Friday, December 27, 2013

2013, with a Big Finish

2013, for the most part, had been a pretty routine, even humdrum year. When I think back on it, I recall many long hours of work. The summer, typically quieter as the snowbirds return to their nests in Long Island and Montreal, never really slowed.

I took a trip to California in April for the annual audiology convention. But no other exotic weeks away.  There was a weekend in Orlando to see my cousin's daughter's lacrosse tournament. And a week later I did go to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, possibly the best one I ever had. Amazing time with family, incredible food. The weather was perfection: lows in the 20s, highs in the 30s, sunny, no wind chill to speak of.  I found myself tossing a football on a back lawn, watching snow flurries land on my jacket. Big moment for a Florida boy. It was beyond the Norman Rockwell or Ansel Adams storybook image you're getting, for reasons I've yet to disclose on this blog.

My grandmother turned 100 years old in October. That's big. We brought her balloons and goodies to her facility, where she was treated like royalty. A week later, we had her to our apartment, where she was joined by a few friends, including a lovely woman whose mother had lived 2 units down from grandma. 100 years. Can't fathom it. Neither could she, in some moments. She remains faithful in giving the credit to her Lord. And she's not afraid to tell you.

My mother's predicament has not changed. Very peak and valley kind of year. Complicated subject. I realize some sort of tough love intervention may be necessary, but exactly what that is is a mystery. She's on a slow track to permanent residence in a dreary nursing home, not the way to live out one's days. I pray for wisdom in 2014.

So yes, business as usual. Until December. I reported for jury duty, the fifth or so time in 6 years. I was picked for a drug case back in '07 and again this year, a really unpleasant criminal case that I'd rather not recount. I've explained it to so many people in the past weeks I almost feel a permanent film has coated my soul.   But the verdict was correct (I feel) and unanimous without battle. I served with six other wonderful folks, one of whom I got to know during the lengthy (2 day) voir dire. She admitted to me that she had prayed that I would get picked if she did! Thanks! But the experience was certainly memorable. I pray for the defendant, about whom I recently learned more really unsavory details.

December also saw some bad luck for my work colleague, who slipped and broke her hand on her way to work. She's on the mend, but her absence continues to put me behind as I cover for her (and see my own patients, many of whom were rescheduled due to my week of being out for my civic duty).  I pray for her healing.

Speaking of prayer, Lamplight Drivel readers may know that I've been in an intercessory prayer group at church for several years. This year, I drifted away. It just sort of happened. The group leader had to resign due to many other commitments and without someone coordinating the schedule and reminders, it was very easy to just let it go. And you know, it was time. That may sound callous. I don't discount the importance of the ministry, and it helped me in my own personal prayer life immeasurably, but I felt that it was time to move on. I was also a little bothered that our church seemed to relegate our tiny group to the margins. Quite literally - we lost our back rooms to coils of microphone cords and speaker stacks, left to park our folding chairs either on the outside breezeways or even in a storage closet! My partner and I continued to be faithful once a month, but I felt my spirit and attention wandering.  A new coordinator called me a few months later, but my decision had been made.

Church attendance also suffered this past year for us. This is a most complicated topic that I might take on in a future post. That doesn't mean my faith has followed suit.

So there are some highlights of the year that is soon to join all the other previous ones, to take its spot among its elders. They will have much to talk about. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Moments

Last night I was wrapping my wife's gifts at my grandmother's apartment, the one in which she hasn't lived since a year ago Thanksgiving. I check on the place weekly, in part readying things mother's arrival? Eventual sale? Even at this late date, all of that is uncertain.

The visits can be eerie. The apartment is filled with all sorts of collectibles, mostly gifts my grandmother received, but also unused Avon inventory, things my mother meant to sell during her stint as a rep. They just sit and collect dust. The eyes of stuffed kittens and polar bears unmoving day and night. The memories always build when I walk through. I lived with her through part of grad school, awakened many already sleepless nights by her wee hour cries of anxiety. She could never explain why. Maybe nightmares, maybe just her own memories.

She is doing well at the facility now. She's no longer overwhelmed by solitude, the kind she often mentioned to us when we visited. But she misses her place, her home. I assure her that all is well there, that her neighbors usually catch me in the parking lot to get a report.

But last night I had a small moment that becomes bigger the more I ponder. While wrapping I listened to Pandora's "Classic Christmas" station. It cheered up the scene, even the melancholy tunes. When Perry Como's "O Holy Night" came on, I felt something peaceful, comforting.  I've always loved the song, recalling all those times I heard it/sang along during my old church's annual Christmas pageant.

I got up and brought my phone into my grandmother's bedroom. I set it on her night table and walked around, imaging my grandmother drifting off to sleep, comforted by the lyrics. Hearing it just then made everything seem right with the world. A moment frozen in time, in which I could probably wander forever. My grandmother's unceasing faith, the enormity of her generosity, the sense of calm she inspired, it was all there.

I have several memories of little moments of Christmas Past, things that would sound inconsequential to you, but comprise some sort of odd tapestry. This new moment may be the most special.  Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Holiday Nipping

Last week I attended the fifth holiday party since I joined the practice. I've made a tradition of reporting on them here, as those in the invisible audience will note.  I almost didn't make this one, the reason for which I'll explain in that other December Lamplight Drivel tradition, the Year End Summary.  What would I have missed?

Nothing especially memorable. Unlike work parties of Christmas Past, there were no inebriated soliloquies or displays of lasciviousness. Oh, there was plenty of alcohol flowing, much of it Irish beer. It had been a while since I had a Black & Tan.  This year the gathering took place at a longstanding establishment where the Sons of Eire (and those who love them) congregate for a very cozy atmosphere and some decent food and seriously strong Irish coffee. My little souvenir seen above comprised much of that beverage, which was so potent I had to dilute with more coffee.  I've become such a lightweight.

I mainly hung with the audiologist from our satellite office. I only get to see her a few times a year, so there's always much to catch up on. She's had a busy 2013: got married (and became a stepmom three times over) and lost her father. My wife and I joined the newlyweds at their home a few months back for a lovely dinner. She married a psychologist who had endless recounts of patient behavior. He also likes to cook.

Back to the holiday party. It was fun, but there was nowhere to dance. We did the white elephant gift thing. I received a Red Lobster gift card. Towards the end, a rather fascistic waitress began breaking down tables around us to set up for the next group. She uttered things that we weren't supposed to hear. Not very professional, lady.

Most of the staff attended. There were notable absences: those who left during this eventful year. One quit last month after 7 years of service in the billing department. The other was let go after a decade as administrator. It's a long story I can't recount here, but it was fairly depressing. It also made me think of the last 5 parties, and all those who've moved on. Do they still wonder what happens at our shindig? How they've become mellower and mellower? Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly nothing for the history books. Maybe we needed more Jameson.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Saturday Night Fever

 "It's still not a kid's picture."

I remember those words so clearly, spoken by a woman ahead of my dad and I as we exited a matinee of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  Even then, as a nine year old, I knew she was right. I had not expected such a raw, uncomfortable experience, and this wasn't even the true version. The movie had opened the previous Christmas.  It was a deservedly R-rated feature that nonetheless swept the box office.  Paramount, in a smart marketing move, had the film re-edited to earn a PG-rating, "so everyone could experience the fever." All those tykes who knew the film's star, John Travolta, from his innocuous sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and GREASE.

Like many of my friends, I had the soundtrack.  Double LP. Beyond the ubiquitous Bee Gees tunes, there were a plethora of cool things that became the soundtrack as well to my 4th grade life. I have so many memories associated with that movie in those days; it's impossible not to think about them whenever I catch it. It (the original cut) was also a Holy Grail of sorts, a forbidden movie that ignited my curiosity and scared me and made me wonder if I would go blind if I actually watched it. I even felt that way during the PG showing.

I would see the true edit about 6-7 years later. Wow.  The PG version was truly diluted. While the essential story and some of the grit remained, director John Badham's vision had been compromised to network TV standards. The harshness of the language and sexuality was nearly absent. The story was softened. It still wasn't a kid's picture.

Who doesn't know the plot? Brooklyn youth Tony Manero (Travolta) begins to recognize the aimlessness of his existence in the insular neighborhood: working in a paint store and hanging with his crude pals who are even less ambitious than himself. They act like animals. His family life (at home with parents and grandparent) is dismal. But Tony has some serious dancing skills that he demonstrates at the local disco nearly every night, montaged so excitingly by Badham and company in sequences that are as legendary as anything Hollywood ever produced. It is at these moments that Tony finds some meaning in his life, something to fill the void. But as the original ads read, "Where do you go when the record is over?"

Tony searches, continually disappointed. His brother is quitting the priesthood. Sex offers little satisfaction. His ability to even recognize women as human beings is pretty underdeveloped. They throw themselves at him, and in a telling moment we see a doe eyed fan at the club who offers to wipe his brow and in return is mocked. But enter Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a Brooklyn gal with an even thicker brogue than Tony's, and who at least emulates Manhattan sophistication, working in the city and name dropping celebrities. She is also a dancer and the two eventually enter a contest. On the way, Tony's insecurities bubble. His perhaps Madonna/whore complex point of view the catalyst. But by the time he rides the subway all night, alone and having reached bottom, there is some indication of awareness. Some possibility of repentance.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER's detractors have called it a weaker version of Scorsese's MEAN STREETS, and that is not entirely inaccurate. But this film has a rhythm (so to speak) all its own and really expresses the desperation of those in the 'hood who have been bred to be one dimensional and racist. Who have resigned their fates. They gaze over at Manhattan with loathing and envy; it may as well be across the Atlantic. Without getting too specific (or filled with denigration) I'm reminded of some of my Brooklyn relatives. I've walked around Bensonhurst and heard the conversations on stoops, seen the packs of wasted youth. Heard the elders cast suspicion on anyone who did not resemble them (or even live in their neighborhood).  Spike Lee later got it right, too.

FEVER is more than a movie, it's a vital document (even if the story was later revealed to be fabricated). It pulses with life and vividness the way few movies do, and that always allows me to forgive any problems with the screenplay. Of course, it will always feel like a forbidden picture, and this always adds to the experience. There have been many things produced that are not kid's pictures, but this one may well feel the dirtiest, sleaziest, most revealing, and plain exciting of all for me.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Snoopy's Christmas

One of my favorite childhood Christmas tunes. Still is......

Monday, December 9, 2013

Man of Steel

It hit me about 3 days later; I could barely remember it. I was shopping at Target and saw an entire endcap devoted to MAN OF STEEL, the latest update of D.C. Comic's Superman saga, and was reminded that yes, I had seen it. It was the only film that even mildly tempted me out to the theater this past summer, though perhaps good sense won out and I waited. I now find I could've waited even longer.

This review, by the way, is not a slam or dismissal. Nor another rant from an older fan who grew up wide eyed over the old comics and Christopher Reeve pics. I realize that every generation reimagines and reinvents old franchises. It may smack of lack of imagination (and corporate greed) but once in awhile someone gets it right, creates an interesting twist on a long beloved hero. I again cite the recent Batman trilogy as commandeered by Christopher Nolan.

Nolan's involvement (story credit) on MAN OF STEEL was encouraging. Even inspiring. What he did with The Dark Knight was transcendent. Surely this fantastic tale of an alien who is sent from his dying planet to Earth was ripe with possibility. Maybe director Zach Snyder, whose WATCHMEN was an interesting but deeply flawed comic book epic, would have a fresh take on this by now ancient tale.

On that point, there's little argument. The film immediately distances itself from earlier efforts with its non-linear storytelling. But, so common anymore. Still, an audacious choice, as the drama of the evolution of Clark Kent/Superman is so compelling to watch. Here, the young man (Henry Cavill, looking very Chris Reeve-like in some shots) is first glimpsed on Earth, long after his infant's journey from planet Krypton (and the goodbyes of his biological parents, Jor-El and Lara, played earnestly by Russell Crow and Ayelet Zurer). Then his chronology goes backward in time, then zigzags. Like half remembered snatches. Maybe no one has the patience for A-Z exposition anymore.

The effect is commanding, but also disheartening. I noticed a considerable lack of soul in MAN OF STEEL. In its place - steely cold omniscience that merely documents rather than involves us.  This is also so common in contemporary superhero pics.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original stories were distinguished by a strong emotional narrative drive and depth as well as dark mayhem. The Reeve films continued those ideas and also added a good dose of send-up to lighten the load. Then and now I think that was very wise - superhero adventures always run the risk of self-importance (and, let's face it, are inherently ridiculous). Directors Richard Donner and Richard Lester understood the need to use humor to make the legends sing in ways 2-D comics never really did. Lester admittedly did get a bit carried away and contemptuous, especially in the awful SUPERMAN III.

This being a film concerned with Kal-El's origins, we are not given the sort of meaty relationships expected among the principals, including Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but surprisingly also with the boy's adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (an aged Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Krypton criminal General Zod (an effective Michael Shannon) is seen minus his old partners in crime (but with a different crew) and rather here is the front and center nemesis with powers identical to Kal-El, and bent on destroying Earth to create a new Krypton via genetic engineering.

David S. Goyer's screenplay, to its credit, gives Zod far more dimension than seen in earlier films. Zod's character is a megalomaniac, ready to destroy anything in his path, but his reasons are not mere ruthlessness or insanity. You can understand his m.o. While you can hiss at him, you are always uncomfortably reminded that he is attempting to do exactly what 'Superman" is, just from a different perspective. Shannon really gives the part some depth. Such complexity forbids summary dismissal of MAN OF STEEL, and is admirable.

But is not enough. Watching this new film, aside from a few interesting dramatic elements, inspired neither wonder or excitement. There are grand scale scenes of destruction late in the film that are dull and unimpressive, again due in part to a regrettable look of artificiality. The cinematography by Amir Mokri remains from opening to fadeout a greyed out palate of visual disinterest; I'm baffled as to why this is so prevalent in cinema these days. It made me want to watch Warren Beatty's vivid DICK TRACY as an antidote.

There are a few nods to the 70s/80s SUPERMANs, including a children-in-peril-school-bus-on-teetering-bridge scene and the Man of Steel having a tanker thrown at him (though in this film, he jumps over it). I watched those old movies numerous times.  Of course, I was just an impressionable kid. If I had been 9 when MAN OF STEEL opened, would I have done likewise? Maybe, but I would've been poorer in so many ways......

Friday, December 6, 2013

Take the Connoli...Dip

This past Thanksgiving I was introduced to what is sure to be a staple on our dessert table for years to come. Fabulous.  I was told it was ridiculously easy and quick to make. We used broken ice cream cones to dip but as you can see above many other cookies, crackers, etc., would work just fine too. You may find yourself unable to leave the trough once you start.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

I'm becoming increasingly bored with computer animated films. I can barely even watch the trailers anymore. Should be fun for when I have kids! It's difficult to get engaged in what often seem like big screen video games, beyond a few minutes of "wow" visual appreciation. Even some titles by Pixar (who I usually champion) such as BRAVE, while still bringing a lot of soul and some clever plotting to their films, suffer from a certain artificiality. Something about it all is so patently cold and unnatural, very much unlike the two dimensional features of yesterday.

2012's WRECK-IT RALPH, a Pixar co-production, did not tempt me out to the multiplex. And its plot involved video games. So this time at least, it made sense that the film was computer animated.  I was interested to learn that retro arcade legends like Q-Bert were part of the plot, but it wasn't enough.  Friends (mainly parents) on Facebook raved. So imaginative and fun is this movie! Turns out, they were right. This would've been a worthwhile big screen adventure.

But the imagination, so visually ample, unfortunately did not infuse the screenplay. While the idea of video game characters interacting with each other and having lives outside of their games is intriguing and ripe with potential, WRECK-IT RALPH reveals itself essentially to be another "outcast overcomes the odds to save the day and gain the acceptance of those who cast them out" story, sticking close to the playbook.  Too close.

Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is the villain of a long-time popular video game, the Donkey Kong-like "Fix-It Felix". And he's tired of it. He's efficient as he smashes the windows of an apartment building, as much so as Felix, who repairs them with a magic hammer. Of course Felix is the hero to both patrons of Litwak's Arcade and within the game itself. The game's residents invite Felix to after hours parties in the penthouse, long after the arcade closes. Ralph is banished to a garbage dump each night. He does not improve his lot when he crashes one of those soirees (where Felix is to receive a medal) and makes a big mess, leading one of the game's other characters to call him a loser.

A dejected Ralph determines that if he can get his own medal, he'll be the new hero, and sets out to get one. This will involve traveling out of his artificial world into the others in the arcade, right through the electrical cords! Ralph meets tough female Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in the war game "Hero's Duty" where he correctly predicts he can grab the coveted medal, but as he exits he also piggybacks a nasty cyber bug that threatens another machine at Litwik's: "Sugar Rush", a trippy, multicolor car race game that will give viewers' rods and cones a serious workout. It is there that Ralph meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a cheerful but sad little girl who has been forbidden from participating in the kart races because she is a "glitch".  Ralph finds a fellow outcast in his new friend.

Meanwhile, "Fix-It Felix" has been unplugged by the arcade owner as the star villain is now absent, setting off a pursuit by the game's hero (Jack McBrayer), who's like a cousin to Andy of TOY STORY (and may have a romantic interest in that tough Sergeant!).

Once WRECK-IT RALPH settles into its oft told tale of acceptance and redemption, the fun drains a bit. Still, there is always another visual, a clever idea to distinguish the movie from hundreds of others. My favorite involves a pool of cola invaded by Mentos stalactites, though I also liked the laughing tree tentacles (and Calhoun's response to them when they get a bit mushy). The actors are as perfectly cast as could be possible, their unique personas very well suited to these characters. Director Rich Moore (also co-screenwriter) has given grumpy 40-somethings a reason, besides that of their arm tugging offspring, to plunk $$ on an animated feature.

But next time, guys, give the frontal lobes some extra push and dazzle us with the sort of innovation expended in the eye candy.