Monday, December 29, 2008

CLEARWATER

Beautiful temperatures and bright sunshine. A nearly perfect day for beach time. I have been missing time along the coast. Waves were light, definitely not the harder ones of the Atlantic. I always liked the Gulf. We started out at about 12, heading for Clearwater Beach, but the lots were full, so we shifted to Sand Key instead. Usually the Key, which is a state park, is much emptier, but today it was pretty full. Lots of nice looking people. The weather forecasters said that the water temperatures were around 78, but it felt like it was a lot less, something closer to 65, so it was pretty chilly getting into the waves. Would love to have been able to swim. The boys and Gabby had a lot of fun in the sand. We will remember to bring our water slippers next time, because this beach is heavily shelled.
I walked along the beach for a bit. Met a nice Hmong family and chatted with them. A lady from Georgia (although apparently from somewhere else) asked me about jai lai, so I explained the game to her (she thought some kids playing lacrosse were playing jai lai, and I had to correct her). Oddly enough, while we were standing there, her son whipped out the tallywacker and just peed in the ocean. She was mortified, but I assured her that it was all right. The beach closes at 6, so we didn't get to spend as much time there as long as I could.

Then Beth, Wayne, and Falon, along with the kids, all went to Frenchie's Seafood. We had grouper sandwiches. I was not as happy with mine as I had hoped. I recalled having one way back when, but it was fluffier and fuller, and the meat was whiter. This one was a little more fishier than I recalled them being. But it was ok. The lines definitely were lon and the wait was about a half hour, so it must be a popular place. I had the boys try alligator, which they seemed to like, especially Joey. Falon's chicken strips were excellent.

Friday, December 26, 2008

TAMPA TIME

My sister was sick today and there was no chance to do anything with the family, so I borrowed her Jeep and headed out to see friends. First I stopped by the old house and then showed the boys where I went to school. Then we tracked down some Cuban sandwiches. These were made with chunky pork, as opposed to sliced, and they were nicely pressed and delicious. It was the first tiem the boys had really tried them and they were delighted---not a mean feat with those kids. I was happy to get one, of course; it was one of the top things on my list. I love them and miss them; can't get anything as good in Columbia.

Then we visited the home of two of my oldest friends, Kat and Keith Robertson (I've known him since I was eleven and in the fifth grade, and her since they dated most of our high-school years). Unfortunately, Keith wasn't home, but it was nice to see Kat and introduce her to my boys. She seemed to like them. Her dogs took a little longer to accept us. We visited a local playground and chatted while the boys played. Caught up on some of news of former classmates and what they were up to. Joey mostly wanted to chase lizards and Chimo watered her plants. I hope to get by again later and see Keith.

Then I went over to my old Cuban family, the Marques's, who kind of adopted me informally. Haydee has retired now from the Tampa Firefighters. In fact, all the women in the family worked with the city. We sat, chatted, and caught up. Her daughters (Marlene and Yvette) and son (Julio) became friends years ago. They used to call me Tio Jim. Sadly they were all off with their families. Marlene's son David came by and said hello. I did get to chat with Yvette for a little bit and catch her up on what was going on.

Other than that, didn't do much. Been reading A Farewell to Arms.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas eve

What, may you ask, am I doing up at 6:30 on Christmas morning after having survived nearly 48 hours being awake, most of which occured over the course of a gueling Columbia-to-Tampa road trip on heavily laden busses? A full-blown panic attack, that's what---just awoke, mouth dry as an ashtray of butts left out in the Arizona desert at high noon, my heart racing as I was ripped from a relatively enjoyable dream. Immediately sprang up and started pacing, got myself a small drink, and discovered that I had not brought any anti-anxiety medicine (which I had not taken for around eight months, but I really want one right now). So I am sitting here in my sister Beth's livingroom, posting a blog and hoping sleep overwhelms me and I can go back and lay down. Two hours (I chatted with my sis about family things until about 3:00) is not going to be enough sleep and I am exhausted as it is.

Beth has a beautiful, comfortable home. I love the plush carpet I have been pacing upon. Displayed around the room is her latest collecting craze, lighted stained-glass scultures of buildings. There is a bevy of cats, one of which just took a liking to me and is purring away. She told me he is a mix domesticated feline and bobcat. A compact fellow he is, with extremely soft fur. The others have all made my acquaintance, but no other has given me as much of a clearance to pet away. Maybe the others can feel my recent cat history and are punishing me for my cat-related sins.

Received some very sad news yesterday. Several days ago one of my old friends, someone I have known for thirty-seven years, died. He was one of the most flambouyant fellows I have ever known, who loved tall, humorous tales and bawdy jokes, and had wholeheartedly been adopted into my family's inner circle despite his unorthodox personal lifestyle. He seemingly always received a pass from most of us, no matter the transgression or stress-filled bit of drama. It was my sister, in fact, who had discovered his body. The sadness was compounded by having to tell my sons that he had gone. They really got to enjoy his company two summers ago, even to the point of adopting some of his colorful vernacular. Hadn't I done the same so many summers ago? Tampa is so much more a past for me. I mourn his passing and truly wish he had hung in there until I had another chance to see him. Billy, rest in peace and let proud mary keep rolling on the river. Hopefully Dorothy and Toto are waiting on the yellow brick road.

Had a nice curry dinner---a family tradition. The boys loved it. Sat up and had a long discussion with Beth, out on the porch into the wee hours---another tradition. We revealed some things neither of the two of us knew. Debated a few things. That undoubtedly will be only the first of many late-nighters.

The trip down was hard on hip, joints, and sleep. Every stage was filled with holiday travelers, representing the full gamut of characters one often meets aboard busses: mentally crazed individuals ranging from inebriated veterans to disturbed bag ladies; angry anti-government types and paranoids; poor, stressed pilgrims eager to see home, lovers, friends or loved ones; chatty busmates seeking conversation; laconic suspicious-looking potential miscreants (hey, this is still Bush's America); know-it-alls; impoverished single parents with active children in tow; and a whole host of diversity. Not to mention one busdriver who apparently was well-known to regular travelers along this route as a martinet Mr. Caine. No matter. I still am not induced to fly, although it confirmed my preference for rail travel. The carriages were stuffed to capacity and the seats tight and uncomfortable for a fellow of my size and stature. But my sons managed it pretty well, even being able to get some sleep, which was a relief. Not me, however; how can you sleep when it is your job to keep an eye out for your young charges.

Ok, I am falling asleep. Maybe I will go give sleep another try. My knee and hip joint ache.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TAMPA

This might be the last entry of the year, depending on accessibility of a computer during the holidays, which will be spent in my old hometown of Tampa. I am looking forward to some Florida sun. I know my kids are excited. My sister pulled out the stops to get us down there. I should be kissing her feet when we arrive. I get to see my newest grandniece. Unfortunately my other sister is in Ohio and my brother is in Cuba. My Dad and Sharon will be there, in from Tennessee. So half the family will be together.

I am so looking forward to some Cuban food, especially a Cuban sandwich. Ihope maybe to score a ticket to see my beloved Gamecocks play Iowa. I will somehow get to the beach at least once, if I have to walk. Maybe some fishing? I hope to see Lowry zoo with the boys and tag along with whatever activities the family is into. And maybe get some time to rest.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

GOLD FEVER

Read B. Traven's The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Not bad, but the truly exciting parts were weaker than I had expected or hoped for. The book has a good reputation. I started skim-reading after a while, which is not a good sign, as long sections lost my interest. Basically the story is about three American prospectors (a cagey old veteran and two neophytes), who search for an abandoned mine and scratch out a decent haul of gold. The work and life is hard in the backcounty, and the old guy keeps them from making too many really bad mistakes. They are beset by bandits and other risks to their fortune. There is a lot of criticism of the Catholic church, the government, and Mexicans in general, especially the poorer ones. Desperados and rebels rule the countryside. His several asides in the book, such as the description of a train robbery and massacre, and stories about several lost mines, were very interesting.

Traven was a mysterious writer; this is his pseudonym, and I am not sure there is even good consensus as to who he really was. Some say a German writer who was chased out of Europe and didn't want anyone to know where he was, and some say it was a scam of the author's publicist. Either way, his stories got a lot of attention and they have a following.

I think it is most interesting in describing the Mexico of that period, the racism of the Europeans and Americans, the turmoil in the backcountry, the depresssion-era economic travails, the gold lust and how it affects people. There is the classic line, "we don't need no stinking badges." I definitely will have to pick up and watch the classic movie sometime.

DESPEREAUX

Took the boys to see The Tale of Despereaux. I thought it was pretty good, though the boys were not that impressed (at least the older one---I guess there were not enough lightsaber duels). My youngest son's teacher has been reading the book to his class, so he was quite familiar with it, and even took opportunities to point out inconsistencies. He said, "they sure cut out a lot to make a movie." Ahhhh, a critic is born. For the most part, however, his attention was riveted on the screen, which is pretty good for him, as he is a fidgeter.

I was disappointed more with the movie theater we attended. They projected the film onto a screen that was far too small for it (or didn't use the right projection), and it seem a lot was cut off, not to mention that the picture was blurry. I tried to get them to sharpen it, but they didn't or wouldn't. The place is new (or I should say, an older theater that someone is trying to revive), so that might be part of the problem. They don't have their act together yet.

There were a lot of nice messages in the movie for the boys. But the action was weaker than I would have expected (the heroic part). Sigourney Weaver's role as moderator seemed to be the only thing that kept the movie together and moving forward. I thought the animation was nice, especially a lot of the detailed background scenes of the mouse town. The story was ok.

Maybe I missed it at the local restaurants, but it seemed like a perfect movie for tie-in opportunities for merchandizers. . .the mice were really cute. Even the rats. I kind of expected to see McDonald's selling little Despereaux toys.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Netsuke: Wisteria Woman

One of my favorite things to collect and view are the tiny Japanese-carved toggles (often made of ivory, though I like the hardwood ones) called netsuke, that are part of a system designed to hold small carved inro (kind of like pocketbooks) onto the belts (obi) of a Japanese samuri's robe. Here is an example of one, an intricately carved representation of a Japanese woman (possibly a geisha, though more likely just a beautifully clad lady). Remember that these carvings are often only about an inch tall, they have to be able to stand on their own, and have two small holes (usually) through which a strand of silk rope should pass when they are in use. Many are as old as the 17th century, though there are many very good carvers still today throughout the world. They can be quite expensive, even the modern ones. I do support the ban on newly carved ivory. A lot of these tiny pieces were brought to America after they were sold or traded to American servicemen during the occupation of Japan at the end of World War II. Sometimes you cna still find them at small shops in the backcountry or at a garage sale, though seldom anymore. You also have to be careful now, because as they became more recognized as a collectible and pricey, fakes started popping up (as well as really poorly made knock-offs). It takes time to get used to recognizing a good, authentic patina. I still remember with much joy, after I took some of my netsukes to a Japanese language teacher to read the signatures on the bottoms, whne he pulled one aside and said, "I can't read this one. . .this is really old Japanese." My mother had discovered it in a little shop off the Appalachian trail and purchased it just because she likes it, and when I was telling her about this new collecting craze of mine, she said, "You know, I think I have one of those." And she fished it out of her jewelry box. I was stunned. A few years later she gave it to me as a Christmas present. Just another way I remember my mom.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

MAUDE

Transitions are hard for some, and one who takes them roughly is my eldest son. I am afraid to tell either of my boys the recent transition they will have to face. . .the loss of our cat.

Now, it wasn’t that they were especially in love with this particular kitty. No, it was just that she was a fixture they had known for all of their young lives. They didn't play with her much and she usually hid from them when they trained their attention on her. And now she is gone. Quietly, as a mouse.

She came into my life, in fact, even before I met my soon-to-be-(officially)-ex-wife. I saved the cat from possible homelessness, if not death, when she was bequeathed to me by the previous resident of the apartment I was taking. No matter. I was single, and having a cat was no great burden even if she wasn’t the soft, fuzzy, friendly type of feline. She was pretty though: a dark-colored tortoise-shell and she came with the name Maude. My wife Angela had almost a visceral hatred of her, and I repeatedly served as protector, arguing against getting rid of her---a kind of umpire in an unequal catfight, so to say. She was an indoor cat, with the claws from her front paws removed (not by me) and luckily she was fixed (not by me). She grudgingly gave her new master affection, though she did like to sit nearby him when he was home and she often occupied the corner of his bed at night. She liked getting scratched, especially right at the corners of her mouth and on the back edges of her ears. She hated getting her feet touched, abhored baths, and scorned playthings (though, woe to any bug that got into the apartment). I was nipped regularly when she decided she simply had had enough attention. Some petting and grooming was ok, but only for a fixed amount of time. Then she would amble off. For the most part she was little trouble, only once having any sickness---a short-lived urinary infection.

But recently she rapidly lost weight. It wasn’t unusual in my experience with cats, though at 11 she seemed still a bit young for that. She started using the whole apartment as her bathroom, despite having a fresh litter box, but it was occasional at first. Then it got more frequent, and she started peeing everywhere too. And drank and drank. But she never appeared to be in any pain. Then, over the past month, she got more listless, she had trouble with her back legs, and she seemed lost in her mind. I thought it was just age. Cat senility or Alzheimers? I started keeping her in the bathroom when I was gone. I won’t describe the worsening condition of that room, which I had to clean when I would come home from work in order to have it available acceptable human access. But what do you do when you have an aging cat, that does not seem to be in pain? You simply live with it.

Sadly, I could take it no more. Especially since I have to keep the place generally respectable for the boys. I decided that it might be time to put her down (even brewed a concoction of sleeping pills to do the job, but I chickened out). I mentioned it to friends, one of whom was horrified by my potential role as executioner. He stepped in and said he wanted to take her to the vet. It turned out that she has cat diabetes. How does that occur? I never varied her diet; always fed her the dry, urinary-infection protecting food; and she certainly wasn’t partaking in sweets. But the wobbly walk (similar to that of old lions you see in nature programs) and odd rear legs apparently is a classic sign of such affliction, not neurological damage due to age. She will have to have insulin shots daily (rather expensive, way beyond my means). Luckily, Phil decided to adopt her (because I was inclined to put her down), hence the disappearance from our home. I will miss Maude, but I think in the future I will have only outside cats. I hope she flourishes in her new home. Luckily I do not have to tell the boys she died.

[Update: I heard that she is doing better, is adjusting to her new digs (though she hides near the exercise machine), and is drinking normally.

Update 2: January 2012: Maude is still thriving, though she still deals with occasional bouts of peeing, so I hear. She has fit in well at Phil's and he seems quiet fond of her, despite her contrarian personality.]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

BURKE SHORTS

Just finished two collections of short stories by James Lee Burke, Jesus Out to Sea and The Convict. Both are filled with excellent stories, well written and entertaining, though his subjects are often dark and disturbing, and are usually filled with loss: of control, of love, of life. Fans of Burke's writing will find many familiar themes, language, locales, and character types (often tough, resilient, survivors). Many of the stories are told in a conversational style through first-person narrative. Burke loves lawmen, soldiers, oil men, and teachers. He continues his habit of recycling phrases and words: such hot-pillow joint, dry lightning, dimpled, stand-up guy, yo-yos; I have commented on this before, so I will let it lie. The story about the Nazi submarine is getting a bit worn (it seems to crop up in every book, and was the main focus once) though.

Jesus Out to Sea is the stronger of the two collections, with much of its punch coming from his take on the Katrina disaster. I skipped the two stories taken from earlier books, and didn't want to read "The Molester." The stories I liked best were "Winter Light" and "A Season of Regret." Both main characters seemed to fall in the Robicheaux pattern. I liked "Mist," the story of the struggle of a woman dealing with multiple deaths and her turn toward drugs and alcohol, and then her particiaption in AA, especially her relationship with her sponsor who tries to keep her from slipping into a situation she is unlikley to escape from. Burke often plums either his own upbringing (or a familiar imaginary one) in a couple of stories about a young man growing up in Houston and facing the local bully. Burke's take on Bugsy Siegal was fun. He seems most comfortable placing his stories in post-WWII South, though he does stretch into other eras and regions, mostly the West.

The slimmer, and slightly less dark, The Convict, is not as satisfying, but touches on similar themes. I enjoyed "Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans" (about a stubborn farmer who rebels against the racism and intolerance of his neighbors) and "Hack" (a 94-year-old ex-Texas Ranger taking a memory trip in his mind). Burke's foray into Civil War fiction was pretty strong, "When It's Decoration Day." I think he should consider writing a novel-length work with the Civil War as his background. These volumes are a nice step away (but not too far away) from his Robicheaux and western series.

In addition to the short stories, I finished another in the Robicheaux series, Crusader's Cross. It was ok, though a little tiring for some reason. Perhaps I need to step away for a little while. As I have complained in other notes, some of the repetitveness gets to me (another character using the mashed potatoes in the mouth reference, his continued fixation with two-by-fours up people's backsides, electrical storms, etc.). Am I crazy, or does it seem like it rains a lot in his stories? And woe be to any women in his stories, they all seem to suffer. I did like getting to know his brother a bit better.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NON LA



Hardly used, but as decor
nón lá hung by outside door,
yellow straw, still quite firm
cone-point sharp, seldom worn

Symbol now of woman gone
disappeared like note of song
in southern wind, heavy and wet
she stole a heart when they met.

And now, like hat, only is seen
no future there, where once had been
Why not take it down from wall?
Instead, just let it rot and fall.

Monday, December 8, 2008

NUTCRACKER

"Hmmmmm. Wow!! The color and motion seems so much better this year, and the male dancers seem to be a bit stronger than in the past. I love those two Japanese ballerinas, and there just seems to be more color and motion in the troupe this year. Did she just miss there? The girls in the party scene are really. . . .!!!" Wait a minute, let me go and ram my head into the wall a few times to regain my senses! What the heck am I doing critiquing the latest Nutcracker???? No one would ever believe it.

Well, actually, I am getting better at understanding what is going on about the stage, and recognizing perhaps a well-executed move or a mistake or two here and there, and I am also gaining a greater appreciation and affection for the art as a whole. Although I was prevented from watching the entire production each time it was performed this past weekend, I generally think that these were the best presentations I have seen since becoming associated with the Pavlovich School of Dance and the Columbia Classical Ballet around four years ago. And of course, the shining little star was my son Joey, who had his biggest part yet since taking up dance and performing in the Nutcracker, though unfortunately they don’t really give the little boys much to do in the way of dance steps (they are little more than window dressing). But Joey does love being on the stage; he seems to glow when he is out there. I hope he gets to dance in the Wizard of Oz again. Several of the dancers and teachers said he took a more active role in leading this year. As you can expect, I was darn proud of him. Perhaps the influence of my Brazilian friend Renata Franco (who served as Ballet Mistress this year) had a good impact on the overall look of the Nutcracker this year.

If you ever get the opportunity, you should watch a ballet from backstage, because you get a better appreciation for the athleticism of the dancers, as well as an understanding of all the work that goes into putting on these shows beyond all the hard work of the individuals on stage. This year I think things were much calmer and organized. Columbians are blessed to have a number of good ballet groups, both professional and in the local colleges. It is hard to see how they all make it financially.

Most of the time I was trapped in the dressing rooms, supervising the boys. This year I had a smaller group with me, two of which (I think) are Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier’s grandsons. Last year I had about 12 of them to look after and that drove me crazy. Much more manageable this year; unfortunately, because of transportation problems, I wasn’t able to do as much at the Koger as I normally try to do. Larry Payne, one of the board directors, was also back there a lot, and he has a good rapport with the boys and members of the company.

It was very nice to get to meet Alberto Liberstoscioli, a new dancer from Italy. We chatted a bit (he shared the dressing room with Waldilei Goncalves, another of our Brazilian friends). II also met Damien and Oleksandr. One of my favorite dancers is the beautiful and talented Japanese ballerina Akari Manabe. One nice thing about the company is its ethnic diversity, with dancers from Brazil, Cuba, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Ukraine, and of course from the United States. I do miss our old Brazilian dancer friends, Junior and Humberto.

The motto for the company (which is celebrating its tenth year) is Music + Dance = Joy. No doubt about it, and you could feel the joy on the stage.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

CODE BLACK

If ever I am faced with a medical emergency that requires paramedics, I believe that my mind will immediately flash to scenes from Shannon Burke's Black Flies, an interesting novel (though more like a memoir, I think) of life as a rookie paramedic in 1990s drug-infested, poverty ridden, racially charged Harlem. The protagonist, a young midwestern middle-class white guy hoping to get accepted into medical school and eager for hands-on experience while preparing to improve his MCAT scores, gets swept up in learning his craft while dealing with seemingly burnt-out and angry (though efficient and skilled) senior medics who try to show the new guy the ropes. Ollie Cross tries to fit in with his colleagues and maintain his morality as he comes face-to-face with the depression, violence, senselessness, cruelty that is life in a large poor urban war zone. The system seems to reward and respect individuals who maintain a cold detachment and make calculated choices, mostly based on the possibility of survival; medics who go out of their way to provide compassionate care or go beyond what their more cynical colleagues fell is acceptable treatment, are often scorned and ridiculed, if not actually run out of the job. Some paramedics (especially those with the most experience), however, like playing God and doling out justice for victims they do not feel deserve extraordinary measures (they are called skels) of treatment. Burke reveals the seemier side to emergency services, detailing how the pressure and stress can break down idealism and morality. Like many close-knit service professions, the insiders cover each other's back. Some of the morbid humor fits nicely with what I have experienced among police and corrections officers I have known. And although some of the medics come off as sociopaths, the real bad guys in the story to me seem to be the police. It is easy to see how some EMS personnel might not take kindly to thei volume, might even be insensed after reading it.

The books is a pretty quick read, and keeps one's attention. I think the relationship between Ollie and his more successful, driven medschool girlfriend, was weak. The story seemed a bit disjointed at times. A few editorial errors (such as making Rut's name Turkovsky in one passage). Where were the female medics? The hispanic ones?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

SAN DIEGO MOBSTER

I had read on Goodreads, then another site, about the books of Don Winslow, who seemed to have developed a bit of a following. I can see why. Just finished The Winter of Frankie Machine, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Winslow's written three other volumes, and I fully intend to give them a try.

Frankie Machine is the nickname for San Diego mobster and hitman Frank Machianno, known for his precise and inevitable hits, who is pretty much retired from the Mafia and enjoying his golden years as a beloved and respected businessman (bait-shop owner, linen service, fishmonger), as well as a local fixture with the older surfers. What is it with tough-guy noir characters and baitshops (see Burke)? He has a normal life, still helps his ex-wife, has a developing relationship with his daughter (headed to med school), and dates a gorgeous, ex-Vegas showgirl and couture-shop-owning workaholic girlfriend. Frankie loves the good life, is as precise and exacting with his coffee and food as he is with his mob hits, and fits in well with surfers and fishermen. Even as a mobster he earned a reputation for honesty and humanity, to an extend even toward the people he is sent to kill, and he does not take life without cause, even letting some people skate that he could have taken out. So all is well in Frankie's world. . .except

You can't always escape your past, especially the associations you once kept or participation in events that you might have only been a peripheral player in. They will always come back to haunt you, and so they do in this novel. Now his ordered life is thrown akimbo and he has to figure out what to do. And the story picks up momentum and interest, slipping between good action and even more interesting reminiscences of his mobbed-up life. The plot does not bog down with detritis or unnecessary floweriness. It just keeps moving along. And Winslow does not over glamorize the underworld and criminal element, although the life has some attractions. No, he shows their warts; the mobsters are often bumbling, brutal, unintelligent, rats. There is no (or little) honor among thieves, though Frankie tries to live through an older code. As an atypical mobster, who is less greedy and sociopathic, you come to like and root for the character.

My only criticism is Winslow's change of voice, from first person to third, sometimes it seems right in the middle of a passage.