mm515: Japan – Travelogue 1.3

February 25, 2013

Lynne and Steve’s 30th Anniversary Extravaganza: Our Japan Adventure

Hayama – Yokosuka – Yokohama – Tokyo June 21 – July 1, 2000

Sun. 2000-06-25, Election Day, we think. Yokohama.

Did we mention that we guessed that Sunday was Election Day? We saw some posters, with color pictures of mature looking people, and the numbers 6 and 25 sort of close together. But how we knew something must be up: the mini-vans, with clusters of loudspeakers, blaring messages at peak volume. I know that Saturday afternoon both Lynne and Dan were disturbed from their short naps by an unusually loud specimen. Heard them Friday. Lots of them Saturday. A few Sunday, although we were out of town. None since. I guess our poster-decoding was correct. Did the loudest candidate win?

Sunday was our first venture afield. The day started most pleasantly with Sunday brunch at the Officer’s Club on the base. Tablecloths, silver service, polite wait persons, decent buffet style food, mostly occidental but some oriental. The dining room, at the 9:15 hour, was filled with families. Very nice.

After returning his DVD rental, Dan once again parked his car near the entrance, and we walked out into town, down the mall street, to one of the railroad stations. Purchasing our ticket to Yokohama, including a transfer to a different line, from a machine was novel. Dan consulted a chart on the wall to determine the fare, and fed money, bills and coins into the appropriate slots, and received tickets and change. Very efficient. We were headed for a couple of destinations in Yokohama, and the very fast express train got us to the main Yokohama station in less than half an hour.

Transferring to the Negishi line, we rode for about three stops to Kannai station. Dan consulted his map, and led us out of the station, and along a busy boulevard past Yokohama station, home of the Yokohama Bay Stars baseball team. People were camped out waiting to buy tickets for that evening’s 18:00 game. We walked around two sides of the stadium, and, just as the map predicted, found a gateway to Chinatown, our first destination of the day.

Yokohama’s Chinatown is the largest in Japan, and contains about 600 restaurants and 300 or so stores of other kinds. Dan says that some of the restaurants are famous for doing ¥40,000,000,000 per year in business, an absolutely astounding total.

The streets were crowded with tourists, again mostly oriental, sampling the huge dumplings and eyeing restaurant after restaurant. Lynne found a bunch small key chain souvenirs, and we window shopped some of the antique stores (very, very expensive). But, after Dan’s excellent navigating we found a tea store (apparently not the one we were looking for, but okay nonetheless), and bought some bulk green tea.

In retrospect, and we realized it soon, we planned our day wrong. We visited Chinatown, with all of its manifest dining enticements while we were still digesting our delicious breakfast. We should have made Chinatown our second stop, not our first, so we could take advantage.

After Chinatown, we walked back through a park which surrounds the other two sides of Yokohama stadium. They didn’t tell us, though, that it was unpaved, and the mud (from all the rain/mist – our first afternoon here we saw some sun; after that, none until Tuesday) was an unpleasant surprise. We got back on the train at Kannai, and went down a few more stops to Negishi station, where we caught our first bus, to a stop Dan remembered about 10 or so minutes later, near Sainken [sp?] garden.

This is a park and preserve, put together by a wealthy silk merchant over 100 years ago, in the middle of a tony residential area, and not far from docks and refineries. But you’d never know that once inside. For ¥600 each, we were suddenly in a quiet park, with a marsh, and many flowers, and a lake, and a bunch of cats, oddly enough. We walked for a while, and watched a cute young girl feeding pieces of bread to some very large, very hungry carp who had very little competition from one lone duck, and a couple of turtles(!). We finally were hungry, and sat down to an interesting snack of gelled fishcakes (oden, I think, and some served on a stick!), and tea.

We strolled past buildings hundreds of years old that were rescued by this philanthropist (although I believe he lived on the grounds originally), and climbed rather more brick and mud steps than two of us cared to, up to see a three-tiered pagoda from the sixteenth century (I’m remembering).

Recovering (and not a little miffed that we found no benches at the top), we climbed down and entered the inner park, full of more historic buildings gathered from across the country. By then the place was overrun by tour groups, and we had little patience for more. So, we walked the half-mile or so back to the bus stop, took the bus back to the station, took the train back to Yokohama, transferred to a different train than the one we’d taken out, but which got us back to Yokosuka eventually.

Sunday night we threw together some supper at Dan’s, and retired early, once again.

MORE TO COME

So, feeling a bit rusty after more than a four-year hiatus, and reflecting a totally internal need to get some content back into the ether, I’m repurposing a couple of personal travel journals. Because both are lengthy, in excess of 30 pages (Word document pages, that is), I plan to slice them up into more digestible form. I will try to resist the urge for much after-the-fact content or style edits, especially content. This is Yr (justifiably) humble svt, circa 2000, and the travelogue documents an amazing (for us) adventure, and where my head was at nearly 13 years ago. Your comments are always welcome.


mm514: Japan – Travelogue 1.2

February 18, 2013

Lynne and Steve’s 30th Anniversary Extravaganza: Our Japan Adventure

Hayama – Yokosuka – Yokohama – Tokyo June 21 – July 1, 2000

Sat. 2000-06-24. Yokosuka.

Saturday dawned misty/rainy again. The books all said 90 and rainy for this time of year, and, though it’s not quite 90 (thank goodness!), it certainly is shaping up rainy, and way too humid for our tastes. And, regrettably, I don’t think we’re destined to reproduce in person that photograph Dan shared with us of Mt. Fuji from his living room window!

To Yokosuka Naval Base! A sprawling facility (much bigger than the base at Everett where we visited Dan two summers ago), with many warships docked, including the gigantic aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk (CV-63). Dan doesn’t know anyone aboard the carrier, so there’s no chance of a tour, but we came to see the McCain, Dan’s ship.

This was not quite like our tour of the Ray, Dan’s last ship. The John S McCain (DDG-56) is in dry-dock; as Dan promised we saw all of his ship! He was kind of embarrassed, since the ship is in a heavy maintenance cycle. There were workmen (Japanese) hanging over the side blasting off the old paint with high pressure water. There were shrouds over the guns. As Dan said, it’s dirty, noisy and smelly – hardly in condition for a tour. But, we were here, so tour we did.

Dan was an engineering officer on the David R Ray (DD-971), and when we toured that ship, we saw everything, top to bottom. Up ladders (er—staircases – that was one of our strongest memories of that earlier tour: the steep ladders that sailors and officers scramble up and down in all weathers and sea-states that we needed to take very, very carefully) and down, and down, and down. From the bridge to auxiliary engines, we saw it.

On the McCain, Dan is CICO (Combat Information Center Officer), so his spaces are above the main deck, and just below the bridge in the CIC. Under way it’s darkened, lit with red and blue lighting, and the glow from the twenty or so workstations Dan works with. Today, there is regular lighting, the consoles are covered to protect from the painting and the dust, as work is being performed here too.

A brief stop at the bridge (always surprising how little equipment there is on the bridge. The main asset here are eyes), and then to the wardroom where we met a couple of Dan’s colleagues, Misty and Amy. Dan’s stateroom in the Ray was appallingly small, with three men expected to share a space (including a triple bunk) barely the size of my cubicle at work. On the McCain, Dan has a comparatively comfortable space, shared with an officer who’s a department head, thus rating more space. There’s even cable TV (funny, because Dan hasn’t a TV at his home).

So, that was our tour. Workmen, extra hoses, shrouds everywhere, because of the heavy pace of maintenance going on even on a Saturday. But, crippled as our view was, still impressive.

Driving around the base, we got a feel for its size. Lots of ships, so lots of ship support, housing, headquarters, etc. Dan drove us to the Navy Exchange, where we bought some supplies like WD-40 for his balky front door lock, and we headed back toward Hayama. The goal was to get to Dan and Laura’s favorite sushi restaurant ahead of the crowd. Carefully maneuvering into an impossibly small parking space we waited in front for the restaurant to open (I still don’t know its name – no English words here, domo arigato!). A woman came outside, and, using sign language, eventually communicated to us that they weren’t going to open until 12:00, rather than the 11:30 opening Dan expected.

So, to kill some time, we drove around a little, and, at my suggestion, instead of going back to that nerve-wracking parking lot (parking handkerchief is more like it), we parked in the rooftop parking area of good old Sotetsu Rosen, and walked uphill about half a mile or so to the restaurant.

At lunchtime they serve a fixed meal, which is much, much less expensive than a la carte at dinner. We walked in, and sat around a counter filled with fresh looking fish and other items behind glass. Two other couples of Japanese came in at about the same time, and others came in later. Maybe nine or ten seats in all. But, modern enough that we weren’t asked to remove our shoes. Maybe you don’t at sushi restaurants. As we were seated unfortunately under a television, we couldn’t tell as we ate whether the natives were looking at it, or at our semi-fumbling attempts (speaking for Lynne and me) at chopstick use. Reminded me why I hated golf, teeing off in front of a gallery of impatient critics. But I digress.

The meal was wonderful. They kept delivering sushi, placed on a large leaf which served as our individual serving platters, and miso soup, and a concoction of egg with Japanese characters marked on it, and a custardy fish soup, served in a demitasse with a tiny spoon, which tasted wonderful. It was delicious, cost about ¥1300 each I’m remembering, and was memorable. I hope we do it again before we leave.

Saturday afternoon we had planned to visit Kamakura, known for shrines and a spectacular Buddha. But, we had wakened early, and had clambered around the McCain, and had walked back and forth from the supermarket to the restaurant. So we “vegged out,” instead.

This might be a good opportunity to expound on Dan’s bathrooms. We’d been led to expect some interesting bathroom experiences in Japan, and so far, we haven’t been disappointed. At a Denny’s Restaurant (see below), while I found a urinal to be everything I needed in toilet accommodations at the time, Lynne needed to deal with squatting over a toilet. Go figure.

But I digress. Dan’s main bathroom, on the lowest level (meaning a careful two-story trek down from the bedroom) is equipped with a standard toilet, a sink with a heated mirror (to dissipate steam), and a walk-in shower/bathtub compartment that seems larger by itself than our lower level bathroom at home. Dan keeps raving about the bathtub; it seems deep, and optionally can be filled to precise temperature and depth from a control in the kitchen! The shower is excellent, with plenty of water pressure.

But it’s the little half bath upstairs that is a marvel. A small toilet in a tiny space, when one sits down on it the exhaust fan turns on. And, it incorporates an electronically controlled bidet. I don’t think Lynne has tried it, but I’m here to tell you that what Dan describes as the “butt-washer” is an unexpected, unusual, but not unpleasant experience. And, most unique of all to my observation: the wash basin is incorporated into the toilet fixture. When one flushes, water starts running to refill the cistern, as in all toilets. But here, it runs out a faucet that permits one to wash one’s hands, before draining into the cistern. Compact, water-saving, too, too clever.

Well, it wasn’t a page, after all. I hope my fans aren’t too disappointed. Back to Saturday:

Saturday evening, we drove back to the base, where Dan rented his first DVD movie for our later entertainment. His dazzling new computer includes a DVD drive (and a CD-RW — am I envious), and he hoped that the DVD player would provide some visual entertainment in lieu of the television he doesn’t have. Then, parking close to the entrance of the base, we walked for the first time into downtown Yokosuka, with two destinations in mind.

It was about 18:00, and the streets and stores were still crowded. Once again, the English language non-sequiturs abounded. We walked through several blocks made up of individual buildings, but grouped under an awning and labeled Avenue 480, as if it is a form of outdoor mall. Three or four blocks down the street was a stationery store Dan recommended to us. Lynne, who had been advised by a coworker to be alert to stationery purchase opportunities, was entranced by the various items, on three floors, such as charming note paper and matching envelopes, and origami greeting cards, many three-dimensional. Among her inexpensive purchases, she bought a small, beautifully detailed mobile on a stand, for her desk at work.

Another block down was Dan’s favorite tempura restaurant. No English, but pictures. The food was, again, delicious (Dan has good taste, that’s for sure), and, once again, we somehow avoided arrest by the unseen, but certainly present, chopsticks police.

Then, home, to watch our rented movie, “Mumford.” Watching a movie on a 17-inch computer monitor turned out to be surprisingly doable, and the movie itself was delightful. Thence to another early bedtime.

MORE TO COME

So, feeling a bit rusty after more than a four-year hiatus, and reflecting a totally internal need to get some content back into the ether, I’m repurposing a couple of personal travel journals. Because both are lengthy, in excess of 30 pages (Word document pages, that is), I plan to slice them up into more digestible form. I will try to resist the urge for much after-the-fact content or style edits, especially content. This is Yr (justifiably) humble svt, circa 2000, and the travelogue documents an amazing (for us) adventure, and where my head was at nearly 13 years ago. Your comments are always welcome.


mm513: Japan – Travelogue 1.1

February 16, 2013

So, feeling a bit rusty after more than a four-year hiatus, and reflecting a totally internal need to get some content back into the ether, I’m repurposing a couple of personal travel journals. Because both are lengthy, in excess of 30 pages (Word document pages, that is), I plan to slice them up into more digestible form. I will try to resist the urge for much after-the-fact content or style edits, especially content. This is Yr (justifiably) humble svt, circa 2000, and the following documents an amazing (for us) adventure, and where my head was at nearly 13 years ago. Your comments are always welcome.

Lynne and Steve’s 30th Anniversary Extravaganza: Our Japan Adventure

Hayama – Yokosuka – Yokohama – Tokyo June 21 – July 1, 2000

Our story so far:
As our son Dan, a lieutenant in the US Navy, is presently stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan,
we decided that we had a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit a country that we’d always been curious about, but had never dreamed would be able to visit. So, after a successful bid on Priceline.com (sponsorship opportunity!) saved us $500 per ticket over the lowest quoted rate for the dates we needed, we read a little, packed a little more, and set off on our journey.

Weds. 2000-06-21 – Thurs. 2000-06-22. In transit.

Out of the house at 6:00, flew first to Houston (Priceline’s caveat: must accept connecting flights to get the good price). Made easily what I thought might be a tough, less than an hour, connection. Never had flown a 777 before; it’s large, four pilots and 15 cabin attendants large. Even in economy, we were reasonably comfortable, except that it was a very long flight – Houston to Narita took almost 14 hours flight time! It. Was. A. Very. Long. Flight. Got to Narita, Tokyo’s international airport Thursday afternoon local time. Dan was waiting for us right after we breezed through customs – what a site for sore eyes, indeed!

Took the bus to Terminal 1, where we hooked up with the base bus. That trip took a little over 1-1/2 hours, which was good considering it was rush hour.

Drove to Dan’s place in Hayama, about 10 km from the base. Tiny, fender-scraping parking space, right on a busy two lane highway. Shoes off in entryway, Japan style. Three stories, two rooms per. Entry level: spare bedroom (catchall storage) and big bathroom (including washer-dryer). Main level (up steep, small-treaded staircase): living-dining-computer room, a decent sized kitchen, and a half bath. Top level (more of those tricky stairs): large bedroom, with Dan’s bed and a small nightstand and chair, and a very spacious, walk-in closet. Very new (I could write a page about the bathrooms, and perhaps sometime I will).

Thursday night, which to our Chicago bio-clocks was still the middle of the night Thursday morning, did little but visit, eat some tortellini from the freezer. To bed early (which we discover Dan does every night, since his alarm goes off at 4:50). That sort of set the pattern: to sleep early (especially for SN), awake early (Poor Richard would be so proud). Did we mention THE SKYLIGHT IN THE BEDROOM??? No daylight savings – sun’s up at 4-something this time of year!

Fri. 2000-06-23. Hayama.

Friday a.m. was rainy. We had breakfast together at 5:15am, and Dan left for his 20-minute drive for work at 5:40. We were on our own, and Dan promised to get home early in the afternoon. We napped a lot, trying to adjust to the time difference: 14 hours.

We took a short walk up and down the busy street in front of Dan’s duplex, and, at Dan’s suggestion walked down a narrow alley (however, all the streets are impossibly narrow, so this was a street!). Although the Naval Base is located in Yokosuka (pronounced Yo-kooz-ka), Dan actually lives across the Miura peninsula in the beach resort town of Hayama. So, we walked down this twisty narrow street, past immaculately gardened expensive-looking homes, to a beach.

Sloppiest thing we’ve seen in Japan, by far. Small rowboats and surf gliders scattered around, and workers busy putting up (or rebuilding) what we guessed were concession stands. The rain of early morning was mostly gone, but the sand was wet, so we didn’t linger.

Dan finally got home that afternoon, apologizing unnecessarily for stranding us all day (we napped, and read, and napped, still catching up). We took a walk together, to get a feel for his neighborhood.

The streets are photogenically hilly, but impossibly narrow, and most in his area don’t have sidewalks, just a painted line along one side separating the road from a two-foot wide walk/bikeway. There’s no parking permitted on the streets, but there are always double-parkers. Which need to be maneuvered around, which means a driver crosses over one’s lane (if indeed there’s a lane actually marked), or waits until opposing traffic clears to do so (if you can see it). Many curves have mirrors perched strategically, to help that evaluation. And this is not mentioning the motorbikes and motorcycles, weaving their way around traffic. Put this all together with the right hand drive, drive on the left character of Japan’s cars and roads, and I’m very happy to be a passenger and a (very careful) pedestrian here, thank you very much.

Thankfully, many of the cars are tiny. Dan, who has an ’87 Toyota Mark II (in the US it was a Camry, and indeed it looks very similar to the Camry Brian and Pam drove until about two years ago), is envious of those micro vehicles (“look how easy they’d be to park!”). One of my favorite activities this trip has been to read the names of Japanese cars we pass by. I should have written them down. The Japanese car manufacturers, and indeed, Japanese marketers of all kinds of products, love English words. Even if they’re not certain of their meaning, English words are emblazoned on their cars, their soft drinks, their posters. I don’t think they really care whether the words make sense in English; there’s apparently a cachet to use them.

Now, it’s probably the time to say something about the street in front of Dan’s house. It’s National Route 134, according to the signage readable by us. And, as mentioned above, it also has a name, which I still don’t remember, beginning with “S”. Most of all, though, is that it’s busy. Motor bikes, motorcycles, cars, vans, small trucks, buses, LARGE TRUCKS; all zooming by (all in defiance of a posted 40-kph speed limit – sounds like at least twice 24 miles per hour to these ears).

This goes on all day, and all the noisy night, and all this audio stimulation is less than 12 feet from his windows. Now, when I was growing up, I used to love to stay overnight at my Grandma Daisy’s house. Her guest bedroom looked out on busy Ridge Avenue in Evanston, cars and buses swooshing by all night long. That was exciting to a young boy, and in an odd way, restful. National Route 134 is another species of nighttime comfort altogether. If 45 seconds goes by without something zooming by, we start twitching. It took some getting used to.

And, virtually everywhere we’ve been so far, especially Dan’s neighborhood, is hilly (I had remarked in the morning, as we wound our way down to the beach, how much the area reminded me of California, with houses perched on hillsides, and with a low, semi-tropical appearance). So, we walked down, we walked around, we walked up, for a mile or more, with our eventual target the Sotetsu Rosen, a supermarket.

Looked like our neighborhood Jewel. Except of course for the produce (4 apples, ¥1600 — that’s nearly $4.00 an apple, folks!), and many other items which seemed extraordinarily expensive. And all the packaged goods, some with English (Cream Cheese Cake snacks), most without. One could write a book, I guess. We picked up some snacks (ask Lynne about Pokey’s), giving me a chance to maneuver Japanese money for about the first time. So far, so good. Then we walked back, enjoying the pretty, if compact, gardens in front of many of the homes. Lynne tried to get some photographs of some of them. Hydrangeas seem to be in bloom right now, and look lovely.

The “go home from work” tune on the public address system in the neighborhood (culturally different enough for you?) suggested that it indeed was time for dinner, and time (hurrah!), for our first Japanese meal. Dan took us to a place he likes (on his route to work) that serves soba noodles and ramen noodles. It’s a diner-like place, very clean.

Dan was disconcerted because the displays on the wall over the counter with the dishes illustrated (ideal for pointing, a must with our limited language resources) was gone! He attempted to order soba noodles, we got ramen. No problem, it was delicious. A deep bowl, served with chopsticks. Lots of goodies besides the noodles: vegetables, meat, seaweed, pickled radish, etc. Everything delicious. Then you drink the broth to complete the meal. Excellent. And, no embarrassing moves with the chopsticks. Back home to a quiet evening of conversation and reading, and early bedtime (Dan, a hard work week; we, still sorting out what time it was).

MORE TO COME



mm512: Two Months: Three Amazing Films

February 9, 2013

Blown away by three of the best, not of 2012, but of my lifetime experience!

 

Don’t see too many movies in theatres these days. Oh, the local venue is quite deluxe, actually, a phenomenal upgrade from what used to be available close to home.

But, as has been noted everywhere, Hollywood simply isn’t making product for any beyond the prime market: males 14—34. I’m male, but quite some years beyond “prime”.

Yet in the space of just two months, from Thanksgiving week until my birthday January 21, I was fortunate enough to see three manifestly wonderful films: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

I am not a critic, like my young cousin, Matthew, nor an educator on the topic, like cousin Lee, nor have I ever played one on television, like my hero for more than 45 years, Roger, so the following impressions are highly personal, and informed mainly by my life experience and absolutely not by any chops as an expert cineaste.

To end any suspense, here are the three films.

Lincoln


I inherited my interest in all things Lincoln from my late father, for whom this enthusiasm was substantial all of his life. Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume biography was prominent on our bookshelf, and I wasted no time as a child in absorbing its lessons. My dad made certain that, as Illinois residents, we toured the house in Springfield, and the log cabin in Salem.

Lincoln scholarship has advanced from those Sandburgian days, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a much more recent history of the wartime President and key members of his cabinet, that I confess I haven’t yet read, was the inspiration for Tony Kushner’s (writer) and Steven Spielberg’s (director) masterful Lincoln, that, talk about inspired, dissects the last few months of our most iconic president’s life when he campaigned ever-so-adroitly to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery.

Zero Dark Thirty


This amazing film tells a (somewhat fictionalized? This is a continuing conversation…) story of one young CIA analyst’s (Jessica Chastain) quest for Osama Bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (winner [twice!] for The Hurt Locker three years ago), it is, throughout its 2½-hour length (flew by, actually!), a gripping, compelling, riveting (running out of adjectives here) experience.

Yes, there are some unpleasant moments in the first 45 minutes, as the questioning of suspects utilizes the infamous (and, until now, only imagined) waterboarding form of torture, but I swallowed hard and accepted the scenes as a cost of witnessing the process, much as this country needed to swallow hard and accept that intense interrogation seemed appropriate in the circumstances following 9/11.

Silver Linings Playbook


This “RomCom,” or, perhaps, “dramedy” stars Bradley Cooper, no stranger to the former genre, and surprisingly effective Jennifer Lawrence, whose roles prior to this film (“Winter’s Bone,” “Hunger Games“) were more soulfully dramatic. The premise is that Cooper is released from eight months in a psychiatric hospital, where he was treated for bipolar disorder, and while back at home pines for his ex-wife, whose ugly betrayal ignited the events that led to his hospitalization. Lawrence plays a very young widow with issues beyond that sad state, who engages Cooper in her quixotic mission to compete in a local ballroom dancing event.

That’s a bare bones synopsis that just scratches the surface of the very profound depths explored by this David O. Russell film. For one thing, Pat Solitano’s father is portrayed by Robert De Niro, who along with the actress Jacki Weaver as the mother, were both nominated for Academy Awards in the supporting actor category. (This film was the first in many years to receive nominations for all four of its principal actors, as well as for Best Picture and Russell’s direction and adapted screenplay among its eight nominations).

So, “Mr. Critic-wannabe,” Why These Three?

So, the context is important here. As noted, we just don’t go to the trouble of seeing that many films in theatres these days. The only other one I recall this year, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an exception to the juvenile males policy, was well done, in rather a twee way, but it had nowhere near the emotional punch thrown by each of the subject three. What got us out there, and why were they so impactful?

Writing

Great acting (and I’ll get to that) usually doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Acting talent can trump indifferent writing. An example is Meryl Streep in just about anything. And okay, some independent films are all improvisation (and, one of my favorite current television series, “Parenthood,” [NBC! Renew!!] has as a trademark an improvised feel to a number of its two-person scenes), but all three of my impactful films display every sign of very, very careful writing.

For Lincoln, Tony Kushner, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter started with the cited historic material, and created a simply wonderful drama. Mark Boal wrote the screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty. It’s quite apparent that he has an insight into our wars of the ‘Naughts, as he won two Academy awards (writing and producing) for a previous project with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, the searing exploits of a squad of explosives disposal technician-soldiers in Iraq. For Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell adapted Matthew Quick’s novel (no, I didn’t read it), and I read an interview with Russell where he emotionally disclosed a kinship with the story due to having a troubled child of his own. It shows.

Acting

Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook: all wonderful actors. For Lincoln, they stepped up their game. Great writing requires great acting to bring it out, and they all did phenomenal work. Daniel Day Lewis, especially, channeled the 16th president in a way I had never before seen. Too often a caricature, Abe Lincoln (impossibly tall, black beard, stovepipe hat – hey, he’s on the five-dollar bill for heaven’s sake!), he was fully alive here, thinking, scheming, hurting, parenting, winning. Similarly well known to posterity, Mary Todd Lincoln has been too often portrayed as maddening, and mad. Sally Field humanized her tremendously effectively. Jones intelligently portrayed furious abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in a most moving way. Just breathtaking acting, on everyone’s part.

Zero Dark Thirty has a standout performance by Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain as obsessive analyst Maya, and an excellent supporting ensemble, including a personal favorite, Jason Clarke, as a CIA operative neck-deep in waterboard torture.

Silver Linings Playbook! The acting here was superlative to the extent that, it bears repeating that all four principal actors have been nominated in their respective categories, a first in a zillion years. But I must call out Bradley Cooper, who absolutely floored us.

The photogenic Mr. Cooper, best known previously for his light and deft Rom-Com roles (and, for me, for the ill-fated Will Tippin in “Alias” all of those years ago), deeply inhabits Pat Solitano in an uncanny way. And, I know bipolar disorder.

Our terrific younger son has wrestled with this illness since long before it was finally diagnosed. With (finally!) a decent medical professional on the case and the right medication in the right dosage, he has clawed his way back to feeling better and back on the road toward his life’s ambition.

The first twenty minutes or so of Silver Linings had my wife and I looking at each other: “What are we doing here? We go to the movies to escape! This is too real.” Bradley Cooper’s demeanor and his overall look (he’s only a few years older than our son) took our collective breath away. His haggard face, and oh, my God, that stare! That was our son, during the depths of his pain and paranoia. Cooper just nailed it. Astonishing!

As noted above, David O. Russell, the film’s director and screenplay adapter, has a troubled young son himself, a fact that undoubtedly informed his interest in, his approach to the story, and his direction of Bradley Cooper. But, Cooper’s work here is an acting tour de force wherever it came from, and most deserving of its recognition by pretty nearly everyone. And I’m here to say, you have absolutely no idea how close to the bone he struck.

See these films!

Rarely in my experience have any movies been so entirely compelling. To have had this experience three times in a two month span is as remarkable as it was refreshing to the spirit. They are each very different, covering cataclysmic events 150 years ago, the harrowing 10 years following 9/11, and what might have been just the other day in Philadelphia, but each did so with a depth of detail, naked emotional honesty and an utter mastery of storytelling. After all, the combined weight of all three propelled me into writing this essay about movies, a subject I’ve never tackled before.

If you haven’t yet done so, make it a point to see Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty. See them in a darkened theatre, advice I don’t often give, much less take, any more. They will more than reward your investment in tickets, parking, refreshments, time and attention.


 


mm511: My Football-Free Fall

February 3, 2013

Perhaps you’ve noticed this logo accompanying my Facebook and Twitter postings since the football season began during late summer, 2012. As that endless season closes out today, with a certain “super” event, I decided that it’s time for another, more full explanation of what it’s been about.

We’ll begin by noting that I have loved the game of football since I was very, very young. Indeed, I recall that my parents gifted me with a kid’s plastic helmet and shoulder pads when I was about 10 years old, and I dimly remember playing in some kind of loosely organized games with that gear. As was always the case where yours truly and athletic effort is concerned, my interest level far exceeded my (pretty much non-existent) athletic ability, and, as a lineman I enjoyed playing the game but didn’t make much of a positive impression on my teammates or of any school coach. But, my love of the game only grew. I watched the college game, especially, on our (in those years, manifestly) black and white small screen television, and the annual Army Navy game, with its accompanying pageantry made such an impression on me that I was less surprised than I might have been when many years later our older son suddenly revealed as a high school freshman his interest in attending the Naval Academy, which indeed he made happen.

But I digress. Professional football, a much younger sport than the college game that began organized play in the second half of the 19th century, was embodied in my home town, Chicago, by the Bears, one of the first couple of teams created in the early 1920s by George Halas, who was still around as owner-coach when I began paying attention to the game. I don’t recall seeing many televised professional games, until I was in high school in the early 1960s, and the Bears actually won the championship. Exciting stuff. By the time I was attending that Evanston school, which itself had a lengthy history of football excellence, and an actual nationally known coach, Murney Lazier, I had long since been dissuaded by my parents from even considering attempting to try out, unlikely to be successful as that would have been, given my afore mentioned lack of any type of athletic ability – the violent, injurious nature of the game was understood by them long before I had achieved any kind of mature perspective on the issue. But I attended all of the high school home games, and, my senior year when I was driving, a few away games too.

So, that was me, football fan, even more than baseball, my dad’s longtime love. (A slight digression, but a wonderful story: he always said, and his mother confirmed, that he was an indifferent student of arithmetic until he began attending Cubs games [thanks to some generous uncles, as his father died when Dad was only five years old]. In those benighted years before newspaper in-depth coverage and Jumbotron scoreboards, my dad pushed himself to learn the math behind batting averages, so he could attend, or listen on the radio, and better understand the nuances of that game). In that same way, I loved watching football, a love that eagerly welcomed the television-fueled expansion of both the professional and college sport.

I remember the pre-Roman-numbered (prehistoric?) pro championship games, the first Monday night football game (by then viewed on our very own “large screen” [21-inch] color television – yes, I had to wait to get married before having such a luxury under our own roof), and I eagerly consumed all I could, professional and college. Meanwhile my dad, for whom I was working by that time in his small sales business, more than once expressed his own disappointment in the game, as its capacity for injury increased in proportion (or perhaps, beyond proportion) to the ever-increasing size and ferocity of its players. Even in those years, injuries were stunning. Chicago’s own Gale Sayers, a once in a generation talent, had his stellar professional football career as a running back and kick return specialist cut tragically short due to the accumulation of damage to his knees. Although, in retrospect, that brevity might just have salvaged his subsequent life, which has been quite professionally and philanthropically successful.

But, I ate it all up: the college game, the professional game, and although we were a late adapter of cable television, once ESPN was available to me, with its expanded coverage of both, I had long since become addicted. Indeed, advance forward 10-15 years to when ESPN once bragged that its “family of networks” went 37 straight days broadcasting a college or professional football game. Quite an advance from my first experience: high school and college – Saturday [no Friday night lights for our local high school until the naughts]; pro – Sunday, period. But, I ate it all up.

Yes, though my father had long since passed, I still heard his voice expressing his dismay over the injuries. Yes, I had long ago given up my subscription to Sports Illustrated, as its coverage of sports more and more resembled the crime log in a daily newspaper, what with drug arrests, bad behavior, including domestic violence, and, yes, those injuries, occupying more and more of its attention. But, I still watched the games, and listened to them on the radio while in the car, totally consumed the game (just loved Friday Night Lights, for its high quality domestic drama as much for its wonderful football drama), read all about the game, including a columnist that my son had called to my attention: Gregg Easterbrook, the Tuesday Morning Quarterback, whose weekly 9,000 word essays during the season are erudite and insightful of the professional (and college) game beyond my previous experience (Gregg, it’s you I have missed most of all this Fall!).

And then…

Easterbrook had been poking at the issue of injuries, specifically head injuries and inadequate helmets, for several years. His career as a writer (books, quality journals such as The Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic) and especially his (paid, I’m sure) status as an ESPN.com columnist, has been informed by his avocational experience as a coach of the organized teams participated in by his sons as they have grown up. He has always pointed out that high school and younger teams take their cues from the college and professional game. College leagues, especially, function as farm leagues for the pros, so they certainly reflect the professional ethos. And the professional leagues have steadfastly ignored, until very recently, the value of more up to date protective gear, especially helmets, in protecting the brain from injury. And, unfortunately, as the professionals go, so go the colleges, the high schools, the Pop Warner leagues, ad nauseum.

And then…

Dave Duerson, a defensive star of the championship Chicago Bears squad of the 1980s, committed suicide in a very particular way: he shot himself in the heart, and texted instructions to his survivors for his brain to be examined for football-related trauma, specifically chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)

And then…

Junior Seau, another, more recent defensive football star, died in the same way, with the same instructions.

And then…

A guy I’d never heard of named Jerry Sandusky (sorry, no link for him, he’s not worth the effort for me to place it, and you to read it) shat on the sport of college football, especially the prestige of Pennsylvania State University and its highly respected, long serving head coach, Joe Paterno.

It wasn’t the stomach-turning years-long sexual abuse of young children, nauseating as Sandusky’s crimes were. It was that he was aided, abetted, yea, enabled, by the corrupt nature of college football, as exemplified by Penn State, in whose facilities Sandusky perpetrated his dismal depravities, and whose leadership, including that revered Mr. Paterno, and extending to the president and administration of the university, shielded and protected him, even when the criminal nature of his activities was revealed to them.

But the corruption in the college game is far more extensive than just one institution. It’s all of the major leagues and organizations, who set football and its coaches on pedestals unworthy of the institutions’ purported academic aspirations. Football, and the television contracts negotiated on behalf of the premier schools, earns tens of millions of dollars annually for the premier competing colleges and universities. Coaches, as a result, are hyper-paid, and usually loyal, not to their employers, nor the young men they recruit with such glowing promises, but to the highest bidder for their services. And those young men, restricted by archaic regulations about payment, are effectively indentured servants of their colleges, paid, if they’re fortunate to be able to pay attention to their studies at all rather than the all-consuming sport they were recruited to serve, with scholarships that could, in a minority of cases, yield a diploma.

Between Sandusky, whose trial took place in early 2012, and who received an extended sentence that unfortunately did not include castration, and Seau, who died in May, 2012, the clamor in my mind regarding the truly criminal nature of the game I had loved for so long became too loud to ignore. Thus, Steve’s Football-Free Fall.

No, I am not the beginning of any trend, nor the founder of any movement, although I’ve been known to innovate. The game ignored my symbolic withdrawal. Beer still got sold in Amazonian quantities, as did pickup trucks. Super Bowl 47 will go on today despite my non-viewership (a first in that string, by the way).

But, I feel I accomplished quite a bit this fall. I read a great deal, on-line, and books, on my Kindle Fire. I followed, and contributed hard-earned dollars to, our first black president’s first black presidential re-election campaign. Very satisfying indeed. I continued my personal improvement program by dropping more weight.

And, it turned out that my supposed addiction to watching, reading, consuming the game of football was pretty easy to shake. No more horrible collisions on the field ending in stretchers, and suicides designed to further research into the hideous nature of the game. No more head coaches disdaining multiple-millions for multiple tens-of-millions, and, by the way, thereby likely depriving too many truly deserving underprivileged students and young adults of the opportunity for tertiary education.

Nope, no residual side effects. Except more free time. And, less nausea.

I think I need to change that graphic.

Steve’s Football-Free Life.

Not quite so alliterative. But a recipe for, perhaps, a more productive personal story.