Has John Cusack Ever Made a Bad Movie?

Kidding. Sort of.

I mean, look, the guy’s made almost 60 movies, in a career spanning more than 25 years (per his Wikipedia filmography, at least). It’s pretty much impossible to make that many films and have nary a stinker in the bunch.

Granted, I haven’t seen all or even most of those five dozen films. (Which surprised me, actually; I’d been prepared to open this post by flashing my Cusack credentials, daring anyone to challenge me.)

But I’ve seen a lot of them. And I honestly cannot think of a single film, even the ones he hasn’t “starred” in, which he has not boosted by a sly, assured performance.

Lord knows, there’s nothing conventionally movie-star about his looks — his soulful-hangdog looks (like in the above photo) or (as at left) his crazy looks or (as below right) affable, laughing, and apparently relaxed. (I’ve never seen Rachael Ray’s talk show, but I’ve seen her manic 30-Minute Meals routine. It’s hard to imagine anyone could ever really be relaxed around that person, but I remain open to the possibilities of an infinite universe.)

And Lord knows, in one of his profession’s true injustices, he doesn’t have shelves full of acting awards.

But damn, the guy is a pleasure to see on the screen.

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The Sunday-Morning Debate: Sweet or Savory?

When I was a kid, the family habit was to stop on the way home from church at the L&M Bakery. (I’m so happy to see they’re* still in business and still getting rave reviews.) For the six of us, a reasonable guess might be that we’d get, say, a dozen doughnuts and be happy, right?

Oh, no. Nonononononooooo. Not my family. And not when buying from L&M. Try:

  • Six or eight doughnuts, including at least one jelly doughnut and a couple chocolate-covered cream doughnuts (which were not the same thing as Boston Creme Doughnuts, you Philistines). Filled, so it seemed, from surface to surface. You’d bite into one of these suckers and you’d have to mop up all around your mouth, sometimes even your cheeks.
  • Sticky cinnamon buns, with raisins. Maybe a half-dozen of these. The owners of the Cinnabon brand would fold up their franchises if they knew these existed.
  • Crumbly cinnamon-topped “crumb buns.” A favorite of my kid brother, which (as I recall) indicated to me a certain lack of imagination. Until I tried one myself.
  • A slab of something called “butter cake.” (I’m still not sure what exactly this was; I’ve never seen it anyplace else. Flat, pan-baked, maybe ¾-inch thick. Sweeeet topping, not quite icing… The topping cracked irregularly during baking, so each piece of butter cake looked like a miniature map of the continents just after they’d started to break up jillions of years ago.)

Now, we didn’t get ALL these things every week. But every week we did get enough, really, for ourselves and a couple neighbor families. Whom we’d never have dreamt of inviting unless they brought their own.

And it would all be gone by Sunday night. **

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Software I’d Like to See: Fotōpic

Wireframe street/building scene (click to enlarge)

It makes no difference that I’ve been a computer programmer for nearly 30 years now. There are computer programmers and there are computer programmers. If your assignments (actual or potential) don’t require you to use a given technology, chances are you’ll never learn that technology. Meanwhile, the world passes you by in the form of all the folks (generally younger) who can make the technology sing.

Still, it’s nice to fantasize about the sort of project you’d like to work on, someday, if you only knew enough…

In Merry-Go-Round, I did this with a few wholly imaginary (as far as I know) pieces of software. Of these, the one I like the most is called Fotōpic. In the passage which follows, Fotōpic’s general nature is explained, and one character is shown using it.

Background: The character in this passage, Abbie, is on a mission on behalf of an underground/resistance movement which goes by the name of ACME Universal. Her mission: travel by train one night to the (fictional) town of Jessup’s Cut, Maryland, where she will make contact with a man whose description she knows, but whom she has never met.

There’s one problem: Abbie needs to get to Jessup’s Cut, make the contact, and get out of Jessup’s Cut as fast as possible. But she’s never been there, and she can’t go in advance. How’s she going to navigate her way around a town’s building, trees, streets, street lamps, obstacles which a GPS unit or satellite photos won’t help her with?

Here goes. From Merry-Go-Round:

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Salvaging the Honey at Heaven’s Edge

You know how in the Warner Brothers “Road Runner” cartoons, the coyote is forever running (or riding a rocket, or pogo-sticking, or being launched by an ACME Giant Slingshot) off a cliff? and at some moment he realizes that he’s done so, and as soon as he realizes it he loses all forward motion, waves morosely to the audience, and drops out of the bottom of the frame?

For this Friday’s meditations from whiskey river and elsewhere, I wanted to do a “theme post.” This is a tribute to people who’ve recently shot off the edge of a personal or professional cliff, with plenty of forward momentum — and who know better than to look down.

From whiskey river:

It is hard to let old beliefs go. They are familiar. We are comfortable with them and have spent years building systems and developing habits that depend on them. Like a man who has worn eyeglasses so long that he forgets he has them on, we forget that the world looks to us the way it does because we have become used to seeing it that way through a particular set of lenses. Today, however, we need new lenses. And we need to throw the old ones away.

(Kenichi Ohmae)

and:

Nothing can hold you back — not your childhood, not the history of a lifetime, not even the very last moment before now. In a moment you can abandon your past. And once abandoned, you can redefine it.

If the past was a ring of futility, let it become a wheel of yearning that drives you forward. If the past was a brick wall, let it become a dam to unleash your power.

The very first step of change is so powerful, the boundaries of time fall aside. In one bittersweet moment, the sting of the past is dissolved and its honey salvaged.

(Tzvi Freeman, The Illlustrated Encyclopedia of an Imaginary Universe)

and:

Withered vines, gnarled trees, twilight crows,
river flowing beneath the little bridge,
past someone’s home.
The wind blows from the west
where the sun sets, it blows
across the ancient road,
across the bony horse,
across the despairing man
who stands at heaven’s edge.

(Ma Chih-Yuan, “Meditation in Autumn”)

Finally (lyrics below — not from whiskey river), a sort of meditation on dilemmas in general:

Crossfire
(words & music by Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton,
Reese Wynans, B.Carter, and Ruth Ellsworth;
performance by Stevie Ray Vaughan)

Day by day, night after night,
blinded by the neon lights
Hurry here, hustlin’ there,
no one’s got the time to spare
Money’s tight, nothin’ free,
won’t somebody come and rescue me
I am stranded, caught in the crossfire
Stranded, caught in the crossfire

Tooth for tooth, eye for an eye,
sell your soul, just to buy buy buy,
Beggin’ a dollar stealin’ a dime,
come on can’t you see that I
I am stranded, caught in the crossfire
I am stranded, caught in the crossfire

I need some kind of kindness,
some kind of sympathy — oh no
We’re stranded, caught in the crossfire

Save the strong, lose the weak,
never turning the other cheek,
Trust nobody, don’t be no fool,
whatever happened to the golden rule?
We got stranded, caught in the crossfire
We got stranded, caught in the crossfire
We got stranded, caught in the crossfire
Stranded, caught in the crossfire
Help me

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As Good as Jesus in a Slice of Toast

From the New York Daily News:

Elephant-shaped Ganesh growth cured my ills, Queens man says

To most people, the purple flower that sprouted between two concrete slabs in a Queens backyard would be just a hardy vestige of summer.

Sam Lal sees something more.

The Jamaica [neighborhood in Queens] man is convinced the mysterious blossom is an incarnation of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh — and neighbors and friends are flocking to see it.

Lal believes the flower’s position — growing through concrete, facing a garage he converted to a prayer space — is evidence of a connection to Ganesh, revered as the Remover of Obstacles.

(Be sure to see the sidebar photo gallery, too. Capsule summary: “The Virgin Mary in a Funyun? ‘Allah’ in an eggplant? Pope John Paul II in a bonfire? Check out more sightings.” And yes, it really does put Allah’s name in quotation marks.)

What is it that drives people to see their god-figures in everyday objects?

I want to read a story set in ancient Greece or Rome — or India, for that matter — a time when people’s daily lives were ruled by a hundred gods all at once, tinkering concurrently with a hundred different human preoccupations.

It must have been dizzying walking through a street marketplace. Every time a vendor seeking buyers held up a bolt of fabric, a rock, a zucchini or kumquat, a hand-hammered item of metal dinnerware, a leather pouch or wineskin, a handful of rice or spices pouring through his fingers, anything: a gods-sensitive individual must have wanted to drop to his or her knees a dozen times, trembling with gratitude or fear, never knowing if the everyday world was about to end or wobble on its axis, or if his bad back would be healed, or her eyes struck blind…

Or is this really as strange as a cynic might insist? What about a world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower? Why should we think of William Blake as a mystic, and Sam Lal as a mere crackpot?

(News article courtesy of a commenter on Ursula Vernon’s Bark Like a Fish, Damnit! Livejournal. Early on, Ganesh figured prominently in Vernon’s webcomic, Digger. See, e.g., this strip et seq.)

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Squirrels in the Attic

It seems like æons ago that I lived in rural New Jersey. It was without question, as the saying goes, a former life — different employer, different house, different spouse. (To distinguish her from The Missus, I will refer to her as The Former Missus.)

Our house was situated next to a dairy farm; our municipality, a couple of centuries old, was called Tewksbury Township. Across the road from us was a big old Victorian, a former farmhouse (although the property by then was too small to do any farming on) which still had a barn in the backyard. In the barn lived a horse and a cow which, as one of our neighbors said, “seemed to be quite sympatico.”

The house itself was what was called an “expanded Cape Cod.” White wooden clapboard siding; black shutters on either side of the windows. Only the first floor was finished, but there was an attic.

An attic in which a complete family of squirrels lived.

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Beacon

Whitford lighthouse, very low tide (click for enlarged version)

[In the wake of yesterday’s post (which began as a study of someone else’s neurosis but ended as a study of my own), I’m really feeling the need today to just write about something completely free (for me) of any, y’know, import. Here’s what floated to the surface, as it were.]

A while back, I participated in one of those “blog parties” which seem to come along periodically. The topic (selected by the party’s organizer, Rebecca Ramsey) was Wonders of the World, in which participants celebrated, well, wonderful things or occasions which held some special appeal for them.

My topic was waterfalls. As I explained in an aside there, for some unknown reason I’ve been fascinated by the country of Wales, which I’ve never visited. (Nor, as far as I know, has anyone I know ever visited there.) (Okay, you can all announce yourselves now.) Although I’m not actively looking for information on the Welsh language, Welsh countryside, Welsh history or folklore, whatever, my mind still goes into heightened-interest mode when I come across any of that stuff.

The lighthouse shown here has not been operational for some time. It’s referred to as the Whitford (or alternatively Whiteford) lighthouse. Built in 1866 to replace the original (which was in turn erected in 1854), it was deactivated in 1926. It’s 130 feet high, made of cast iron, and at low tide — as shown here — requires a five-mile walk to reach. The Whitford lighthouse watches over the Burry Inlet, on the southern coast of Wales.

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The Bathroom Talker

Cartoon by Daniel Beyer, from The New Yorker (click for original)

This is almost, but not quite, a tale for the Ear Job series of posts. But no, this is a tale of… let’s call it social maladjustment. Someone else’s. Or mine. Or both.

The first words exchanged between this guy at work and me were simple, even innocent: “I said, where d’ya get your hair cut?”

But the context for these words was not simple. They were uttered by him, to me, and they were his third or fourth attempt to get a response out of me. And they were uttered — as were all the previous attempts, one after another, in the space of about a minute — as we stood at adjacent urinals in the men’s room.

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Somebody Else’s Perfect Moment

There’s a particular category of human experience unlike any other. It’s got nothing to do with personality or intelligence; it crosses geographic and linguistic borders as if they didn’t exist (because they don’t, except in our minds and on the paper where we record the products of those faulty machines). Such an experience comes and goes so quickly that a single blink of the eye, the least distraction can cause us to miss it. It’s grounded in the senses, not in words — nor even in the heart, except in retrospect.

There’s really no way to sum up this category except via the facile phrase the perfect moment.

The work of the late, great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson came to be associated with the phrase “the decisive moment.” He adopted it as the title of his 1952 collection (all of which is online), having borrowed it from a seventeenth century Cardinal de Retz:

There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.

I’ve been considering a series of occasional posts on this subject for a couple of months now. The essence of what I hope to get at with these perfect-moment posts is embodied in a passage from Cartier-Bresson’s introduction to the great book:

…the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving.

He was speaking of photography, of course, and therefore speaking of the visual sense. But we’re awash in sensory experiences of all kinds, tumbling through them as though bobbing and thrashing about in whitewater rapids. Every now and then, without conscious thought, we grab hold of a rock. For a fraction of a second, we’re completely engaged with it — the way the light darts over its wet surface, the feel of its grainy bumpy surface beneath our fingertips or against the palm of our hands, the background roar of water and its smell as it floods our nostrils and its taste in our screaming mouth, perhaps the sixth-sense fear of what will happen when we lose our hold on the rock…

Then we’re moving on, tugged away by the rush of events and voices, the sheer force of all the moments still blasting by. We never go back to that rock. But we never forget it, either.

Those are the perfect moments I’m going to be seeking out here.

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The Thing That Happened, Once

From whiskey river:

At Blackwater Pond

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have
settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?

(Mary Oliver)

And:

In the tea ceremony, the expression “once in a lifetime, this one encounter” is often used. The usual way this is interpreted is “a one-and-only encounter.” In Zen, though, we interpret this expression in the following way: In the course of our lifetime, there is one person we must meet. No matter through which grasslands we may walk or which mountains we may climb, we must meet this person. This person is in this world. Who is this person? It is the true self. You must meet the true self. As long as you don’t, it will not be possible to be truly satisfied in the depths of your heart. You will never lose the sense that something is lacking. Nor will you be able to clarify the way things are.

This is the objective of life as well as of the teaching of Buddhism — to meet yourself.

(Sekkei Harada)

And the obvious musical bit (lyrics follow), although the video is a bit… unusual:

Once in a Lifetime
(words and music by Talking Heads;
performance is emphatically
not)

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself: Well… how did I get here?

Letting the days go by/Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/Water flowing underground
Into the blue again/After the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/Water flowing underground.

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

Letting the days go by/Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/Water flowing underground
Into the blue again/After the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/Water flowing underground.

Same as it ever was… same as it ever was …same as it ever was…
Same as it ever was… same as it ever was… same as it ever was…
Same as it ever was… same as it ever was…

(Followed by Statler and Waldorf: “Same as it ever was! Same as it ever was! Yeah—” “An hour ago!” [laughter])

Original, longer version, from the concert film Stop Making Sense, can be viewed here.

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