Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer Set

    photos by Kowinski 2014

Another summer gone, sort of.  Humboldt State starts very early by my standards, so my work--intermittent though it may be--begins again.  But the theatre season is mercifully at an end, so my series of columns--mostly reviews, one preview--is done for now.

I did more than I wanted to for Stage Matters, to add at least some income to balance higher expenses, principally a whopping dental bill for one lonely tooth.  At least whopping for me.  It will take me writing 12 columns to pay for it.  Which means that all of my summer income goes there, and it will require more.

Otherwise, I went nowhere, stayed home in June and July to deal with necessary household matters.  I got some writing of my own done, not a lot but some.  I revised plans for several projects, which I hope make them more doable.  In the fiction based on my life and times, I decided to center it in the most dramatic period (which in fact was the original plan!) and what is now the most historic period, the mid-60s to the early 70s.  It would start with leaving for college.

So I dug out what I'd saved, and it was quite a lot.  I had the first piece of writing I did at college, a cliche-ridden piece that nevertheless preserved a few details about the car trip from burg to burg (Greens to Gales.)  I had occasion to marvel again at what has survived over time--in this case, a postcard from the motel outside Moline where we stayed overnight before driving on into Galesburg in September 1964.

As for freshman year, I have letters (letters!), bound copies of the student newspaper, some academic work, and evidently I'd decided before to focus on orientation week because there are drafts with lots of information.  More than I remember in fact, so there are items in those pages that I can't identify as fact or my own fictioning.  Not that it matters.  But over the years, even when it wasn't going right or I had to abandon drafts,  I've always felt that I was preparing raw material for some ultimate draft.

After completing the introductory story of those couple of days, it struck me that I could frame the college years by starting with a moment at my draft physical, the second one, at Fort Des Moines.  So I found what files remain on that.  I found something like a narration (in something like verse), and there might be more writing I did about it near that time that I haven't found.  But I have the official letters back and forth.  I was amazed to see how compacted in time it was, between my pre-induction physical in Chicago and the appeal physical in Iowa.  The reality of all this leaves me a little dazed, still.

So in short, as usual I didn't do nearly the amount of writing I had hoped, and summer was not nearly as different in terms of demands on my time as the rest of the year.  Time of course is running out on realizing projects, but as there is no demand for them from outside myself,  it's harder to concentrate, to work through the emotions, the effort, the psychological exhaustions, etc.  And the prospect of that enormous silence at the end.  I feel that when I complete smaller projects, even columns (if I hear from any 'readers' at all it's too long after, and I've already disconnected) and it takes awhile to get back the required energy and focus on my world of illusions.  Finishing a big project, what would that be like?

As for the outside world around me, despite the drought we've had roses all summer, and a self-transplanted gaggle of yellow flowers in the back yard.  The grass is browner than it has ever been in front, and the ferns there are wilting.  On the side however, the shaded ferns are doing better.

Our hummers are returning to the feeders more regularly.  I saw two and so I got the second feeder out of storage since early spring. I see them around occasionally in the spring and summer but they seem to range pretty far for the flowering flowers, and the one year-round feeder is very slow to empty.  August is about the time they rediscover the ready supply of the feeder. Sitting on the back porch, listening to a Doctor Who audiobook read by David Tennant, I saw three together, with one hovering in front of me as I said hello.  I've read they know the face of the person who stocks the feeders.  They sure seem to.

It's an odd time--the changing climate resulting in noticeably dryer, sunnier and warmer summers is disquieting for what it portends, though it is pleasant enough in itself.  A hot day here is still under 80F.  Now that I'm acclimated to the North Coast, I find I relax more when it's foggy, the way it is supposed to be.  The persistent sunshine is almost shocking.  And we do have some foggy days and nights, though they seem like afterthoughts.  They say the redwoods could be gone in a century.  But then, I'll be gone long before.  How many more summers, still pretty strong and capable?

It's comforting to know from the blogger stats that almost no one reads this particular blog.  I have some readers for a couple of blogs, and virtually none for others.  So I do them for my pleasure and to keep a record.  I don't know why it is easier to do it this way than simply by keeping a digital journal.  But it somehow is.  

Sunday, April 06, 2014

R.I.P. Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen was a friend and contemporary of Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron, but his writing career was amazingly different and very individual to him.
His career began as an expatriate writer and part-time spy in Paris (where he helped found The Paris Review) and ended as a Zen Monk in upstate New York.
In between it took him to Africa, the high Himalayas, the Pine Ridge reservation and Antarctica.

 He became most noted for writing nonfiction about nature and travel, but at considerable personal cost (financial and otherwise) he wrote about the plight of Native Americans (and specifically what could well be the most conspicuous injustice of 20th century America, the continuing incarceration of Leonard Peltier), and then about his Buddhist practice.

He also wrote novels, the form of writing that was most important to him.  More than 30 books all told, in a long, rich and singular life that ended at the age of 86.

He left behind books that will be important for whatever uncertain future books may have.  Personally I revere his The Snow Leopard (and its companion Nine-Headed Dragon River), In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (and its companion Indian Country.)  He writes beautifully of North American shorebirds in The Wind Birds and of Antarctica in End of the Earth.  And the list goes on.  I first became aware of him in college when I read parts of The Tree Where Man Was Born in the New Yorker.  It was a daunting yet inspiring and instructive work in certain ways for a fledgling writer to read.

But he is such a unique writer that even the most ardent readers of some of his books may well be immune to others.  Of his novels, I've read and admired Raditzer and especially At Play in the Fields of the Lord.  But I have yet to yield to the charms of the Watson series of fictions he worked and reworked in recent years, including his National Book Award winning Shadow Country (which made him the only writing to win this award in both fiction and non-fiction.)

The official publication date of his latest and now last novel is this coming Tuesday.  It's called In Paradise.  

Here's his New York Times obituary.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Gouldberg Variations



On the occasion of J.S. Bach's birthday, I share the opening--the Aria-- for what has become my favorite piece of music, the Goldberg Variations, in my favorite version, the 1981 recording by Glenn Gould.

A local classical music station played some of the variations today to mark Bach's birthday.  The announcer repeated the standard story (sometimes disputed) that Bach wrote it as a commission by a nobleman who couldn't sleep--it was to be played by his private keyboardist, a 14 year old boy named Goldberg, who was also Bach's pupil.  It was supposed to promote sleep yet be lively enough to offer solace if sleep didn't come.

Though I was first inspired to listen to it by Richard Powers' description of it in his novel The Goldbug Variations, I too attempted to use it in this legendary way, and listened to it so many nights in succession that it was no longer necessary for me to turn on my mp3 player, I could just play it in my head.  Since then I've scaled back, but I still listen to it in part or all of it pretty often.  And still find new moments in it.

Some years back the NY Times or somebody asked a bunch of classical music people their opinion on the best classical recording.  Several named Gould's Goldberg's Variations, though they were split on which version--his first recording in 1955 or his second in 1981 (they were his first and last recordings of anything.)

Both are somewhat controversial, but the 1981 probably more so.  The most obvious difference is the Aria--it is slower in 1981, but that only begins to describe the difference.  The difference is a revelation, and speaks to me of time, melancholy and acceptance, and savoring the moments of life's beauty.

I know a pianist who disdains both Gould versions.  On the other hand there are people like me, not classically educated or employed, who are devoted to Gould's piano performances, and specifically to one or the other of the Goldberg Variations he recorded.

I knew the radio station was going to play the Goldberg Variations so I made sure to tune in, hoping they would play a version I hadn't heard.  It's said that before Gould it didn't seem possible for one pianist to play the Variations (it is astonishing to try to follow what two hands are doing--it sounds impossible) but since then, many pianists have recorded them.

But the version the station chose wasn't a piano (or a harpsichord, the keyboard for which it was written) but a transcription for strings.  There are several of these--I have two--and they seem to emphasize the lyrical quality of the 1981 Aria.

But Gould's playing--especially on parts of the Goldberg--has also always reminded me of jazz.  Gould apparently thought of some of his playing as approaching jazz, and it seems that way to me.  So I also have a jazz version of the Goldberg by the Jacques Loussier Trio.  And like it a lot too.  I could well be wrong, but I don't think either the string version or the jazz version would exist
without Gould.

The above clip is from a video recording of Gould playing the 1981 version in the recording studio.  The whole performance is also on YouTube, but I have it on disk.  It's a remarkable thing to watch.  Gould was a handsome young man in 1955 but in 1981 he was just a few years from the end.  In this video he looks apish, not at all capable of making the sounds he is in fact making.  Add to his appearance his eccentricities--strange posture and approach of his hands to the keyboard--and it is not really easy to watch.  Until the camera lingers on his hands as he plays, and then it's mesmerizing.  

The Aria has become somewhat familiar from movies and television shows, but in total it is for me a great 3 minute piece in itself, and I offer it to cyberspace in the hope of introducing it to enhance someone else's life.  Paying it forward.

Monday, February 17, 2014

It's Not Even Past

I've noted before the serendipity and the coincidences that I've noticed when I've been engaged in writing about my childhood in a necessarily fictional way.  One of these was a specific episode of a TV show I remembered, that turned out to be broadcast on the date I had already selected to write about myself as a child watching these Saturday morning shows.

Something like that happened again.  I had returned for a few weeks to this project, writing mostly about fifth grade (when a number of things started to change in my life and family), but also revising some previous chapters, especially fourth grade stuff.

I had finished all that, more or less forced back to job work, but also feeling mostly depleted with a bit of juice left for starting again (I did sketch out the opening for 6th grade.)  It was weeks afterwards that I found myself on YouTube and, possibly inspired by the Ovaltine I've been spooning into my espresso and milk to make a kind of fortified mocha,  I looked up the Captain Midnight tv show from 1950s Saturday mornings.

There used to be several entire shows posted, and a few years ago I watched at least one.  Those are gone, but there is a new one posted, in HD (it says): a 1955 episode called "The Arctic Avalanche."

So I watched it, not recalling anything about it until near the end.  At that point in the plot, Captain Midnight has been captured by a spy who has strapped him to a dogsled, intending to take him to a waiting submarine.  But Captain Midnight manages to get on his Secret Squadron communicator to Icky flying above, and orders him to backfire the engines to create an avalanche, to trap the spy.  But he would also been snowed under.

When the avalanche starts he tips the sleigh on its side.  Icky contacts him--he's still alive.  He's created an air pocket inside the snow.  Later he explains that in survival training you learn to create an air pocket with your arms, and this was a way to make an even larger one.

Now this I do remember, and it touched on some forgotten aspects of childhood.  I remember noting this technique, because I was interested in general in ways to deal with unforeseen and dangerous situations, to protect myself and others.  That it was a "neat trick" was also appealing.

Yes, it was part of that desire to be competent in the face of danger.  It made me think of those duck and cover drills we had especially in the early grades, which were never very convincing as a way to survive atomic bombs.  This made more sense, though I had no idea how it worked (or now, even if it does.)  So I was thinking about what to do in unusual but threatening circumstances, and so, about avoiding injury and death.

There was also the more specific matter of snow. We had some big snows in those 1950s years, and throngs of kids on sleds went careening down nearby hills, a course that crossed two streets and in its last and steepest section, meant crossing a wooden bridge over a creek.  I was 8 going on 9 when this show was broadcast--I'm not sure I was sled-riding yet, but I was certainly playing in the snow.  I'm sure I was warned to be careful.  So danger was on my mind, though I reveled in being out in the stuff.

After I saw this show, I went back to what I'd written (not in this iteration) about the winter of 1954-55, and I had written about that sled-riding course.  I even mentioned a pilot-style leather cap I had with a visor, which reminded me of Captain Midnight (though possibly an earlier version.  This one wore a fairly silly looking football helmet.)  So it was easy to refer to this episode as part of my thinking then.

What's most interesting to me is how seeing this episode opened another window to how I viewed the world as a child, when I was looking for clues on what the world was like and how to deal with it.  Looking to heroes like Captain Midnight.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Extras, Extras! On DVD

At the moment all of my TV and movie watching is via DVD or even--yes, I've still got a VCR--tape.  During the school year when Margaret likes to relax with no more than an hour in the evening, we watch episodes of a TV series on DVD.  We catch up on the latest release year of a series we like, but much of the time we've never seen the series before, so we start at the beginning.

That's why we watched an episode of the first season of Leverage, from 2008, last night.  And later, before winging it back to Netflix, I watched it again with the commentary.  It reminded me what I like best about DVD commentaries, the subject of a short piece I published in a local paper some 9 years ago, when they were sort of new.

This particular episode was a late season story directed by Jonathan Frakes, who cast three actors from Star Trek's 24th century.  Frakes was by then an experienced TV as well as feature film director, and the persona he may have developed at Trek conventions--quick, funny--is a delight on the commentary.

 Also commenting were a couple of producers and the episode's writer.  They did what is increasingly rare on commentary--they commented on the background to the episode itself, and how it developed within the series.  They talked about influences--Hitchcock and Rockford Files moments, Judgement at Nuremberg as a model for shooting the courtroom scenes.  They talked about the pros and cons of establishing shots, about when to move the camera and when to let it dwell. They talked about the genesis of the story (they had a courtroom set left over from Boston Legal) and that it started with the ending, and worked back. It was great.  It's what I value in commentaries: a combination of a painless film/drama class and some modest gossip.

However I've learned to my chagrin that this is increasingly rare.  I sat through a series of commentaries to a series we like, Bones. Though some commentaries were fun if not overly informative (those with the show's two stars who are also producers and one is a director) there were examples of almost everything that's wrong with commentaries: a group of people who have no idea of what to say or why they are there and wind up talking about utter irrelevancies, or producers etc. who note that every single actor with a line is a great, great actor, and a really great person.

 Meanwhile, where a key episode fits in the arc of the series, the story's genesis or what was learned, goes uncommented upon.  There's the rare gem (a case of the actor whose character was supposed to die but the producers changed their mind and kept her as a regular--something that started Julianne Margulis' career on ER.)  But you have to slog through a lot and somehow stay awake to get there.

Sometimes it's enough that the commenting voices are good company, and it's like hanging out with them for awhile. But you have to be able to understand them--sometimes a problem with fast-talking Brits, especially when they aren't talking about what's on the screen. There are a few commentaries that have little to do with the show that are entertaining anyway, like some of Tom Baker's for Doctor Who. (His often-parodied but easily understood RSC diction is a blessing as well.)  

As for movie commentaries, I've noted at least two other examples of directors who say "this is my favorite scene in the whole movie" a half dozen times--something I mentioned in my earlier piece.  I see fewer new movies these days, and I still enjoy retrospective commentaries on reissues of older films, at least when the people have something to say beyond--I forgot that!  Look how young we were!

What I wrote about deleted scenes still pertains.  Since then I've seen at least one movie I like--called Pirate Radio--which deleted so many scenes that there's another movie there.  Several of the deleted scenes are among my favorites-- better and more memorable than what's in the release version.

More than anything, it may look like I really know how to waste my time.  There's some rueful truth in that.  Still, if I spend the time watching this stuff at all, and I like it, the bonuses become an important part of the experience.

Anyway, here's my first published thoughts on the matter from 2005, prompted by a local columnist who found commentaries and bonus scenes annoying:



I love the bonus features on DVD. If I didn’t, I just wouldn’t watch them. But sometimes they are the main reason I rent or buy a DVD movie, apart from the image quality, especially if I’ve already got it on tape.

 Bonus features typically include short documentaries related to the film, a commentary track for the movie itself, and scenes that weren’t in the theatrical release version, either reintegrated into the film or by themselves. They are all hit or miss, of course, but they often add new layers to the experience of the movie.

 The documentaries I often like best are retrospective interviews with directors and actors years after release, when they can put their efforts in perspective, and they can say things that maybe they couldn’t before. But I also like to know how movies are made. I enjoy learning about the process.

 Commentary tracks can be maddening, especially when the voices don’t bother talking about what you’re watching, and what you’d like to know. The worst I’m come across recently is “Spiderman II.” The director is cueing the star (Tobey McGuire) to talk solemnly about how he learns his lines while I’d like to know why they kept that scene with the neighbor bringing Peter Parker a piece of pie is the movie.

 It’s also nearly impossible to follow both the commentary and the movie, even when you select for subtitles (which I usually do). But much of the time, the commentary is enlightening (between descriptions of how effects shots were done, George Lucas describes a surprisingly serious intent for the Star Wars cycle: “how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, and a good person becomes a bad person”) or it’s just entertaining (counting the number of times that director Roland Emerich says “this is my favorite scene” during “The Day After Tomorrow.”)

 Sometimes the commentaries are even better than that. The dialogue between writer/director Nancy Meyers and actor Jack Nicholson on the DVD of “Something’s Gotta Give” is hilarious, and a master class in film acting as well. So not only is this movie worth repeating, so is the commentary.

 If DVDs have done nothing else, they proven how stupid movie studios can be in editing scenes out of movies just to make them shorter. They leave gaping holes in the story and make the actors look dumb, just so they can have more showings to confuse more people. But without the need to sell more tickets on opening weekend at the multiplex, DVDs can restore the scenes that at least give the movie a chance to make sense. That’s a more a restoration than a bonus.

 That works best when they actually put the scenes back where they belong in the movie (and the commentary track can tip you off to this). Sometimes when they offer them as “deleted scenes,” you wonder what they were thinking when they cut it. I remember several of the deleted scenes from the second Harry Potter movie better than I do a lot of the scenes that are in it. They tended to be mood pieces, like Harry and his owl sitting on a hill high above the landscape, but the movie needed some quiet moments, some beauty that evokes magic.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Telling the Story

“It felt good to tell it, in a way. Because it was his story, his and his alone, nobody else’s. And in telling it he gained a sort of control over it he had never had when it happened. That was the value of telling one’s story, a value exactly the reverse of the experience itself. What was valuable in the experience was that he had been out of control, living moment to moment with no plan, at the mercy of other people. What was valuable in telling the story was that he was in control, shaping the experience, deciding what it meant, putting other people in their proper place. The two values were complementary, they added up to something more than each alone could, something that... completed things.

 So he told them his story, and they listened.”

 Kim Stanley Robinson
Pacific Edge (The Three Californias)

Image: Storyteller by Judy Toya

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

All History Is Local

 I'd been thinking about events and place, about how much happened in the downtown area of Greensburg, PA in my life, my family's and in history.  Did Stephen Foster and Andrew Carnegie meet, just where I used to sit as a boy watching for trains coming through the station?  I was trying to piece together bits of local history I incompletely remembered, and asked my sisters if a history of Greensburg I'd used for writing The Malling of America was still around.

It couldn't be found but my sister Kathy found another one for sale through Amazon, which came from Oregon with a note from the sellers about how much they enjoyed visiting Arcata, where I live now.  So there's a thread.

I've been reading this history of Greensburg, written in 1999, as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy passed.  I noted one strange thing: though local response to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 was noted, and there was a passing mention of RFK's assassination that year, there was not a word about JFK's assassination.  That's hard to figure.  Like most places in America, it was a major event: that dark Friday, then the ceremonies in Washington, culminating in the funeral on that Monday in November 1963.

I've recorded on some of my other sites my recollections of that Friday: hearing that the President had been shot from Father Sheridan's voice over the high school p.a., going outside to gym class--I think we ran 50 yard dashes--and almost forgetting about it, until I was showered and dressed and walking up the narrow steps from the locker room as the next class of boys was walking down.  From one of them I learned that President Kennedy was dead.

I walked home with three friends, including my debate partner who normally would have taken the school bus eight miles home but we'd arranged to work on our debate cases that evening.  We tried for awhile but wound up talking about the assassination and what it might mean for the future.

For the next several days I was in front of the TV. All regular programs on the three networks were cancelled for four days and nights. Apart from the news about Lee Harvey Oswald, the new President, etc. there was the arrival of the President's body in Washington, the lying in state in the White House on Saturday, the public viewing in the Capitol rotunda that drew a constant line of citizens on Sunday, the funeral procession through the streets of Washington and the funeral on Monday.  While my family was at church on Sunday I stayed home to watch, and saw the live pictures of Oswald being taken through the Dallas police station.  At one point I jumped--I saw what I thought was a gun.  But it turned out to be a hand-held microphone.  A moment later I heard the shots, and saw Oswald killed.

The only time I recall leaving the house and the TV was probably on Saturday, when I went with my father to Main Street in Greensburg,  He was the manager of the Singer Store and I helped him decorate the storefront window with black crepe and a photo.  It was one of mine. I had the official presidential portrait framed, and a larger poster of President and Mrs. Kennedy.  We probably used the portrait.

All the stores on Main Street took down their normal window displays and put up a commemorative display.  My recollection is that no retail stores there were open at all that weekend, or probably even on Monday.  It was very quiet.  I remember some snow--I wonder if that memory is accurate.

Later I learned that students from my high school chartered a bus and went to Washington to walk through the rotunda to pass the casket.  It never occurred to me to do that.  I was very sensitive about what I thought was appropriate, at least for me.  I wanted to honor his life.


Still, I watched it all.  The funeral procession made the greatest impression--the caisson, the rebellious riderless black horse, the Kennedy family.  The funeral was at St. Mathews in Georgetown.  I was in Washington for JFK's inaugural and knew that when he was a senator he went to St. Mathews so I got the relatives I was visiting to take me there for Mass that Sunday.  As we were leaving we saw the cordons and the Secret Service, so we turned around and went back in.  After our second Mass of the morning, as JFK strode down the side aisle he shook hands with as many people as he could, and one of them was me.  It took a particular effort, he was reaching back a little.  I was astonished of course.  Now his funeral was in that same church, those few years later.

Somewhere in storage here I have items relating to that week.  The Four Days pictorial book.  A reply to my letter joining with thousands of others requesting that the new national arts center be named the Kennedy Center.  The embossed reply from Jacqueline Kennedy to letters of condolence she received (some of them now in a book published this year.)

But one memento I know I don't have. The next week my high school, Greensburg Central Catholic, organized its own memorial assembly.  As a known Kennedy aficionado I was asked to participate by writing something and delivering it from the stage, as several other students would.  I felt strongly at that moment that I didn't want to talk about my thoughts, but I would select and read excerpts from JFK speeches and writings.  The nun who asked me got testy and refused.

I was permitted to briefly play a few lines from JFK's Inaugural Address which my father had taped in front of the TV on his reel-to-reel while I was there in Washington. I played it on the same tape recorder at the beginning of the assembly, hunkering down backstage unseen.  Then my part was finished and I watched the rest of it from the audience. They had also asked to borrow my large poster of President and Mrs. Kennedy which was ultimately used as the centerpiece, affixed to the back curtain during the ceremony.  I believe there is a photo in my senior year high school yearbook of that stage with the poster in it.

My instinct about the event was justified as I recall one of my classmates sobbing from the stage about little John-John.  It was not a display JFK would have approved.

When the ceremony was over I had to ask for my poster back, but the nun in charge claimed not to have any idea what happened to it. She seemed completely unconcerned and no attempt was made to find it.  I never saw it again. And even today I've never seen that particular image again.

 Eventually I did write something for the school newspaper, which I reproduced recently here.

I may have Greensburg newspaper front pages from that weekend somewhere.  I find now that while the TV images and photos were universal, and many live on in cyberspace (at least for the moment), I look to a more local context to frame my memories.  This particular history of the city doesn't provide it.