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Thankful Thursday XII- Libraries

One of my regular readers commented on my music blog about discovering a rather great but obscure Chet Atkins record at her local library. It was a good reminder of their value, so this Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for public libraries. Former First Lady Laura Bush once offered that “I have found that the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card.” Indeed, if I wanted to be corny about it, I’d say it offers more of the world than your passort and more riches than a Visa card. But I won’t be corny…I’ll just think it instead!

I grew up just before the Golden Age of Google. As a kid in the ’70s and university student in the ’80s, there was no internet. There were books, periodicals, records (and later CDs). My family was literate, and I spent many an hour and allowance in book stores when young, but still, there were limits to what was in reach at home, whether for learning or recreational reading. By comparison, our local public library seemed limitless. The city where I grew up had three library branches, the main one being a sprawling, two-level place with virtual acres of novels and reference books, a kids section, a couple of full aisles of music CDs, foreign movies, perhaps 160-feet of shelves of magazines and newspapers. Forget candy shops…this kid was happiest in the library. My appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde and many other authors came exclusively from happening upon a work of theirs and borrowing it, which sparked my curiosity enough to borrow more of their work. Likewise, I might never have really found bands I love like the Mescaleros or Wilco without having access to borrow CDs of theirs. If you’re a poor student, there’s a lot less at risk borrowing a CD for a week than going to the store and putting down $15 to buy it, sound unheard. And yes, in turn, I ended up buying quite a few of them for my own library in time. the library sponsored movie nights where they’d show small-budget or foreign films in the basement, movies one wouldn’t have seen on NBC or noticed as they gathered dust at the Blockbuster. Many a school assignment was roughed out while sitting in the stalls there, and when they began experimenting with introducing computers, much of my e-mail writing and reading was done at the public library… their service let me do more with the half hour allotted than I often could do at home in twice that with my spotty dial up service.

When I read through the book Our Towns by the Fallows, where they visited various towns and cities throughout the country which seem to be thriving, one thing they pointed out was that all of them seemed to have a vibrant library system. Besides the storehouse of knowledge in the books within, many are important community centers, offering adult education courses, life help for the homeless or destitute, community events like the movie nights in my old town, after-school programs to keep at-risk kids off the streets til their parents get home, you name it.

Albert Einstein once said “the only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” I know that Einstein was a pretty smart dude… so I sure won’t disagree.

Thankful Thursday XI – Earth Day

This Thankful Thursday is also Earth Day, so I’m thankful for that!

Earth Day is a pseudo-holiday begun in 1970 to celebrate nature and a healthy environment. As one correspondent on a news show this morning pointed out, that was not long after the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland caught fire, so polluted was it, and less than two decades after a killer smog – from a weather phenomenon that kept coal-burning fumes from rising and dissipating quickly – caused approximately 4000 deaths in London. People were beginning to become aware of the importance of nature, and that keeping our surroundings clean and healthy wasn’t merely cosmetically pleasing…it was essential for our own well-being.

Somehow I’ve always been an environmentalist. As a small child, my family watched a lot of nature shows, and I was fascinated by the animals, and the exotic landscapes they showed. The rain forests, the African savannahs, and even the equally impressive ones closer to home, from the Rockies and Florida ‘glades to the vibrant fall forests I lived close to. We had a bird feeder and I spent many a chilly, snowy winter afternoon watching the comings and goings of a rainbow-array of birds having a meal. My brother was a Boy Scout and one of their community works back then was a “paper drive.” They’d be driven around in pickups or on flatbeds and pick up bundles of newspapers people would leave out for recycling. I was too young to take part, but I admired their efforts. Seemed obvious to me – if all these tons of paper could be recycled and re-used, a lot fewer trees would have to be cut down. In turn, more homes for the birds and bears, and (as I’d learn by maybe grade 5) a lot more oxygen being put back into our air. I was exceptionally happy when the city took over and began collecting paper as well as plastics and metals from everyone for recycling and to this day, I’m the one who is the household “nag”, collecting and rinsing out the empty pop and beer cans, tearing the contact info off the many (too many!) mail order catalogs we keep getting and putting the rest of them into the blue bin, making sure it’s out on the curbside on the right day. Seems like a tiny effort to me, which if duplicated in even half the households of our community, would make a huge difference for the better.

The best, but also most frustrating job I ever had was one I started as a summer job during my college years and carried over for a year or two afterwards, working for a governmental agency responsible for a range of environmental issues ranging from local parks to floodplain mapping and protection of rare plants and animals. It was a fun and interesting job, and over the years I talked to thousands of people of all ages, led tours, pointed out wildlife, interesting edible plants they’d never heard of. I hope something I said or showed at least made an impact on a handful of people and generated seeds that grew into concerned environmentally-aware adults. I conducted biological studies of wild areas near the city and worked on a photo catalog of them. It was a fun and, I felt, beneficial job. The frustration came from the fact that it was governmental and our input on behalf of the environment often became outweighed by commercial, economic influences.

Rivers aren’t catching fire these days, thankfully, and if poor air quality is making people ill or causing asthma, at least we aren’t seeing hundreds per day drop dead from it in big cities. Yet, for that our world isn’t in much better shape than it was on the first Earth Day. There are more of us people and we’re creating more garbage than ever, importing more and more problematic invasive species (everything from fast-growing weeds to hornets to wild pigs) into new areas they don’t belong and seem hellbent on converting the Amazon rain forest into the world’s largest cattle ranch regardless of the consequences for the atmosphere, wildlife or native populations of the area. So we still mark ‘Earth Day.’

Way I see it, this is the only world we have. We hear stories about how life might be possible on Mars, if we find ways to move huge populations there quickly, and build artificial domes and find ways to pump in nitrogen and oxygen and on and on. But for me, I don’t think I’d want to live in an area without trees, flowers, wildlife, living in an artificial climate relying on machinery to allow us to breathe and bring us food from other planets. Seems like putting the money and effort needed to do that would be spent better on keeping this little planet inhabitable. So, I’m thankful for Earth and therefore thankful too for Earth Day.

Movie Extra 8 – “Before” Trilogy

This time around, I check off one of the more interesting categories in this Hanspostcard Movie extravaganza – the “Series”. Films with stories so nice they had to be told more than twice! My choice in these is the Richard Linklater “Before” trilogy.

The trio of films looks at the evolving relationship of a bi-continental couple, Jesse and Celine as it evolves over nearly twenty years. It begins with Before Sunrise, a 1995 under-the-radar date movie fave, continues with Before Sunset in 2004 and (for the time being) ends with 2013’s Before Midnight.

The stories involve American Jesse and French mademoiselle Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively. A spoiler-laden overview would be essentially:

Gen X-ers who grew up an ocean apart meet on a train in Europe. Celine is on her way back home to Paris after visiting her grandma; Jesse is taking his time getting back to an airport to return home to the States after being dumped by his girlfriend on a Euro holiday. The pair are attracted to each other, talk their way through a train meal and impulsively spend a romantic night together in Vienna. They talk of life, alternately laugh and argue, wax philosophical and seem to trade off between being youthfully optimistic and prematurely jaded. They see the sights, taking in the Austrian nightlife, charm a bartender out of a bottle of wine and do what neither dared say in the process, namely begin falling in love. The sun comes up, life switches back to dreary reality, they go their separate ways understanding “the long distance thing” seldom works. However, they leave agreeing to meet again in six months.

Fast forward nine years and Before Sunset. Jesse is back in Europe, this time in Paris doing a book signing. He’s written a popular novel…based on a young couple spending a magical night together in Vienna. We aren’t left wondering what happened between him and Celine in the years since the train ride for long. She shows up at the bookstore and we find why what seemed to be destined never happened. They decide to spend the few remaining hours he has in town with the Parisienne showing him around her city. More lengthy, thought-provoking conversations take place between the now 30-somethings who have adult lives – jobs, partners, in his case a child – and plenty of problems with them. She plays him a song she wrote for him and he misses his plane. Leaving us to wonder for nine more years if he ever bothered getting on the next.

Until Before Midnight rolled around. The young romantics of the ’90s, upwardly mobile young near-singles of the ’00s are now a middle-aged couple, driving through Greece with their two children. That is to say their two children together; Jesse is crushed by having to send his son from a previous relationship back to the States. He’s now a famous author, has the woman of his former dreams, two cute little girls… and an increasingly bitter marriage. He pines and whines, while her cheerful quirkiness has largely morphed into spiteful anger and mistrust run amok. Their planned little romantic rendesvous away from the children becomes a soul-searching look at their lives together and apart through a psychologist’s microscope. “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real” he yells at her at one point, underscoring the theme of the entire series. We’re left with her considering that maybe imperfection might be good enough given the alternatives.

Ethan Hawke is a well-known fan of alternative rock. One might think he almost could have used three REM album titles for a shorthand to the three films – Life’s Rich Pageant, Fables of the Reconstruction and Reckoning. A magical fairy tale beginning, putting it all together for real and then dealing with the consequences of having done that.

The trio of movies stand up on their own, but are best seen as an entity. The settings are beautiful – Vienna at night, Paris, the Greek coastline – but the scene stealers are always the conversations between Jesse and Celine. These are movies for those who value dialogue over special effects or complicated plots. It’s crisp, it’s real, it rings true. Although Linklater and Kim Krizan are credited with writing, both Hawke and Delpy edited to their suiting resulting in characters who fully inhabit the actors, or vice versa. The first of the three has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the second one was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay.

As to whether we’ll see “Before Naptime” (he says snarkily) next year, Hawke recently said all involved like the idea of revisiting the couple again, but it will likely break the timeline and not be in 2022. Still, I hope they will be on screen again, and can only keep my fingers crossed for Jesse that his lady love hasn’t continued on her trajectory towards hostile unlikability!

All in all, I give the trilogy 3-and-a-half lumberjack shirts out of five, but would pick the first instalment as the stand-out for those who only want to see one.

Thankful Thursday X – 70s Boy!

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for my age. Well, not exactly for being in my 50s… although there’s a certain clarity of mind that perhaps was absent in younger me, there also is an increasing creakiness and aching of the knees and back to remind me I’m not all that young anymore. Not to mention the unfortunate but inevitable shrinking of the family ranks that I spoke of last week. But what I am thankful for is growing up in the 1970s.

It occurs to me because this week, two older guys talked about growing up when they did, and the kids today. Fellow blogger Phil talked of how wild it was in the ’60s. I bet. Everything changing and living with the constant threat of being drafted and sent over to a distant continent to fight a jungle war for who knows what end. Likewise, my brother-in-law of about that same age was talking of what was wrong with the kids today. I couldn’t help but agree with much of what he was saying. Too many of today’s kids are sheltered and afraid, destined to seemingly be big-bodied children even as their hair turns gray. It was different for me, and I think most of us born in the tail end of the ’60s, growing up in the ’70s and early-’80s.

I used to think my parents were overly protective when I was young. Compared to many, they probably were. But I count myself lucky I’m not one of the “bubblewrap kids” that have been raised in the past couple of decades. When I was a kid, if the weather was good, a Saturday or a day during the summer holiday meant getting out. Seeing my friends. Riding bikes came about as naturally to all of us as walking or knowing the lyrics to “More than a Feeling.” We’d get together, ride around, shoot the breeze. Maybe go to the plaza and get some pop. Maybe ride to the lake, three or four miles distant. When I got to be about ten or eleven, a couple of friends built a rough little treehouse down in the creek ravine near us. We’d climb up, sit there looking down on the town from all of about seven feet up, gossip and laugh and maybe get into a few youthful hijinx. Gawking at a copy of Playboy someone managed to sneak away from a dad or older brother was about the most daring of those. Or smoking a cigarette similarly obtained. I was much more into the pictures than the smoking I must admit. Or maybe we’d just go to the park behind my house and kick around the soccer ball. Play on the fort. Ah yes, the fort. If there was a clear description of the difference between generations, that was it.

The “fort” was a big wooden play structure the town had built in the park which sat between two halves of a subdivision, directly down from a public school. (Oh yes… we all walked or cycled to school ourselves too. Any parent would have laughed in our face, if we were lucky, if we’d asked them to drive us three blocks. We got our exercise even if it wasn’t a “gym” day.) Anyway, the structure had three wooden turrets for lack of a better word, connected by elevated walkways, one of them a swinging one. There were ladders leading up, tire swings hanging,some sort of rope ladder up one side, a slide down from the tallest one, to the giant sandy area below. It was lots of fun. Running around it, climbing, maybe jumping off the walkway all the three feet to the ground. Burning off energy, inventing silly games. We had fun and kept busy.

You probably guessed, that fort is now ancient history. A good two decades back the town tore it down. They had seemingly had complaints galore from a new breed of parent who fretted and were worried of a million-dollar lawsuit should any kid burn their behind sliding down a hot metal slide in summer in shorts or twist an ankle jumping off it. Besides the kids probably had little interest in it. Now they had the internet to keep them entertained and meet people presumably far more interesting than their peers from around the neighborhood.

Sure at times I fell off my bike and scuffed up my knee. I took it as a life lesson, a little tip on how not to take a corner too fast or ride across loose gravel. My parents, if they even noticed would tell me to wash it, put a bandage on it and be more careful next time. They didn’t see it as a chance to sue the city or bicycle company for a king’s ransom nor as a reason to keep me from ever going outside the confines of our yard again. I turned out fine.

At least I think so. I think at least I turned out better than kids born 30 years later who’ve never traveled more than a block from their home without being driven and whose only recreational activity involves a video game console will be when they reach their 50s. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thankful theirs wasn’t my childhood.

Movie Extra 7 – Amelie

For my next movie pick in the springtime Movie Event at Hanspostcard’s site, I go across the sea to take care of the “Foreign” category by visiting a rather foreign culture – France. And their 2001 hit, Amelie.

The movie could be classified as a “rom com” since it has a bit of romance, and its own brand of humor, but those French do things a little differently, so this is no “Sleepless in Marseilles” or “Bride Wars In Berets.” The French are well-known for considering Jerry Lewis a comic genius, so it’s fair to say they have a slightly different sensibility than American audiences usually. Amelie is no exception, but to me, the cultural different and flat out quirkiness really work to its favor on this one.

Amelie, the movie stars Amelie the girl, played by a young Audrey Tautou long before she’d rise to international fame helping Tom Hanks crack some code or other. Amelie typically dresses as if she shopped at a place called Prematurely Dowdy, has a boy’s hair cut…and is cute as a button nonetheless. She has a rare kind of charm that flies off the screen, something made easier by her role in this one. Amelie is a shy and socially-awkward, but kind-hearted young woman living in the city, waitressing at a cafe. She was brought up by her stern, doctor dad after her Mom died tragically when the girl was young. Only the French could make a little girl’s mother dying a comedic high point – remember what I said about “quirky” and different sensibilities! Likewise, her first pet was a suicidal goldfish.

Grown up Amelie is shy but friendly enough and has a few friends, but no real boyfriend. She “tried sex once or twice but found the results were disappointing.” So she turns to little pleasures like skipping stones, picking out the perfect fresh fruit at the market and looking out her window, wondering about her neighbor’s lives. One day she finds a hidden box in her apartment, seemingly the “treasures” of some young boy who’d lived there years earlier – simple toys, cartoons, a photo or two. She wonders about the boy and why these things meant so much to him, so she sets out to find him. After some detective work and talking to many people, she does locate the now middle-aged owner of the box, who is touched. That thrills her so much she decides to make her mission making others around her happy – the aging lady still pining for the love who’d left her decades earlier, the “Glass man”, a painter with brittle bones who never leaves his apartment, the grocery delivery boy, a bit dim and obsessed with Lady Di but a good heart, her dad who wants to see the world but can’t leave his hometown. And if need be, once in awhile she sets out to perturb those who are spiteful… the delivery boy’s angry, condescending boss for example.

She works hard on little projects that will make these people around her happier. And along the way, she’s come across a mystery man in the subway she likes the look of. He’s always lurking around photo booths, and of course she wonders why. Her little projects bring her new friends lots of joy and so too her. All is well until a talking pig lamp and one of her neighbors give her an unwanted reality check. Her making others happy is fine and good, but all the while she’s afraid to take any risk to make herself and her life happier.

Of course, she decides the photo booth guy is worth persuing. Does she eventually make herself happy? Well, it is a “rom com” remember.

Amelie is quirky in every way; “whimsical” according to Wikipidia. It does require constant reading of the sub-captions unless you have an understanding of French far better than my couple years’ high school French provided me. The movie even has a unique, bizzaro world look featuring oft-odd camera angles and a digital effect that mimics photographic cross-processing. The result is contrasty, slightly “off” colors that tend to lean heavily to the green-yellow end of the spectrum.

All that said, it is an experiment that worked. Not only did it win the Best Film Award at the European Film Awards, it managed to rake in about $174 million, a highly impressive tally for a low-budget European flick.

If charming but offbeat is your taste; Amelie might be your movie. I give it four puffy poodles out of five.

Thankful Thursday IX – Dad

This Thankful Thursday is a bit of a special one. And a difficult one as well. This day I’m thankful for my dad, Ernie.

What is there to say about a guy whose life that touched so many and who saw so many things. My dad didn’t have a lot of formal education but was one of the smartest people I knew. And more importantly, he was one of the kindest. He was old-fashioned but got along with people from generations from Gen Z to those older than himself. He taught me how to live by setting the example.

He and his dad came to North America from their native Switzerland when he was still a teen. The Land of Opportunity to the south was probably their intended destination, but landing in Canada and taking the train they happened onto the suburbs of Toronto and made a home there. My dad had to learn a new language and try to find work at the same time, no small task even in the ’50s. I was always proud of how well he learned English and how much he enjoyed reading (until in recent years his eyesight made that a challenge) which led to the part of him being one of the smartest people I knew. He did both, the new language and the work, remarkably well, soon settling in at the bustling GM factories in town. He worked for years on the line and in smelly paint booths before working his way up to the better, more relaxed jobs. Usually with his buddy Bert. One of those tiny stories that make life interesting – a real life Ernie and Bert. Who’d believe it? After 30-some years of that, he retired and followed his other passions – collecting coins, gardening, traveling and helping out. His factory job was more or less replaced for several years by a volunteer one at A Place Called Home, a shelter and training center for homeless people near him.

Now, neither his life, nor my relationship with him were always storybook perfect. As a small kid, he was often absent. In no small part because he and my mom had a strained relationship at best. Dad provided, and provided well, but wasn’t at home as much as some dads. I loved the time we spent together when I was little – we both loved trains and set in on building a dynamite model railroad layout. It never quite got finished but we had fun. I’m sure I would have liked to have had more of those times with him when young, but I cherish the ones we did share and perhaps value those later on in life with him all the more for it.

Things changed when he re-married the real love of his life, Chris, a lady who’d lived around the corner from us when I was young. Chris shared his faith and his love of travel and growing things, and spent over 30 happy years with him before she passed away last fall. She softened him and helped him look at life a bit differently; he in turn took care of her in an unspoken lesson of how to love your significant other, even when she was ailing. In time, Chris treated me as her own son, “step” or not. Both of them offered me good advice when I was lovelorn or broke and love at those times and the better ones. Over the years I came to learn what mattered to him, and he tried to do the same. I looked out for new coins for him, and even one new quarter I could send him made him joyful. He was never much of a sports fan outside of the Olympic times, but when I stayed with him for a little a dozen or so years back, he’d sit with me and watch my Blue Jays baseball on the big screen, cheering on the Toronto blue-and-white even if he didn’t quite get the complexities of the game.

Dad had a ready smile, and usually a ready Werther’s candy he’d give to any helpful store clerk, waitress or bank teller. He loved collecting, always looking for a nickel he didn’t have in his album or an unusual stamp. About three decades back, he began collecting egg cups. Every time he passed a yard sale or junk shop, he’d take a look for an unusual egg cup they might have. He put together more egg cups than I had ever seen, or I reckon most egg farmers ever had dreamt of. Cartoon characters, porcleain, plastic, ones with paintings on them, ones that were travel promotions. In recent years he became fond of Paddington movies and began collecting teddy bears… probably something he didn’t have a chance to do growing up poor during the War in Europe. Times were tough as a child of the ’40s over there and he never forgot that, or the value of a dollar. It might have been why he so loved gardening, growing veggies especially, because he remembered when his family couldn’t afford such luxuries from a store all the time. Then again, like me, he just seemed to like to be out on a sunny day, enjoying the sights and sounds.

As he got older he got chattier. I loved listening to his stories when I’d phone him, even ones he’d sometimes tell me twice. He loved hearing about my life in the States and was always my biggest fan when I did something halfways interesting or successful. Last time we spoke a few days back, he was telling me of getting his Covid vaccine and looking forward to the pandemic ending so he could maybe visit me in Texas, meet my love, Cinnamon, and then go back to Switizerland one more time.

This is a tough column to write because Ernie passed away suddenly and unexpectedly Sunday night. A heart attack took him swiftly; hopefully he is now with his Chris again, somewhere out there. That gives me reason for solace. I have the hurt which will fade, but the memories and lessons which won’t. Be thankful for your parents too this Thursday. I doubt they’re perfect… but they are yours.

What is there to say about a guy whose life that touched so many and who saw so many things? So many more things than just this…but at least it’s a start.

Thankful Thursday VIII – Toilet Brushes

This Thursday I’m thankful for toilet brushes. And no, it’s not an April Fool’s joke.

Well, not exactly for the brushes, although they are useful implements to have hanging around in the bathroom. But one made me feel good yesterday. Perhaps a little explanation is in line.

My mother-in-law is quite elderly. For her age, she’s in great shape and quite feisty but still…she’s a little old lady. My sweetie and I have been actively discouraging her from going out into crowds in the past year with the pandemic raging. So most of her grocery shopping and trips to pick up prescriptions, we’ve been doing. Often she just needs basics – bread, tortillas, eggs, maybe some pork or ground beef. And candles. She loves burning her prayer candles, plain white please. We usually pick her up a few when we see them.

So this week, she needed one or two usual things…and a toilet brush. She still cleans her own bathroom and had thrown away the old one. I got one while doing our family’s shopping and took it over to her. She was happy to get candles, but really excited to get a simple toilet brush and its holder. A five buck plastic item. Useful no doubt, but not the thing of which many dreams are made. But she loved it. She was happy. That of course made me feel quite good in turn. Who knew a plastic brush and holder would bring such joy?

Simple story, simple moral. Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that make the biggest differences and gifts can mean as much to the giver as the recipient. We all love making a huge difference in the lives of those around us and accomplishing great things. But this Thankful Thursday, I’m reminded of how special run-of-the-mill little favors and gifts can be.