Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Christmas Movies

It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It is also that day of rest between Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. We need to rest from all that shopping, I guess. Forty percent of the national non-essential spending for the year occurs during the Season. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- as much as I bemoan the commercialism of Christmas, I delight in giving gifts and I do not mind receoving them, either. That being said, I just have to note that Sunday, the day of rest, ain't. Shoppers are flooding the stores, planners are planning the holidays, and retailers are absolutely hopeful. And, for a time, our focus is firmly on each other, what will please you, what will fit, what to feed you when you come, how you plan to get here, where everybody will stay, how will the weather be. The weather, by the way, up here is cold enough that last night's dusting of snow is sticking on the ground, just a slight pure white accent to the mood that is threatening to overtake me. It's a wonderful mood, filled with all that hope and the wish to be generous. This year, generosity will have to find other, less concrete forms. Diane and I will have to be creative, something I know we are both good at being. This afternoon we start decorating. For various reasons, we are going to skip a real tree this year and rely on our old, faithful, very fake two foot tabletop model that we set up in 2001, the year we went to Holland together for the very first time, leaving the day after Christmas and not wanting the burden of dismantling a real tree the afternoon before our departure. There is a warm fuzzy attached to the tree, and a small heartache knowing that trips to Holland are much desired but far, far away. Up here in Montana we both feel a little displaced, trying to fit our traditional celebrations into an already existing array of traditions. We have ideas for 2013, centered around Saint Nicholas's feast day, but in 2012 that day is coming too quickly and the funding for a proper celebration is coming too slowly. We have to plan our events far in advance while living our lives day to day. That last line sounds like a nice, balanced Hallmark moment, the kind I hope to build into a mountain of moments remembered fondly by my grandson Xander. I already have a mountain of moments, a calendar filled with perfect days spent with my wife, my family, my friends. I want more of them. More than anything else in the world, I love perfect days. The sun is out, the sky is blue, the snow is still sticking around. Di and I are watching a movie on the Christmas Channel, better known as Hallmark. These, mostly, are fairly bad films, and no one will argue with me on that -- even, I suspect, the filmmakers themselves. But every now and then one shows up that is almost good, or even pretty good, or even as good as some of the stuff in the theaters we have to pay to see. And good actors, writers, producers, cameramen, directors, grips, makeup artists, and the rest, get work. Their paychecks ought to help them get through the holidays with relative comfort, and I laud them for that. I begrudge them nothing, and I am entertained, as well as given the opportunity to tell you how bad or almost good the films are. It's sort of like starting your day with sugar plum faeries dancing through your head, a hot steaming cup of coffee by your side and your snow shovel at the ready. Sounds like a good beginning to a perfect day to me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Glacier Symphony Does Ode To Joy

Today I want to start out with a strong note. Take any note from Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and it will do. On Sunday, Diane and I got the wonderful opportunity to hear the Beethoven Ninth live, thanks to the generous and delightful company of our friend Joop, a fellow immigree in good standing here in Montana. The thing that amazes is this: Kalispell city has less than 17,000 residents and all Flathead County has but 87,000. And yet, right here, we find a symphony orchestra and chorale that, to put it mildly, is surprising. I came to Montana from California with certain preconceptions and prejudices, I must admit. Having raised our family in or near the cultural hubs of Monterey-Salinas and San Francisco, I came here expecting to find nothing culturally exciting; I thought I might be wandering into a wasteland. And yet, and yet ----- The Glacier Symphony and Chorale are here. Not only that, they contain a compliment of musicians whose passion for their art is clear and displayed in their performance. They also like a challenge. In the short time I have become aware of the orchestra, they have tackled as complex and emotionally difficult a piece as Sibelius' Fifth, and as demanding and full throated a masterpiece as the Ode to Joy. This last symphony, coupled with Beethoven's charming and often surprising First, was our first exposure to the Glacier Symphony, and we came away enthralled. Any live performance is better than none, and a good performance is better still. I have experienced the Monterey Symphony on numerous occasions, and found their performances as uneven as their conductors. Most of the time, I have loved what they did, but once in a while, especially under the laborious baton of one particular elder statesman of the conductor's guild whose name I have conveniently forgotten over time, that orchestra has fallen far short of what I felt I understood of the composer's intentions. Given that, acknowledging that the Monterey Symphony is a small venue orchestra, and seeing that the Glacier Symphony venue is less than a third of theirs, I had every reason to expect this new group would offer a noble attempt and I would laud them for that. Not so. Perhaps because their conductor, John Zoltek, has been their director for the past fourteen years, and because he is not in the least bit afraid to challenge his musicians, the Glacier Symphony is pretty damn good. You could not stack them up against San Francisco or New York, who have deeper resources from which to draw. But in a small venue, these people make a huge -- and joyful -- noise. Once again blessed and surprised by the diversity and excellence of this area, our home!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blogs Between the Snowflakes

I am issuing an apology, even if one is not needed. This is a very busy time of year for all of us. Conceeding the constraints of a 24 hour day, with the Holiday season upon us, I am apologizing in advance for the probable infrequency of my blogs during the coming weeks. It has not been a consistent year for me as a blogger to begin with, and as the year draws to its inevitable close, that trend -- or lack of a trend -- will continue. But that's okay, because the main reason for it is the fact that I am a busy man. I constantly wonder how in the world I had time for work when I was working full time, there is so much else to do! At least boredom is not an issue I ever face. All that being said, I also have to declare here, as much for my own inner deadline as for your entertainment, that I have begun what I hope to be the final reworking of my latest project before publication. I expect to have it ready by Spring and hope to pitch it to "legitimate" publishing houses or agents as the first of three interrealted books centered on one German's experiences during World War Two, It will not be like anything else out there on the subject, But,then, I have a twisted way of looking at things that sometimes takes me on directions that no one else seems to find. At least, that's what I think. The fact probably is that a hundred people come up with the same or similar ideas at about the same time, but only one can be the first to do it. I am trying to be the first here, and the only enemy I have to achieving that goal is my own procrastination. Procrastination is something I am very good at doing. I am so good, in fact, that once I was asked to join a procrastinator's club, but I never got around to it. That's okay, they have yet to hold their first meeting. I need to push forward. It is hard to follow the discipline I know I must. It is hard to work past all the distractions that come my way on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, from my wonderful grandson's afternoon tea after we pick him up from school to Brian Cox the scientist traipsing over the Scablands to talk about what water can do to a landscape, on the Science Channel. Cox explained that at the end of the last ice age a monstrous lake rested behind a massive glacier. When the glacier gave way it was like a thousand Hoover Dams releasing a thousand Lake Meads -- scouring the land into a gigantic coulee (dry ravine formed by rushing water) in a matter of two to seven days, an instant of geologic time. The Scablands, he said, were somewhere in the northwest. Curious, I looked them up to find that they are less than a day's drive from my home, right on Highway 2 west of Spokane, Washington, on the way to Leavenworth where the Nutcracker Museum resides. The more common name for the Scablands is the Grand Coulee. So another distraction is planning a couple of days to go to Washington, visit the Grand Coulee region, stay in this Solvang-of-the-Northwest town, and marvel at what human hands can carve out of wood, and nature out of the earth. And yet I am supposed to squeeze out snippets of time for my writing, with all this wonderment to see, appreciate, understand. Even the weather is baffling -- the arctic cold snap is gone and with it, the meager snow that fell, and we look to be in for a winter of miniscule snowfalls. So think of my blogs as coolees in words, gushing through the internet. If they make a mark, terrific. If not, the novel I'm polishing or the one after that just might push into existence an entire mountain with my name on it. I can only hope.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dealing with fear

I have spent the last several days dealing with my fears. It seems odd to sit here this evening and admit that I am afraid. It is not something a man is supposed to admit out loud except in the waning hours of darkness before dawn brings a battle to be fought. Then, it's okay. Maybe in today's world it brings less of a stigma to admit one's fears. The temptation is to say, "Yes, I am," then make light of it. I intend to, in fact, as this blog goes on, so if the mood shifts jarringly, just go with it. I no longer have to fear the outcome of the national election, but I still fear the actions that might be taken by the various elected. But that is out of my hands. In fact, all the things that I fear, really fear, are things out of my hands, things that remind me that control is an illusion and, as Jim Morison once sang, "the future is uncertain and the end is always near." I fear the end. I fear that when it comes I will have done nothing remarkable or noteworthy or memorable to mark my time on this planet. It is the fate of most of us, that we are remembered fondly only by those closest to us, and our deeds are interred with our bones, as Daniel Webster once said. I fear that there will be no Christmas this year, that our new budget is far too small. I fear I may never again see some people I hold close to my heart, especially ones who live overseas. I fear the snow. These fears have had me down and almost paralyzed for the past few days. I have had distractions, like watching the entire extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When we had enough of Middle Earth we switched to regular TV and found ourselves on Lifetime watching David Hasslehoff as "The Christmas Consultant." It was a total joy and sorrow combined. A few hours before I thought to myself, I fear I will never write anything a tenth as good as the Lord of the Rings. Then I see this 2012 Christmas movie and think, somebody got a heck of a lot of money for writing that screenplay. Okay, not THAT much, to be sure, but certainly more than I make in a year. And my biggest fear awakened in all its horrid glory: It's only mid-November. There's six more weeks of Christmas movies on the docket. What if they take over all network TV? Now that's something way out of my control and really really scary.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Post Election Depression: I Need A Doctor!

It is a cold November day. The snow is falling and the temperature is dropping. Right now, at four in the afternoon Mountain Time, it is 31 degrees Fahrenheit. For my European friends, that's about minus one Celsius. Brisk. Xander, Oma and Opa just finished our afternoon tea. Amazingly enough, we just discovered that Xander likes tea, really. It's "Ginger Snappish," and aided by a bit of almond milk and sweetener, but it's real tea and he is very much a part of the Montana tea contingent. Wintertime, the tea is hot. Summertime, it's usually iced. This is our second snow of the season. It is not going to amount to a heck of a lot of snow (in the higher mountains, on the passes, it could be significant), but very low temperatures will keep what does fall on the ground. The earth is dressing up for the Winter Ball. One season has passed, and another begins. It seems like only yesterday the World Series was on. It was only yesterday that our new President turned out to be our old President, much to the relief of many and the consternation of a few. This blog is not going to be about politics. It's about filling the void after election night, especially up here where the sky grows dark before five pm and the snow is falling gently but steadily outside. After all, the World Series was a major television event. Election coverage had us glued to the set. Now the television has reverted to the wasteland it was before, noisily repetitive where the best things to watch on most nights are re-runs of NCIS, the Mentalist and Castle, while I await the next arrival in my Netflix queue. I know I ought to join the 21st Century and learn how to do direct streaming. It would make the wait a great deal less weighty. But I am of that generation somewhat bewildered by modern technology. I have not caught up, and I doubt that I ever will. I know how to use a computer for some things, a DVD (upgraded to BluRay), even a cell phone. But I find I am getting by without an iPad, tweets and instant messaging. I know I am handicapping myself in the area of getting me out there to a wider reading public, but I am lodged in my comfort zone where I am cozy warm, and it's snowing outside. I don't need Facebook to tell me that. So I plow along. With a snow shovel, not an actual plow. I use a keyboard with relative ease, but the typewriter is not far away and I still use pen and paper for sketching out many ideas and assembling outlines. I still use snail mail, even when it snows. You know what they used to say about letter carriers -- neither rain nor snow nor dead of night, blah blah blah. In Salinas I had to deliver mail only one time when it was snowing, in 31 years. I did deal with earthquakes and flooding and torrential downpours, but never the powdery white stuff. I deal with that now, mostly by watching it fall. But watching snow fall is not enough to keep me busy. I could read a book -- or write one -- but what I want is compelling television! I look at the schedule and search desperately for the next great media event. When is Doctor Who coming back?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Postmortem - the People's Mandate

It's over, done, in the can. President Obama won re-election. The people have spoken. But what did we say? Even though Obama won handily in the Electoral College, he won key states by narrow margins and the overall popular vote margin is far from impressive. This was not a decisive victory. It was not an endoresement of policy. Several things do emerge from the results that are, at the very least, interesting. The first is the realization that white males no longer dominate in America. This will be a hard pill for white males to swallow, but the demographics have shifted. No matter how political views among the voters shift and change over the next four years, the new political reality is that the balance in this country has changed to finally reflect our diversity. The net meaning of the election seems to be that America is divided on how to go forward and meet the crises that face us, and therefore chose to maintain the status quo. Progress will continue at the same pace it has maintained over the past two years with a Congress with split loyalties. There is no mandate. The House leadership will not, as I see it, move toward the center and the Senate leadership will not find any of their movement met with counter-compromise. In short, very little will get done as long as one party in opposition can obstruct the other's agenda. Apparently, this is just what Americans want -- or, more likely, the election reflects our disconnect from the system that gives us two rich kids from which to choose. It was an expensive choice. It cost an embarrassing amount of money to run the 2012 elections, on all levels. In Montana, as I have noted, the pricetag for the Senate seat was something like 60 million dollars, and the nationwide pricetag exceeded the billions. One can't help wonder where that money would have been better spent, perhaps on education, infrastructure repair, job creation. Of course, values are relative -- Americans spent six billion dollars on Halloween costumes. Barach Obama is the new One Billion Dollar Man. It cost that much for the Presidential campaigns to be run. But he is no cyborg, he is a politician who spends most of his time running. Well, he does not have to run anymore. So, Mr. President. pardon the language, it's time to show us your cojones. Call on the other side of the aisle to join in helping America move forward, or at least repair the damages done by a wartime economy during the last fifty years and an investment bubble that coincided with that economy before bursting. And if they don't compromise with you, don't compromise with them and still get nothing, as so often happened during the last two years. Fix your sights on them and do not let them squirm and equivocate away from their responsibility, but do not squirm or equivocate away from your own responsibility either. LEAD! The last thing I want to mention in this blog is a hefty reminder that still seems to elude most of the pundits. Even though race and racism is still a palpable part of our mentality, class distinctions will continue to grow and the schism between the power elite and those they rule will widen. If we don't address that, the problems we face today will seem like an expired outdate on the milk in the fridge. But wait, there's more ---- and a note to my eldest -- the two party system is deeply flawed, more so in such a diverse nation. Multiple party systems do allow for coalitions and compromises between elements that shape policy and engage action. However, when I talk to people overseas who live under multi-party systems, they find flaws there as well. But they would not trade. Either way, the Power Elite -- a term coined back in 1956 by C. Wright Mills, will call the shots, and I agree with you on one fundamental reality: we may as well be serfs working the fields on Charlemagne's estate.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night Blues

Here we go! The American people have spoken. At least, a great number have spoken, while uncounted more await their chance to cast their ballots in long lines kept open even after the polls technically closed. I don't remember ever seeing that before -- perhaps the turnout will be a record in 2012. We have spoken, but we don't know yet what we have said. And I wonder: is there a morning-after-election pill, because many Americans will want to take it. Of course, such a pill would be outlawed by the Republicans, while the Democrats would insist it be covered by Obamacare. Tomorrow morning, a few questions will be answered. Many more will be asked. My first question will be: how long will I remain free to spout off, speak out, exercise my First Amendment rights? Question two: how long before hawks take over foreign policy with an eye fixed on Iranian oil? Question three: what will the three branches of government do in the next two years to change America's political and economic realities for the better, and better by whose definition? The truth is, we will survive whomever we elect as President. Our rights will stay intact as long as we ourselves do not surrender them. America faces major problems -- it seems we are always facing major problems -- but we Americans will solve these problems only as long as we work together to find, impliment and promote reasonable solutions. This means we have to re-evaluate our role in the world, and our priorities at home. We will have to focus on education first and foremost, followed by the rebuilding of our own infrastructure and the creation of work opportunities at a fair wage. Our position in the world is slipping because the example we offer today is terrible in so many measurements. Paraphrasing my favorite quote, America is moving away from the world by standing still. The greatest tragedy that could come out of the 2012 election would be the continuation of obstructionism -- from either side of the aisle. Oh, and invading Iran: not a good idea.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Penultimate Day of the Campaign

Tomorrow is Election Day, for better or for worse. Millions upon millions of Americans will turn out to vote at whatever polling place is convenient, taking time from their busy schedules to exercise this most fundamental right granted us under the Constitution of the United States, its various Amendments, and the laws of the land. I once was told that there are only three ways by which an individual in this country can affect the political atmosphere -- first and foremost is vcting. The other two are serving on a jury and serving on a grand jury, if you want to know. There is another way: exercise your freedoms as outlined by the same laws, especially freedom of speech. So tomorrow we vote, and the ballots cast already by early voters such as myself will be tabulated. We will pick our President and set up the balance within both houses of Congress, declaring the climate for at least the next two years, until mid-term elections give us another chance to vote. Someone said that our voting system allows Americans the chance to overthrow the government peacefully every election, by mandate. Sometimes we choose to overthrow the whole thing, other times we keep part and discard part, and others we leave the status quo. Even though it is predominantly rich people who select rich people to run for office, particularly the Presidency and the Senate, in each case leaving us with a choice of the two remaining candidates, we the voter get the final say. No one should give up that power voluntarily. We are the deciders, to borrow a mis-used phrase. The balance in Washington is crucial. As we have seen over the past two years at least, with a roadblock to progress lodged firmly in the House of Representatives, if any one part of the legislating leadership triumpherate (President-House-Senate; the Supreme Court is the non-elected watchdog)is dominated by one party and the other two the other party. we will stagnate for at least that next two years and probably four, especially given the derisive climate that exists in the Capital today. I fear a Republican majority in all three branches will set us backward, but at least it will be movement. I believe that a Democratic majority will be able to push forward an agenda that will benefit the majority of Americans, and so I will spend tomorrow evening rooting for that, state by state. When FDR took office in 1933 he had Democratic majorities in both houses, and in his first hundred days he pushed through masses of legislation as if he had a blank check. The Supreme Court sorted things out later, overturning several of his programs. But several key ones remain to this day. When Obama took office in 2009 he had the chance to act in a similar way, but did not push his advantage. In two words, he was too polite. If re-elected, I hope he realizes that it's time to take the gloves off. But we shall see, and very soon. No matter how America votes, it may be comforting to know how much money was spent on getting these people elected. The Presidency will come with a price tag (from all corners) of one billion dollars. I think that's twice what Big Bird and Company get per year. In my adopted state of Montana, the two men running for the Senate seat will have spent sixty million dollars, and we're a small state. I don't know how many people got jobs because of it, or how many will join the ranks of the unemployed on Wednesday, or how much of an infusion political spending has given the economy. I only know two things: that's an awful lot of money spent to gain power. And, two, no matter what else, there is one hooray for every one of us: Wednesday morning we will turn on our TVs and THERE SILL BE NO MORE POLITCAL ADS! AMEN!!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ian McShane Can Sing!

There are times when the world of men creates something absolutely beautiful. The striking thing to me is that such moments most often are totally unexpected, even if it comes in the middle of something much bigger that is supposed to be striking, artsy, or monumental. In Sibelius' Second Symphony, for example, the entire piece is filled with profound moments linked together movement by movement into a cohesive whole. The coda, or final breath of the score, grows naturally from all that preceeds it, in an eight note bar. But then Sibelius repeats the bar, adds a note, and changes it from up to down, before presenting it in its original form to end the symphony. The change is breathtaking and unexpected, the brilliance an emotional one. As Spock wouild say, listening to it, "We reach." It has taken Diane and me six years to catch up with the HBO series "Deadwood." Over three seasons and thirty-six episodes blaringly and openly tell the crass and bloody story of "miners and whores" and the people eeking out a brutal living and struggling to bring civilization to the mining camp in the face of at least one robber baron with murderous intent. Episode 9, Season 3 is called "Amateur Night." While townsfolk show off their talents, bar owner and main protagonist Al Swearingen, played by Ian McShane, waits alone in his empty saloon, empty because everyone is outside. But Al's concern is not just for a night without business. There is a storm brewing over him and his life choices, a storm that could destroy him. The episode ends with him singing, a cappella, a sad and brutal song. It takes a minute to recognize the tune as he sings it, slightly embellished by an amateur's interpretation, and we did not get to hear the first stanza, a dead giveaway. But suddenly we realize he is singing "Streets of Laredo," a classic story of a young cowboy instructing his finder on how to deal with his body, as he lay dying. It is a poignant moment, an underscore to the entire season, sung in McShane's precisely unprofessional bass-baritone -- and is the best moment in the entire 36 hours of "Deadwood." I look at the world and see that we have not progressed, grown, evolved a single iota from the men and women of Deadwood, South Dakota Territory, or further back in time and history. It depresses me, distresses me, gives me cause to wonder about the future with fear in my heart. I look at my grandson and wonder what battles might be placed in his path and how he will deal with them. Rationale, deceit and murder are the norm. Read any paper, watch any news broadcast. Those with power will do anything to keep it. Those with ambition for power will do anything to attain it. The rest of us happily choose sides based on promises and lies, and greedily embrace hatred as our fuel for action. This scenario plays out on every stage on which humans assemble, from corporate takeover to outright war. I know that Mankind is a work in progress. But sometimes the progress is negligible or seems to have stopped altogether and slipped into reverse. Then I hear Ian McShane sing "Streets of Laredo."

Friday, November 2, 2012

All Saints and Sinners, too

This is the day of the following night . . . I wrote this yesterday, on All Saints Day, think at least in part about what so many of the people sanctified over the centuries had to endure for what they believed. Agree with them or not, their courage astounds me, and from it I draw inspiration. Yet I find myself holding back. Every now and then, I stumble over what someone else might think or judge about me from my words, whether it's another fiction about World War Two (old hat, who cares?) to a blog about America slipping (where's your patriotism?). I need a tougher skin. After all, a saint would not concern himself or herself with negative press. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "To be great is to be misunderstood." I am not a saint, I am not great, I am not Emerson, and I do not pretend to be. My own voice is small. Sometimes I feel it is insignificant. But, then I realize that I am not alone, and, no matter what, silence serves no one. I must continue my work, no matter how small the audience or how challenging the material. I cannot worry about what you think. THAT you think means I've done my job.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Nothing, and then some

Last night's blog today . .. I feel as though I have nothing to say. This is an unusual place for me. So I figure if I start writing something will come out. It always does -- with a certain almost biological regularity. Tonight is Halloween, All Hallow's Eve, All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead. Xander is a pirate arrg'ing his way through a "safe" neighborhood in Kalispell with his parents and a handful of cousins. We're at home. No parties, no trick-or-treaters. Even the deer elude us this evening. Halloween is not what it used to be for me, and hasn't been for a very long time. With Xander, I thought some of that old magic would return, but a cold night escorting him house to house while the adults out of costume would outnumber the pirates and princesses, it feels better to wait until next year. Maybe we'll be better prepared. Pumpkin Day sort of snuck up on us and suddenly was here, and tomorrow will be gone. Sort of like our first snow. Both snow and Pumpkin Day herald the beginning of the holiday season -- and that IS my favorite time of the year. Decorations, family meals, Saint Nicholas Day are all coming fast. Long nights, a Christmas tree, Santas and nutcrackers, warm feelings. Even on a fixed income and meager budget, the holidays are going to be fun because the holidays are about love, and love we have in abundance.