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Thankful Thursday III – A Waxwing Moment

It’s Thankful Thursday again, and today like others is a good day to be thankful. I actually had a draft of today’s ready to go yesterday – and it may see the light of day later – but I had a nice little moment earlier today that I to replace it with.

While out running many errands – many boring errands – grocery shopping, filling up the car, driving a relative to work – I needed to drop off a package at a courier drop-off center in a big box store. I pulled into the parking lot, got a spot at the edge of the lot and found a whole flock of Cedar Waxwings flitting about in the trees right in front of my car. Waxwings are a bird that perhaps could earn the designation “charming”. Small, elegant looking little sparrow-sized birds with a crest like a cardinal and a mask like a Raccoon, and when you see them in the right light and angle, little bright patches of yellow and red. Little birds that have human-like traits of being highly gregarious (you seldom see one waxwing) and a slight tendency towards drunkenness. You see, waxwings like berries more than anything else, and if they’ve fermented on the tree… well, you get tipsy birds. Unlike humans though, the tipsy birds don’t seem to fly at each other or shoot one another.

Anyway, I opened the door of the car and expected them to take off, but instead, a few flew and others kept on looking for berries in the tree and hopping around not far from my feet. I snapped a few photos with my phone which is most definitely not high-def but captures the moment at least. As I did, with the birds flying around me, a car pulled over to the side of the road, window rolled down and a lady yelled out at me “what kind of birds are they?” I called back that they were called waxwings. “They’re adorable” she answered before driving on her way.

It was not a dazzling event, and I was walking into the building three or four minutes later to do the task I had come for. But it was a nice little moment. For a couple of minutes I was not thinking about the best route to avoid traffic to the next stop, money, or anything else other than enjoying the outdoors and the active little birds which were going on about their business of the day. The passerby who noticed and appreciated it encouraged me more.

And that is often the key to being in a good mindset. You don’t win the lottery, get promoted from sweeper to CEO or get to be on the cover of ‘Great People Of The World” magazine everyday. But if you look around you, you probably do get the special little fleeting moments no matter where you are. Learn to enjoy them and you’ll find the mundane becomes a lot more magical.

Movie Extra 4 – Groundhog Day

For my fourth pick in this movie exercise (run by Hanspostcard at his site), I check off the “Sci-fi/Fantasy” category with one of my all-time favorites. And let me say I’m glad the two genres got lumped together, because frankly, I’m rarely a fan of science fiction. So rise and shine, fantasy lovers because it’s Groundhog Day!

For the unitiated, Groundhog Day was the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray celebrating – or perhaps mocking – the beloved February 2nd Pennsylvania tradition of seeing if the groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil) will see his shadow, and thereby prognosticating if spring will come early. Or as the star of the movie would put it, “one of the times when television really fails to capture the true excitement of watching a large squirrel predicting the weather.” In a nutshell, Murray, the master of deadpan comedy in that era, plays another Phil, Phil Connors, a cynical Pittsburgh TV weatherman. He’s assigned to cover the Groundhog event, with his producer Rita (played by Andie McDowell) and a station cameraman, the goofy and slightly dim Larry (Chris Elliott, at the time star of TV sitcom Get A Life). Connors hates the event, hates the small town and wants nothing more than to hightail it out back to the city. But, a snowstorm he didn’t see coming keeps him in town for the day. Then, through unknown black magic (hence the “fantasy” designation) he ends up trapped in Punxsutawney, reliving the same day over and over and over again. So well-known is the plot that “groundhog day” has become well-known as a euphemism for boring states of affairs where nothing ever changes. It was based on Danny Rubin’s first screenplay (he’d win a BAFTA Award for it) which was tweaked by SCTV-alumni Harold Ramis, which doubtless explains some of the ridiculous but hilarious comic bits.

Of course, Phil goes through all sorts of reactions to his recurring day – disbelief, anger, conniving manipulation, conceit (he tells Rita at one point “I am a god,” to which she expresses skepticism so he clarifies “Iam A god, I’m not THE God. I don’t think…”), industriousness (why not learn to play piano or ice sculpt with a chainsaw if you have all the time in the world?) and finally a mature realization of what a gift he has been given. He can do almost infinite good since he has the time and the knowledge of what will happen that day. If he knows bad outcomes, he can work on changing them for the better. The maturing weatherman falls in love and finally, by losing himself, or his ego at least, he finally finds fulfillment and happiness. He also learns that planning for the unknown only takes you away from being happy in the moment. No wonder entire books have been written about the philosophy behind the movie.

Surprisingly, Ramis and Rubin say they didn’t intend to write anything more than “ a good heartfelt, entertaining story.” University courses and religious sermons alike have since been dedicated to the philosophy behind the movie, which most curiously of all was apparently an aspect of the film the normally goofy Murray was especially anxious to play up. Murray’s said that the film speaks to him because it deals with people being afraid to change and “having the strength and knowledge to make a change when faced with the opportunity to repeat (or right) previous mistakes.”

Learning, evolving… Groundhog Day is right there with A Christmas Carol as a classic overnight bad-to-good redemption tale. Which is part of why it was brilliant and still resonates even as the cars and technologies seen in it seem increasingly outdated. But there’s the other part as well. It’s also there with other Murray classics like Ghostbusters as a simple comedy. Groundhog Day works because it’s just flat out funny. We fall on the floor laughing as we’re subtly being preached to. No matter how many times I see it, I still laugh at Phil’s changing reactions to Ned (his insurance-selling old schoolmate), or him lazily answering every question on Jeopardy to the amazement of everyone around him. Not to mention Phil the Groundhog driving… “don’t drive angry!”

Mindless comic fun that actually has an alter-ego as a remarkably deep philisophical statement on the meaning of life. Either way, Groundhog Day works for me. I give it a rare five out of five woodchucks!

The Ordinary Recipe For A Magical Life?

The Magic of Ordinary Days was a 2005 movie starring Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich. The Dust Bowl-era flick cast Russell as an unmarried yet pregnant young city girl shipped off to an enter into an arranged marriage with a Midwestern farmer to prevent shaming her family. As films go, it wasn’t bad. As titles go though, I always thought it was extraordinary – the magic of ordinary days. Recent events though have made me think it is not only extraordinarily good, it is a “design for life”… to borrow another title, that one from a Manic Street Preachers song. I might go so far as to say it could just be the “secret of life.”

I always liked the title because I guess I like surprises less than most people, it seems. I quite like predictability even when it seems mundane to others. This past week has made a lot of people around here begin to see the wisdom of that themselves. If the past year, with Covid being a most unwelcome addition to our lives and dictionaries hasn’t been enough, here the last eight days have. The unparalleled week of winter here in Texas, complete with 0-degree nights, freezing rain storms, snow storms, impassable roads, massive power outages and a number of major fires caused by power flashing back on after those outages have made people start to recognize how much we normally take for granted. Electricity. Running water…when it’s not running out of the ceiling when the pipes freeze and burst. Mail delivery. Bread, milk, soup on grocery store shelves. Roads that can get us to those shelves safely. There’s a lot to like about mundane, ordinary days.

I think that’s rather the recipe for a good life, or a satisfying one at least. I love birds, as you may already know. I’m excited when I see an endangered species or rarity that’s 1000 miles outside of its normal range, but I find a lot of happiness looking out at the feeder in the front yard seeing all the common species, many of which I’ve seen more days than not since I was a teen. The birders I know who become obsessed with the life list and checking off rarities on a checklist tend to be a little high-strung and irritable, I find. Sure, love seeing that Kirtland’s Warbler or the arctic-dwelling Snowy Owl that finds itself flying across an Oklahoma field, but if you can’t get pleasure from watching the antics of the Cardinals, Robins and Mockingbirds outside your window, you’re probably going to be frustrated a great deal. Likewise, by all means enjoy your birthday, the week at the beach in summer, the Christmas lights and gifts on December 25th. But if you want to be OK, learn how to love the times when you’re at work. Shopping for potatoes. Sitting at home in the evening with your better half watching a re-run of a sitcom you’ve seen so many times you’ve memorized the lines. Because there are a lot more of those times than the lottery wins or once-in-a-lifetime gifts to open. Once you realize that, those moments will become just a bit more special still…but the other 99% of your life will become a lot more so.

Next time you’re heading home and the traffic in front of you slows to a crawl remember it… there’s a Magic of Ordinary Days.

Thankful Thursday II : Take Me Out To The Ballgame

This Thursday I’m thankful for baseball being back.

Yes, the boys of summer are back, with all 30 Major League clubs opening up their spring training camps by today. Mind you, not all players have to report to the camps in Florida and Phoenix until month’s end, when the first exhibition games will begin taking place and the first few days usually consist of little more than a handful of players – largely unproven ones eager to compete for a spot on the roster – doing a few stretches and jogging around the field. But still… baseball is back. With it, hints of a long, lovely summer ahead and flashbacks to generations of summers gone by. …

When I lived in Canada, Spring Training held a special place in my heart because it was something hopeful. Winter’s there were long and dark, but when baseball began revving up its engines, there was hope in the air that spring might find a way to arrive after all. It usually beat the first northward bound Robins back by about two weeks. I often aspired to, but never quite made it to, visiting Dunedin (a St. Petersburg suburb that’s training site to my beloved Blue Jays) in March to get a look at the year’s edition of the team up close with a big helping of warm sunshine on the side. This year, for the first time since I moved south, it has that very same appeal, beginning in a week where we’ve been housebound for days after 0-degree weather and two major snow and ice storms. The thought of a sunny afternoon watching a double play unfold is doubly appealing.

I’m unusual as a Canadian. As a small kid, I didn’t mind watching hockey and collected hockey cards like the rest of the boys in my neighborhood, but my heart was with the Boys of Summer. I loved playing ball when I had the chance (my friends who watched me drop ball after ball or run away from incoming flyballs probably didn’t love it as much when I did!), loved watching the few games that were televised back then and poured over the stats on the back of the cards I collected. It seemed the perfect game to me. It was best enjoyed in fine weather, in the sunlight on a grassy field. Lots of math, lots of strategy, lots of big personalities, the game playing itself out as it might without regards to a clock. It was like chess in that…and yes, little nerdy me played chess too! Of course, maybe that wasn’t so unlike other Canadian kids. Baseball trivia buffs are often surprised to find out how many times Toronto, Canada has had the highest attendance of any big league team for the year outdrawing baseball “meccas” like Boston, New York and St. Louis. Back then, for reasons hard to remember, I was a Cincinnati fan and when our family drove back from Florida and crossed the Ohio River, I looked out at the stadium like a Muslim approaching Mecca. That was the house of Pete Rose. Johnny Bench. Joe Morgan.

Of course, as I got a bit older, my hometown (approximately) got its own team and I was soon converted to a Blue Jays loyal. The first few years they were bad, but they played with heart and had cool caps. Then they got good and it got really exciting. When they finally got to the World Series in 1992, life in the city changed. Temporarily and for the better. Everyone was a fan. Everyone wanted to talk about the Jays. Wear a tie with the Blue Jays logo in to work and everyone was your friend. Customers who’d usually complain their order wasn’t ready on time or about a price increase were all smiles discussing that incredible glove of ‘Devo’ or ‘who knew Sprague was that good, eh!’. There were no Liberals or Conservatives, Whites or Blacks, there was just a city of baseball fans.

Of course, since 1993, there’ve been ups and downs for the Toronto fans…more down than up frankly… but a winning streak still has the magical power to unite the city. A lot has changed in the game too. Strategies have changed, computers have largely replaced old-fashioned scouts watching players and there’s less subtlety to the games… fewer bunts, fewer pitchers trying to pick off a runner, more big hitters swinging for the fences with no regard to just getting on base. But still, it’s baseball. America’s pastime.

Hope springs eternal they say, and in spring hope’s eternal for ball fans. Everyone’s in a first-place tie. There’s a long summer of games for that to change during; a long season of “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” being played, just as it was 50, 80 years ago. And after a year of Covid lockdowns, a winter of ice and snow, the idea of the familiar seems rather great.

Introducing Thankful Thursdays

I was beginning to put down some thoughts on our pandemic, now just over a year in and still burning bright, unfortunately. Curiously though, I was also writing about a Paul Weller song for my music site and something he said kind of spoke to me. It was a simple comment about how he often began writing songs about one thing and suddenly went another way with them. So that got me thinking, time to go another way here today. So starting this week, I’m going to try to put on the smiley faces for “Friday Eve” and begin Thankful Thursdays. Let’s look at something good on Thursday!

Not necessarily all huge or earth-shattering, but something for us to feel good about as we make the run towards that weekend.

This week, I’m thankful for Ikea. Not because of their somewhat cool Scan-design furniture, although I do like some of those unpronounceable bookcases and chairs. But today I salute them for being proactive on becoming a bit more environmentally friendly.

Now a chain noted for stores that span acres, have thousand car parking lots and put out glossy catalogs by the thousand might not seem very “green” but little by little, they’re trying. They’ve pledged to get rid of single-use plastic items (presumably like shopping bags, and cutlery in their in-store restaurants) and were in the news this month when they bought up 10 840 acres – about 16 square miles – of old pine forest in Georgia. The land, in the Altahama River basin south of Savannah contains some old-growth southern Longleaf Pine forest, increasingly rare these days and home to an array of wildlife including the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. They’ve agreed to “prevent land fragmentation” (thereby keeping a large swatch of woodland many species need) , restore certain tree species and protect wildlife habitat while managing the land sustainably and in an environmentally-friendly way. This should benefit the rare woodpeckers, Gopher tortoises which live in the woods, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, one of North America’s biggest and increasingly scarcest, snakes, the uncommon little Brown-headed Nuthatches which only live in southern pine woods and a host of animals from bears to bobcats. Public access is still to be allowed, another win. All the while it helps minimize the company’s carbon footprint by releasing a lot of oxygen out to the atmosphere.

currently the Swedish retailer own some 600 000 acres of woodland across the States and Europe, and try to manage them all similarly.

It’s not the greatest thing to happen to the environment since man set foot in America, but it is a big step in the right direction. If all major retail chains could put forward similar initiatives, we’d soon have a better world. So thanks to you Ikea, on this Thursday.

Imogen Developed Good Book For Poor Photographers…

Poor as in “not rich”, although a poor as in “not good” photographer might benefit as well!

I’ve been reading a rather lengthy book of late, so we’ve not had any book reviews here for a bit. But in the last couple of weeks, I did squeeze in an interesting, albeit specialized book, Photo Hacks, by Mark Wilkinson and Imogen Dyer. The book would be of interest to people interested in photography; if that’s not you, there’s little point in even trying to remember the name.

Dyer is a young British gal who years ago started a YouTube channel, originally it would seem to basically document her life, like so many… so very many… others who figure their lives are enthralling to people far and wide. But over time, the attractive woman who did some modeling, did more and more of her videos about her modeling. Generally they were with photographer Wilkinson. In time the channel and website that followed became a photography hub, dealing far more with photo shoots and techniques than what teas Imogen liked or her shampoos of choice. A couple of other cute and personable models, Emma and Caitlyn, got involved and Weekly Imogen came to have thousands of subscribers and make something of a star out of photographer Mark. And deliver a steady dose of the best,worst “dad jokes” you’ve ever heard.

So when they decided to venture into publishing, their paperback Photo Hacks caught my eye. It’s much more a “how to” than a gallery-style coffee table book and the thing which makes it really stand out to me is that it is all about tips for making your photography better on a budget. Anyone with a bit of knowledge and a lot of cash … a lot … can get great photo equipment like macro lenses that will focus down to an inch (for instance, a Canon 85mm f1.4L lens would be nice gift for your dearest photographer… at $1599 in most large NYC shops), or rent you great professionally lit studios. Getting similar results with little money is a challenge, and the pair rise to that challenge in the book. It gives you page after page of idea for adding to your photo repetoire spending very little money. Some are obvious – use bed sheets for backdrops, use windows for a nice side lighting for portraits – others are far from. A cut-up cardboard box and aluminum foil to make a pro-quality lightbox? Paper plates to diffuse lights? An old Pringles chip tube for close-up shots? Genius. It also gives you some basic tips on finding good, free locales for photo shoots, how to prepare so one can work quickly and a range of other things useful for a learning photographer. While most of the tips are for those using SLRs, many could be adapted for use with any old digital camera or even your camera phone.

Once again, this is a book which would only interest you if you are at least a somewhat serious photographer. But if that’s you, and especially if that’s you and you’re without the bank account of an Annie Leibovitz, this book is highly recommended, and quite entertaining. I got my copy fairly cheaply online, but as it is British, you’ll probably need to find it that way if you’re here in the land where people selling things on their front lawn are having “yard sales” not “ boot fairs”.

Movie Extra 3 – Catch Me If You Can

For my third movie pick in Hanspostcard’s Movie Event, I check off the “Crime” or “Film noir” category with a 2002 box office biggie that I only saw for the first time this past holiday season – Catch Me If You Can.

The names on the poster let you expect it was going to be fairly decent. It’s a Steven Spielberg film starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks (with the likes of Martin Sheen, Christopher Walken and the lovely Jennifer Garner having supporting roles.) I’m fairly indifferent to young Leo (though he did play the lead role very well in this) but like most of the world, I tend to love anything Hanks puts his hand to, and this was no exception.

It’s a cool visual retro trip and it’s a cop buddy story with a twist. That being that the cop’s buddy is the criminal he’s pursuing. Interesting, no? However, much like my previous two movie reviews in this project (Moneyball, Loving Vincent), the thing that made this one a standout to me is that its based on a real-life story. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, but to me, much more interesting usually. And how strange this story is. The next couple of paragraphs will contain spoilers revealing the plot, so skip over them if I was in fact not the very last person in the country to have seen the movie and you think you might like to still.

Catch Me If You Can is the story of one Frank Abagnale, Jr., a bright, ambitious and slightly devious NewYork teenager. Very bright and very ambitious. He sees his dad struggling to keep his business afloat and keep the taxman at bay, so to speak and young Jr. aspires to a ritzier, easier life than that. He also sees his dad using his charms on various women he encounters to get things done and young Frank decides that’s one bit of his family heirloom he can fully appreciate and use himself. So with …ahem… “moxy”…aplenty, he sets out to portray himself as a young pilot for the then hippest airline, Pan Am. He manages to scoop free flights to anywhere he wants after scoring himself a uniform with that Abagnale charm. Soon he figures out to forge Pan Am paycheques, and how to cash them without detection. Before long he’s made himself over two million bucks as an imaginary pilot and lived the playboy lifestyle of a suave young flyboy. Eventually he tires of that and meets a nice girl who happens to be an Atlanta nurse. Voila! He’s now a doctor at her hospital. Amazingly he manages to fool the other staff and not kill anybody by watching medical shows on TV for terminology and quickly figuring out what every good leader knows – how to delegate his work!

In turn he wants to marry, and again amazingly, her dad is taken in by him and gives him a job as a lawyer in the district attorney’s office. This time, he actually does the work and passes the bar. Needless to say, after awhile, Pan Am became aware of the fraud happening across the land and call in the FBI. In particular, an agent called Hanratty, played by Hanks. Hanratty even manages to corner Frank in an apartment one time…but the youngster cons his way out of it.

However, for all the money, cars and girls, the conman finds little peace. Eventually he has to flee to Europe to avoid the feds, where he begins a similar scheme. He gets lonely and, not having much contact with or much of a tie to his own dad, turns to the one friendly-ish father figure in his life – Hanratty. He periodically calls the lawman, at first to taunt him, but after awhile just to chat and share stories. In time Frank gets caught, does time in European jail before Hanratty gets him released to American custody. After an escape or two and recapture, he does some hard time with visits from… the guy who tracked him down.

Hanratty isn’t dumb either. He sees in the young lad an amazing intelligence and some sense of decency, so against the advise of his agency, he manages to have the con sprung from prison… to work for the FBI. He soon becomes their top guy for tracking down other forgers, who are usually far less skilful than he had been.

In real life, Abagnale said that he thought Spielberg was the only movie-maker worthy of telling the story. And while Spielberg added a few elements to make the crazy story even more Hollywood (for example, in the movie, he’s captured at his mom’s house after meeting his new half-sister. In real life, she never had more kids nor remarried after divorcing his dad, and he was caught on the run in Quebec… the Mounties always get their man!) , for the most part the unbelievable film was accurate. The reformed con still advises the FBI on fraud cases and has his own consulting agency to help businesses protect themselves from… the next Frank Abagnale.

The movie looks good, with an eye to detail for the visually impressive early-’60s fashion, furniture and cars. At the end, I loved it because it did two things not many films can do for me. First, it’s long (almost 2 and a half hours) but never drags. There’s never a point where I found myself looking at my watch thinking “how much longer does this go?” Second, the characters are well-fleshed out and it pulls off the truly rare feat of having me rooting simultaneously both for the criminal and the cop. So the resolution is quite satisfying. As is the film itself.

I’d give it 3.5 jumbo jets out of 5…but then Frank would probably come along and skilfully change that number to 4. And I wouldn’t care too much.