Friday, December 31, 2010

Year's End, Year's Beginning

It has been a while since I last blogged. Our lives have become so complicated that the idea of -- and the time to dedicate to -- writing a blog has been difficult to attain. I hope to do better, but over the next several months our lives are still in limbo and I keep spending my time in frustration: hurry up and wait. I wish things could be finished, and yet wish they never happened. Major changes in our lives offer me the opportunity to grow and remind me of what is really important.

Enough said.

Oh, one more observation: it took me until I was 60 before I began to understand all those things I have come to believe about stuff. I knew it in my head, but my heart held out for more ----- stuff. Stuff is nice. It makes life easier to go through. But what matters are the people in our lives and how we treat them. I know that sounds trite, but when you look around you and really see what others feel, the words ring true. Stuff -- stuff -- doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my stuff. I only realize how wrapped up in getting stuff I had become and I lost sight, lost touch, lost meaning along the way. I only hope I genuinely am on the right road once again. Which doesn’t mean I won’t go out and get Mark Twain’s Autobiography or the newest Christopher Moore novel fresh off the press. It means I would rather spend time with any of you.

Now for a note of a more positive nature. Earlier this month Richard and Caiti Devine-McPalmer welcomed their second son into the world. His name, in keeping with their own tradition, is Franklin Finnegan Devine-McPalmer. Richard likes Presidential names -- but when I heard the choice I was puzzled. After all, Benjamin Franklin was never a President. But then I remembered Franklin Pearce (okay, I’m the only one who does, and that’s barely), and then FDR, author of the second and tragically unfulfilled Bill of Rights.

Caiti likes Sesame Street characters. They kicked around the name Grover for awhile but waited until the baby arrived and told them his name himself. Good choice, Franklin.

On a scarier note, a good friend has had major heart surgery -- a wakeup call that helped us get our priorities in order and gave us much needed perspective. Prompt attention to subtle symptoms probably saved his life. Recovery will be difficult but he is well on the way.

Enough welcome myself back blather. I a looking forward to 2011 as a year filled with promise and appropriate conclusions. May each of you be blessed with curiosity and wisdom, and of course, peace.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hunting Dragons

From the Unpublished Memoir of a Dragon Hunter

I have spent my academic career on an errand of folly. Some might call it a quest but many might, and far too many have done, call it a colossal waste of time. And yet, through my journey, which always has sought the truth, I have had the opportunity to travel to many places and see many things. Just never what I sought in the first place.

This was no surprise: finding what I sought would have been earth-shaking.

To put matters simply, I long have wondered why dragons exist in legend and mythology world wide, with reports of actual sightings, even battles, as late as the Fifteenth Century, and yet no physical evidence of their presence exists. At all. Not one skeleton, even a skull, or an egg or a horde of gold in the base of a mountain can be attributed to such a beast. Are they legend only? Myth? Or are they some sort of creature driven to extinction by men so utterly that even their bones are gone?

Every question begat more questions. It seemed to me that perhaps dragons were some sort of prehistoric memory lodged in the human collective consciousness from a time long, long ago. After all, every one of us is fascinated by dinosaurs even though those magnificent creatures died out millions of years before humans appeared on the planet. Yet there were mammals around during the Age of the Dinosaur -- has memory followed evolution? If so, are dragons part of that memory?

Still, the only dinosaurs to appear in actual human existence came from fiction, like “King Kong,” “The Lost World,” “One Million BC” or “Jurassic Park.” one can argue that the same can be said for dragons, but this would be inaccurate. Among Western civilizations, stories exist of recent encounters, and in the East dragons are an accepted part of current mythology -- clearly a unique interpretation of the animal’s existence.

Then it occurred to me: Dragons fly. It seems a universal constant. The Chinese claim that a dragon has to turn 4,000 years old before it gets its wings, but that does not prevent it from flying much earlier in its life. Western dragons almost always have wings already. And yet, dragons are massively, frighteningly large. Given the rules of aerodynamics, a creature that large would need incredible musculature and extremely long wings to act, essentially, as acrobatically as a hawk one hundredth its size.

Unless -- and here is the revelation -- a dragon has no bones. even with considerable size, an animal unencumbered by the weight of a skeleton made of heavy material would require considerably less strength to achieve the same graceful flight. I imagine a skull of calcium but a skeleton of cartilage -- much like a shark.

One other component adds to my revised picture of dragons: fire. Many dragons are purported to breathe fire. Perhaps all can. If that ability exists, and how it might remains a mystery (like purring in cats), then the probability is that a dragon’s body, or a goodly percentage of it, acts like a bellows and hot air balloon. Imagine if you can a shark flying a dirigible with total maneuverability, and a dragon comes closer to being an acceptable reality.

Still, why have we found no trace? Do dragons self destruct upon death? Or are their skulls so similar to those of other creatures that they have gone misidentified? Forget horns and think more of alligators -- who, on land, have been mistaken for dragons (see Saint George and the) -- or giant pythons -- who have been mistaken for sea serpents in the water.. It works in reverse: when Greeks uncovered the skull of a dinosaur, they looked at the thing from the wrong angle and invented the only explanation they could come up with -- a Cyclops. Truth be told, we are still revising our understanding of, and visual imagery of dinosaurs to this day, as new evidence emerges.

Perhaps a dragon lies somewhere in the Alps or Caucasus Mountains awaiting discovery.

Of course, we believe in God without any evidential proof beyond what human beings have written, invented, or done themselves. Why not dragons?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pirate Latitudes, a Review

The great thing about dead writers, especially modern dead writers, is that their work lives after them. That is, previously unknown manuscripts surface in their estates and get published. Sometimes, the resultant book self-evidently demonstrates why the author kept it hidden while alive (but didn’t have the heart to throw it out -- we writers are in love with our own words). Other times, the book turns out to be as good as any in his oeuvre.

Robert Ludlum has made a second career as a dead writer, with several Bourne stories coming out based on his character and/or notes. Kurt Vonnegut’s estate has released some very classy stuff, including a new book soon to be published, “While Mortals Sleep”
(slated to be in stores December 25, 2011, four and a half years after his passing),. And Michael Crichton, who passed away in 2008, left behind the completed manuscript to a gem among ripping good yarns called “Pirate Latitudes.”

Unlike “Prey,” the last book Crichton published before his untimely death, which felt disjointed and too busy to be effective, “Pirate Latitudes” is a tightly told, linear story with a strong, straightforward focus. It is not great literature, nor does it pretend to be. It is an adventure story told in real time, without the aid of scientific input or twists and turns, about one man in particular and the other people who inhabit his very specific world.

Set in the Caribbean of 1665, the story follows the exploits of English Captain Charles Hunter and his handpicked crew of sixty men and one woman, who are privateers(not pirates) on a mission to capture a treasure laden Spanish Galleon out from under the noses of a well armed garrison on a difficult island and, as it turns out, a Man of War commanded by Hunter’s sworn enemy Gazalla.

The delight is in seeing the adventure unfold, step by step, in a logical linear progression. These are rough men and women, used to rough ways, and Crichton makes no apologies to our modern sensibilities in portraying life and death in the Pirate Latitudes. Hunter and his crew face danger after danger -- from the Spanish, the weather, natives of the region, even a Kraken. But the greatest danger comes from his own government and a self-righteous bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur.

Hunter is a ruthless leader, cunning strategist, and at the same time a charming and charismatic personality, very popular with the ladies. Every secondary character is drawn carefully as well, though each in turn serves mostly to amplify Hunter’s determination and talents. The result is a genuine page turner locked in a real world fifty years before the likes of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd or Ann Bonny and Mary Read -- a Pirates of the Caribbean based on true stories and feeling genuine from first to last. To touch that world, to feel that time and place with all its hardness and terror, and yet survive the experience, Crichton presents us an exciting, fulfilling read.

One can only hope there are other pieces in the dead man’s chest.

Friday, October 22, 2010


For S and G's here is my review of a BBC single season wonder:

Bonekickers (BBC, 2008)
Original broadcasts July-August 2008. Available for rent or purchase.

One thing I love about British television programming is brevity. A season will last from six to thirteen episodes and is done. A series lasts just as long as it takes to tell the story, and is done, even if it lasts only a single season, six episodes long. Even the very best follow this pattern: “Mulberry” went two seasons, totaling thirteen episodes; “Coupling,” by far one of the funniest situation comedies of the past twenty years (and not to be confused with the pitiful line for line American copy) went four seasons; the Occult drama “Hex” had its story told in two. Even the exceptions prove the rule -- “Doctor Who” prepares for its sixth season but with its third doctor since the new millennium reboot.

These shows finish leaving you wanting more. For some, like “The Bonekickers,” one season is quite enough.

This series was created by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, the team that gave us the outstanding “Life on Mars” (two seasons, twelve episodes total). Archaeology professor Mark Horton from Bristol University acted as consultant, helping give the program its air of authenticity.

“Bonekickers” has a six episode arc that clearly was intended to be self-contained. The series follows the exploits of a quartet of archaeologists from fictional Wessex University who solve puzzles with the care of a CSI team and the gusto of Indiana Jones. Not even Jones himself would believe that archaeology could be so bloody dangerous and exciting, particularly in locations like Bristol.

Dr. Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) leads the troupe, with Dr. Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester), a former classmate at college and lover, and Professor Gregory “Dolly” Parton (Hugh Bonneville) her main scholastic allies, and young Viv Davis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) their apprentice. For comic relief, Michael Maloney plays Daniel Mastiff, the boss you love to hate. The characters are interesting but fairly one-dimensional, and we see very little personal growth in any of them during the course of the series. The one exception is Bonneville’s Professor Parton, who comes to us already complete and almost anachronistic, a throwback to that Indy Jones brand of adventurer caught in the modern world.

But adventures abound. The subject of each episode is itself fascinating and filled with potential. In order, the archaeologists uncover, and then fight to preserve, the Knights Templar’s greatest treasure; the legacy of escaped New World slaves called the Maroons; the true story of the death of Warrior Queen Boudicca; the prophesies of the Babylonian God Marduk; and the resting place of Joan of Arc. Each time someone sinister wants to stop them. Crimes, including murder, ensue. Each time they acquire great knowledge but usually lose what they are after.

Gillian is on an underlying quest for a specific sword. In her pursuit, she shows herself to be hard, belligerent, driven, and often hubristic. This makes her at once interesting yet not wholly sympathetic, a difficult and real person. But we stop there. She is no different at the end of her quest than she was when we first met her. We learn about the complex relationships between the characters, which lend an almost soap opera quality to the proceedings, and we are presented with an array of interesting and likewise driven guest characters from episode to episode -- in fact, things move quickly enough throughout the program that all we are left thinking about is how cleverly all these artifacts and bones link together, first within the framework of each episode, and then in the totality as summed up in episode six.

At least they didn’t leave us hanging. With pointed references to Gillian’s quest for the sword appearing in every episode, in the finale she manages to solve the riddle and attain her prize, if only temporarily -- Excalibur. The clues fit neatly together, while the possible implications of finding that sword lead to a heated and dangerous conclusion of the series. The ending is satisfying up to a point. I still don’t know why Gillian . . . Well, maybe you should see for yourself.

My favorite character in the show rarely had much to do but strut and translate. But in the finale he got to shine at last. Hugh Bonneville’s raspy voice was perfect as his “Dolly” Parton got to utter the best line in the program: “Don’t mess with me, I’m an archaeologist!”

“Bonekickers” is definitely not a great series. The characters never fully develop and each episode seems to struggle to create a neat, believable ending. But the subjects explored by the archaeologists -- Christ, the Maroons, Boudicca, Marduk, Joan of Arc and Excalibur, are all captivating, while the level of danger and potential impact the characters face each week make these episodes a guilty pleasure -- sort of like watching Robert Langdon decipher the Da Vinci Code, only this quartet of explorers show genuine passion for what they do, and that alone is fun to watch.

"The Wrecking Crew"

"The Wrecking Crew" is a film by Denny Tedesco documenting his father's career. On October 16 I got to see it, thanks to my brothers Paul and David. I wrote the following review for and wanted to share it with you all.

The Wrecking Crew, a Documentary by Denny Tedesco (2010)

You probably have never heard of them, but if you’re my age or if you have ever listened to any music from the 1960’s or 70s, I guarantee you’ve heard them play. As Los Angeles became the center of the recording scene for everything except Country, The Wrecking Crew were the consummate studio musicians who helped create hit record after hit record, from Elvis to the Beach Boys to the Mamas and the Papas to Herb Alpert to Sonny and Cher to Frank and Nancy Sinatra.

It was an era in which stars and their bands were not always good enough to make a record special, and studio musicians were called upon to turn a good song into a sonic treasure. Cost was also a factor: the actual band might take days or weeks to get a song just right for album release, while the studio musicians routinely did it in hours. It was a special window of time perfectly suited for this one steady core mix of talent.

An eclectic group of brilliant musicians who could sight-read anybody’s composition, master it, improve it where necessary, and turn in a finished track within three hours, these guys and gals might play for Sinatra in the morning, do the sound track for Hawaii Five-0 after lunch, then move in to tackle one of Brian Wilson’s increasingly sophisticated and complicated musical ideas -- too demanding for the touring Beach Boys themselves -- before dinner, then play to exhaustion to create Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” before calling it a night.

It is said that drummer Hal Blaine is the most recorded drummer in music history, and that Tommy Tedesco holds the same honor among guitarists. No matter what genre, if you wanted a specific sound, Tommy Tedesco would find it. Bass guitarist Carol Kaye could take a simple riff and turn it into something unforgettable -- for example, she tweaked the very simple base line for Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and gave a flat, lifeless underscoring genuine snap. Add a wealth of musicians numbering twenty or more at any given time, including drummer Earl Palmer, guitarists Billy Strange and Glen Campbell, and bassists Larry Knetchel and Joe Osborne, and you have The Wrecking Crew.

They got their name when they first showed up for work. The studio musicians there all wore ties and jackets and “looked” professional. These new guys came in with scraggly hair, wearing T-shirts, and dangling cigarettes from their lips. One of the other guys said, “You’re gonna wreck the music business.” Hal Blaine then said, “That’s us. The wrecking crew.”

Tommy Tedesco’s son Denny has spent the last fourteen years building a loving, honest tribute to his dad and fellow musicians of The Wrecking Crew. It has taken all that time to get releases from the various music studios for whom they recorded, so Denny could include the 130 examples of their work in the film. When asked why he didn’t just cut down the number of songs, Denny replied, “Because that’s the point. They played everything.”

By 1980 a new breed of singer-songwriter emerged on the music scene. New bands appeared who not only wanted to play their own stuff, they had the skill needed to do so effectively. Studio musicians became redundant. But, as several of them comment, it was a great ride.

You won’t find “The Wrecking Crew” at your local art house theater or even on DVD yet. Tedesco is still raising money to pay off the last of the studios for permission to play those songs, and money to finance the DVD release. He’s about $250,000 shy as I write this -- pocket change in today’s music industry. This means he is unable to show this film in commercial outlets, so he has been airing it at film festivals, where it has won numerous awards, and in private non-profit venues. I got to see it, along with about 200 others, at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where it was presented as one of the Center’s “Night at the Museum” series of events.

For me it was a wonderful evening filled with nostalgia, fun, and great humor. The members of The Wrecking Crew loved what they did, yet has a great sense of humor about themselves, and it shows in every frame of the 95 minute film.

Carefully edited and honestly told, this is the story of the musicians who created the soundtrack of my generation. They were paid handsomely for it and got to do what they loved. And even if they weren’t credited on those albums, this film shouts their names with joy.

For more information on The Wrecking Crew, visit the website:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Checking In

Hello to all my friends out in the eather! It has been a long while since I blogged last, and I apologize. Many of you already know why I have remained quiet for the last several weeks, and now is not the time to launch into some sort of tirade or bitter self-flagellation. The horizon is still far away, but I have seen it and know I am moving in the right direction, and that is all I feel the need to say at the moment.

I do have a few words of wisdom to impart, They are not my words. They belong to a Chinese philosopger named Mo Tsu, who predates Lao Tsu, credited with being the center of the Taoist movement. My eldest rightly points out that Mo Tsu's words apply to an ideal and unattainable reality, not ours. Still, if each of us could live them, well, ah, the idealist in me still dreams.

In response to the criticism that "All embracing love is fine enough, but it is hard to apply where it counts," Mo Tsu answered:

"The world's leaders have no idea what is for their own profit . . . Those who love others will be loved in return. Do good to others and others will do good to you. Hate people and be hated by them. Hurt them and they will hurt you. What is hard about that?"

Monday, August 30, 2010

Meeting The Girl For The First Time

I fell in love with her long before I met her. I cannot tell you if it was from seeing her picture in a book, or my overall fascination with everything coming from the Dutch Golden Age, one of the richest periods in creative history. Or was it Tracy Chevalier’s masterfully crafted book, or the stunning performance of the Girl in the film? All I know is Johannes Vermeer’s painting of “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” became an obsession, something -- and someone -- I had to see for myself.

Fortunately for me, I have been able to travel to Holland several times on the cheap, due largely to my niece and nephew, who always open their home to us, saving us beau coups de bucks. They also are proud of their heritage and love only too well to play tourist along with their guests. Anything we want to see, they will do what they can to make it so.

On our first visit to Holland my mission was to see the Huygenshuis in Hofwijk, the summer home of Constantijn Huygens, arguably one of the most influential personalities pf the Seventeenth Century. His son, Christiaan Huygens, astronomer-scientist-mathematician-inventor, one of my all time heroes, spent his summers there. During that visit to Holland we also toured the fames Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, but “The Girl” hangs somewhere else.

On a later visit, we went to the museum where she lives. It is the Mauritshuis in Den Haag (the Hague), a beautiful Seventeenth Century three story mansion designed by Jacob van Campen, with its construction overseen by none other than Constantijn Huygens. The building now makes for an intimate museum, easily traversed in a few hours without rushing.

We walked from room to room, painting to painting, awed by the diversity of subjects and artists. We entered one large room and our eyes were immediately drawn to a painting on the wall opposite the door. The painting was not overly large, measuring about three by four feet, yet it dominated the wall. It was Vermeer’s “View of Delft.” Once again I was stunned by something I had witnessed before: even among several similar pieces, some stand out with a unique brilliance. Even before realizing it was a Vermeer, I recognized its status as a masterpiece just by looking at it.

But I wanted to see the Girl. I scanned the room, turning back toward the door through which I had entered. And there she was.

She hung in a space near the door that seemed to radiate with its own energy. A small platform rested in front of her so the viewer could step up for a close look. You could touch her -- she rested open and unprotected except for a museum guard positioned in the room. You could practically smell the paint, over three hundred fifty years old. I had never felt such intimacy with a work of art.

Vermeer is known for his sense of light playing against shadow, and for using a camera obscura to help capture the richness of detail his paintings convey. The camera obscura, an early precursor to photography, helped Vermeer create snapshots in oil of the life he knew and saw around him.

I was immediately struck by two things. The painting was small, at 17.5x15 inches much smaller than I had imagined. And yet it was larger than life. The Girl’s enigmatic expression reaches across three and a half centuries to beguile and haunt you with her simple beauty. Only the earring she wears shows any sign that she is an extraordinary person, which, socially, by all accounts available she clearly was not.

But to see her was to see someone as close to immortality as any of us will ever get.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Top 10 Intentionally Funniest Westerns

Great humor bends our perceptions and sets them on end. It can satirize a genre or enhance the base story line of a particular project, but it always serves to underscore deep truths, often indomitable ones, and to confront and conquer our fears. If Westerns are horse opera morality plays, then humor, done right, underlines the point. It is hard to make funny work, harder to make it last. The following films, in one way or another, succeed. Listed by year of release.

Destry Rides Again (1939), directed by George Marshall, is the earliest entry on my list by far. Jimmy Stewart plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., a brave deputy marshal who recoils at the idea of using a gun, preferring his wits to stop trouble. His town is controlled by evil saloon owner Brian Donlevy and his girl, Marlene Dietrich. Including one of the greatest and longest saloon brawls on film, this picture tweaks every convention popular in Western storytelling, yet provides a satisfying and inevitable finish.

Cat Ballou (1965), directed by Elliot Silverstein, finds a young woman trying to protect her father’s ranch from those who murdered him. To do so she hires a professional gunman, but what she gets is a terrible drunk -- and twin to the head bad guy! Lee Marvin plays both roles while Jane Fonda is Catherine, who becomes outlaw Cat Ballou. Marvin won an Oscar for his work, though he admitted a great debt to his horse.

Waterhole #3 (1967), directed by William A Graham -- who knew that robbery, rape and murder could be funny? In “The Magnificent Seven” James Coburn played a super cool, super quiet, ultra deadly gunman. He began playing against that type for laughs with this film, where everybody is out for themselves and the lines between right and wrong aren’t just blurred, they’ve been erased. As everyone hunts for a hidden cache of gold, Coburn seduces the comely daughter of the local sheriff, who is far from unwilling, but claims rape when he spurns her, in the end, what really matters is love, but getting there is hilarious. And a bit of gold doesn’t hurt. Or, as Roger Miller sings: “It’s the code of the West -- do into others before they do unto you.”

Paint Your Wagon (1969), directed by Joshua Logan, is a gender role challenging musical western starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood as the two men Jean Seberg loves. Marvin? Eastwood? Musical? ‘Nuff said. Still not convinced? Watch the sequence where all that undermining the town for easy gold dust just collapses on itself, or listen to Marvin sing “Wand’rin’ Star.”

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), directed by Burt Kennedy, stars James Garner as (yet again) a clever and brave man pressed into service as a lawman to tame a town that literally sprang into existence overnight when one of its citizens discovered gold at a funeral. Immediately it becomes a wild and drunken mess. With a gang bent on controlling the town and townsfolk who are reluctant to support their sheriff, Garner and his reluctant deputy (an amazing Jack Elam) -- and the girl whose discovery started the whole thing -- have to face down the gang by themselves. They do it with a cannon, a great bluff, and sheer courage.

Cheyenne Social Club (1970), directed by Gene Kelly. Cowhand Jimmy Stewart inherits a piece of property. Henry Fonda rides all the way to Wyoming with him, for 1,000 miles, and never stops talking. That alone is funny, given that Stewart is the one known for protracted monologues and Fonda better for laconic observation. Once they get there these two relatively innocent cowboys find they have to run and protect a brothel full of heart-of-gold but very sexy women. A sweet, funny film.

Little Big Man (1970). Arthur Penn brilliantly brought Thomas Berger’s novel to the screen, with Dustin Hoffman incredible at portraying Jack Crabbe from a tender age to 212 years old. This film is hard to call a comedy because it is a very serious-minded film that relies on great humor to illustrate its story. Jack Crabbe is not a mover. He is a witness. He is our eyes on the beauty and humor of one culture facing extinction and on the brutality and dark humor of the culture bent on replacing the first. Even so, his mere presence alters the paths of others.

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) reunites Burt Kennedy with James Garner and Jack Elam in a very different but equally funny story. This time Garner is a con man who passes Elam off as a vicious gunfighter while Garner tries to amass a fortune playing roulette.

Skin Game (1971), directed by Paul Bogart, is a brilliant film about two con men, James Garner and Ossie Davis, who run a clever con in the 12857 border states. Davis pretends to be Garner’s slave, whom Garner sells. That night, Davis escapes or Garner breaks him free, and the two pocket the money and head to the next town. It gets complicated when one mark refuses to let go. The film relies on humor to challenge our perceptions and preconceptions about race, stereotypes, slavery and racism (then and now).

Blazing Saddles (1974). Many, including my wise brother-in-law David, believe that Mel Brooks’ raucous send-up of the standard single good guy against a mob of outlaws to save the town plot actually destroyed the Western as an American art form. Brooks left nowhere else to go. From having a clever, funny and handsome leading man who happened to be African American and wore a white hat (Clevon Little), to a gunfighter so fast you never see him draw (Gene Wilder) to beans around a campfire, to the crazy fistfight that crosses over into a Busby Berkley musical, Brooks pulled out all the stops. Throwing subtlety out the window, Brooks created arguably one of the funniest films of all time.

If anyone is keeping score, Jimmy Garner appears in three of the ten films, while Jack Elam, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin appear in two each.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Westerns of the Sixties

And now for something in a different mood: How the Westerns of the 1960's reflected the changes in American culture during that turbulent decade:

In many ways, the 1960’s was the Decade of the Western. Some can argue that the 50’s or even the 40’s were the heyday of that typically American medium, while the 60’s saw the art form exported (the Spaghetti Westerns) and eventually depleted. After all, Westerns after the 1960’s became more and more rare, and after Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” (1974), with a few notable exceptions, virtually non-existent. Still, the Westerns of the 60’s were a pivotal part of the American scene, and reflected the changes that were going on within the country during that turbulent decade.

Five films apply demonstrate the shift. Through them we can see how the Western went from clean cut, Good versus Bad, white hat versus black hat, to deeper, more psychological gray areas, from “The Magnificent Seven” to “The Wild Bunch.” Along the way the heroes of the film went from being peace builders who killed because they had to, to war mongers who needed to kill.

“The Magnificent Seven” (1960), a reworking of “The Seven Samurai.” follows seven American mercenaries as they enter a foreign country (Mexico) in order to help the local population fight off a gang of outlaws. Although the characters are complex, not mere cardboard cut-outs, they are decidedly good, and the banditos are decidedly bad. The lines are clear, and our heroes are caught up in doing what is right. Not only is this John Sturgess film a rousing testosterone-pleasing epic, it is also a morality play very much in tune with America’s image of itself.

In the ambitious “How The West Was Won” (1963), three directors created five “acts” to bring a fifty year period of America’s history settling the West to the screen. The heroes again showed complexity, even reluctance, but always did the right thing in the end, whether it was Jimmy Stewart’s mountain man or Gregory Peck’s gambler, or, central to the morality of the film, George Peppard’s Civil War soldier turned railway man turned lawman. Peppard is the rugged American standing up against the lawless West with little more than his own moral compass, courage, and rifle to tame a savage land and bring peace not just for the territory, but his family as well. Nobility abounds.

The shift comes after. There are several choices to mark the watershed, but I pick “The Hour of the Gun” (1967). In this film, Wyatt Earp (played by James Garner) goes on a vengeance trail against the Clanton gang, who had crippled one brother and killed another. Using a Territorial Marshal’s badge and a handful of deadly companions to make his quest legitimate, including Doc Holiday (Jason Robards), Earp leads what becomes a take no prisoners approach.

There is no more brutal scene in film than the moment Earp finds and confronts Andy Warshaw (played by Steve Ihnat), who protests that he didn’t shoot Earp’s brother, he only watched to make sure no one interfered. When Warshaw confesses that Clanton paid him $50 to watch, Earp becomes enraged and squares off. Warshaw is clearly outmatched, but, desperate, draws. Earp is faster and pumps bullet after bullet into Warshaw, emptying his gun, each shot bouncing the poor man against a fence. It is tantamount to murder. Yet Earp is the hero of the piece and we are asked to accept his rage as reason enough to forgive him. The dead were, after all, all bad men. Even Warshaw, who only watched.

But the lines between good and evil have been blurred. What changed? The answer seems obvious -- the Vietnam War. By the time that this film was being made, Americans were beginning to question their involvement in that war. The Good Guys found that their motives were being questioned, more and more so as the decade and the war continued. It seems fitting that the director of “The Magnificent Seven” also gave us the more ambiguous heroes of “The Hour of the Gun.”

Incidentally, the scene described above is available on YouTube and has had nearly 3,000 views. It is an amazing sequence, even out of context of the rest of the film. Though the bloodletting is tame by today’s standards, the physical scene stands on its own. Type in your search engine: You Tube - Hour of the Gun -Steve Ihnat vs. James Garner and Jason Robards, or if you search for Hour of the Gun the link will appear.

The decade ends with “The Wild Bunch,” Sam Peckinpah’s amazing and ground breaking ode to the end of the West. It is also staged and filmed like a combat film, with more visceral bloodletting than any film before, juxtaposed against almost balletic camera shots that at once make the visual images hauntingly beautiful and desperately brutal. By today’s standards, the blood spatter is tame, but for its time “The Wild Bunch” depicted death by gunshot as a messy business that left bodies scattered and the wounded groaning in agony. In this one, four outlaws at the end of their careers make one last job into their epitaph. This time we have all gray areas to contend with: some of the villains are heroes because everyone is a villain. In a reversal of “The Magnificent Seven,” in this film a gang of outlaw Americans go to a foreign land (Mexico again), with only one real motive, destruction.

The new decade began with a film that many consider an indictment of America’s foreign policy, “Little Big Man” (1970). Once again the lines are clearly drawn, only this time Americans are an invading force while the native Cheyenne and Sioux are the local indigenous population being pummeled into submission by a loosely organized policy of genocide. As great storytelling, “Little Big Man” is one of the finest films ever made in America, with complex characters, timely humor, and sensitivity to a dying people struggling not to die. As a political statement, the film completes the self-depreciation of American motives and actions just as the protests at home against the Vietnam War reach their zenith. It is obvious who the bad guys are, and they are us.

The Westerns that follow these five feature more complex, more ambiguous heroes and anti-heroes. The genre has slipped into a more occasional method for telling often revisionist story lines about America’s past, and by extension, her present and future. If art reflects the extremes of the culture that creates it, then the 1960’s brought moviegoers one hundred eighty degrees from certainty to questioning.

We are questioning still, which I think is good.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nice Things Happen Even At Work

Sometimes nice things happen on the job.

I came back into the office after completing my rounds on Thursday to be greeted by my supervisor. "Mr. Blokker!"

I'm used to being addressed so formally at work. It's part respect, and part kidding, since I am now one of the oldest postal carriers in our office. But, still, when someone in authority practically shouts my name, I begin to wonder what I did wrong. Trying to be cool, I said, "Hi, Glen."

Glen raised his voice even louder, firmly saying, "Everyone here! Listen up! Mr. Blokker got a compliment from a customer that's been posted on the USPS national web page!"

One of my fellow carriers asked him what it said. Glen explained, "The customer says she has never before had such consistent, accurate and friendly service."

It happened that several supervisors were in the office at the moment. Each one congratulated me in turn. Then I went back to checking in so I could go home. I was thinking that you always hear it when you do badly and it's good to hear when you've done well.

Another carrier congratulated me and asked, "What did you do?"

I smiled and said, "My job."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Losing Weight

If I had known it would be this easy to lose weight I would have done it long ago. But it was never easy before; my head was in the wrong place, firmly embedded in pizza, beer, mayonnaise and peanut butter.

You see, hiding within a rolly poly Santa look-alike was a slender, decent looking, flirtatious man. I did not want to let him out. I was afraid of what he might do with only the slightest encouragement from anyone of the female persuasion. Having promised fidelity to my bride, it was easier for me to be flirtatious and fat, with no worries that I would ever be encouraged to break my vows.

Temptation became food, and food became temptation, and I was safe.

I did not realize how safe I had become, that its, how fat. It sort of snuck up on me. I recently saw a photo of myself in March 2007 and literally wanted to cry. Even in deep hiding, I didn’t want to look that bad, or be that unhealthy.

Slowly, over three years, I began to turn my obsession with food around. Diane did the same. But the weight loss was small and painfully achieved. Over that same three year period I realized that women liked me anyway and that my female friends were much more valuable as friends than they ever would be as lovers -- and more permanent. I learned that I was in no danger of breaking that promise to Diane and it was okay to lose the weight. For her. For me.

Diane reached the same point at the same time. It seems all our stars are aligning at once. And it became easy. Oh, it’s work. It’s vigilance. But my psyche is no longer battling me on this front. And the other fronts are, likewise, lining up.

I don’t miss mayonnaise or peanut butter. Someday, I might have a bit of pizza again, but I am in no hurry. Beer is an occasional indulgence, well planned for, as is a good straight shot of single malt. And I still cannot believe I get to eat this much food and still lose weight -- or that I went from a size 44 pants, tight, to a 36 in four months.

So thank you, Diane, for working with me and letting me follow your lead. And thank you, Me, for being ready when she was, for being willing to start over, rebuild, and change what needs to be changed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gay Marriage Ban Overturned

The biggest headline yesterday had to be the federal judge’s overturning of the controversial California Proposition 8 passed by a 52-48% margin in November 2008. It has raised controversy once again, with comments ranging from an attack on traditional marriage to about time to “too soon.”

I have a few observations.

First, to anyone who thinks that once a majority voles for a proposition it must become law, I offer case after case of terrible and cruel laws passed and later overturned. Just because it is popular doesn’t make it right -- laws that isolated Jews throughout Europe leading to the Holocaust should be all that we need recall. A law can be good or bad; but courts have the obligation to review and decide.

For those who argue that marriage is a sacred estate between a man and a woman, I would remind them that marriage as we know it is a human construct from the Middle Ages when women and children were property, so that a man could be fairly certain his progeny was in fact his and entitled to any titles and inheritance he might hold. The other major reason for a marriage was to link two families together, to make each one stronger, and love had nothing to do with it. In other words, modern marriage was created out of greed. Male greed.

As things evolved, a monogamous relationship tied the woman to the man, while the man still was free to carry on affairs without impunity. This makes marriage sound particularly advantageous to the males of society.

For those who say that a child needs to know his or her mother AND father I would ask why so many children do not have a father to help raise them, because he left the building, and yet most of those children turn out functional with only one struggling parent to raise them.

And if marriage is so sacred, what is divorce?

I like traditional marriage, it works for me and has done for going on 36 years, but it works because my wife and I have made a promise to try to keep it going, to not stray, to work our problems out without throwing up our hands and walking away. I also have the distinct advantage of having married my best friend, and we’ve maintained that friendship even through our times of trouble. Bit it is so easy to give up, to quit, to dissolve.

I suggest we redefine marriage as a commitment before the community of men and women between two people who love each other, to try to build a life together.

It seems breathlessly simple.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Save Our Algae

It was well over twenty years ago that I first read that algae -- that green stuff in the water --replenishes the earth's oxygen every fifty years. Not trees, although they add their share. Algae. From the kelp forests to the gulf stream plankton, all within eighty feet of the surface of the oceans and lakes, mostly oceans.

But something is happening. On NPR yesterday, I heard a report that scares the green clean out of me. Over the last century, records exist that help scientists determine that the world's algae, as well as zoo plankton, are deminishing rapidly. With satellite imnages over the past few decades to help, it looks as though we are losing one percent of this material every year. More blue seas, less green -- universally, in all major bodies of water. Less food for the whales, and more importantly, less air to breathe, since we carbon based life forms breathe photosynthetic bi-ptoducts.

They think global warming is the reason: more stretches of the ocean's surfaces remain too warm to allow nutrients to rise up from the cooler depths.

Can you feel the air getting thinner?

Hannie Caulder

I find it wonderfully ironic that I would write a review of this movie for Helium and weeks later Entertainment Weekly would issue a brief review of their own on the updated release of a new DVD of that film. Even better, the reviewer echoes what I wrote for Helium. So, my friends, I post my review here:

For a long time, those who decide such things determined that Raquel Welch could not act. After “One Million B.C.” (1966), this is an understandable conclusion, but far from accurate. In a movie in which she was required to run around in a furry bikini and grunt emotionally as cave men battled dinosaurs and each other, her skills weren’t stretched. She looked good. She looked great. That was all that was required. It sold tickets. As silly as the film was, we remember Raquel -- endangered by hungry animals and sex hungry men.

The poster from that film was so iconic that it became a prop in “The Shawshank Redemption,” one of the posters Tim Robbins used to cover up the hole in his cell wall that eventually became his escape route. No one ever questioned Robbins’ placement of the poster.

But Raquel can act. In “Hannie Caulder,” an existentially influenced British produced contribution to the Western genre directed by veteran TV and movie Western director Burt Kennedy, she plays a woman who takes on the role usually reserved for a wronged man and hits the Vengeance Trail with all the determination of a Clint Eastwood. Unlike the females in Clint’s Wild West, Hannie Caulder does not sit around and wait for her knight in a shining white Stetson to avenge her. She learns how to do it herself.

The plot is simple. After a badly botched attempted bank robbery, three inept but very violent criminals, the Clemens brothers, played by Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin and Jack Elam, escape from the Mexican army and make their way to a Pony Express station. They kill the tender and take turns raping his wife, Hannie. They burn down the station and leave her for dead. Hannie survives, and enlists the reluctant help of bounty hunter Thomas Price (Robert Culp), not to track down the trio for her but to show her how to shoot and kill. Price helps, going as far as bringing Hannie down into Mexico to have a special gun made by an expert gunsmith (Christopher Lee), one that will carry all the fire power she needs but be easier for her to handle.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man in black (Stephen Boyd, unbilled), lurks on the horizons, watching. Is he some sort of protector? Or is he some sort of menacing figure waiting for his chance at Hannie?

Price finds himself falling in love with Hannie and attempts to convince her to let it go, move on, hopefully with him. But when he stumbles onto the trio, they kill him, leaving Hannie alone to face them down. Which she does.

“Hannie Caulder” is largely a revenge film, in the tradition of older Westerns, with the clear moral that the bad guys will get their comeuppance in the end, even if they manage to inflict more damage on the way. As such, the film is clever and centered, even if the often comic performances by the Clemens brothers seem wholly at odds with their violent behaviors. That juxtaposition is jarring, and intentionally so because it makes the viewer uncertain and uneasy and puts the main character, who has already lost so much, further in jeopardy. These men may be fools, but they are also cold hearted killers and rapists who have no second thoughts or doubts. They are sociopaths.

As to Hannie’s soul, as she seeks that revenge, there is less of an issue there. What she seeks is righteous, and we root for her. We want the bad guys dead. There seems to be no other possible outcome.

This is not a great Western, but an interesting and original one. The actors all are in fine form, from Culp’s strong support to the veteran character actors Borgnine, Martin and Elam exuding, in equal measures, sleaze, menace and ineptitude. Raquel Welch is stunningly plain, a woman of unquestioned beauty beaten down by the country and the events that befell her, trying to get back up. She is strong, determined, single-minded. But the poncho? Who wears a poncho to a gunfight? Well, Clint, maybe . . .

The film’s originality comes from allowing Hannie to be a strong and ultimately deadly force. She is a woman who is trying to take back the control and self esteem that were literally stripped away from her. That she needed the help of a man to learn how to shoot a gun at the start is realistic. That she became self-reliant afterwards is empowering not just for women but for anyone who ever was a victim.

You go, girl.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

All Caught Up And Newsweek, Too

It's amazing what a few free hours can do. I am on OT -- overtime desired list -- at work and they have been using me every day. But they must let me have one eight hour day each week or face paying penalty OT, an absolute no no. So my very smart supervisor, Damasio, let me have Thursday so I can be available on Friday, which is the end of the work week. Any OT people who haven;t had an eight hour day by Friday MUST get it then.

So I get to catch up a little -- and on the blogging front, I feel pretty caught up, at least with time. I still have two more blogs to write after this one, but three in one day is more than enough. My poor readers!

Speaking of reading, I don't think that Newsweek will mind if I use their material. Since the magazine is dying, as are all weekly news mags and daily newspapers, crushed in the internet age (are books to follow?), it seems only fitting that I use the information highway to remind us all that these great sources once were, and still struggle to be.

Over the two past weeks Newsweek has had articles that particularly struck home for me in my current mental state (no guffaws or wisecracks, please). The first one dealt with healthy living at any age. I have ragged on about this before, so I will only cite the NUMBER ONE rulke for proper living, according to that article. It is, "LEARN TO COOK."

Therein lies true independence, individuality, and control.

The second article had to do with creativity in America and how we are losing it. There are seven "bubbles" or rules to follow to promote creativity. I want to cite four, briefly.

REDUCE SCREEN TIME. Kids spend about 3 hours a day in front of the TV, reducing play time by one-third. It is play that drives imagination. Look at me.

FOLLOW A PASSION. People wh are focused on one great interest or love tend to excel at it, and are better disciplined in their approach. Remember the old adige,m Jack of all trades, master of none? And I find that people who are creative in one area almost always spill over onto others, as well, as a matter of natural progression.

EXPLORE OTHER CULTURES. Cross cultural experiences encourage adaptability and flexibility, and promote new ideas.

GET MOVING. Just 30 minutes of exercise improves cognition everywhere, including creativity. But thgere's a catch -- you have to be fauirly fit, otherwise the exercise will cause fatigue and stop the brain from wantng to work. So, fitness, whatever that is, is a boon to creativity.

It all goes hand in hand. It all matters, not just to each of us as individuals, but also to the society in which we live and which will benefit from our creative outputs, whether in art or science or living.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

the world cup

Orange is the color of the day. The Netherlands managed to hold off a pesky and talented Uraguay team and win their semi-final match, 3-2. Now they wait to see who they play against in the final for the world cup! Spain or Germany. No one can help it, but everyone hopes it's Germany.

Even my nephew, for whom sports is like Christmas to Scrooge, has caught a slight case of Orange fever. He will be watching the game on Sunbay, beer in hand, like a true and loyal Dutchman!

The best part of the whole world cup so far for me, apart from my national pride swelling in orange hues, was to hear sports pundits talking about how European futbal just does not have the energy or stay-with-it-ness of the South American power house teams -- but the Dutch beat Brazil, an old nemesis, and three of the four teams in the quarter finals are European. And now the final two will also be European. So much for pundits!

One last thing: GO ORANJE!!!!!!!!

And you all thought I was getting too serious,

Monday, June 21, 2010


Somehow it seems appropriate that yesterday's blog was filled with type-o's since it was about stupidity, I swear that I did a spell check but for some reason it did not register. So, especiually to all my friends and family and both to whom I forwarded the blog, please know that I am usually more precise than that! But then again, it was Father's Day, Beth and Brian were here to help mark the occasion, and I had snuck off to write the blog in a quiet fit of -- you guessed it -- stupidity!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stupid Musings on Father's Day

My friend Steve and I were talking yesterday. He is 67, I am 60. It seems that we both have become cynical in our old age. I don't know if that has to do with the physical and mental process of getting older (some call it maturing, but I doubt that I am any MORE mature than ever), or just with having lived long enough to realize that the changes we sought when young have occurred only in very tiny increments. So tiny they are easy to miss.

Adter all, when I read about historical eventys and wars and junk like that, and I look around at the historical events and wars and junk like that that my grandchild will read about when he grows older like me, aabout he only two things that have changed are one, the efficiency with which we kill each other and two, the speed with which we report it.

I wonder why people haven;t listened when Christ suggested that killing each other wasn't such a good plan -- and was willing to BE killed to prove it. Or, for that matter, why after over 3500 years we still ignore the Commandment Moses brought down from the mountain that says, "Thou Shalt Not Kill." There were no exsclusions, exceptions, special circumstyances in the fine print. There was no fine mprint.

Steve told me that he read a quote that explains it all brilliantly, sums it up the way he has wanted to for years. If I find out who said it, I will let you know. But the jist of it (I'm paraphrasing because I got it second hand) is: Men will never stop killing each other vecause we're so stupid.

That's S T O O P I D.

Now, I love my war films and murder mysteries and Westerns and costume dramas and Roman epics. But for me, it;s a way of letting the demon out for a while in a safe place. It's not a life choice.

One last point: The idea that one can have a glorious death is the stupidest thing I ever heard. What good are you after that?

So, Happy Father's Day to one and all fathers. Look at your children. Hold them close in your heart. Beg them with that heart that they reject war and killing and violence and hatred and all that junk, because it is junk, of absolutely no value.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Just a quick blog today, to keep my mind sharp and in the game, so to speak. I am working on something a little meatier for later in the week or on the weekend, that maybe won't be as fun as this.

And this is fun because I can proudly announce (oops, I split my infinitive) that I have been losing weight in a planned way. It's Diane's plan, as she has rejoined Weight Watchers. I just go along for the ride and draw benefits from her working the program. Actually, WE are working the program together, including even walking 2 miles a day (I hate to exercise, but the mailman duties don't require very much on the job walking anymore, so I have to do something). Diane can brag on herself on her Weight Watcher's Blog, but I have to say I am proud of her. For seven weeks now we have been relearning how to approach food. This is a change for life, not a diet or fad, and we seem to be mentally ready for it -- on the same page at the same moment. It feels great!

By the by, I'm down to a weight I haven't seen since I coached my littles in soccer back in the day. I do have toes! I suspected as much, but they were on the far side of the moon. I am half way to my goal and the best two things are, I'm not hungry like I was on past eating plans, and it turns out that I like fish after all!

One side note. Just saw "Up In The Air," the film about the man who travels the country firing people for bosses too chicken to do it themselves. A very poignant and sad little film, richly acted and presented. How many of you have seen it and listened carefully to the song in the opening credits? Very jazzy, very cool -- but did you recognize "This Land Is Your Land" by Woodie Guthrie? Yep.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Losing My Grip

I just published this poem on Helium and wanted to share it with you all. It really happened just the other day (Friday). I call it, "Early Signs of Dementia," but it was publoished as "Losing My Grip."

I grabbed a pair of clean socks today.
I turned my back and they went away.
I searched for them both high and low
Wondering where my socks might go.
If I were socks stuck in a bin
And I got out, I’d do what then?
I would not want to be stuck on feet
Trapped in shoes out walking the street,
So I would flee, hide where I could,
To keep out of the neighborhood.
I sat there wondering about this stuff
As if my thoughts were quite enough
To solve this puzzle; I looked again.
I’d tossed them in the laundry bin.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost and Found

The series finale of Lost was fantastic -- it would have been oceans better if it wasn't plagued by that terrible smoke monster called advertising. Three to six minutes of program, then five to ten minutes of ads -- I almost passed out from boredom before the end! I had taped it in case I couldn't stay up that late, but doggedly stayed with the program. Diane was right --she said it after the very first episode: you don't suppose they're . . . I won't say it in case you haven't watched your recording yet.

So. now another unique and wonderful series draws to a close, this time at least because the writers and creators SAID they were done, and not because the network pulled the plug, as with Firefly, Farscape, Millennium, and all the way back to the original Star Trek. Odd, off center series seem to do best in short runs, anyway. That Lost made it six years is a testament to great writing and great acting and constant end-of-the-chapter suspense. Hats off!!!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On the Verge

Hello, my friends!

I feel as though I am on the verge of something. Of course, I am always on the verge of something . . . somnetimes it feels like something great, sometimes something dull, sometimes something momentous, sometimes something difficult, sometimes something sad, sometimes it's just a nap. Today it's something mystical, that I can't quite put my finger on, that is tickling me behind the ear where I can't see it. This is a place where we all have been, and I think the vague word for it is hope.

Hope springs eternal, they like to say, and it's true. Even in the darkest of times hope emerges from the shadows. It's difficult to be negative all the time, though it can be done. I have done it for sustained periods. But today, even facing challenges I have not had to face in over a dozen years and that I thought were behind me, I feel hopeful.

Maybe this is because I am writing. A lot. Short pieces, poems and reviews for, knowing I am being published and read, at least by fellow writers whose job it is to rate your work against the multitudes. Writing makes me happy like almost nothing else in the world can. In fact, I could lose everything else I own, but if I have a keyboard, internet access (used to be, if I had a pen and paper), some kind of roof over my head and my wonderful wife to support me and help me through the day to day, I will be fine. There may be a regret here and there, lamenting a choice not made in a timely fashion, even some major disappointments. But over all, I will be happy.

And busy. Very, very busy.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Just Another Poem


I want to live somewhere else,
somewhere not so committed
to murder, somewhere where
policy condemns not condones.
Somewhere not likely to invade
somewhere else, not likely to
promote Jihad, Crusade
in the old language,
broken words brought back
in the modern age.
Somewhere where hate is not
welcome, invited, sought out.
Somewhere where people
do not starve, or, starving
receive help and not
platitudes, inedible.
My dreamless dream
in unicorn forests and
silent springs, my sanctuary
hidden from the machinations
of powerful men,
slipping through the cracks,
unobserved, untargeted,
but also unread.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Viva Las Vegas

Saturday we drove to Las Vegas to witness our daughter's graduation from Nevada State University, in Henderson She graduated summa cum laude with a 3.98 grade point average, tied for the highest ever awarded at the school. She also was Valedictorian, and gave a rousing speech. It was a deep honor, well worth the sixteen hour round trip.

We spent the night at the Four Queens hotel casino in Las Vegas. Di had never actually been to Las Vegas proper before, a distinction she had held onto proudly all her life. Now the last remaining claim to abstinence is the fact that she has never seen "True Grit."

That won't change unless I tie her to a chair and force her to watch it, which is something that will never happen.

I saw "True Grit" once, totally by accident. Some friends and I went to see a double feature, but "True Grit" was already half over when we got in. So we watched the last half first and then stayed to watch the first half last -- and felt we had not missed a beat. Once we got to the point where we started, we left.

I don't remember the second film. That's irony for you. I think there was so much fuss about Marion Martin's performance that the film about an old man/protector/western knight kicking ass on a half dozen bad guys, reigns in his teeth, became etched into my memory banks.

I've always felt bad about that.

John Wayne would have liked the Four Queens. They have smoking and non-smoking stalls in the bathrooms replete with ashtrays -- I kid you not. And cup holders on the urinals. Now I know what they mean when they say, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Where else can you have your beer and pee it too, in one convenient process??

So now Di has been there, done that. I kinda feel bad about that, too.

Fut our youngest child has beaten all the odds and made it through with highest honors. Rooster Cogburn would be proud.

I feel great about that.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Book Thief

I wrote the following some time ago, first as a ketter to two dear friends, then as an article on Helium. Hope you all like it.

Dear Annemieke and Hanneke,

I write this letter to you both, because you both were there, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It always amazes me how big discoveries can follow on the heels of small accidents, even when the discovery itself seemed small at the time and the accident did not even appear to exist.

It was the simplest thing to do. The fact is this: We went into a book store.
Utrecht's largest bookstore was filled with people of all ages browsing and buying. Children in droves scoured the shelves hungry for new things to read. Children of all ages clamored for a place in one of the six check out lines, books in hand, faces smiling in anticipation of the adventures awaiting them.

For me, an American glancing at Dutch books, the vision was amazing and gratifying. Then I discovered that there were dozens of books in English waiting just for me. After an hour of exploration, I chose four. Among them was The Book Thief, a novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak. I examined it and fell in love with the premise: Death meets a girl and now Death is compelled to tell us her story.
Her name is Liesel Meminger, who finds herself growing up with foster parents on Himmel (Heaven) Street in a small town near both Munich and Dachau, during World War Two. Through an array of fascinating characters trying to find some sort of normalcy in such a place and time as Nazi Germany just as the war turns, we get to see all the horror, pain and beauty that exists in Man.

Four Observations from The Book Thief
1. The Average German was caught up in it, just like everyone else.
2. The average German was human.
3. Contrary to modern opinion, the accordion is not a curse on the musical world, but a blessing.
4. Although in Nazi Germany kindness was punished instead of rewarded.
kindness occurred. Kindness flourished.

The book compelled me in many ways. Not the least of which, I had to confront my own prejudices. Ordinary people whom I was raised to think of as the enemy shined brilliantly in this story, and then became the victims. There can be no daunt, as Death himself warns, so I don't think I am giving too much away: bombs will fall. American bombs.

After reading this book, how can anyone ever let anything like this happen again -- give Death the workload? And yet . . . .

Years ago I read Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List with great disappointment. Keneally's material was compelling but for me the story telling was flat and without real emotion. But if Keneally had written that book with the poet's eye that Zusak gives us in The Book Thief, it would have been like reading Kurt Vonnegut's take on the German side of the war and holocaust, Zusak is that good. The canvas is small, intimate, personal, quirky in the telling, yet filled with such miniscule humanity against the backdrop of a world gone terribly wrong that my own emotions became raw, from laughter to tears. This is the book I wish I had written, found so casually, by accident, among the stacks of books in Utrecht.

One reviewer focused on the idea that it was words that kept Liesel and the others going, that brought and preserved life and dignity -- just as words in the hands of men like Hitler could destroy. For me, the dominant theme of the book focuses on just one word. Kindness. Unseen, unheralded, unspectacular kindness, something we forget human beings are capable of and always ready to perform.

The Book Thief may just be the best book I have ever read.

So thank you again, ladies, for the happy accident that rocked my world.



Thursday, April 29, 2010

westerns part two

The voting is on. Categories include TV and movies and whatever else you think of. Even Spaghetti westerns and down under epics can be considered. On that note you gotta love Quigley Down Under -- another film with Alan Rickman to grace its scenes, and the ever watchable Tom Sellick too!

Top Ten????? That's complicated. Start with The Magnificent Seven and you begin to realize most of the best were made in the late 50's and the 60's.

Then came Blazing Saddles.

10 Seconds

Immortality beckons
just out of reach
like so much dust on the moon,
my footfalls marking
unknown passageways
through my own mind.
Comfortable there, safe,
unchallenged, gifted
without tragedy or pain,
yet I fear. I fear
the anonymity.
I fear the slippage that awaits
with no paragraphs of remembrance
printed around the world.
Ten seconds, then forgotten,
not even stumbled upon
by accidental tourists
centuries hence. My books unread.
My name spoken only by accident
in Dutch townships
where hausfraus purchase
serving pieces and towels
for their kitchens and their guests.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rambling Man

It is a new day. Boy does that sound corny and kind of dumb -- of course it is a new day! This one has been odd, though, as Diane and I try to fit new ideas (well, old ideas that are reawakened) into our lives. My mother used to say, ask a busy man to do something and he will find the time. I am beginning to feel that, at 60, I am actually finding the time whenever I look for it! And a good part of that time I spend writing.

i have submitted articles and poems to in droves lately, and plan to keep on doing so. I am also re=thinking my novel and my "memoir" and even considering blogging them page by page or chapter by chapter. All the while working, trying to sell stuff on eBay, and keeping track of all the people I love. Busy, indeed! And time is becoming my friend for a change.

Plus there's TV to watch -- Lost is winding down, Chuck is on demand, and the New Doctor Who is delighting me --- David Tennant was a tough act to follow, but so was Christopher Eccleston. Matt Smith is doing just fine so far.

But nobody is Rose.

O Blah Dee O Blah Dah!!!

Friday, April 23, 2010


Been thinking about fun things. Two come up for your consideration and feedback. Later I will share my opinions.

One: What are the best Westerns of all time?

Two: What would you consider to be the best job ever for you?

Have thought will travel!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Safe Landings

Safe Landings

The years take off
like rude children
mindful only
of their own desires.
Perhaps you are an airport
busy with comings and goings;
life itself can be
touch and go.
But it is the flight
that excites you,
adventurous destinations
and safe landings
that await.

Monday, April 19, 2010



I am no longer young.
I am not altogether old just yet,
archaic, an anachronism
wandering my own box canyons, lost.
My words still make some sense,
at least to me;
they carry inside them unknown songbirds
screaming to get out, take flight
high above the sheer canyon walls
comforted by your wise counsel,
kept warm by the grace of your
cozy, careful nest.

I see myself a poet
with cascading insights and clever phrases
locked in a toy store of my own design, forever.
I take no risks, face no rejections.
I feel no crying need to publish,
chapbook or solitary tome,
it’s all for me, all for me.
Not even your eyes may behold
the wonders etched on parchment
and tell me of my brilliance.
My light shines well enough for me,
I wander my box canyons alone.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

New Arrival!

Congratulations to young master Jonathan Layne McCarthy, who arrived into this world in the usual way yesterday and already shows all the signs of a real heart breaker! We welcome you. Live long and prosper!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


On Sunday our friend Carol took us to the movies. All in one swift movement Di and I became NOT the last people on earth to see Avatar, as well as once reluctant and now wowed by both IMAX and 3-D. Our previoys experience with IMAX had been Fantasia 2000, and the whales were life size, the screen was overpowering and we were overwhelmed. The IMAX at Cannery Row was not AS huge, not curved, and we could handle it. As to 3-D, my lkast experience with the medium was Jaws 3D, which was an awful film with cheezy effects that played to the 3D, leaping ouyt at you with severed fish heads and whatnot. But this! James Cameron did not play his scenes to the 3d effect; instead, he used 3D simply as the canvas. And it was exceptional. Plus the glasses were much more comfortable and only a graction as silly looking as the old cardboard and green-red lense jobbies of old.

As to the film -- it was beautiful, well told, busy, and fun. An e-ticket! The story was predictable but well presented, with enough tension at the outcome to keep you riveted. The film flew by, leaving me satisfied, awed, and ready to attack 3D again.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sheri's Thanatopsis

Something I wrote when she passed. Di thought it should be shared for anyone and everyone who has suffered a loss -- thyat would be alomst all of us. It feels important somehow. Here goes:

Death slid into the room
like smoke billowing inward
through the open screen door.
He knew his victim, if victim she was;
she had danced with him for years,
had bedded him, sung him arias
filled with pain and longing,
and in return he had promised
to come back when she was ready,
and gently so.
The room was filled with sound,
our laughter, our tears, our lives
freely given freely shared,
so many cut flowers in a shrinking vase,
but she no longer followed us
and Death only smiled at our
sentimentality and sense of loss.
And all the while I wondered whom
next he would invite to dance.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

apology of sorts

Dear friends, family and followers:

I guess I owe an apology to anyone I emailed the Charlie Rose article. Feedback shows that some of you are confused. Let me make this perfectly clear: I do not oppose taxes. In fact, I would willingly pay more taxes if one, I had confidence that the money would be used as earmarked and without superfluous waste; and two, if I had more say as to where my tax dollars went. Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay a penny of tax to support the Mexican-American War. But he was a hippie radical commie loving pervert. Oh, wait, that was 1848.

Charlie Rose gives us food for thought, and I do think that we should consider ridding ourselves of an ineffectual Congress that seems more intent on petty bickering than actually getting anything done. And when they do get something done, the minority side goes ballistic. I mean, a year to get a watered down health care bill passed, and half of America is up in arms about that, with Sarah Palin yelling, "Reload! Reload!" Oh, please!

Ah, next time I will be either more fun or more serious. Depends on my mood. So, sorry everyone!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Dutch Trains

I don't care where we go
but please let's go
two hours by train
north or south or east
to some pretty little town
on the map but off the charts
to walkabout
and grab a coffee or a
borrel to fight the chill.
Let the wind whip up
the cold North Sea,
let the frost dig deep
into the dark rich earth,
let the early sundown
bring forth the winter lights
and smells of warm
gezellig homes
that wait for our return
and we walk back
from the train station
like well fed Vikings
laden with booty
and our boots soon dried.

borrel - liquor drink
gezellig - cozy

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Just Keeping My Hand In


You remind me of the things
I do not have.
You remind me
of roads that I have traveled
and left behind me
hungry to return.
Of friends made and lost
and brought back in from the cold,
the brisk.
You remind me of the things
I do not need
and the people
that I do.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Diane's brother James, Diane and I were poking around in THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY by misanthrope Ambrose Bierce and a copy of WEBSTER'S UNABRIDGED (a nice book to keep handy as long as you have a table strong enough to support it) when we came upon the word "thanatopsis." I found my picture there.

I have an irrational fear of Death. Maybe if I live to be a hundred I will be more open to meeting it, but I don't think so. Death scares the living bejeesus out of me.

At 60, I have buried both my parents, both Diane's, and seen many other family members and friends pass away. I have lost countless pets. Yet I consider myself to be extremely lucky -- knock on wood -- because Death has come into the neighborhood, even peered in at me, but left me alone. My brother, who is 75, agrees that we both have missed great dangers in our lives, me more than him. I commented that, had I been drafted in 1969 and sent to Vietnam, I would not have lasted a day over there. Instead I drew 365 in the first selective service lottery. Then I wrecked my knee.

Still, I fear Death's coming. I fear the dying, the after. So I live my life as fully as I can, day to day. I treasure my old friends and new, the music, films and books, the things I can still do and see. I love life and find it utterly amazing, and I have learned not to let my fears diminish the living.

I do have one stronger fear -- of letting people down. Especially my beautiful wife. I don;t know the word for that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tempis Fugit

My my but time do fly! Busy, busy, but I haven't forgotten my blog -- just not quite ready to settle down to a daily commitment yet. I do have a few political things to say (or restate):

It's time our President got some cahones.

As long as Americans seek to make a profit from health care, no reform will work.

Postal workers do not make lavish salaries -- except for ones at the top. Yet the Post Office wants to buy GSI units in every postal vehicle in America so Big Brother can watch and make sure we are where we say we are at all times -- at what cost at a time we're in the red?

The Yankees will reoeat as World Champions!!! Sorry, Steve and Richard . . .

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Brief Hello

Hello from Salinas. I haven't blogged in a while, not since I actually turned 60. And no one will read me if I don't write. Just saw a House about a woman who blogged about every aspect of her life to a major gollowing, and recently saw the film Julie and Julia about another woman who blogged about 365 days of cooking. I guess that btells me I should be blogging daily but have not worked up the discipline yet. I think I have a subject -- travel stories. Di and I haven't traveled much but we have been to some fascinating and exotic places like Amsterdam's flower market, the pubs of Dublin, the wilds of Montana and the middle of the Red Zone, Terre Haute, Indiana. With eyes open. I wonder if I should write about all that?

Imput, my chosen ones! More imput!

After all, there are enough political pundits and character assassins in the world, and as much fun as it is to gripe -- and with many good excuses to boot -- I think I would rather entertain.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again

My Dutch Uncle Hennie is very sick. In fact, he's dying. He started dying three years ago of prostate cancer but now the cancer has spread. He does not have very long. He is 79, and the last of my father's ten brothers and sisters. When he passes, that entire generation will be gone.

This will make my brother the oldest living Blokker, a distinction he probably could do without. I understand. I just turned 60 yesterday and have been at the same job for 31 plus years (something I would have laughed at you for suggesting would happen, back in the day) I rank Number 5 among all the letter carriers in all of Salinas, California. Being Number One is not something to which I aspire. It is more comfortable being in the top ten. Even firmly. In my family, as the dust settles and my brother and my generation slip into the top bracket, I will still be way down on the seniority list.

That's fine with me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


It gets very lonely sometimes, writing blogs to myself in the vain hope -- and vanity is operating, trust me -- that someone is "listening." Like Roger Waters once asked so famously, "Is anybody out there?"

I got a good piece of advice the other day. Be patient. Keep on plugging away and be patient! Some days that's easier said than done.

Having said that, I realize that it's only two hours until the next episode of Lost. How pathetic am I that I realize this? A nice shot of Bushmill's and an hour with Jack and Kaste and Sawyer and Hugo and Loske who is not Locke and of course Sayid, the most symaptheic torturer the world has ever seen!

Ah, Redemption! Ah, smoke monsters!!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Really Good TV

ah, for fun.

I am lost in "Lost," delighted by the mysteries and anxiously awaiting their resolution. There are only fourteen hours left and "Lost" will be lost forever -- lost but not forgotten. To me it is opne of the best dramas ever put on commercial television, perhaps after "Doctor Who" and rivalling the best shows done on cable TV like "Six Feet Under" and "Dead Like Me." If you've never given it a chance, rent "Lost" from the beginning.

Of course, I like things that are just a bit off center.

As to my all time favorite TV show, although my opiniuon can be changed, I am going to say today that it is "Dexter" on Showtime. This one is a truly bizarre treat, focusing on a serial killer who controls his tendencies by killing serial killers. I have not yet seen Season 4 (I don;t subscribe to Showtime so I have to wait for the DVDs, but I like watching TV on DVD because it lets you appreciate the entire story arc at once), but for me Season Two is one of the most remarkable accomplishments ever broadcast. Erotic and edgy, with a plethora of complex characters and incredible outcomes, it was tight and taut and oh so sexy. Yet disturbing as all hell.

Rent Season One for back story and a truly great season before you rent Season Two, but wait until you meet Lila!

Friday, February 12, 2010


Call me a fluff brain, but the one magazine I read religiously cover to cover and await anxiously every Friday, is "Entertainment Weekly." It is a passion, a guilty pleasure like salt and vinegar potato chips and pizza, which I consider brain food.

I actually read the articles. I love to find out what may or may not be happening on "Lost" or why the extra features on the "Up" DVD are worth it or when Christopher Moore's next book is about, or what Dexter is up to and when Season Four will come out on DVD, and who's getting sued or arrested or who died. Just the stuff for intellectual stimulation.

Of course, that other bastion of wisdom, "Star Trek" (the original series) said it best in the episode, "Shore Leave," written by Theodore Sturgeon, via the calming verbiage of the Caretaker: "The more sophisticated the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play." Sudoku, anyone?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Day Of Compliments?

I am fifteen days away from 60. My hair is grey. Each morning I wake up wondering what part of me is going to hurt today. But at least I wake up. I think I am entering my second mid-life crisis, though my first, which started when I was 43 (I am non-traditional in a lot of ways), has not yet ended. I seek balance in my life, as do we all, on a day to day, sometimes minute by minute basis.

Today I was hit by extremes. At Blockbuster, a young lady needed my ID to open a membership account. My driver's license is located in a slip cover on my wallet. The last digit of my birth year is obscured. She asked, "1950 - what?"

I answered, "Just 1950, though I am loathe to admit it."

She smiled. "You don't look it," she said. Of course, I beamed.

Fifteen minutes later I was at the Grocery Outlet, checking out. Another, even younger woman volunteered -- without an ID check -- a senior discount. So much for balance.

I took the discount.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Opera in Monterey

Der Rosenkavalier was wonderful, perhaps the best performance of the Strauss opera ever! On the large screen, in very comfortable seats with a perfect view, we sat and enjoyed a dantastic evening.

The broadcast began at 6:30. We got there at 5:45 and the theater was already half full! Our friend Amanda looked around -- she is in her early 40's (I think) -- and leaned into me. She said, "I think we're the youngest people here."

I smiled. "Speak for yourself, girl," I said. Grey hair everywhere. "These are MY people!"

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Quick Blog


Work is a four letter word that ends in K.

Multitasking is a four letter word with attitude.

Confusion is just a four letter word.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Night At The Opera

Diane and I are going to see a live simulcast of the New York opera's performance of Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavallier." It happens to be her all time favorite and I love the music though I have bever seen the opera performed. It will be shown on the large screen at Del Monte Cinema in Monterey. Cost, $22.

Basically we will be watching the tekeprompter that you would have as a small acreen at the Opera House. But we will miss out on the wonders of Opera House seating. With stadium seating at the theater, I will not experience the cramped, tight, no room to wriggle stiff seats. With the large screen close ups on the performers I won't need my 10x field hlasses to see their fascial expressions. I will be so comfortable I might fall asleep -- so I intend to bring with me a huge pillar to sit behond so I have to maneuver around it to see, which ought to keep me going.

I don't want to miss the sublime last trio that ends the opera, possibly the best and most beautiful thirteen minutes ever written for voice.

Sunday, January 3, 2010



Here's hoping that 2010 will be better for all. 2009 wasn't a BAD year. In many respects it was joyous. In others it was downright awful. I plan to remember the awful in passing and celebrate the joy. I also plan to make 2010 more joyous yet!

Much to do, much to do!

Anyway, more stories and poems and opinions will come soon enough. For now just hug someone you love (hugging yourself is perfectly fine) and remember that I am here, feeling sort of hood today, and smiling at you!