Sunday, December 31, 2006

Light the Way

When I was unemployed from September 2005 through February 2006, I did the usual things to try and change the situation. I sent e-mails. Made phone calls. Answered want ads. Networked.

Toward the end of that dark period, I also did one unusual thing--unusual for me, anyway: I lit candles.

In whatever apartment I've lived, I've lit candles, usually of the scented variety and usually appropriate to the season at hand. (Pumpkin Spice for Halloween; Evergreen for Christmas.) Sometimes, I light only one or two. Occasionally, I light enough that I don't need to turn the lights on. Once, on my 40th birthday, I lit 40 candles atop the kitchen table that once belonged to my great-grandmother--and, in the process, singed most of the hair off of my right forearm. (I would have made a lousy pyromaniac.)

My point? Lighting candles is, for me, part of daily routine anyway. What was unusual was that I was lighting the candles not for fragrance, illumination or celebration, but for the sake of sending word out to the world (and beyond) that I needed, at the very least, guidance.

I'm not particularly religious. I didn't grow up in a worshipful household, and the few church services I went to as a child bored me stiff. I do, however, believe that something watches over what we do and how we do it, though I'm not entirely sure what role, if any, whoever (or whatever) is watching over us plays in our daily lives. Maybe he/she/it/they guide every step we take, every decision we make. (I sure hope that's not the case, because that means that the Great Whatever has a pretty sick sense of humor.) Maybe there's no guidance at all, but merely observation--the ultimate reality show. Or maybe there is participation, even intervention, but on a more selective basis. Who's doing the selecting? And how? Or why? Beats me.

At first, I just lit the votives I already had hanging around La Casa del Terror, putting the flame of the short, slender, metallic green Zippo to the wicks in the kitchen and saying to myself (and whoever/whatever might be listening), "Please, help me." I later switched to actual devotional candles--the long, tall glass jobs one can find in many grocery and drug stores (in Chicago, anyway). The first ones I bought had guardian angels on them, more because I like angels than because I believe they watch over me. I even found a little Hispanic grocery store in my neighborhood that sells vanilla-scented guardian angel candles, so I could say a prayer and hide the smell of the cat litter at the same time.

Later, though, I switched to candles devoted to St. Jude, the so-called "patron saint of lost causes." (Not that I ever really believed that finding a new job was a "lost cause"; it just sometimes looked that way through the veil of despair.) I'd light the candle, watch the light flicker behind the sticker with St. Jude's face on it, and ask for whatever help I could get.

And help did eventually arrive--first in the form of a part-time, short-term warehouse gig, and then, a month later, in the form of a full-time job downtown.

Now, do I believe that my prayers (if you can even call them that, given my lack of formal religious faith) alone made things happen? No. There were many friends praying for me as well, and that wealth of positive energy may have had an effect on the fabric of the universe. Or maybe lighting the candles altered my frame of mind, made me more hopeful, and maybe that changed the way things were. Or maybe it was just one big honkin' coincidence.

Whatever the case, I got a job and have stayed employed throughout the remainder of the year. But that doesn't mean that I stopped lighting candles. I still flick the Zippo at least once a night, no matter what time I get in, for a variety of reasons:

Sometimes I light candles for friends or family who are in ill health, like VB and Dee, both of whom have spent time in the hospital this year, and also Embee, who had a stroke in July and is still on the mend. I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on television. There isn't jack I can do for them medically, and that's a pretty helpless feeling. I can, though, light the candles and hope for the fastest, most complete recovery possible.

Sometimes I light candles for friends who have gone through a romantic breakup. Sometimes I hope that they get back together. Sometimes I hope that they don't. (Some breakups are for the best, for both parties.) Either way, I'm usually friend to both the splitter and the splitee. Breaking up with someone you loved (or may, in fact, still love) is never easy, and it's worse during the holidays. I know four couples that have recently split or are in the process of splitting. I feel for them all. At the very least, I can wish them peace of mind and heart; when I light the candle for them, I do just that.

Sometimes I light candles people no longer in my life, like Red Secretary, whom I haven't heard from in more than two years and never expect to hear from again. Why, you might reasonably ask, would I bother lighting a candle for her, especially given that her life is pretty fabulous right now, what with the memoir she got published earlier this year selling well enough to merit a paperback reprinting that hit bookstores this week (I saw it in Borders Thursday night) and the screenplay she wrote due to start filming early next year under the direction of that guy who did Thank You for Smoking (which was probably the best movie I saw this year, so this new movie stands an excellent chance of being not just good, but damn good)? Because I hope her life stays fabulous. Just like it always should have been.

RS and I aren't friends anymore. Maybe we will be again; maybe we won't. I can still wish the best for her, though, now and always.

Sometimes, I even light candles for people I've never met and likely never will.

One of my favorite blogs to visit is written by actress Pauley Perrette, one of the stars of NCIS. It's not about her job, but about her life and the lives of those around her (friends, pets, significant others, etc.), and even though she writes everything with line breaks (like a poem), it's still all pretty entertaining.

Recently, she wrote a post about her friend Katherine, who had unfortunately been on the pedestrian end of an automobile-hits-pedestrian accident, and was not doing well at all. "She has been in ICU for days," Paulie wrote. "It does not look good right now."

"Sorry to impose," she continued, "but I know there are so many readers from around the world here who pray. We need a miracle. We need prayers." So I wrote an e-mail to Pauley, told her about my candle-lighting ritual and promised to light a candle each night for Katherine, her husband and their families. (I did not get an e-mail back, nor did I expect one.) So I added a candle for Katherine to the group I was already lighting and hoped for the best.

Les than a week later, Pauley posted the following: "I got a message today saying that Katherine's improvement was "nothing short of miraculous" in the last few days. Yup, that's right...I KNOW EXACTLY what it was...All of you beautiful people praying around the world. Thank you so, so much." A couple of weeks later, Pauley reported that Katherine had gone home from the hospital.

I'm not going to break my arm patting myself on the back (or, as JB's Dad would have said, "pinning a bouquet on my ass") over Katherine's recovery. After all, I was just one of many people in many places all over this big, sometimes beautiful globe of ours who was sending best wishes her way.

But I can light a candle. Or two. Or five. I can send positive vibes out into the ether and hope that's enough. Maybe I'm wasting my time. Maybe nobody's actually listening. But do I really believe that? Do I believe that sending all this positive energy out into the Great Whatever is just a colossal waste of time?

No. I do not.

Tonight, it's New Year's Eve. As has been my custom for the past few years, I'm staying in, ordering a pizza from Marie's and drinking a few cans of Red Dog. I'll pet the cats (at least until the gunfire starts at midnight, when they'll both disappear, likely for the remainder of the evening), watch vintage movies (usually something with Fred and Ginger or Groucho, Harpo and Chico) and wait for 2007 to arrive.

And I'll light candles. For friends. For family. For people I don't even know. For myself. And their light will keep me warm.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Christmas Scarf

I admit it, freely and without coercion or threat of violence: I have, marbled through my core, a streak of sentimentality so lengthy and stout that, were it to be extracted from me and laid at length, it would put the Great Wall of China to shame.

At any given time of the year, this sentimentality can manifest in myriad ways, such as taking the form of rampant bouts of anthropomorphism. I feel sorry for inanimate objects, such as action figures or stuffed animals lost by the children who played with them and, without thinking or knowing, drop them in the street; more than one have made its way to my home or place of employment by my hand. (There's a small, vinyl sea turtle atop my workplace computer monitor that could attest to this. If it could, in fact, speak. Which it can't.) I once hopped down into the hollowed-out foundation of a building being razed to rescue a large teddy bear lying in the mud; I washed it down, dried it off and found that, aside from a rip here or a split there, it was a perfectly fine large teddy bear; it now rests comfortably in my kitchen.

I feel remorse when I accidentally break an object, like the evergreen votive holder I knocked over with an errant forearm and shattered on the cracked tile of the bathroom floor of the old La Casa del Terror. It was a bother to find every fragment, chunk and sliver of glass, to be sure, but more than anything, I felt regret for having ended the existence of something that had cast such bright, warming light and contained and shared with the air surrounding such varied, soothing fragrances over the many years it graced my Christmas displays.

This sentimentality can be especially pronounced at this most emotional and sentimental time of the year, when memories of all that has gone before, joyous and less so; of those loved ones absent either from my life or from life altogether; of all that's gone right or wrong in the year preceding crowd in with sharper, more determined elbows than the most aggressive holiday shopper ever could.

So when I haul out the figures of elves that Grandma kept confined to the decorative tin behind the space heater in her kitchen, the aluminum tree still in its original box, or the small artificial tree that I used to stand on my shelf at work, I feel remorse and even guilt if even one of these festive decorations isn't put on display, which has meant much self-imposed remorse indeed these past few Christmases, when I did not have the warmth of season to spur me to display more than one or two small ornaments. (And even with the new apartment, not everything can be put up; a whole storage container of ornaments remains, lamentably, in storage.)

So when, last Christmas Eve, I was walking to the local Pallid Poultry against a rain that came down frigid and sideways and turned what remnants that remained of the last snowfall into irregular patches of frozen gray, it should come as no surprise that, while stepping off the curb to cross the busy street that would lead me to my shopping destination, I paused. I paused because when I looked down at the torrent of gray water rushing along the curb, I saw, in the middle of that torrent, an obstruction: a relatively small, misshapen lump around which the stream struggled to flow to its ultimate destination, the sewer adjacent to the parking lot of the conjoined small neighborhood grocery store and chicken shack.

As I say, I paused. I leaned down to examine this obstructive lump more closely. And I found, as I suspected upon first glance, that this wasn't merely a bit of debris carried sewerward by the gray torrent, nor a leftover snow bank, formerly elegant, now reduced to a slushy bump in a slushy road, but a piece of fabric of undeterminable length, texture or even color (other than the gray that seemed to color everything under the light of that late December sky).

It was, I believed, a scarf.

This should have come to no surprise to me. I'd found scarves before. I've found them since. People drop scarves, mittens, hats, etc. all the time. I think it was the pitiful state of this particular winter accessory, combined with the aforementioned seasonally augmented sentimentality, that gave me pause more pause than usual.

It made no sense whatsoever for me to even touch the scarf at that moment; I was, after all, on my way to buy groceries, and dragging a sopping-wet scarf along for the ride seemed, at the least, impractical. So, with regret, I left the scarf where it lay and went on my less-than-merry way. When I returned the same way with my supplies, the scarf was still there. Of course it was. Why would it have moved? If its proper owner were coming for it, he/she would have collected it ages ago, and the impromptu river of dirty water wasn't flowing swiftly enough to dislodge it; and even if the current were strong enough to move the scarf from its resting place, it would never make its way through the sewer grate without someone actually shoving it through.

I shifted my groceries to my left hand and scooped up the scarf with my right. It was heavy with water, as I expected, but it was also covered with grit and debris; it was like holding a cold compress infused with pumice. I held the scarf at arm's length away from my body (to keep the nasty, nasty water from dripping on me or my groceries) and walked the block from the busy street to my (now-former) apartment building. By the time I got there, though, the fingers on my right hand were bright red and nearly numb from holding the cold, not-quite-thawed scarf, which I slung into the bathtub as soon as I'd made my way inside.

Once feeling had returned to my digits and my groceries had been properly put away, I turned my attentions back to the damp gray mass in the middle of my bathtub. There was now what appeared to be a tether of filthy water connecting the scarf to the drain of the tub, the slender stream staining the white porcelain as it flowed east to the tarnished brass fitting.

I propped my elbows on the edge of the tub for a moment and regarded my new find. What, exactly, was I going to do with this thing? Ring it out? No, that might squeeze whatever color remained out of it and refreeze my hands in the process. Throw it in the washing machine? Again, no. Since I didn't know what the fabric was (Wool? Acrylic? Some type of blend?), that method could just as likely hasten its disintegration as provide its salvation. Soak it in a bucket? Not a bad idea, really, but it would have to be cold water at first. The idea of plunging my hands into an ice-cold bucket on an ice-cold day had little appeal for me, but there was no way around it: it was either that or give up. And I'm not one for giving up.

I emptied the pale blue bucket I used for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom floors, ran water through it to clear away any remaining dirt from the last mopping, plopped the scarf into it and ran it full of cold water. I didn't even want to chance adding a drop of detergent. Not yet. For now, I slipped my hands into the frigid water, worked the fabric up and down for a few painful moments, and withdrew to the sink, where I rinsed with warm water. The scarf was no longer visible in the bucket; the grime already loosened had obscured my view. I dumped the bucket; the water that now filled the tub was almost black, and the scarf didn't look any cleaner. I filled the bucket two more times and dumped it two more times, each time finding the water filthy, but less so with each pass.

Finally, I wasn't seeing a dirty lump; it now looked like an actual garment. It even had a pattern to it: a gray (how appropriate!) checkered scheme with what appeared to be a streak of peach straight down its middle. Most importantly, I could finally read the label: the scarf was made in Italy, was acrylic and could be hand-washed in warm water. So I filled the bucket one last time, added a bit of detergent and gave the gray checkered scarf a proper washing, after which I draped it over the showerhead to dry.

As I said, this wasn't the first scarf I'd found, nor was it the last. It probably isn't even the nicest or most elegant. But because of the day I found it, I always think of it as my Christmas scarf and wear it to all holiday occasions.

And yes, I'm well aware that there are greater concerns in the world in general and in my own life in particular than a scarf found on a street. I don't pretend otherwise.

As I also said, I'm sentimental. And, I believe, all the better for it.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Move, Part Four: The Long Goodbye

I had thought it would be better to spread the move over several weeks. That way, I wouldn't wear myself out on any given day and could get the whole thing done with little trips after work and on weekends.

But I was wrong. Sweet flamin' Jeebus, was I wrong.

Instead of moving everything in one day and wearing myself (and all of the friends I would have needed to recruit) out just that once, I wound up being worn out every damn night.

Part of the overall problem was work-related. It's been getting busier and busier, and I've been leaving later and later. And who wants to haul boxes and bags and furnishings after a 12-hour shift? That's right: nobody. Much of the work was thus shifted to weekends, which meant that the time I would normally spend resting up for the coming workweek was spent lifting and carrying and dragging and shoving.

Another part of the problem was sheer volume. Even with everything I threw out or left behind (more on that in a moment), I carried enough over to the new place for three people, and I'm still unpacking (and likely will be well into the new year).

But even interminable moves must end, and so did this one.

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. The only things remaining to be moved out were my bicycle (which I haven't been on in years, and which now sits unused in the basement of my new apartment building) and my helmet (which, should I ever ride my bicycle again, I'll definitely wear). Everything else that remained--books, DVDs, videotapes, kitchenware--was being left behind for my now-former landlords, a couple in the midst of an unpleasant divorce, to keep, throw out, sell, whatever. (Of course, my now-former landlord called me a few days later and asked, "Um, you've still got a lotta stuff here. I just wanted to know if you're renting for another month or what." Never mind that everything I left behind put together wouldn't have filled half of one closet; yep, that makes it worth renting for another month. Except...not.)

I rolled the bike into what had been the living room and parked there for a minute. The place looked strange with next to nothing in it. Sad. This had been a large part of my life. And I could still see it as it had been for so long:

Over in that corner sat the faded fuchsia recliner, left there by the previous tenant, where Lottie used to curl up for naps. By the windows sat the futon, sold to me by a then-friend, The Duranie at a steep discount as payment for watching her cats over the holidays. (She later dumped me as a friend without explanation--not the first time that's happened and, unfortunately, not the last.) Against the walls were the loveseats, bought at Ikea and drivel home for me by Mr. and Mrs. Fluffy, on which many a Halloween Movie Bash was enjoyed. In the middle sat the coffee table my brother made me as a present. On the walls, the shapes of the posters for The Blair Witch Project and The Exorcist were still visible, along with the holes where the nails had held them aloft.

All gone now.

I don't mean to oversentimentalize (is that even a word?) this whole experience. This was, after all, just my apartment. It wasn't perfect, by any means. The kitchen sink leaked, the ceiling was cracked, the bedroom windows were drafty, the linoleum in the kitchen was badly cracked, the wiring was ancient and both the front and back doors were a pain in the ass to open. But it was home for more than a decade. I can't just shrug that off.

And it's not like my new place is Nirvana, either. The toilet leaks at the base (I put way too much putty on it, which is how I repair everything that needs putty). The wainscoting doesn't always meet the floor, the hot water is really, really hot. There lots of spiders in in the building--I don't mind seeing one every once in a while, but I shouldn't wake up in the middle of the night to find one standing on the forehead of the Christopher Lee Dracula figure atop my TV, should I? And the boiler just beneath the living room floor not only keeps the pace toasty warm without any of the radiators on, but it roars either like a plane taking off or a nuclear explosion in the distance, depending on my mood at that moment.

But it's home now. This bare and desolate place wasn't anymore.

While I was taking that last, long look around, I thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. It wasn't the first time that had happened during the process of moving out, though this would certainly be the last time. I couldn't tell you what it was. Maybe it was the shadow of a tree branch waving in the breeze outside. Maybe a bird flew past the window. But in the corner of my eye, for that briefest of brief moments, it looked like Lottie coming around the corner from the kitchen as she had so many times--and as she should have many more.

I looked down at my watch. I'd been standing there for 15 minutes. Enough. Time to go.

I put the helmet on my head, rolled the bike out the front door (my now-former landlady was out back, and I didn't want to talk to her again if I didn't have to), and said "Bye, Lottie," trying to wrestle the door shut before the tears could get a chance to start flowing.

Then I turned, picked up the bike and walked it down the stairs, not looking back again. Not even a glance.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Move, Part Three: Green Windows

I'm accustomed to living above it all.

I don't mean that in terms of wealth--I'm not independently wealthy, nor am I ever likely to be--or in my attitude toward my friends, family, coworkers or people I pass on the street--I wouldn't have them treat me with disregard or contempt, so it would be hypocritical to treat them so.

No, I mean that, in terms of the physical proximity of my living space to the street below, I haven't been anywhere near ground level for quite some time.

As previously noted, La Casa del Terror was a three-story walkup. Before that, I lived in my parents' house in the second-story apartment. Before that, we lived in a three-story walkup with a panoramic view of downtown Chicago. (I've long lamented that I wasn't into photography then--the shots I could have taken!) And before that, we lived in an apartment on the second floor of the same building.

My point? I haven't lived in a first-floor apartment since I was in elementary school. So this new place is...different for me.

First of all, I can't exactly prance around in my underwear, now can I? Not that I did much of that before--I mean, who would really want to see that? Hell, I don't want to see that. But people walking past my windows can see whatever I'm doing unless the blinds are down, and who wants to live with the blinds down all the time?

There are compensating factors, though. My bedroom--which I actually use for sleep, rather than for storage like I did in La Casa--faces away from the street rather than toward it, so it's quieter and doesn't have streetlights or headlights shining into it. Also, it's a lot easier to see and hear what's going on at street level. So when the guy who lives up the street gets drunk/high/whatever and starts spewing racial epithets at the top of his besotted lungs, I can make out every word (instead of just the offensive ones).

It's not just me, though--this is a whole different deal for the cats, too.

Both Ms. Christopher and Olivia reacted poorly to the move itself. After I'd gotten out all of the big stuff (couches, dressers, that evil heavy chest), I decided to move the Girlish Girls. I put Christopher in the cat carrier--actually a tall, orange, reclosable milk crate--and tucked Olivia into my left arm. (If she had tried to wiggle free or tear me up, I'd have just taken her back, moved Christopher over and brought the crate back for a second trip.) I walked over to the new place, turned them both loose and watched as they walked gingerly over the hardwood floors, crying and inspecting and crying and jumping on window sills and crying and clawing at the furniture and crying and looking at me with a mix of confusion and contempt and did I mention the crying?

It took them a couple of days to calm down, but calm down they did. They now love sitting in the windows, watching the world pass by. Olivia loves the windows in the bedroom and kitchen, which look out onto the bushes alongside the next-door-neighbor's house--which make those back windows look green from the inside--where sparrows like to gather in the afternoon. She talks back to them, her jaw quivering and her tail switching back and forth and back again, but the sparrows, rather wisely, stay away.

(While I was moving in, I ran across an opossum trundling along the fence. Since I saw it ass-first, I thought it was a giant rat--an oddity in my hood, even if they're common in Mom's. I tried to wait politely while it made its way to wherever, but I finally lost patience and walked right past it, popped open the back door to my building and carried in whatever; the opossum hadn't yet reached me when I went in.)

The move has also made both cats more affectionate. Christopher has her moments as a lap cat, especially after her sister, Lottie, had to be put to sleep, but now she's taken to hopping up in my lap regularly, as well as coming into the bedroom when I lay down for the evening and tucking herself under one of my arms for a few minutes of attention, then off to some dark, soft corner of the new apartment for the rest of her night's sleep. And Olivia, never a cuddle kitty unless scared (thunder, fireworks, etc.), now curls up on the couch next to me, purring quietly while I stroke her shiny, smooth fur.

Maybe the cats are concerned that I'll uproot us yet again and haul all their familiar stuff to yet another unfamiliar place. Or, maybe, they've realized that this is home, they are safe, I am there to feed and take care of them, and they don't have to sleep in the same room with me (or each other) if they don't want to.

Maybe they've settled. Maybe I have, too.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Move, Part Two: Ghosts Never Die

A long time ago--seems like another lifetime now--I wrote a short story about a young woman who came back to her hometown, Chicago, for the holiday season and experienced the usual arguments and angst that usually accompany such events (in most fiction, movies an sitcoms, at least, if not in what passes for reality these days).

At the time, the story, entitled "Ghosts Never Die" (because they're already deadÑhey, it sounded clever and profound then) seemed like it would be a pretty good starting point for a novel that, of course, never got written. (I've only written one novel, and that was back in high school. No, you can't read it; given my sloppy handwriting, then and now, neither can I.)

In the novel-that-was-only-in-my-head, the protagonist, Kelly Waterhouse, is, at one point, walking with an old friend across their childhood playground at night as Kelly laments that past events in her life won't leave her alone. The friend replies, "Look up and tell me what you see." Kelly does so, but all she can see are what few stars are visible through the pollution and streetlight haze that hang over the city like the glass dome of a snowglobe that hasn't been dusted in ages. "No," her friend explains. "Those are the ghosts of how those stars looked a hundred years ago, more or less. One of those babies could go supernova this exact moment, but we wouldn't find about it for another century or so."

"Your point?" Kelly asks.

"The past is all around you. Over your head. Under your feet. In your hair. Everywhere. It's never going to just go away. You have a choice of dealing with it, or letting it deal with you."

I thought about this idea as I hauled boxes and bags and crates from my old apartment to my new one. It's been said that disturbing a grave can raise the vengeful spirits of the dead. I assume the concept applies to the upheaval inherent in a move as well. In the process of packing and unpacking, you find things you didn't even know you had, artifacts of past phases of life, mementos of those no longer in your life, reminders of happier or sadder times.

Here are just a few of the things I ran across while moving:

A GE portable radio that I don't remember owning (it's much nicer than one I'd buy for myself).

A small, square pillow Mom made for me from an old black coat when I was ten.

A large teddy bear I rescued from the foundation of a building that had been demolished.

A plaid metal lunchbox given to me for my birthday by Red Secretary.

Unfiled photos of Lottie.

Bits of stone excavated from the remains of Riverview Park.

A poster for the movie version of Tank Girl.

The laminated holy card from my father's wake.

A terra cotta leopard.

A framed AIDSwalk poster.

My collection of Lorri Jackson poetry. (Has she really been dead almost 16 years? Damn. Time flies, whether you're having fun or not.)

One Wiener Whistle.

Two decks of tarot cards.

Three life-size plastic skulls.

A gunmetal-colored picture frame that used to hold the picture of a woman I loved, sitting on a couch with three other friends I no longer hear from.

The small, lighted, plastic pine tree that my grandmother put in her living room window every Christmas--the same tree that will sit in my living room window this Christmas.

An Eliza Dushku action figure I bought in Dallas.

The same copy of Ulysses that everybody seems to have, but no one has actually read.

My first camera--a boxy little Kodak that takes film that's no longer manufactured.

A pair of sunglasses that look like something out of The Blues Brothers.

A large booklet of 78s that also holds the death announcements for my godmother and uncle.

The head of a wooden bird toy Mom played with as a child.

Porn tapes I'd misplaced.

A clock depicting the Last Supper that plays the Hallelujah Chorus at the top of the hour, "won" at a Christmas in July party in Dayton.

A small carboard horn with Captain Marvel on the side.

Half a dozen pairs of cowboy boots.

A rubber shark I've had since the original Jaws came out.

Three Cindy Crawford calendars and two Heather Thomas calendars kept safe in a WGN portfolio.

A Star Trek communicator.

More action figures and model kits than I could ever display, even if my new apartment were the size of Graceland.

And much, much more.

Each object evoked at least one specific memory, if not a torrent of them. Sometimes, I smiled. Sometimes, I winced. Sometimes, the object in question didn't make the trip to the new apartment, though usually it did. Sometimes, knowing what was in the boxes--the (re)discoveries made, the pleasures and acquaintances renewed--made carrying them that much easier. Sometimes, it made them weigh twice as much.

I guess that's what happens when you live in one place for so long. The memories themselves, whether good, bad, ecstatic or somber, can weigh more than the furniture. And the ghosts? You may not be able to kill a ghost, but you can, at least, give it a polite nod and move on.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Vanishing Chicago: The Esquire

The single best movie-going day of my movie-going life came in the summer of 1982, when my then-landlord's eldest son and I hopped on the No. 66 Chicago Avenue bus, rode downtown and caught three blockbusters at three separate theaters all within relative walking of one another: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the Esquire, Poltergeist at the McClurg Court, and Conan the Barbarian at the Carnegie. After that last movie, we went to the Burger King at Chicago and State; something about Conan had put us in the mood for meat.

That was a long time ago, before the multiplexes moved into downtown.

The Carnegie has been gone for ages, closed in the mid-1980s and demolished. The McClurg Court survived into this decade, despite a theater with nine screens opening to its west and another with 21 screens opening to its south; its large main screen, a remnant of the days when it was a single 1,200-seat theater before it was split into three smaller theaters and ideal for epics like Titanic, may be why it lasted so much longer. But it eventually succumbed in 2003; it now sits empty, awaiting repurposing.

And as of today, the Esquire will be gone as well.

It was always the oldest of the three, opened in the 1930s as an elegant downtown movie house just off of Michigan Avenue, now one of the premier shopping districts in the world. In recent years, its age showed, at least on the interior: Worn carpets, uncomfortable seats and sparsely populated (if manned at all) snack bars.

Like so many older theaters, the Esquire had been split up in the 1980s; what had been one screen became six. But six, in the long run, wasn't nearly enough. The same multiplexes that took down the McClurg Court also contributed to the Esquire's demise, but so did its location. The current owner of the property, after patting himself on the ass for having kept the theater open longer than he probably should have, given the red ink it was soaking in, announced that it will be razed, with a low-rise shopping/dining complex rising in its place.

But do we need more shopping on Oak Street? And even if there isn't a restaurant right on Oak, certainly there are plenty of upscale eateries within short walking distance in any direction.

Smaller movie theaters, on the other hand, are a breed dying a slow, lingering death. So many have gone under in recent years, like the Biograph (reopening as a live theater soon), the Burnham Plaza (converted to office space) and the 3 Penny (just...closed). I went to them all and came away with memories, good and bad.

Not all local movie houses are on the decline, though. In the years since being threatened with demolition/condo conversion, the Davis has thrived by showing first-run movies at discount prices. When I saw The Illusionist there on Labor Day with JB and Dee, the theater was respectably full, and a line snaked down the block for some other movie (probably Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) on our way out. The current owner has even spruced the joint up a bit, installing seats that don't make my ass hurt nearly as much.

Another North Side movie house, the Portage, has actually come back to life after being shuttered for a few years. It now hosts special events like the Silent Film Society of Chicago's annual festival and next month's Chicago Horror Film Festival (especially appropriate, with the huge Halloween costume shop just Milwaukee Avenue). And still another, the Patio, closed for five years, has a banner hanging on its badly dented and rusting marquee mentioning renovation and rehabilitation, so there's at least a sliver of hope that it might see a revival.

The Esquire's fate is sealed, however, and has been for quite some time. I didn't go to it as often as I had in the past--the last movie I saw there was Brokeback Mountain this past Christmas--but I'll miss it nonetheless, just like I'd miss any old friend, even one that didn't dress as nicely as it once had and had gone a bit to pot. There aren't that many old movie houses left, and we aren't doing a very good job of treasuring, maintaining and supporting the ones we still have.

So when the screens go dark for the last time tonight, all we'll have left are memories. For me, the Esquire always be the place I saw William Shatner, bad poodle-shaped toupee and all, screaming into his communicator, "KHHHHAAAAANNNNNN," his voice echoing and finally fading into the void.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Review: The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)

Like most people who have websites, I'm fairly obsessive about checking my site stats--I check how much traffic this small, dark corner of the Internet draws, from whence the traffic comes and what exactly on my site people are visiting most.

The results never fail to surprise, bemuse and confuse me. For example: Do you know what the single most visited page on this blog is? If you guessed that it's any one of my essays on Vanishing Chicago, my account of 9/11 or movie reviews like the one before you now, you'd be wrong. If, on the other hand, you guessed that it was one of my poems, you'd be right--but not because I'm such a brilliant wordsmith.

No, it's because that poem happens to feature, amongst other photos employed to illustrate verses, a shot of '50s pinup model Bettie Page.

I came late to the cult that swirls around Bettie Page. It was 1990, and I was in a comic shop--don't ask me which one, because I don't remember--when I saw a small magazine called Bettie Being Bad, which consisted of a three-part essay by longtime comic-book production man John Workman that spoke of pop culture in general and, in particular, Page's place in it and impact on it, and numerous (if poorly reproduced) photographs of the woman herself. I recognized the face--comic book writer/artist Dave Stevens had used her visage for the girlfriend of the lead character in The Rocketeer--and thought, "Wait...she was real?"

Workman's essay was an eloquent, thought-provoking piece, to be sure, but that wasn't why I bought Bettie Being Bad. I bought it (and still have it to this day) for the same reason many men (and more than a few women) have purchased magazines, books, comics, paintings and sculptures of her over the decades since she vanished from sight (until she resurfaced several years ago, perfectly willing to talk about her days as a model, but not to be photographed again).

There was something about her, an intermingling of sexuality and playfulness--sure, she was posing naked much of the time and looked damned fine doing it, but more than that, she looked like she was having fun doing it--that made Bettie Page more alluring and less intimidating than any of her contemporaries. And the number of hits that photo of Bettie on this site gets attests to her continuing popularity, nearly 50 years after she last posed.

That popularity may explain why, after so much time, we have a big-screen biography in The Notorious Bettie Page--a title which, perhaps intentionally, comes off as ironic, given the downright tame way director Mary Harron and cowriter Guinevere Turner approach their subject. If it weren't for the occasional nudity, this could easily have been a made-for-TV movie (and maybe The Notorious Bettie Page really was one at one point--it was produced by HBO).

The story Harron and Turner tell is relatively straightforward: Page (Gretchen Mol) has a rough early life (sexual abuse at home is implied; gang rape is outright stated, though not shown), just misses making valedictorian of her high school class and marries young to an abusive lout, all before she moves to New York and tries her hand at acting. There, she is invited to pose for "photo clubs"--gatherings of men and women with cameras who like to take pictures of girls in lingerie. Once Page steps in front of the photographers, she truly comes to life, and she winds up doing fetish shoots for Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister, Paula (Lili Taylor, in a funny supporting performance), which leads to some unwanted attention from Congress in the form of hearings conducted by Estes Kefauver (David Straithairn, wasted in a tiny role) .

Eventually, though, Page rethinks her career choice and gives her life over to religion. (There is no mention of Page's later mental breakdowns or subsequent revival as a pop-culture icon.)

What makes The Notorious Bettie Page more interesting than the average biopic is the visual approach Harron and company take: Much of the movie is shot in crisp black and white, with later scenes set in Florida suddenly bursting into postcard-vibrant color, making for a movie that is at least never dull to look at.

Then there's Mol's performance in the title role. More than merely matching Bettie Page's look (both in and out of clothing), Mol captures the spirit of Page. When she takes all of her clothing off in front of the camera for the very first time, her smile, her eyes, the language of her body all express the ecstacy born of absolute, uninhibited freedom that I saw in those photos reprinted in Bettie Being Bad more than a decade and a half ago. But Mol also gets across Page's intelligence--she may have made her living taking her clothes off, but that didn't make her stupid or vacant, and Mol shows in small glances and gestures Page's growing discontentment with how she's perceived. It's a remarkably subtle performance worthy of Oscar consideration, though it's unlikely that the Academy would ever take either the actress or the subject of her performance that seriously.

That's no surprise. Maybe it's even just about right. The cool kids always "got" Bettie Page, and wherever she is today, she knows she was (and is) appreciated well beyond what she would have expected of her "posin'." The Notorious Bettie Page may not be an in-depth analysis of Page or her place in history, but it's certainly an respectful appreciation of the woman and her work. And considering how well-remembered most models of that era are--i.e., not at all--maybe that's enough.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Marshall Field's

Today, Marshall Field's stores officially became Macy's. No surprise at all: Federated, the company that owns Macy's, bought May, the company that owned Field's, and announced some time ago that the name of all Marshall Field's stores--including the flagship store on State Street, that long-ago "great street"--would be changing.

I wish I could feel the righteous anger that some shoppers do toward Federated over the name change--a large number of them have vowed never to shop at Macy's, no matter how nice they try to make with the locals, and there were vocal protests in the loop this morning. I would love to shake my fist at those insensitive out-of-towners. Don't they know that Chicago was the crucible in which the department store was forged? That Sears, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott and Field's all originated here? How dare they take away our local traditions?

I understand what those shoppers are feeling. I sympathize. But I can't feel it with them. Because I didn't shop at Field's that much.

Our family was poor. Sure, we came downtown at the height of the holiday season to stare through the windows at the elaborate, animated displays that Field's put up every year. But then, we went back to our own neighborhood and bought our presents at Woolworth's or Goldblatt's or Zayre. That's what we could afford. Even just walking through Field's was a reminder of what we wanted, but couldn't have.

As an adult, I could better afford to shop downtown, but our habits in life are formed early--I still didn't do more than walk through Field's on my way to somewhere else. The last time I can remember actually shopping there was a decade or more ago, when I was looking to buy some Calvin Klein underwear because I'd been told that the woman I was then foolish-head-over-foolish-heals for wore men's Calvin Klein briefs because they were more comfortable than typical women's panties. (Is it just a bit weird that I wanted to wear the same undies as the woman I thought I loved? Yes, yes it was. And did wearing that underwear help me in the least? Did I get the girl? No, no I did not.)

The last time I went into the flagship store at all was a couple of years ago or so, when I met a few former co-workers for lunch--including the woman who liked to wear the Calvin's. I sat next to her the whole time, smelled the Lancome perfume that used to intoxicate me so...and felt not a thing for her. It was a pleasant lunch that gave me a small sense of closure. But did having it at Field's make it any more special? No. We could have had lunch at McDonald's, and it would have been the same.

Does this mean that I don't lament the loss of the name of Marshall Field from the local shopping scene? Of course I do, but not in the personal way that people who shopped the aisles there, bought special gifts there, met lovers under the famous clocks there do. For them, this is more than an attempt at corporate synergy, a unified national brand, something in common to sell to the masses. (Though, if they must sell it to us, especially via an expensive commercial campaign engineered by a Chicago ad agency, why'd they have to change the lyrics to "Dancing in the Streets"--not the most daring song choice to begin with--to excise the name of Chicago and replace it with Saint Louis, a town not exactly embraced in this cradle of Cubdom? Nice way to woo the locals, boys.)

Mine is a more general sadness at yet another layer of Chicago's personality being exfoliated. We're just a little more like every other city now. And should it wound our civic pride that the name subplanting Field's is Macy's, a brand so closely identified with hated New York? Probably not, but it does nonetheless.

Add it to the lengthening list of names vanishing from downtown Chicago, along with the Berghoff--the sign remains, but the restaurant closed months ago--and Carson Pirie Scott, another retail giant of old whose new owners are closing its flagship store at State and Madison early next year.

The buildings that once held Field's and Carson's, just one block's walk from one another, will of course remain--both are city landmarks, and thus safe from the wrecker's ball. (Relatively safe, anyway--I'm sure that a few well-placed, sizable contributions into the appropriate campaign warchests would change a few minds and cause a few ordinances to be tactfully ignored. It's happened before. It'll happen again. It's Chicago.) But they won't be the same with new tenants. Their personalities will change, just as the city's personality continues to change.

We're not really unique anymore, Chicago. But if Chicago is just like everywhere else--which it is more and more with each passing day--what's the point of living here?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Move, Part One: Seven Steps

>Like so many other things in this life--time, space, size, pain--distance is relative. You can walk several miles and not only not be especially tired, but actually feel invigorated and excited at the end of the journey, depending on what the destination is and why you're walking there.

On the other hand (or other foot, if you prefer), a stairway consisting of no more than seven painted wooden steps and a vexing dogleg can seem like a marathon, depending on what you're attempting to carry for that slight distance.

Like, say, a 300-lb. chest.

The chest in question has been in the family for decades. It belonged to my great uncle, a master plumber who built the chest to hold his tools and fittings. (His name is on a brass plate on the front of the chest.) He died the year I was born, and the chest stayed with my great aunt until she had a stroke about 20 years later. At that point, Mom took the chest and anything else of value to keep it safe from the inevitable thieves and bandits who'd break in and walk off with whatever they could carry.

How this chest met that standard, I'm not sure. Valuable? To somebody somewhere, I'm sure. But portable? The damn thing didn't even have wheels. (My brother later installed industrial-strength casters, which tore off during the move into La Casa del Terror and were replaced with a fresh set by me later.) But I took a liking to it and decided to move it with me when I left Mom's house.

It was a decision my friends regretted when I moved into La casa del Terror 11 years ago. It was a decision I regretted as soon as I tried to move it out of La Casa del Terror and into my new apartment, even though it only had to go up seven steps. I was able to slide it down the ancient, decaying back steps of the old place (using the top of the chest, which is covered in heavy-gauge sheet metal), roll it across the alley on a hand truck (borrowed from Mom) and move it through the gangway of my new building. Dragging it up those seven steps, though, involved lifting, straining, sweating and, eventually, lying on my back and yanking forward like a prisoner on a pirate ship rowing an enormous oar.

It worked. I got the chest in with minimal damage to myself (a few bruises) or the new apartment (a dent in the hardwood floor that isn't visible unless you know to look for it) and no damage whatsoever to the chest itself, which, along with the dandelions and cockroaches, will survive the thermonuclear war to come--if, in fact, it ever does, unless we manage to destroy this little blue marble we live and toil on every day.

The decision to move, however, is one I don't regret, even with all of the hassles that have come along with it, like flipping couches and dressers down those same back steps, recently declared unsafe by the City of Chicago (at least that's what the huge orange sticker said, before somebody tore it off), in 95-degree heat. For a variety of reasons--no lease tendered (to me or any other tenant, due to our landlady fearing she'd have to sell the building if the impending tax bill was too high), an increase in rent and the recent break-in attempt--it was time to go.

And circumstances just happened to work in my favor, which they sometimes do: The first week I started looking through the "housing for rent" section of The Chicago Reader, I found an apartment listed that was very, very close to where I was living; I looked at the place and liked both it and the landlord; I signed the lease just over a week later.

Great. But, also, scary: I now had to execute a move in a short amount of time and did not want to involve my friends, many of whom volunteered to help anyway, especially since the weekend when I was hauling out the important stuff--big furniture, necessities, the cats--turned out to be smack in the middle of the worst heat wave in 11 years. (And I had lived in La Casa del Terror 11 years. Coincidence? I think not.)

And, also, sad: La Casa was my home for more than a decade. A lot happened in my life while I was there. Some of it was very good; some of it was awful. A large chunk of my life--more than a quarter of it--had been spent in that apartment, and no matter how unusual the circumstances, it's hard not to look back at that space without reflecting on all that had or had not happened there.

So the move started, and by the end of that brutally hot weekend, the essentials had been taken from the old place to the new.

So ends the first part of my account. But the move? Has not ended. Oh no. It has not. More on that anon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Broken Glass

It had been another long, hard, frustrating day at the job. (Not nearly as long, hard or frustrating as being unemployed, I'll confess, but nothing nice either.) I wanted nothing more than to get home to La Casa del Terror; feed Olivia and Ms. Christopher, who circle like furry, finless sharks as soon as I walk in the door; microwave something passably edible; and relax for a few minutes.

That was before I opened the storm door at the back to the apartment and saw the broken glass.

I stood there for at least a full minute, transfixed. The back door of La Casa del Terror has four panes of glass in it, each a square foot in size. The pane on the lower right--the one closest to the lock, the one Olivia liked to look out while standing atop the garbage can within--was now mostly missing but for jagged fragments sticking out of the window frame. Shards were scattered at my feet.

The meowing of the cats from within brought me back out of myself. I tried the door--it was still locked. I pulled out my keys, unlocked the door and stepped inside, only to find more glass spread out across the kitchen floor and two hungry, nervous-looking felines who wanted very much to run up to me, but who had to be shooed away so that they didn't walk across the broken glass, assuming they hadn't already.

I found one more thing on the kitchen floor as well--a palm-sized chunk of concrete.

What had happened was now obvious, and should have been before: Somebody had waited until I'd left for the day (which was later than usual, since I'd worked so late the night before), walked all the way up to my place on the third floor and chucked the chunk of concrete through the pane of glass.

This member of Mensa then stuck his/her arm through the broken window and reached for the lock, hoping to flip the lock open and grab the easy pickings. Too bad for him/her that the back door to La Casa del Terror opens with a key on both sides, not just the outside. Sucks to be you, Burglar Bill.

(I later found out from other neighbors that I was far from alone. Others in the building had been hit as well. Storage lockers in the basement had been looted. Doors had been pried.)

I put down a tin of Friskies for the Girlish Girls--partly because they were genuinely hungry, as they always were when I got home from work, but mostly to distract them while I dealt with the mess. It worked, but only partially--as soon as I opened the door to sweep the glass of the porch, both Ms. Christopher and Olivia wanted to go outside to investigate and had to be kept at bay with gentle recriminations and an occasional foot block (a skill acquired in my days as a goalie in street hockey games). They hadn't been hurt so far, and I didn't want that to change now. TVs, DVDs, cameras--these things are valuable, sure, but eminently replacable. The Girlish Girls? Not so much.

After sweeping both inside and out and then vacuuming both spaces, I looked them over to make sure no stray glass shards had escaped my efforts. They looked clean. (They weren't. Sunday morning, a sliver found its way into my right foot.) I then got down to the main job: fixing the hole where the rain gets in (and the burglar didn't).

Buried deep within one of the hall closets was a storm window for the storm door. It was original to the building, and the panes of glass within it were a perfect match for the back door. It hadn't been used in years--not since the first (and only previous) break-in at my place.

And the burglar on that occasion? Was me.

I'd gone out the front door--probably just to check the mail--and realized only after I'd shut the door that my keys were still on the coffee table. The good news? The back door was unlocked. The bad news? The storm door was hooked, and the storm window was in place. So I walked all the way up the back steps to my place, unbuttoned my shirt, pressed it against the pane of glass nearest the hook and busted the window open--not quite as crude as chucking a chunk of concrete through the window, but, in the end, just as effective.

Once I dug the storm window out of the closet, I slipped a pane out of it, slipped it into the door (after prying the decades-old wood molding off) and did the worst puttying job in the history of home repair--if you heard a loud whirring sound in the distance, that was my dad spinning in his grave. At least the pane of glass won't be falling out anytime soon; the putty is as thick on it as toothpaste on a brush.

After that, I was sweating thoroughly, but was not yet done. I needed to put the storm window back in its old spot in the storm door--if I can't stop burglars, I might as well at least slow them down--and needed to fill the two-pane-wide hole in it. Once again, I went to the closet, where I pulled out a disused wooden cutting board, determined that it would fit well enough with a bit of trimming, and started to chisel away at it with a hammer and slotted screwdriver.

It was only then that I noticed--or, at the very least, acknowledged--how badly my hands were shaking.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Review: UltraViolet (2006)

Milla Jovovich is in something of a rut. She's starred as a genetically enhanced asskicker in two Resident Evil movies (with filming on a third installment slated to begin soon), and now she's starring as a genetically enhanced asskicker in UltraViolet--only this time she's beating the stuffing out of hordes of stormtroopers instead of legions of the living dead.

Jovovich plays Violet who, she tells us via voiceover, was "born into a world you might not understand." No shit. It's a future city that looks like Tokyo and Dallas had architectural offspring where the neoreligious government, led by Vice Cardinal Daxus (Nick Chinlund), oppresses the masses while working to eradicate "hemophages," people infected with a blood disease that makes them vampires, even though we see many of them running around in daylight and don't see them sucking blood. When the hemophages hear that Daxus has a weapon that would wipe them all out, the send Violet to steal it, warning her not to look in the case supposedly holding said weapon--which, of course, she does anyway at the first opportunity.

Guess what? It's not a weapon in the case, but a child (Cameron Bright). A child who may hold the sercret to destroying all hemophages. Or all humans. Or something. Rather than kill the kid, Violet's maternal instincts kick in and she goes on the run, spending the rest of the movie in elaborate fight scenes with either Daxus's well-armed but remarkably incompetent troops or her hemopage "friends."

Writer/director Kurt Wimmer lifts pieces from other cinematic puzzles like The Matrix, Underworld, Elektra and Aeon Flux. And what happens when you jam pieces of different puzzles together? You get nonsense. It's never clear why things are happening the way they do. The visuals are often video-game level, though whether this is due to budgetary restriction or stylistic choice is unclear. And whatever serious issues are buried in UltraViolet, like the public attitude toward contageous diseases or the role of religion in government (if there's a Vice Cardinal, there must be a Cardinal, so where is he/she while all this is going on?), are further obscured by all the kicking, punching, slicing and shooting.

Maybe we're not supposed to notice what a mess UltraViolet is. Maybe we're just supposed to pay attention to Milla Jovovich's tight ass and alabaster abs and ignore the plot entirely. Yes, Milla does look great kicking ass, as she usually does, and she's in damn near every scene (with her hair and clothing colors changing regularly and for no apparent reason). But the constant thwacking of faceless groups of fighters, no matter what side they're fighting for, gets repetitive fast. Even Wimmer seems to get bored with it all--toward the end, we don't even see Violet beating the stuffing out of Daxus's troops, but hear gunfire in the distance instead. And even though this is all so very silly, most of the actors, Jovovich included, don't seem to be having any fun. Only Nick Chinlund seems to know his tongue is supposed to be in his cheek, playing Daxus as a man who grins a lot and really enjoys being evil. He gets the best scene, too, knocking off hemophage assassins while calmly sipping a cup of coffee.

Unfortunately, he and Jovovich are not enough to save UltraViolet from being derivative and dull.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Baby Steps

I had planned to write a lengthy, elaborate essay about my new job working in the Land of the Dead, also known as 2nd Shift, which is a lot like George Romero's Land of the Dead, only not nearly as entertaining. And maybe someday soon, I'll write such an essay.

But circumstances have changed, as circumstances are wont to do. This time, though? They're changing for the better. Much better.

You see, even though I'd found a job (with the considerable assistance of a former co-worker who'd kept her ear to the ground on my behalf, as so many friends have over the past six months), I kept looking, working connections and following leads wherever they went. Sometimes they lead straight into brick walls or dead ends. Sometimes they burned with promise, only to flame out before my eyes. Sometimes they popped up suddenly, only to vanish just as suddenly. In other words, it was just like my job hunt had been all along, only condensed into a shorter timeframe--a more concentrated dose of frustration and disappointment, which would have bothered me much more if not for the presence of the 2nd shift job, which at least paid me more than unemployment did (although not much more, and with no benefits) and gave me somewhere specific to go every day, rather than lying at home in a ball on the futon, watching All My Children and wondering how the hell my life had come to this.

Then, a lead came up suddenly that held great promise--a company I'd interviewed with in October had an immediate opening and, much to my surprise and delight, it was 1st shift. And downtown. And a lot more money than I was making operating a large, noisy printing machine in a dusty, isolated warehouse.

So an interview was set up, and I asked all my friends to pray for me. And pray they did. Hard. But as they old saying goes, "Pray for the things you want, but work for the things you need." So if I wanted this job, I needed to go in and interview my ass off.

I gave it my best shot. I answered the questions, took the tests, did what I thought I needed to do, hoped I'd done it right and fretted afterward that I hadn't done enough or said enough or been enough of what they wanted me to be. But it was over, and I needed to wait, no matter how painful the waiting would be.

I didn't have to wait long. The following Monday, the company representative called. To make an offer. For a position higher than the one I'd interviewed for. And for more money than I'd made at my last daylight job.

It would be easy to, in the words of J.B.'s late father, "pin a bouquet on my ass" for having done so well. But I won't. I will, instead, thank everyone who hoped and prayed before the interview and who squealed and stammered and screamed for joy after the offer was accepted. You were all there for me in my time of need, and I am there for you should you ever need the same.

However, amid the celebration and clinking of glasses, one thing must be clearly understood: This is job is not the destination, nor the end of the journey. Don't get me wrong. I'm ecstatic to have found a full-time gig that will pay me what I'm worth, that will challenge me, that will allow me to stop by favorite bar after work for a round or three served by the greatest waitress in the whole wide world. But my goal is not merely to be paid for work. It's to be paid for doing what I love to do. And that is writing. Movie reviews, essays about Chicago's vanishing landscape, even brief updates like this...these are the things I'm more passionate about than I ever could be for any 9-to-5 job.

This is a great step in the right direction. But it's only a step. A baby step at that. But with enough such steps, even a baby can travel great distances. And this baby has miles to go before he sleeps. But at least he's headed in the right direction--up.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

And the Oscar Goes to...(2006 Edition)

Welcome, one and all, to the third annual And the Oscar Goes to... on this here bloggity. The results from the previous two years were--shall we put in politely?--uneven: in 2004, I got Best Picture and Best Director right, but blew all the acting awards; and in 2005, I nailed the acting awards, but missed Best Picture and Best Director. So, this year? I anticipate perfection, one way or the other: Either I'll sweep the field or be plowed under.

So, before Isaac Mizrahi starts peeking down dresses and grabbing boobs on the red carpet, let's take a look at the nominees, shall we?

Best Director. The Academy is awfully fond of giving Oscars to actors who direct--Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson all have one for directing, but not for acting; Clint Eastwood has two. And the Academy clearly wants to give George Clooney an Oscar this year, given that he's nominated in three different categories for two different movies (Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck.) It's unlikely, though, that they'll give him one in this category; he's more likely to get something in Best Original Screenplay (odd, since much of Good Night's script is taken from transcripts of Edward. R. Murrow broadcasts) or Best Supporting Actor. Paul Haggis probably has better odds in the Best Original Screenplay category for Crash. Bennett Miller's inclusion is a bit odd, since Philip Seymour Hoffman's spot-on performance in the title role is the chief reason to see Capote. And Steven Spielberg? He's already got a Best Director Oscar at home. My choice? Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain. It's a quiet, sad, poetic movie with just enough controversy to hold the Academy's notoriously short attention span.

Best Supporting Actress. Two of our greatest, busiest character actresses--Catherine Keener (playing novelist Harper Lee in Capote) and Frances McDormand (as a coal miner in North Country)--get nods here, along with Rachel Weisz, an actress usually regarded as lightweight, who scores with a serious turn in The Constant Gardener. But the Academy loves recognizing young, upcoming talent in the supporting categories, and this year there are two such nominees: the charming Amy Adams for Junebug and and the seething Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain. Williams' performance as the wife of Heath Ledger's closeted sheepherder is all balled fist, contained rage, and, ultimately, detonation. As much hype as her co-stars have received, she gives the best performance in the movie--not what you'd have figures from a Dawson's Creek alum, right? She's my pick here.

Best Supporting Actor. Paul Giamatti got screwed last year when he didn't get nominated for Sideways, so his nod here for Cinderella Man is a do-over for the Academy, but that's about all. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance in Brokeback Mountain is more of a co-lead than a supporting one, but it's not as acclaimed as Ledger's, since he does a more convincing job of aging 20 years than Jake does. William Hurt? Already has an Oscar. That leaves Matt Dillon as a racist L.A. cop in Crash and George Clooney as a CIA operative hung out to dry by his handlers in Syriana. Hollywood loves a comeback story, even though Dillon isn't making a comeback so much as landing his first prominent role in a while, but they love it more when one of their most-popular stars scruffs it up, stops shaving and puts on weight for a role as Clooney did for Syriana. Of his three nominations this year, Clooney is most likely to win in this category.

Best Actress. Three of the five nominees in this category are playing characters based on real life: Charlize Theron (North Country), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), and Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Henderson Presents). and three of the nominees are not usually regarded as "serious" actresses, but "funny" or "diverting": Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice), Felicity Huffman (Transamerica), and Witherspoon. Dench already has an Oscar, as does Theron. Knightley is the youngest of the bunch and might have had a chance had she been nominated, against all reason, in the Best Supporting Actress category--it wouldn't have been the first time a newbie giving a lead performance had been dumped into the Supporting category--so she's got plenty of time to get nominated again. Huffman's complicated performance--a woman playing a man trying to become a woman--has already won awards, but so has Witherspoon's turn as conflicted singer June Carter, so it's virtually a tossup. Witherspoon, however, is usally cast as a light romantic comedy lead, and busts out of that big-time here while doing her own singing, so the Academy might view her performance as more of a stretch and a revelation than the well-respected Huffman's work. Hard to choose, but I'm going with Witherspoon.

Best Actor. As with the Best Actress Categoy, Best Actor features three stars playing real people: Philip Seymour Hoffman as writer Truman Capote in Capote, Joaquin Phoenix as singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and David Strathairn as journalist Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. It's also very cool to have three actors generally regarded as supporting players--Hoffman, Strathairn and Terrence Howard (as a rapping pimp in Hustle and Flow)--get nominated for lead roles. Ledger isn't a typical nominee, either, since he's usually dismissed as a pretty-boy "star." (The brooding Phoenix is more the Academy's style.) Strathairn does a dead-on impersonation, which in some years might be enough, but not when placed against other dead-on impersonations in the same category. Phoenix gets Cash's cadence, body language and singing down well, but may suffer in comparison to Witherspoon because his performance isn't nearly as much of a revelation as hers is. Howard's nomination was something of a surprise, given how long ago Hustle and Flow opened (the Academy has a notoriously short memory), so the nomination will likely have to be his award. That leaves Hoffman and Ledger--both playing gay characters--but Hoffman appears in nearly every scene of Capote and thoroughly dominates, so I think he'll get the Best Actor nod. (And wouldn't it be kinda cool if Best Actor and Actress were Hoffman and Huffman, at least from an alliterative perspective? Yes, it would.)

Best Picture. Most years, the winner of Best Director tips off the winner of Best Picture, which would mean Brokeback Mountain would take this category. This year? I'm not so sure. I don't think the reality-based nominees--Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, or Munich--will resonate as much with the Academy as Brokeback Mountain and Crash, both of which touch on hot-button issues (sexual repression, both societal and personal, and racial tensions, respectively). It really depends on which one the Academy feels hits its hot button harder, and perhaps on whether the Academy wants to reward an intensely personal story or a broader tapestry performed by an ensemble cast, any of whom could have been nominated along with Dillon. I think they'll lean toward the latter, and Crash will take Best Picture.

Well, those are my choices; your mileage may vary. Have fun mocking inappropriate star/starlet styles, painfully long acceptance speeches and Jon Stewart. Me? I'm a creature of the night for now, so I'll be taping. It's really the best way to watch the Academy Awards broadcast--you can catch the highlights you want and fast-forward through all the padding (which accounts for, like, ninety percent of the show). And if I blow my predictions yet again, I can end the pain with the press of a button on my remote. Wish everything in life worked that way.