Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Second That Takes Forever

ArizBlur cr 48bit 800 dust047This just happened yesterday, September 26.

It comes out of nowhere. There’s a car only twenty feet in front of me, sideways to my grill. I push the brake pedal. I don’t even realize I’m pushing until I sense it’s not stopping me fast enough. I’m so close to the car now and it’s not moving away quick enough. Is it moving at all? Or is everything slow motion during this second before impact? There’s nothing I can do. I hear the tires screech but they’re only guiding my missile directly toward the car. It’s almost here. The injury. The hassle. The insurance crap. Having no car. An emotional, angry motorist I’ve hit. I see the driver’s face, looking at me like I’m crazy for hurling my car at his. But he’s moving now, completing a u turn, a stupid u turn, and I’m mad. Take this, you mother fucker! Take this! If I cannot stop, if I cannot avoid you, then take it for all it’s worth, you idiot for luring me into your stupid world of dangerous carelessness.

It’s the unmistakable sound cars make crashing, equal amounts bass and high-pitched treble. His car takes the brunt, getting knocked off course. Mine plows through and stops. No whiplash. No smashing glass. No head to the steering wheel. Clean, precise direct hit collision. Then silence.

My longest second is over. Time for its ugly, timeless aftermath.

I drive to the shoulder, crank the parking brake, open the door and prepare to meet the consequences head on. A hysterical driver? A bloodied driver? A mess I’ll pay for for months?

Nothing. The car is gone. Just over the hill from whence I came, I hear the car speeding off. An entire plastic bumper unit sits in the middle of the road, surrounded by small debris. The guy had no insurance. That has to be it. Why stick around when he knew he’d made a huge mistake – that’s what I think.

An ugly split on my bumper, a slightly cockeyed hood, but nothing else. Like a metal missile just hit a plastic tug boat. He’s gone. I never want to see him again. I’m glad there’s no insurance claims, no police scene. Should I feel bad for saying this? I clear the road of the bumper and various parts while cars slowly pass, passengers rubbernecking to view.

For such a crash, so little damage. For one so unlucky to be the guy behind him, luckier still to walk away. What remains are surprising thoughts, the collision of thoughts that flashed through my mind so quickly, as surprising as spotting a car coming at you out of nowhere.

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Life on High Looking Down Below

Oct 14 fall colors Norski 017#2From the very first step, the trail was steep.  A fellow hiker had said it was steep all the way to the peak. Was I up for doing this?

Not a mondo-hiker type, I wasn’t sure why I was even here. For some reason, I couldn’t get hiking off my mind. Maybe it was from seeing two movies recently, “A Walk in the Woods” and “Wild,” both extreme hiking stories. Unemployed for four weeks, perhaps I had to get out of the house, shake off the growing depression. And suffering through a painful illness was only making my funk worse. Then again, maybe this wasn’t the time to push my limits either.

“Should we go back?” I asked my dog, Rusty, only two minutes in.

Suddenly, we entered a clearing. Nothing but aspens. Dramatic side lighting. Subdued colors. All defining a magical space.

Deeper, higher, steeper we stepped. The aspens went with us, stands growing more magnificent with each five-minute interval. I ignored a wooziness in my back. Worries of irreparable weariness were climbed over. Only a quarter-hour in, I stopped to ask, “Is this most beautiful hike I’ve ever been on?” My only regret was voicing the words in a vacuum, hearing no one echo back their shared thoughts with me.

Then, a spacious meadow, as if trying to top the aspen’s glory. Awed, up, up we went. The darkest blue sky and a widest range of greens escorted us through a dark, forested territory. It wasn’t until hiking through here I’d caught my conditioning equilibrium, and was prepared to swath through whatever changeable terrain was ahead.

A man headed toward us. Like a log rolling uncontrollably downhill, I forced myself at him. “Sir, I’ve lived here twenty years and I believe this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” My endorphins were revving on all cylinders now.

After trekking over an hour, I still had no vision of what this “peak” was supposed to look like, or when I’d come upon it. I could see the steepest hill of the trail so far through gaps in evergreens.

Out of the denseness, a clearing showcased the horizon line high above me, crisply defining dirt from sky. What was beyond it?

I played a game. Walking slowly, keeping my eyes on the rocky ground below, I withheld my view from the peak until reaching flat terrain. Shedding my invisible blindfold, I opened my eyes to an incredible vista. Within the expansive space before me was yet another mountain to climb, some of it partially cleared, recognizable to all who lived here as the Santa Fe ski area. What scale. What clarity. And I made it up here without aid of a chair lift.

Lunching near the top, I talked with a young couple. I plunged into a conversation with them, speaking about the quality of life one suddenly feels being up this high. I was elevated, elevated by people, ones I usually left by the roadside.

Walking down was like getting twice the hike seeing it from the opposite direction. The light was different, too, with direct sun from above. Every new part of the path was seen in 360 degrees – I would not miss anything.

Along the descent, I conversed with hikers who told stories of other great trails, ones – like this one – few hikers knew about. I was chatted up by a pretty young woman who, unlike most down at city elevation, engaged me in an energetic and unhurried talk. Then, to my surprise, I met a woman who was hiking with her 80-year-old mother, ski poles and all.

Walking is man’s natural 5-hour energy drink (one without expiration), his anti-depressant (one without side effects), and overall tonic for what ails him that’s always free and what his body craves. No woes, no injuries seem too big to move human being’s precious legs forward. I am comforted by this realization, and will always remember the image of that 80-year-old climbing this trail, giving me hope for how I wanted to live when I became 80.

Among the trees, rock and open spaces at higher elevation, people smile. They talk of gratitude. They speak of these places as timeless and sacred, ones that enhance their “other life below.” It’s never work to get all the way up here.

Oh, but that’s just endorphins talking.

I suppose. But I use them whenever I can. As life is high up high, so can it be low down below.

 

(Favio – if you’re reading this, nice to meet you!)

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Not Reading the Book, Buying CliffsNotes, Then Watching the Movie Instead

013Walk into a bookstore and you may see a familiar wire rack filled with screaming bright yellow and black-striped manuals. Known as CliffsNotes, they were written to help students better understand great volumes of literature. Not. I was most disappointed in them. Understanding CliffsNotes was harder than reading the assigned books.

As of this particular September many many years ago, I hadn’t yet discovered the uselessness of CliffsNotes. I could almost hear the page turning in that direction.

“Class, class, settle down now. In accordance with our standard eighth grade English curriculum, we start a new unit today on the contemporary novel, Flowers for Algernon.” 

Yes! Finally something from this century. And finally – no more poetry.

Three weeks later, Mrs. Marcotte returns our culminating exam on the novel. I’m summoned to her desk.

She swivels in her chair toward me, taking off her black-framed glasses to reveal the dark, intense eyes I’d never seen this close before.  

“Michael, remember your poetry unit report, how you said you were going to do better? Well, there must be more to Flowers for Algernon than this. It seems you haven’t read the novel at all.”

“But I did.”

“Flowers for Algernon. All of it?”

“Yes.”

“All of it?”

“The CliffsNotes, too.”

“Oh. You should never substitute them for actual reading, Michael.”

“I know.”

“You know?”

“Yeah. ‘Cuz they were more complicated than the book was. I mean, I needed CliffsNotes for the CliffsNotes. And I would’ve used them, too, but they didn’t sell that kind.”

“So, you really didn’t read the book then, did you?”

“Well … not really.”

“Then how did you answer the question about Charlie’s retardation?”

“From the movie.”

“What?”

“Except it was called Charly, Mrs. Marcotte, not Flowers for Algernon, but Charly with Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom and …”

“Never – never – watch the movie instead of reading the book. Now go back to your seat.”

Walking to my desk, I spot a big F on the last page of my test.

I’m a hair away from failing English. I never thought I’d have to do it, but the time has come to see my guidance counselor.

“It’s not fair, Mr. Sexton. The day before the test, she goes on and on about symbolism. Then about scenes I’d never seen before. Movies aren’t allowed to leave whole scenes out of a book, are they?”

“Well, Michael, you’re going to learn that … well … it seems to me if you’d read the book …”

“CliffsNotes didn’t help either …”

“That if you’d read the book you wouldn’t have needed either the movie or the book guides. Why didn’t you read it?”

“Because I don’t like to read.”

“Why?”

“I just don’t. Mrs. Marcotte says we’re reading timeless landmarks of literature, but they’re really the most boring stories ever told to teenagers and  …”

“Oh, no they’re not …”

“Oh, yes they are – of all time. And why is everything in them symbolic to something, and then symbolic to something else? Why doesn’t she just tell us or make a list on the blackboard of symbolisms we can choose from?”

“Well, what do you think authors might be trying to show us in their …”

“If authors knew we had to go through all this in reading their books, they’d never have written them in the first place. Everyone in my family is smart. Mom said we all came from good Scandinavian stock, so what happened to me?”

“Ha!”

“What’s so funny, Mr. Sexton?”

“If you want to see some really stupid people ….”

He spins around in his chair and leans toward the floor where, between the wall and a cabinet, a big cardboard box sits. He dumps it on his desk.

“Now these kids ….”

The box is filled with a carnival of confiscated classroom contraband: fuzzy dice, chains, novelty false teeth, yo-yos, cap guns, rubber knives, real knives, spray paint cans, “Car Mechanic” magazines, and a copy of Iliad with a giant “X” knife-gouged into the cover.

“Michael, you’re not dumb, unless you don’t use what you have. Learn to use what it is you do have – and always to its fullest. Perhaps you have a learning disability. Do you think so?”

“I dunno. Other teachers say I have the inability to learn, period – all of ‘em – if that’s what you mean? Ha. Guess there’s nothing symbolic about that, is there?”

This is an excerpt from the chapter entitled “Reading” in my memoir “Maybe Boomer.”

I read this excerpt in its entirety at op. cit. Bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico on September 10, 2015.

 

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Labor Day, 1955: Raining on the Picnic, Not the Film

TrainDuet800documnt 48bit dust152Not a drop of rain falls. Even though the river rolling through the peaceful town is muddy, nothing deters the community from celebrating their beloved Labor Day picnic.

This idyllic community celebration is the primary setting of “Picnic,” the 1955 film starring William Holden and Kim Novak, the story of one day in the life of a rural gathering of middle-class folk in mid-America during the mid-twentieth century. The sunny day shines happiness on everyone during the all American holiday, from toddler to great-grandmother.

Enter the drifter, fresh off hitching the rails, and the day begins.

After sowing wild oats for years, the drifter, Hal (William Holden), one-time football player and big shot, says he’s ready to settle down, and this place is it – Small Town America, USA.

Looking for work, he befriends a family and boarders who live in their house. By noon, the entire household has headed down to the huge picnic at river’s edge.

What fun: the 3-Legged Walking Contest, the Pie Eating Contest, the Girl Carrying Contest. A Talent Show, too, not to mention music from Ernie Higgins and the Happiness Boys.

So what’s making young, pretty Madge (Kim Novak) so moody? She has the handsome drifter’s eye, that’s for sure. Better yet, the town’s richest, most eligible bachelor, is after her.

What about her sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg), who’s edginess is obvious with every move? She has a foolish tomboy look no one really pays attention to, but she’s going to college – not Madge.

Is Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), one of the house boarders, angry because she’s an aging, single, schoolteacher when in reality she’s got more life and spunk than twenty others her age?

And why has Hal started to turn after tasting the sweet allure of peaceful small town life?

After all, their Labor Day picnic has everything. The Trained Seal Game, a sort of ring toss contest where women toss rings at the stems of Tootsie Roll Pops protruding from mouths of men on bended knees with hands tied behind their back.

The Needle in a Haystack Contest: boys diving willy-nilly into a huge stack of dusty, dirty hay for nickels, dimes and quarters the older men have thrown in.

The Talent Show, complete with stifled teens singing corny standards and barbershop quartet numbers. Nearby, a cute baby grimaces. Or is it a scoff?

The Balloon Bursting Contest: Which contestant can blow up a balloon to pop first? The long, nerve-wracking tension is broken with a ka-boom, and another baby cries.

But, of course, there’s always the constant upbeat sound of Ernie Higgins and the Happiness Boys lingering in the background.

How could this picnic go so sour?

The entire town bowed to Madge’s beauty. But, from her seat on a rowboat sailing slowly upon the dark water, Madge seemed ashamed by the throng’s gushing, repulsed she’d just been crowned Labor Day Queen of Neewolah (Halloween spelled backward).

The big picnic dance seems transcendent. The handsome, muscular drifter danced so sexually, so comfortably with Madge. Was that what made Rosemary uneasy enough to break up the festivities all by herself?

Even Hal and Madge’s secret, moonlit rendezvous down by the river later is less than romantic, more a moment to exorcise personal fears, flaws and demons to each other. Her pose suggests yearning, yet she changes course, looks off, and says, “But we’ve got to get back to the picnic.”

“Do we?” Hal replies, as a train rambles slowly out of town behind them.

In their own separate ways, in this instant of time, Hal and Madge have realized something. And with it, the dare is on. The train, a vehicle for change, beckons each to go. By stepping up on it, riding the rails, is there life and hope beyond this town?

No, not if they if they’re looking for a better version of it, because there is no town like this. It doesn’t exist. If it did, it would surely be composed of hollow, blind followers.

“Picnic” author William Inge deliberately injects scenes into his story to beg scrutiny about this American utopia. Those boys in the haystack, America’s youth, diving blindly after money. Other youth, bottled up into singing safe and soulless music that won’t offend the elders in control. Men, like trained seals, begging for love as if some game. The gluttony of gorging on food – pie – the all American dessert. Libido should be scorned, pushed out of sight, out of mind. Everyone, everything is under control. When will the balloon finally burst?

Inge saw what many in America couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t back in 1955. It makes you wonder what we’re not seeing beneath our very noses today, exactly sixty years later.

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For more film articles I’ve written, click the following.

“The Graduate:” https://mikeandberg.com/2014/12/21/graduate-film-college-parents/
“To Kill A Mockingbird:” https://mikeandberg.com/2014/11/02/nostalgia-film-mockingbird/
“American Beauty:” https://mikeandberg.com/2014/09/09/role-models-american-beauty/
The 2015 Oscars (including “Hollywood Express,” my own documentary on Hollywood):
https://mikeandberg.com/2015/02/21/hollywood-oscars-identity/

 

 

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