park stands hardly changed, although I have noted a sign on the park's perimeter in recent weeks indicating some rearrangement of the natural landscape is imminent.

There is a genuine log cabin on the other side of Bay View Street (once more felicitously "Bay View Avenue") from me that was built in 1900. That would have been there, among the stumps, stubble and trees of 100 years ago. It is for sale, and will surely be torn down.

As it was 100 years ago, a new day is dawning. There is good news from the Marietta Johnson School, new board members eager to take on the task of helping turn the school back to what it once was, and an increase in enrollment. The local potter now on the Board, graduated from our school promises to be very helpful in helping restructure our Arts and Crafts department. Another is a City Councilman. Another is a relative newcomer whose wife is a Fairho, (see Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree for a definition of that one) and who has taught woodshop and stagecraft and is one of the general all around artisans the like of which used to help out at the school all the time.

I wake up full of ideas, plans, and half-finished grant proposals. I am going to spend the afternoon taking care of things at the Marietta Johnson Museum -- which always affords the opportunity for a little personal research, and is welcome respite in a beloved old Fairhope building that feels like home. Good things will come of all this.

That's essentially what I wrote a year ago, with the updates of a mention of the work beginning on the untouched old Knoll Park, and a link to my webpage for a definition of "Fairho," which is to be found in my book. The fact is there have been many changes in Fairhope in the last year. The new library is completed and functioning, to mixed reviews -- Walmart is up and running with a lot of I-told-you-so's -- and many more McMansions dot the landscape as the developers have scooped away the quaint cottages one by one.

But you can't change history, and I still like to think about it. It will be rewritten over and over to eliminate all vestige of the reformers and dreamers who made the town prosper in its early days. The time for reform is gone, and those who believed in it are too. I am witnessing the plowing under of the heritage they left, and others will reap the tasteless harvest.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Phone Whisperers

August 8, 2007

I rented a movie called Zodiac over the weekend, and it took me back to the 1970's. Someone in the newspaper office flashed a page of political cartoons at our hero -- there were caricatures of Richard Nixon on the page. The movie was full of scenes of people making urgent phone calls from phone booths.

And every once in a while a big clunky phone actually rang -- you remember, "Ring? Ring? Ring?" and when its receiver was picked up and listened to there there was nothing but heavy breathing coming from the other side.

Everything about this movie was pretty close to authentic. Without being maddeningly precious about it, costume and set-wise, people looked pretty much like they once did. (Now that I think about it, I didn't see any men in sideburns or bell bottoms, but going that far would be jarring today.) It's an intense little thriller about a real situation in San Francisco when serial killers were still in the shadows and even the term was not yet in general use.

There are excellent performances. I always admire Robert Downey (and of course my mind always goes to how much I hope he's really past his addiction). In this one his portrayal of an addict with a wasted life is chillingly spot-on. One scene in the newsroom when he is functioning but literally falling-down-drunk is especially well done.

Jake Gillenhahl gives an engrossing performance as the newspaper cartoonist who gets drawn into the murder trail because of his fascination with codes and puzzles, and hangs on to his detective work long after all else have shelved the whole deal. He seems to have the case solved by the end of the film, but there is no real conclusion.

Zodiac is not a chick flick. Not to say that a woman wouldn't enjoy this movie -- I was totally taken in by it -- but there are only a few female characters in it as sort of wallpaper, worrying about their men. The actresses are as good as the actors, and I would say I loved the first-date scene; but this is a movie about men doing police work, on the fringe of the old newspaper world. There is a faint smell of booze, cigarettes and sweat about it. There isn't much light to find your way around. But it captures a real situation in a real time and place and presents us with a constellation of good actors doing their jobs.

Mark Ruffalo plays the police detective who is said to have been the man the movie Bullitt -- there's one to see again! -- was based upon. Brian Cox does a wonderful turn as attorney Marvin Belli, who has the one laugh line in the movie. And the odd Charles Fleischer will scare your socks off. The film's lead suspect is well defined by an actor I never saw before, John Carroll Lynch.

All through the film I was reminded of the little technological advances that have subtly changed our everyday lives, and for some reason when the hero starts getting phone calls with heavy breathing, I remembered how prevalent those "breather" calls used to be. Why isn't anybody breathing heavy on the phone any more? Even 19 years ago, when I first moved back to Fairhope, people were still getting those calls. I got one at my old house on North Bayview. Now I have "Caller ID" which tells me at least the phone number -- or "Unknown Number, Unknown Caller," before I pick up the phone.

Think of all the advances in police work -- phone records, even DNA -- that have made this kind of movie a quaint period piece. And eliminated all those obscene phone calls.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Walk to Town and Bay

August 3, 2007

Walking distance to downtown Fairhope and the bay! Beautifully landscaped yard with stone walkways will lead you to the front door of this enchanting 1916 cottage. Tastefully renovated, yet has lost none of its original charm.

All of the above is in the description from the flyer created by my realtor for my house. Rhapsodic realtor language, you'll notice, but all true. And there's more. The 1,926-square foot cottage sits on a double lot so there's room for your pets and children to romp before strolling with you to the nearby ice cream shop, or down to the bluff to greet the statue of Marietta Johnson and watch the waves on the bay.

It's a well-built old house (old for Fairhope, that is: built in 1916) with sturdy walls and heart-pine floors that don't creak. It was the cat's meow in its day, an airplane bungalow with two small bedrooms upstairs and a charming one downstairs. There is a spacious front porch from which to watch your neighbors jog by in the morning while sipping your coffee and reading the Swampscum Daily Ooze, the local nickname for Mobile's newspaper. People drop by to ask your opinion on stuff or to comment on local situations, political or otherwise.

Walking back inside is like receiving a warm hug from the past.There is a huge fireplace and beadboad ceiling in the 14 x 28 living room. There are the original Craftsman details and built-ins -- along with moldings and trim around the doors and windows, and hardwood floors throughout the house.

There is a light-filled sunporch which can be used as a dining area and is my favorite room in the house, surrounded by three walls of windows, from which you can see trees and shrubs and life in slow-paced, small-town America.
At parties, it's the area where everyone congregates. My friend Paul Gaston tells me that when he dated the Captain's daughter (the Captain built the house) in the 1940's, there was a juke box on that porch and there were teenage dance parties all the time.

It has been said the only problem with the house is that there is no master bedroom. Originally the Captain's bedroom was the whole cockpit of the airplane -- that is to say, there was only one room with a bathroom upstairs, but later that was partitioned off to make two bedrooms in the days when families of four could tolerate only one bathroom. A second bathroom could be added up there. What I used as a bedroom, with a walk of about six feet to the bathroom lovingly remodeled by yours truly is this little 11 x 14 gem on the ground floor.

Enamored as I am of the house, it is for sale by owner, as I have left the area. If making such a big cross-country move is daunting, think about living in the little town that so many think of as a storybook place, the small town U.S.A. they've always dreamed of -- Fairhope. You'll find many Internet sites describing it, and it is often cited as one of the safest retirement communities in the country. Maybe it'll be the perfect place for you.

If you want to discuss this further, contact me at:

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Long and Short of Goodbyes

August 2, 2007

I caught just the ending of the 1944 classic National Velvet on Turner Classic Movies yesterday morning and discovered that that sweet film contained a great deal more wisdom than I'd ever realized. When Mi (played by Mickey Rooney) decides to leave, he has a short scene telling Mr. Brown that he's not good at saying goodbye. He says, "Tell Velvet goodbye for me, would you? And Mrs. Brown?" and after a few more words he walks off into the MGM sunset.

When Velvet discovers he's left, her mother explains that it was his time to move on, and he had done so. This is a beautifully written and played scene of parental advice -- elegantly dispensed and actually being taken -- yet Velvet has one more thing to tell him, asks her mother's permission. When she gets it, the girl mounts her steed and rides off to end the film with an exciting canter and finally two silhouettes in the distance. It is a hokey landscape, but it works.

I'm not too good at goodbyes myself. Not for Mi's reason -- being a young fellow and English to boot, he couldn't stand sentimentality, and probably was more than a little uneasy about tears -- with me it's just that I don't really accept the finality. I'm always certain that departing person will always literally be a part of my life, even though I've learned that there are some people I shall never see again. I have a cocoon of denial that gets me through difficult moments, and it sometimes lasts for years. Looking at the photos of the actors from Geneva, say, or recalling some office highjinks from Fairchild Publications in the 1970's, the cast to characters of my memory are as vivid to me as if they had just stepped into the other room for a minute.

I imagine I can find their phone numbers, or look them up on Google -- and reconnect in an instant; and all the intervening years will be wiped away. In some cases I can and have done so. However, more often, although people tend to be cordial and at least give the appearance of being pleasantly surprised to hear from me, I usually soon learn that I am opening a door that may have been better left closed. In my pantheon of old friends, I have to restrain myself from the urge to embrace them all.

I love reunions, and look forward to the upcoming one in Fairhope, but before it happens I must learn to lower my expectations. I must see things from other people's side. I must move on, like Mi.

Although saying goodbye was difficult for Mi, it's the moving on part that is difficult for me. I spoke with an intimate friend of ten years ago on the phone just a few weeks back, trying to catch him up on my life and my plans. Although we occasionally -- perhaps once a year -- meet for drinks or lunch, this time he was cool, and there were background noises from his side that sounded for all the world like giggling young women. He rang off saying, "I'll call you next week." When I hung up I realized I would never hear from him. This sentence resounded in my head: That train has left the station. How long it took me to realize it I'm embarrassed to say, but maybe I learned something with that conversation. Ever since, I catch myself thinking "That train has left the station too."

There are long goodbyes and abrupt ones. The final goodbye of death is easier for me to accept (but not without the requisite stages of grief) than the reality that this person is still walking the earth, but once and for all no longer in my orbit. In my heart, those, "Have-a-nice-life" goodbyes never really happen. But I'm learning to believe in them as I learn to empathize with people who are somehow less needy for their own past.

I don't think it's a bad trait to have the ability to go forward and leave baggage behind. I just say I haven't mastered it yet.

One More Time: Revive Us Again

August 1, 2007

This, an update of a post placed July 13, 2006:

Every so often a venerable institution undergoes an upheaval followed by a revival of interest, a rebirth, and a reaffirmation of its reason for being. This is slated to happen very soon for a school that was once at the very heart of Fairhope.

The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, often referred to as the Organic School, was founded in Fairhope by the visionary educator whose name it bears in 1907. It's about to have a Centennial, and will definitely have a big all-class reunion in October, giving us a chance to talk about a revival.

New things are happening, detailed on the website linked above. The web page may not quite capture is the mysterious spirit that surrounds the school and its offspring. (I think offspring is the right word here; you wouldn't say graduates, because many who love the school the most went there a year or two, sometimes just a semester.)

The Organic School gave us the feeling that school itself may be just a kid's daily job -- but that some days miracles happened. And every day in school was thrilling to some degree. We didn't think about it consciously (unless we observed a miracle) but there was a process of osmosis called learning by doing that accompanied every textbook we read, every map we looked at, every project we worked on. In addition to that, which occurs in every school, was the unstated component in our school that we learned because we wanted to.

In high school, I remember, we put together a newspaper because we wanted to. The students before us had done it and we felt it was our turn. We didn't even have a faculty advisor. Someone showed us how to cut stencils and operate the mimeograph machine, some of us just naturally did the writing, and we had a newspaper. We would stay after school and work on it. Sometimes we came at night and worked until 8 or 9 P.M. to put the paper to bed. Nobody told us to do this; if we hadn't, nothing would have happened. We just never thought of not doing it.

Another example of what Marietta Johnson called "organic education" was when I was in Junior High, probably 7th grade. There was what was laughingly known as a library at the school, containing lots of decrepit old books left there by previous generations. I would read them sometimes just for their time-capsule quality. One I remember reading was about a young lady who was driving a roadster and it got stuck in the mud. I couldn't help thinking how funny it was to read about getting your roadster out of the mud -- and relating to the young people of the 1920's reading this book seriously and thinking of the life they must have had. (A lot of roadsters in Fairhope probably did get stuck in the mud; streets weren't fully paved until the 1960s.)

Anyway, back to the 1950's -- we're browsing around in this antiquated library and we see a bunch of copies of worn playscripts of the works of Shakespeare. There was As You Like It, I remember, and The Merchant of Venice.

It was not a big leap, seeing that there were copies enough for the whole class, to ask the English teacher if she thought we would get anything out of reading those plays. Sure, said the English teacher, and we set out to study them one by one. We wrestled with the verse, wrote essays about the plays, and nobody thought twice about what was in the Alabama Course of Study for 7th or 8th Grade. I remember years later coming on a theme I wrote at that time entitled "Why I Like Shylock." Wish I had saved it. I wonder why I liked Shylock. I think I was just trying to be shocking, but maybe I made a valid point or two in the process.

Now flash-forward again to the Organic Revival. What lies in the immediate future is a reunion of all classes, to be held over the October 5-7 weekend. Marietta Johnson's birthday -- officially Marietta Johnson Day in Fairhope, is October 8. There will be events all weekend, from the pot luck gathering Friday night until the last visitor leaves on Monday. We'll hear talks about the history of Fairhope and the school, students armed with videocams will record our memories of what we got from our Organic Educations and what we can do to ensure a solvent school for the next few centuries. It means a great deal to a lot of us.

We have a fair hope of success for the future, and a spirit and heritage of miracles from the past that cannot be ignored. If near-term coming events help boost a revival, hallelujah! We are saved, brother. Revive us again.