Books : Paul Is Indeed Mr. Everybody

Some time back I sang the praises of libraries here. To me, not only do they allow one to cut back on your expenses a little (obviously, by borrowing rather than buying books and other media) but they also widen my interests considerably, by making me “take chances” on books or records I wouldn’t ordinarily touch. I’ve always been “working class”, so it can be a big deal to put out $15, 20 or more on a book only to find a few dozen pages in it’s boring or unreadable. But, if it’s checked out of the library, all I’m out is an hour or so of time finding that out and a return trip to drop it back. Which leads me to the latest book I read.

Actually two out of the past four or five. Paul Goes Fishing, and its predecessor, Paul Moves Out. They’re graphic novels by Canadian Michel Rabiaglati, a Montreal-born and based graphic artist who began drawing fairly autobiographical accounts of his life about 20 years back. We see his alter-ego Paul growing up and dealing with the struggles of everyday life through the lens of the Canadian (and more specifically Quebec) ’80s and ’90s. “I’m from Montreal and I don’t travel a lot,” he told the Toronto Star, “so my stories are rooted in Quebec… the best way to have international success is to stay local.” Which he does, as well as living up to the famous writing adage “write what you know.” “It’s not pow-pow violence,” he points out, “it’s normal relations…it’s a normal guy. ‘Mr. Everybody’.”

Which is just where the charm of it lies. In Paul Moves Out, the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat event is simply a gay professor hitting on the very straight Paul. We see a snippets of his coming of age, moving away from home, finishing college, getting an apartment with his new girlfriend, babysitting relatives kids. Nothing entirely unique nor thrilling, but thoroughly interesting and story-driven enough to have you rooting for him (and his gal Lucie). In Paul Goes Fishing, he’s a bit older and having a few more adult problems…secretly envying his richer friends, Lucie having difficulty getting pregnant. All while set against the sanguine backdrop of a weekend fishing trip in the country. Again, you’re rooting for them because, as the author says, Paul is “Mr. Everybody.” The illustrations are black-and-white cartoons, realistic enough to be compelling while lacking excessive detail that would be distracting.paul art

The books really speak to me, since Rabiaglati is only a bit older than I am and is depicting growing up in my old homeland, albeit a different section. It’s relatable. Call me crazy but I secretly cheer a little inside to see a little depiction of quintessentially-Canuck things from my youth like Molsons beer or Canadian Tire stores; or that reflect my own life – a picture of a Stranglers album cover at a party he went to, for instance. It puts me in mind of another Canadian author a little – Douglas Coupland. The Generation X guy likewise has fashioned a career, which at its best is merely creating interesting stories about very ordinary and relatable people. Perhaps the somewhat low-key national identity we’re known for helps us excel at noticing interesting little things and eschewing the big, blockbuster blow-’em-ups Hollywood (and much of the rest of the world) seem to fall in love with.

I brought up libraries in the beginning because generally I am not a “comic book” guy. Didn’t read them as a kid basically, so sure not inspired to do so now. I, perhaps unfairly, tend to lump graphic novels in with them. Were it not for one of the “Paul” books being prominently displayed on a front table of my local library years ago, I would never in a thousand years stumbled upon the tales. And would have been a bit poorer for the absence of them. So, two messages to take from that perhaps.

One, to be more open to new experiences…something I admittedly am not great with. But just because I might find Superman or Aquaman ridiculous wastes of time, it’s silly to write off the whole genre of comics and things only remotely like them. And two, stories don’t need a lot of “pow” and flash to be compelling. Mr.Everybody probably leads an interesting life once you stop and consider it all. You and I have stories to tell as interesting as any Caped Crusader. Perhaps not quite as exciting but more compelling, since they’re real.

I’m looking forward to getting the next instalment he wrote. Maybe he and Lucie will have a kid. And I hope the rat doesn’t show back up in their bathroom! One encounter with it is “pow-pow” enough for anybody.

Books : Crawdads Sing A Winning Record

About 20 or 25 years ago, I spent many a night trying to write my first novel. It had quite a bit going on. There was a Generation X-like theme about young people working in “McJobs”, an environmental message, some romance, some intrigue that led to corruption in the corridors of power, even a nod to whispers of terrorism… months before 9/11 as luck (bad) would have it. I say that not to toot my own horn. Although, to my perhaps biased eyes, there were some great passages and wonderfully descriptive bits I came up with, the story itself plodded along with the components not really fully meshing and over 100 pages in, neither I nor any potential reader really had a clue as to where the story was leading. It’s tough to stray outside the boundaries of one specific genre in a book. I say that to preface my latest book read, which somehow does mix together several genres and does it well. No wonder Reese Witherspoon liked Where the Crawdads Sing.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the acclaimed first novel by biologist Delia Owens, whom apparently has written non-fiction about ecology before. It was picked by Reese for her “book club” and quickly rose to #1 on the best-sellers list. It’s being made into a movie which is due to open this summer, and if it holds true to the book, should be a blockbuster. Because while romance stories are common, and murder mystery books are common and historical pieces dealing with the troubles of the American South are common, getting all three in one is not common. Getting all three in an interesting story, downright rare. Plus, it has a modest yet sexy girl the story revolves around. Can’t go wrong there.

The girl is Kya, a girl who grew into a woman essentially on her own in the marshes of North Carolina after her drunk and abusive father drove the family to abandon the home. She lives near a town, but wants no part of it since they make it clear they want no part of her or her “white trash” type family. She has to fend for herself with only one or two real friends… besides the birds and other animals living around her that she totally connects with.

The second focus of the book is Chase, a few years ahead of Kya’s back story. Chase is one of the town’s popular young men, a star football player as a teen, now a handsome playboy about to take over his family business. We don’t get far into the novel before he turns up dead. Figuring out what happened to him, however, takes much longer. Eventually the two storylines intermingle, rather intriguingly.

Coming from a naturalist writer, it’s no surprise it paints the marshy coastline in wonderful and loving detail. Arguably more of a surprise is how well she captures the different personalities of the people around the area and reflects how some can change and better themselves while others stay stuck in their mental ditches no matter what.

The book wins as a biography of an interesting, albeit fictional person and those whose lives intersect with hers and as a compelling crime story… although we really don’t even know if there was a crime committed. It’s sad in places and uplifting in others. I will say though that to me, the ending wasn’t as good as it could have been. I won’t give it away with spoilers, but if you’re interested, I’ll give you my impression of how it should have played out. To use a sports metaphor Chase might understand, the book is like a pitcher sailing along with a no-hitter into the 9th inning who dishes up one bad pitch that gets hit to the wall for a double. It ruins the no-hitter, but they still win and it’s still impressive. And that’s what Where the Crawdads Sing is – impressive, but just a wee bit shy of perfect. I give it 4.5 flying egrets out of five.

Will Phones Be Invisible By 2097?

One of the cool gifts I was given this past Christmas was a thick book titled Strange But True Science. A compendium of interesting facts, it covers topics that vary from Area 51 and a bit of UFO lore to about five pages on the history of roads (Romans built a 50 000 mile highway system in their empire, with stone roads running as far afield as Spain. Who knew?) to a look at whether Vitamin C prevents colds (their verdict – no, but it might have a slightly beneficial effect in preventing heart disease.)

One thing that caught my attention was their entry on mobile phones. I always was surprised that in the 1954 movie Sabrina, one of the business mogul brothers played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, has a phone in his limo. Both brothers wanted to impress Sabrina, played by Audrey Hepburn. The car phone seemed far-fetched to me, yet I wondered how they would have incorporated such a thing if it didn’t exist in reality. I think I first encountered one over three decades after the movie so it was mind-boggling to think of them being around in the ’50s. Turns out, it wasn’t fantasy…but it wasn’t common by any stretch of the imagination.

The book says that as far back as 1946, Bell Labs had established a mobile telephone network in St. Louis, and soon AT&T had it available in a hundred cities across the country. But it wasn’t for everyone. For one thing, callers could only call within the same set of antennae, which is to say basically in-town, local calls only. Worse, only three frequencies were available, “limiting calls to only three users per city”! But with the phone and receiver combined weighing 80 pounds at the time and the service charge of $15 a month (close to $200 a month in today’s funds), it might have been tough to find even three buyers in some cities.

By 1967, prototype celphones were built, but they were limited by their bulk and need for the caller to stay fairly close to the “base station” when using it. Fast-forward another 26 years and an early “smart phone” was made by IBM, allowing for e-mail and even faxing from the phone, but its’ brick-like heft and short battery life meant it wasn’t quite finding its way into many back pockets.

Now? Well, we know the story. As of last year, 97% of Americans had celphones, and 85% of those were “smart phones.” Around the world, 78% of all people have a phone in their pockets…even those who probably don’t have clothes to have a pocket in. Countries as far-flung as Uganda and Azerbaijan have 100% of their land covered by cell networks (it’s estimated you can use your cell in a little over 99% of the U.S. landmass.) Facts I quickly checked by…my celphone and Google.

Now, while I love being able to make a call if I need to when I’m out, or check the latest ball scores – if there were in fact ballgames being played, but that’s a story for another blog – or the weather from a parking lot along the way, I tend to think we love our phones and rely on them a bit too much. But what it does tell me is how much the world can change quickly. In terms of human history, 75 years is a blink of the eye. But telephones were things wired into walls you had to stand still at, and quite possibly shared the line with others with. Devices which cost you an exorbitant amount of money to use to call someone in the next county with, let alone the next country. Now, handheld devices let you get in touch with most people through much of the globe on the go, comparatively cheaply. And let you check your mail or read the news while you’re on hold. It’s an amazing leap forward.

What it gives me hope about is thinking that if we can use technology to make “space age” “sci-fi” phones a reality in 75 years, imagine what other problems we can solve by the 22nd century, if not sooner. Climate change? Our need for fossil fuel energy depleting our resources and despoiling our land and oceans? Toxic chemicals needed to combat pests, many of them invasive? New airborne diseases emerging from Third World markets and threatening humankind ? Hey, we got this! If we can make an 80-pound phone that only called others within about a five miles radius fit in our pocket and instantly call someone on a different continent, these problems too should be solvable. All it takes it enough bright minds and some imagination. And perhaps a latter-day Audrey Hepburn to impress.

Boy Howdy, That’s Good Ice Cream

It’s nice to get a good news story once in awhile, and what could be better than one involving indulging a minor vice resulting in good for the world. I once reported on Save The World Brewery, a beer company run by a former minister which puts its profits back into community charities. Well, if beer’s not your thing but a sweet tooth is, there’s Howdy Homemade Ice Cream.

Howdy is a Texas-based chain of ice cream shops staffed by people with intellectual or developmental difficulties. Seemingly a large portion of the workforce have Down Syndrome; others have Autism, and any number of similar afflictions. The company was started by Tom Landis, a Dallas-area businessman who was inspired by Gene Stallings, a celebrated football coach (he was running the 1992 Alabama Crimson Tide which went undefeated that year and were National Champions) who won acclaim as well for writing about his son John who had Down Syndrome. Stallings went on to be an advisor to President George W. Bush on Intellectual Disabilities, believing firmly that people like his son could do far more than most people would give them credit for.

Landis started the ice cream business with the idea of a “relentless pursuit to crreate jos for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through the power of our smiles and amazing ice cream.” He feels such people are “marginalized because of society’s misunderstandings.” So he opened his shop and hired people most places wouldn’t consider. It was a hit, and now he’s got shops in Katy (a Houston suburb) and Asheville, NC with plans to open ones in Las Cruces, NM, Delaware and Syracuse, NY soon.

They offer occasional seasonal specials plus 18 regular flavors… “regular” being a bit inappropriate perhaps since things like Cold Brew, Dr. Pepper and Avocado aren’t everyday choices everywhere. Of course they also have Butter Pecan, Chocolate (“As all get out!”) and, yes, vanilla. They’re available for catering weddings complete with cakes (ice cream I presume) as well.

The chain was showcased recently on ABC News and has been featured by NBC’s Today Show and the Dallas Morning News among other media sites. They’ve taken the next step in their business as well, offering Howdy Ice Cream for sale in tubs at 100 HEB supermarkets in Texas. Each container has the photo of one of the workers gaining experience and dignity working for them.

Reviews are generally good. Yelp averages 4.5-stars out of 5; Trip Advisor 5 out of 5. Complaints, while infrequent suggest the portions are too small …which I guess is the mark of a good dessert!

I must admit that I’ve never seen their product in my local supermarket and haven’t given it a go. As well, their website is a little sparse on details such as where they source their ice cream (do they make the supermarket batch themselves or merely re-label and existing product, for instance) and number of people working for them, but that doesn’t leave too much of a bitter taste when we’re dealing with quality ice cream and jobs for people who need a little boost.

So, if you’re in the Lone Star State (or soon, elsewhere) and get a hankering for a cold treat on a hot day, why not say “Howdy” to a most unusual – and most admirable – ice cream and the happy faces that serve it up.

Kind And One Of A Kind, That Was Betty

2021 ended on a sad note with the passing of Betty White. Sadly ironic, her death came right around when magazines began appearing on the shelves with her on the cover and some variation on the theme of “Betty White Turns 100”. She was, as you may well know, 99 years old and already planning a 100th birthday celebration for this month. By that point, why wouldn’t she, and why wouldn’t all her friends? Many somehow thought she might just live forever…and would have been happy for that to happen. Betty herself said just weeks before her passing, “I’m the luckiest broad on two feet to be as healthy as I am and to feel as good as I do.”

White was indeed one of a kind. Her career was long and epic. She was on a TV talk show in the 1940s, when TV itself was new and novel. She had her own sitcom, Life with Elizabeth by 1953. In 1951, she was nominated for an Emmy Award. She won seven along the way and got her last nomination in 2014… at age 92. She was one of those actresses who were always a part of our cultural backdrop, it seemed, rising to prominence as Sue Ann, the man-hungry cooking celebrity on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, before becoming the charmingly naïve Rose for over 200 episodes of The Golden Girls (and its short-lived spinoff The Golden Palace) in the ’80s and ’90s. Then in the last decade, she was Hot In Cleveland…or at least Elka in that show. Along the way there were too many walk-on roles and guest appearances to keep track of, from five different characters on the Love Boat, to Boston Legal to St. Elsewhere to doing voices on King of the Hill. She was nicknamed “the first lady of television”, to which she joked “yeah (I’m) that old!”… she pretty much was the first lady on television! Months before Alex Trebek passed away, when asked who would be a fitting replacement for him on Jeopardy, he quipped “someone younger, someone funnier than me.. so I’m thinking Betty White.” He added they had been friends for years.

The outpouring of sad comments about her passing was voluminous. Jamie Lee Curtis said “what women want is to live like Betty White. Full of love, creativity, and integrity and humor and dedication,” also mentioning Betty’s famous “service to animals.” Kristen Bell remembered “Betty was one of a kind. Kind, gracious and a wit that could stun a sailor.” Michelle Obama noted “Betty broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country (she’d volunteered to drive trucks for the Army during WWII as well as entertain troops) and pushed us all to laugh.” And on and on.

That’s not that unusual after a star dies, but what is unusual is the width of the community that responded thusly… and that no one had a bad word to say about her. But then, has anyone ever said a bad word about Betty White? She was the kind of person that seemed to love everyone and every animal and was loved and admired in return. The only celebrity I can think of who shares a similar love of the people – the entire people – Dolly Parton, suggested “Betty will live on forever, not only in this world but the world hereafter. I will always love Betty, as we all will.”

Well said Dolly…and when no one disagrees that is a life well-lived. Many people become widely famous; few of them are lauded and loved by all and disparaged not at all. May she rest in peace and laugh away the hereafter with her beloved husband Allen Ludden, who preceded her by about 40 years.

Betty White. One of The Commendables.

2021…Strange Days

Strange days are coming… strange days are here. It might have been the Doors singing that about 50 years back, but it sure does seem like it applies more than ever now, doesn’t it? If you’re not convinced, take a look at a couple of news stories that you might have escaped your attention this week while you were making rather merry.

First, let’s go to Illinois. The heartland. The farm belt. Think Illinois and you might think of the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field and a lot of corn farms. Making it more surprising that a sasquatch was reported there recently. According to the Chicago Tribune, University of Illinois and others, an engineer recently reported one crossing the road not far from Springfield a few nights back. The man said he was driving out of Cass County, near the state capital, around 10:30 PM when “I saw a large animal jump into the road about 40 yards ahead. When it hit the road, I could see the large legs spread wide and …large swinging, hairy arms. The arms swung back and forth, close to the ground as its body was leaning forward. It leaped across the road in two jumps… I said to myself, out loud, ‘F***ing bigfoot!” . It was about two seconds before it disappeared into the darkness. He described it as a tall as his car windshield, even when hunched over and big enough to block out the lights of an oncoming car.

A photo published from Google Earth from the area he said it occurred looked… Midwestern. There is a woodlot, but the scene is dominated by a large farm field. However (there’s always a “however”), as one local radio station posted up there “if you know any engineers, you know it’s highly likely this is a highly educated guy.” And, a look at a satellite map does show an extensive band of forest only a couple of miles away. More surprising yet, a search shows that Illinois has sightings of Sasquatch almost annually, with another “good” visual sighting in a state forest near the Kentucky border this summer. There was even a report near Chicago in 2010, a daytime report which prompted a woman to stop her car on a busy road and follow the creature into the forest, noting its “musky wet dog odor.” Again, a large area of forest lay nearby.

When I think of “bigfoot”, I usually think the dense, huge rainforests of the Pacific northwest … Oregon, Washington, British Columbia. Not the land of wheat and Cubs hats. But, I know from personal contacts that stories of them abound from the southern Appalachians, with many locals claiming to have seen and heard them. As I’ve said before, it’s frustrating there isn’t any concrete evidence of the species…but where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. And there seems to be some smoke over Illinois even. Let’s hope some people got dash cams for Christmas there! Strange days…

Critters which we think probably exist but have no proof of. Which leads us to the second item. NASA, that great scientific division of the U.S. Government that explores space and puts men on the moon (“if you believe…”) has recently hired 24 noted theologians, including a British bishop, to “assess how the world’s major religions would react to the existence of life beyond earth,” or as other reports put it, “to prepare humanity for alien contact.” The team includes a noted rabbi and Islamic imam as well, and initial reports are “”Christian, Jewish and Islamic teaching would not be affected by the discovery of alien life.” NASA spokesman Carl Pilken went as far as to suggest the idea we were alone in the universe is “just inconceivable. When there are 100 billion stars in this galaxy, and over 100 billion galaxies…”. Quite a long way removed from the famous military Project Blue Book, which basically declared all UFOs were either swamp gas or hippies on acid trips seeing things and aliens only exist in bad Hollywood films, isn’t it? By the way, the Vatican has studied the topic itself and in 2008 declared “no conflict between believing in God and the possibility of extraterrestrial brothers” exists.

Strange days… Those two stories of hypothetical species makes the third one more of a head-scratcher. And actually sparks some conspiracy theories in the ornithology world. The US Fish & Wildlife Service recently declared over 20 species extinct, with little notice. Those included two American birds, the Bachman’s Warbler and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Both species were known to inhabit the dense, flooded swamplands of the southeast. The warbler, a little yellow bird with an inconspicuous song, was last recorded in the 1960s. The woodpecker however, is a different story.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is perhaps the most fabled of all American birds. The largest woodpecker on the continent, bigger than a crow, and very showy. The cartoon Woody Woodpecker was apparently based on its look. But unlike Woody, the Ivory-billeds are also very shy, by all accounts. It eats beetles in dead trees, and occasionally wild fruit, and was hunted by the natives. It was hunted more by settlers. By the 1910s, it was declared extinct. Then in 1939, a respected scientist and his team found a family in Louisiana and studied them around a nest, taking the only good photos and movie footage existing of them. Unfortunately, Singer sewing machines owned the land, and when they found that rare birds lived on it, they doubled down on cutting down the forest in case the government tried to turn it into a wildlife preserve. It wasn’t long before they were declared extinct yet again.

But, that notwithstanding, almost annually, reports came in of them, from the dense swamps of the Florida panhandle, and southern Louisiana. Occasionally elsewhere from the South. Good photos were taken of one in 1971; scientists scoffed and suggested it might have been an antique specimen nailed to trees high up. Later computer study showed the bird was actually in different positions in the two photos, making that all the more unlikely, but illustrating the Catch 22 with the bird. Get a good photo of one, and people say it’s staged and fake, get a bad photo or video clip of one, as has happened recently, and people say “inconclusive.”

The bird lives in dense woods, where some say you can’t see more than 75 feet in any direction due to the vegetation. Poisonous Cottonmouth snakes abound, as do alligators frequently, and more bugs than you can shake a stick at. And the birds are notoriously shy after centuries of being hunted by humans. Not many people, even serious birders, go looking for them where they are likely to occur. Yet a few do, and from time to time, they find Ivory-billeds. A group found at least one in Arkansas in 2004; they got decent enough video to be accepted by the scientific community. The Ivory-billed lives!

Since then, there’ve been a number of other good sightings, in Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi, with a few photos to show for it. Rather pixelated ones, alas, distant shots from a trail cam in woods; video of one flying through a swamp in Florida taken from a kayak. I recently read the book Taunting Extinction, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, in which the author goes to great lengths to analyze and prove a photo taken in 2009 was in fact one of the rare birds. It’s convincing, but not helped by things like his use of beer cans to visually demonstrate comparative neck lengths of different birds. It makes the point, but loses points among the professor crowd when you’re evidence is that the bird in the photo has a neck like a full tallboy beer can and the closest type of bird has a neck less than half a beer can long! (I do note, he offers more scientific data than just that and was a professional scientist himself).

So with apparent evidence of the bird still existing only 10 years or so back, and with a confirmed history of “coming back from extinction “ – an impossibility if one thinks about it – why is the government so quick to declare the bird gone? All the more odd – a species which is similarly rare, the Eskimo Curlew, has not been labeled extinct, despite not being seen since 1963, and not in the U.S. since one landed in Galveston in 1962. This was a bird which migrated right over the Great Plains from its arctic home and liked to spend time standing in grassy fields. How hard would it be to see one of them, a bird standing over a foot-tall with a long bill, if they landed…especially near a large city like Houston or Omaha which used to have them? But the government has yet to consider it extinct. It makes you wonder. But as Fox Mulder used to say, “the truth is out there.”

So to summarize, a big species we think exists keeps showing up and reports are being taken seriously; species from outer-space that until recently authorities refused to acknowledge as even being possible are being looked at by focus groups sponsored by the government, but a well-loved bird which is highly elusive but keeps showing up is suddenly declared officially gone. Strange days indeed!

May your 2022 be full of wonder and mystery and times as happy as a mosquito-bit kayaker taping an “extinct” bird!

Everydave’s Christmas Classics Collection

My friend Max over at Power Pop Blog‘s been running reviews of some of his favorite Christmas films lately, most are classics indeed. To me, sitting around with the family, watching Christmas specials was one of the most happy of memories of my childhood winters, not far behind getting to the stocking Christmas morning. Of course, decades have passed, but those moments are still special to me, so I give you a list of my Top 10 Christmas movies or TV specials, in no particular order. To me, Christmas isn’t quite Christmas without catching these…

The Oldies:

A Christmas Carol – the 1951 B&W version if you please, with Alistair Sim playing Scrooge. The kiddo in the house likes the more recent animated one, which is actually quite good, but nothing beats Sim’s acting, Cratchitt’s cheerful optimism and the charm of the story. Plus it was the one my Mom and I watched many a Christmas Eve together.

It’s A Wonderful Life – now a classic, surprisingly it wasn’t considered much of a movie for a few decades after its 1946 release despite starring the then-hot Jimmy Stewart. Is there a better reminder of how the “butterfly effect” means our lives have impacts far and wide, or to have hope that good will prevail over greed and spite?

The Cartoons:

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – the original, the Dr. Seuss-approved version in all its animated glory. Sure the cartoons look primitive compared to the current CGI efforts but nothing beats the simplicity of the story and the innocence of little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two, or the empathy little Max the dog provokes trying to haul that sled up the mountain.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer – Rankin/Bass’s claymation giant, another of those childhood traditions. Burl Ives as the snowman and the Island of Misfit Toys are as wonderful as any Christmas characters. Maybe one more people need to see to this day to be reminded being different can be quite OK

Charlie Brown Christmas – the acme for that great comic strip, a 1965 cartoon that defied convention (and apparently killed off the aluminum tree business in the doing!). There was a whole lot of psychology in that kids’ comic and animated spinoff, and how many of us relate to Charlie, feeling overwhelmed by it all and searching for meaning. Linus’ reading is still pretty much my favorite little telling of the Christmas story. And of course, a crazily-good jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi recently picked by Billboard as the best Christmas album of all-time.

The Romances:

Love Actually – it was a hot, stormy afternoon when I first saw the 2003 modern classic. No matter, I loved it and found it enthralling. A fun and feel good movie, which at the time seemed revolutionary with the way it tied together so many interwoven stories dealing with love, requited and not, at Christmas time. It took me about four viewings to finally see how all the stories tied together (I think…maybe I’ll still find more this year.)

The Holiday – a 2006 film that my sweetie introduced me to a few years back; one of her Christmas traditions which I now share with her. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet are romantically doomed, it seemed in their homes this Christmas, so they trade homes (one in California, the other rural Britain) and find love with men from the others’ lives, Winslet’s brother and a musician contracted to Diaz. Eli Wallach gives a tour de force performance near the end of his life, as an aging screenwriter brought back to “life” through Winslet’s friendship.

The New Fun Ones:

Polar Express – I still can’t get over how realistic the motion-capture animation of this one is…but since it teams movie-maker Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks up again (they of course collaborated on the ’90s great Forrest Gump) why should I be surprised? A great reminder of the power of belief.

Elf – probably if I was ranking them, this one would be the one to squeak in at #10; I like it but find most people I know head-over-heels love it. Part of that stems from how generally, I’ve never been a fan of Will Farrell. But it’s impossible not to like Buddy the Elf and his over-the-top enthusiasm for everything…including of course Zooey Deschanel…he was human after all (to his surprise.) Some of the best laughs of the Christmas season…”call me an elf one more time…! – You’re an elf! He’s an angry elf!”

Christmas Story – poor Ralphie, he’ll shoot his eye out! Who can’t relate to the childhood of his, wanting just one thing that seemed out of reach at Christmas, being inundated with pink bunny suit pyjamas instead? Like the previous one, few things get me laughing harder every December than that bunny suit, the store Santa and his big boot, and of course…the leg lamp! It’s a major award after all!

Maybe a new one will be added to the list this year, who knows. But even if not, I feel like it’s a good Christmas-time if I’ve checked these ten off the list.

Anyone else have their own list?

And Just Like That…Fans Found They Didn’t Like Reality

And just like that…HBO found you can’t go home again. Reviews for their reboot of the once-vaunted Sex & The City have been brutal…but so too has been the show. Although I’m not convinced that is a bad thing.

Ahh Sex & The City. The protagonist in my novel Grace, Fully Living was obsessed by it. As were many women her age (early-30s) when I set the book, in the year 2000. It was a cable TV phenomenon. It was a cultural phenomenon. It was arguably the most sexually explicit (in dialog if not always visuals) “mainstream” show at the time, and the kicker, the women were the ones having the sex, talking about the sex, holding all the cards in the sexy relationships. No wonder it was a smash with the female half of my generation. It was office water cooler gossip gold, a ratings hit compared to other pay-cable shows of the era, it sparked a couple of spin-off movies later and gave many women new “strong” role models in so doing.

The show featured female friends. There was Samantha, the eldest and most successful, career-wise of the femme four amigos, a 40-something publicist who played the dominatrix in the bedroom and boardroom. Charlotte, the cute “girl-next-door” who happened to be born with the silver spoon in her mouth and cultivate appropriately expensive tastes. Miranda, the fiery redheaded lawyer, all-business. And the central character, Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a smart, sassy writer with a taste for expensive shoes who wrote the fictional column that the show takes its name from. And of course there were the usual cast of supporting characters, like Stanford, the over-the-top gay bon vivant friend of the ladies; various boyfriends who largely came and went (take that any way you like it) and of course, “Big.”

Big” was the nickname for the rich businessman, on-again, off-again boyfriend (and eventually in the movies, husband) of Carrie’s. Played by Chris Noth, I assume he was to women of a certain age the eye candy equivalent of the car combined with the girls in it from ZZ Top videos for guys. Sexier than Brad Pitt, richer than Bill Gates, rugged like an 18th-Century frontiersman…and always calling Carrie for a date, or late night, long-distance phone sex.

I never was a big fan of Sex & The City. Back in the day of its first run, I never saw it anyway… I never had premium cable. But some of the women I worked with did, and talked about it endlessly. Fast forward about a decade and I find myself with a lovely lady of my age who was, of course, a big fan of the show. She has the DVDs. I hated it at first. There were several things about it. First, I must admit that while I used to think myself very liberal, I had to cringe a bit at many of the scenes and conversations. I guess if you’re a young courier delivery guy, you might fantasize about the female customer giving you a tip…orally, shall we say, and if you’re a middle aged lady you might fantasize about having the courier guy be a stud and doing that to him, but I didn’t want to see it. Plus, it seemed rather outrageously unrealistic… but then, what mainstream TV show is that not true of? Carrie was young and vivacious, and wrote a newspaper column…in a small, left-wing paper. But she had a large, wonderful midtown Manhattan apartment and a closet full of (apparently) $500 and up shoes. I know a few people who wrote for such limited-circulation, weekly publications. They were driving pizzas at night to help pay for a 500-square foot basement in the suburbs, not living the Life of Reilly. Or Life of Carrie, as it were. Samantha was a middle-aged woman, not bad looking I would say for a middle-aged woman, but no 1950s Marilyn Monroe or 1990s Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar Elle MacPherson. Samantha was bossy and rude, yet somehow had every man in every room she entered falling all over her, before somewhat “settling” for a guy who was supposed to be the hottest male model in the country. I knew some similarly nice-looking women of that age back then. Most of them were working in stores, complaining about their man and his pot belly and their kids they had to drive around in a rusty Ford – not jetting off to Paris on a whim to see a wealthy boyfriend. Not Samantha though. At least Miranda exuded some level of reality; a smart lawyer with a child who lived in a good apartment (she was a lawyer after all) but was bitchy much of the time and tired all of it. If I had to guess, I’d suggest Miranda was the least popular among the show’s female viewers. She didn’t live the total fantasy.

Over the years, I’d sometimes watch with my sweetie, and have to say that my hatred diminished to a mere “meh”-level indifference. Live and let live. No surprise though that when HBO decided to re-boot the series this year, she was very excited to see it. So too were millions of others like her. So I happily joined her in watching the two-episode premiere last week. I like it when she is happy or excited about something to watch.

Tellingly, it’s titled And Just Like That, not Sex & the City anymore, even though it still has the same characters. Well, except Samantha, who is talked about doesn’t appear. The actress, Kim Catrall, didn’t want to take part, so the writers had her move to London in a snit.

The title change perhaps represents that the characters are now all in their middle-50s and much of the sex in that city is not being had by them. In Miranda’s case, her kid is having a lot more conjugal fun than her. All three of the remaining ladies have, remarkably, stayed in the same relationships they were in at the end of the regular season…but not necessarily happily. It’s one of the many ways the new version is darker and altogether less cheery or uplifting to the female fans as the original. Charlotte has two daughters, one adopted, a young piano prodigy, the other her biological, a bit of a renegade who does what tweens do, act up and worry her parents. Miranda’s teenage son is a pot-smoking layabout who drops used condoms on her floor, prompting Carrie to suggest she should be happy the lad was being safe.

All that’s made Miranda’s hair go white; she and Charlotte (the only one looking even remotely younger than their real age) bicker over it, the latter complaining Miranda looks old and should do something about it, the former scoffing at Charlotte’s fake hair coloring. They all bicker and seem to pine for the good old days. Except perhaps Carrie, looking noticeably older herself, but seemingly at least happy with “Big”. Of course, he is a man of a certain age who’s libido isn’t quite what it once was, and has a heart problem. And, <spoiler alert> he has a massive heart attack in the first episode and dies in Carrie’s arms…a minute after she got home, found him on the floor but failed to call 911. It was about then viewers probably realized the fantasy had ended and Carrie and Company had entered real life. Episode two deals largely with Big’s funeral and the ladies’ complicated, conflicted relationships with each other… and their constant supportive cheerleader, Stanford. Unfortunately, the actor who played Stanford, Willie Garson, passed away in real life recently, leaving a veritable sword of Damacles hanging over his head every time he shows up on screen.

Then there’s the backlash the women feel as aging people in an increasingly young world. Sound familiar? It should, since it is the story of generations that has played out for centuries, time and time again, and each time the aging generation is as surprised as the previous one was that they would eventually be seen as out of touch. Carrie’s doing a podcast with a couple of raunchy young potheads who scold her for being too conservative in her commentary. Suddenly she’s the “square” not wanting so share every detail of her sex life with strangers. Suddenly being a female who likes males makes her the object of derision to people who don’t even believe that gender is a scientific concept. Miranda fares even worse, taking a university class in race relations to try and be more “woke” and alienates every one of the kids a third her age by being surprised the professor is a Black lady with braided hair and by referring to a young man as “he”, provoking horror and disgust from the class. Micro-aggressions! How did this happen, the gals wonder. We used to be the cutting-edge, cool ones.

My sweetie said she felt depressed after watching the two episodes that have aired so far. She wasn’t alone. Actress Kristen Davis (Charlotte) has lashed out at fans and the press for pointing out that the characters who are supposed to be 55 and up look, 55 and up. The Atlantic lament “the show doesn’t seem to like or respect its characters much anymore.” Fox News called it “grim and cringe-inducing.” The Guardian, “terrible.” “Grim” was also used in the New York Times description, in a story that suggested succinctly it was a “flop.”

A flop it probably is and will be, unless the creators whole point was to show that even fantasies come to an end eventually. Or else to make it clear the makers of Friends were genius in having a reunion merely by having the actors sit around and watch clips of the show back when. Because they at least realized no one needs to see Ross hiding his Viagra from Rachel or Chandler looking for his glasses so he can find his phone only to find out its one of the twins calling from jail.

My guess is soon And Just Like That viewers won’t be viewing, turning instead to reality shows like The Bachelor… to get away from on-screen reality.

The Neighbors

It was a wild time on our quiet street yesterday morning. I work from a desk in the bedroom, facing the street… a normally rather quiet suburban street. I glance out when I hear a vehicle go by, or to look at birds in the garden. The window affords a decent view of the feeder, which I filled for the first time this “winter” early yesterday after a strong cold front blew by, today a Mockingbird became the first to discover the new food source.

Most of the time not much happens on the street, which made yesterday’s incident a bit more bizarre. I happened to look out to see a black pickup, which looked familiar, going by backwards, at a good clip, with the driver’s door open. Our neighbor was running after it yelling, as the truck clipped our garbage can and carried on down the road, seemingly heading in reverse towards a couple of cars. For a moment I thought it was some crazy person aiming at other things with the truck. Or maybe a domestic fight? Joyriding juvenile thieves? I peered down the road and saw the truck stopped against the curb… and noticed debris by our car, also out front.

I went out, and was semi-relieved to see the “debris” was in fact a baseball cap and glasses, with some garbage nearby. I picked up the cap and glasses and, seeing my neighbor standing, staring, appearing befuddled on his lawn, took it over to him. “This yours?” He said yes, and thanked me. “What happened?’

Well, it turned out he was driving away in this truck – one his son uses normally – and forgot to tell his wife something. She was in their driveway or yard. So, he (apparently) started backing up to yell something at her like “close the garage door!”. He fell out of the truck. Ooops. The truck kept going in reverse, scraped our garbage bin and took out his own, strewing trash far and wide. Oops more! Then it crashed into a parked car on the road before coming to a stop. Ooops triple. “They already don’t like us,” his wife told me. “This isn’t going to help,” I replied, stating the bleeding obvious.

I checked to make sure he was ok, and decided to be neighborly and help him pick up the garbage. Police arrived, and the young cop who’s first on the scene was friendly in a downhome sort of way, taking everything in stride as he took down the statement from the neighbor. An older, more stern cop drove up later and walked around saying nothing. The police asked if he’d tried to move his truck, which he hadn’t; they told him to and it made a screeching sound when he slowly pulled it ahead. It had done some nasty damage to the parked sedan. I was relieved I didn’t see the actual impact, so when I got a chance to ask if I could scram, the cop ascertained I hadn’t seen the actual crash, thanked me and waved me off. I wished him a good day and got back to my day.

The neighbor in question is a guy about my age. We’ll call him Pickup Guy. He’s married to a woman who rarely comes outside, with a grown son, I think, who leaves his dog with them. A big brown dog that always barks up a storm when she sees me, which scared the be-jeezus out of me the first couple of times, but by now just prompts me to call the dog’s name and say “You know me!” It quiets down and wags it tail. Pickup Guy is largely retired except for a part-time delivery job, but does work in his garage, which faces our driveway. One time he knocked on the door, hoping to find my brother-in-law, but me being the only one home, asked if I could help him for a minute. I helped him move a storage shelf in his garage and chatted a bit; he showed me some old antique tools he restored. He usually has on classic rock in the garage; I like the music pouring out of it when I take garbage or recycling out to the containers. I say “Hi” when I see him in there and he asks how I’m doing. Not exactly a close friend, but a decent chap. A neighbor. I would try to help him, and I figure he’d do the same for me if I needed it.

In the last house we lived at, we had various neighbors. There was an elderly couple next door. We’ll call them the Whitehairs. My sweetie initially didn’t like The Whitehairs. She said the husband seemed a bit snooty or short-tempered. After awhile, when I was mowing the lawn or carrying in groceries, I saw them enough to get to talk to them a bit. The husband was a little taciturn, but seemed a decent man, a veteran… I wouldn’t be surprised if from WWII, but I suppose more likely Korea. His wife was an adorable little granny type. Even my sweetie became friends with her as, after I’d broken the ice, she’d talk to us both if she saw us, telling us of her youth and her family out of state and the various health concerns she and Mr. Whitehair had. They both had their share of health problems and they told us they’d be sad to see us go and to come back and visit. I wanted to do that, but alas, only a couple of months after we moved, their cars disappeared and new people and cars were there whenever I went by. I hope perhaps they found a nice retirement home or such, but fear perhaps a worse fate befell them.

Across the street, kitty corner from us, was a bickering couple a bit older than us. The husband was a George Jefferson-like little character who was prone to knocking on our door late at night, asking if he could borrow some money. Sometimes for smokes, sometimes for a prescription for his wife. Sometimes we’d help him out, sometimes we wouldn’t, sometimes we simply couldn’t because we weren’t prone to keeping much cash at home. One time he managed to carry a large flatscreen TV across the road around midnight and tried to persuade me to buy it. My love had a fit when she came out of the shower and found this 50 or 60 inch TV half inside our living room and me debating with George Jefferson, explaining that we didn’t need another TV right now and besides, I didn’t have $50 or $60 on me anyway. We made him carry it back home; he wanted me to bring it back to him (on account of his bad back) but I wasn’t wanting to be the guy carrying a 50” TV of dubious origins across a busy road at midnight! One time he asked me to help him with something with his garage (what is it with Texas guys and working in their garage?) and he showed me a bulky handgun he kept in there, explaining that was why he wasn’t afraid of break-ins. He wasn’t my favorite neighbor, but yet, he seemed harmless and always seemed to have a smile for us and a wave as we drove out.

Neighbors. I don’t think I would have ever talked to any of these people had I not lived in proximity to them. The George Jefferson guy was a different race, had an accent I found difficult to decipher when he got excited and played music that I certainly didn’t like, loud enough for us to hear across the street at times. The Whitehairs seemed stern and stand-offish at first and it was suspected they might have been the people who called the city (before I was on the scene) and reported our unduly long grass in the yard prompting a visit from a bylaw officer. Pickup Guy had a sticker in his regular truck supporting a political candidate I would never support nor have a good word for. Yet they all were good enough people, it turns out. And likewise, they probably wouldn’t have had interest in talking to a middle-aged liberal kind of alternative rock music-loving, bird-feeding guy, until I moved in.

It goes to show something. I’m not quite sure what, but I think Ralph Nader had it right years ago. He suggested “when strangers start acting like neighbor, communities are reinvigorated.” Our country might be a lot better off if we all forgot stereotypes and sat down and chatted a little with the people next door…whomever they might be. A certain book does tell us to “love thy neighbor”, after all.

Books : ‘The Midnight Library’, Worth Staying Up Late For

One of everyone’s favorite Christmas movies is It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet if movie-maker Frank Capra and leading man Jimmy Stewart weren’t already stars when it came out back in the 1940’s, they might not have thought life was so wonderful. Initially, the movie flopped. Decades later of course it was resurrected and became a holiday staple and a film that’s sold tons of DVDs and moreover, influenced many people in a positive manner. You never know.

Which is the underlying theme to the latest book I read, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. The novel is currently sitting at #12 on the New York Times best-sellers list, and noteworthily is the oldest, the only one of the top dozen to have come out in 2020. Rightly so. The book has staying power, because it is, first and foremost a good story. Haig managed to take a tablespoon each of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, added in a pinch of a positive mental health info and served it up in a modern-day, social media obsessed setting. The result was tastier than one might imagine.

The Midnight Library, in capsule summary involves the life, and nearly the death, of a 35 year-old woman named Nora. She lives in a run-down British city and feels like her life is worthless, and furthermore, that she’s squandered a number of chances to have the BIG life, the IMPACT life. She could have been an Olympian. Could have been a rock star. And so on. Instead, she’s lonely and unemployed. Through magic, God or some combination of those factors and others beyond explanation, she has a chance to see how her life could have come out… and finds a way into her best possible life. That’s the short description, I’ll put a somewhat more in-depth look at it at the end for those not scared off by “spoilers.”

Although Nora at first seems almost insufferable in her morose nature and self-pity, there is a part of her that I can relate to. A part that I think all of us can. The part that wonders “what if?” She quickly goes through a wide range of personal growths to learn – to really take to heart – that what matters most isn’t what you have done…it’s what you are going to do now. To quote the band Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make It.”

After a slightly slow start, as we get to know the depressed lass in the depressed city, the book really picks up and turns into a page-turner. As well as a philosophical contemplation deeper than many so-called “self-help” books.

The Midnight Library. Pick it up some afternoon, and you might just find yourself still reading it at midnight. I give it 4 Dewey Decimal Card Catalogs out of 5. PS – this is a book just ripe for a Hollywood take.

More detailed overview with spoilers:

Nora Seed seems like a loser. That seems harsh, but is reality too. Because Nora seemed like the girl who could have it all. One of the best swimmers in the country. Smart. Curious. A great songwriter and musician. Concerned about the environment. If not centerfold material, plenty pretty enough to turn many a man’s head. Yet we find her depressed and depressing, just fired from her mediocre job in a failing store, with a cat which meets its demise on the road, and one real close friend who lives half a world away. Her brother seems to hate her for breaking up a band they both had been in and she periodically receives texts from the seemingly fine man she dumped days before they were to get married. She’s down enough to consider killing herself, but even her suicide attempt is half-hearted at best.

What it does though, is take her to a mystical place – the Midnight Library. A sort of never-ending library, with only one other person present – the old school librarian she used to play chess with years ago. The books are books of her life. Lives, actually. Each gives her a chance to see how her life would be had she done things differently. Not only see, in fact, but walk into those lives. Suddenly she is married to the man, who runs a charming country pub with her now. Or she studied a bit harder and is now a serious environmental scientist studying melting glaciers in the Arctic. Or she stayed in the band, which has become U2-big…she’s about to step onto stage in front of tens of thousands of Brazilian fans. Or she put her all into swimming and went to the Olympics. Or maybe she’s married to the nice young man down the road who was a bit shy, but also is a hugely successful surgeon whom she has a little daughter with.

But, need we remind you, besides all the glamor and appeal, each life has its own issues and problems anew. Pubs offer pub-keepers chances to spiral up their drinking and catch the eye of many passing women. Arctic research brings you in contact with more polar bears than fine dining establishments. Being a rock star offers temptations all too enchanting, yet deadly, for many. The grass isn’t always quite as green as it seems on the other side of the fence.

It turns out there’s only one real book for Nora to find a life she’ll find worthwhile and not be full of regrets. The question is will she open it before the library closes?

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