Seeing The Steps

I performed a magic trick this weekend, a stunning illusion, a prestige.

I cleaned my garage without throwing anything away, no mirrors, no fancy camera angles, no trapdoors. I rearranged trash, in other words, which sounds like performance art and maybe that’s what it was.

But we can now park at least one car in there. Applause applause. If you live in an area where the weather outside is frightful, sometimes, and you’re fortunate enough to have a garage, you should really take advantage of that.

For the past months, though, we’ve been tossing stuff in there. Lots of old carpet, for one thing. Lots of cardboard boxes that need to be broken down and recycled. A godawful number of old printers, really disturbing. And of course the demon children of suburbia, the barely-used exercise equipment.

None of this is important, just a chore, overdue. I needed to organize anyway, in preparation for a massive dump run that keeps getting postponed. I just needed to commit to a few hours and to load up my iPod, dress warmly and hope my neighbors weren’t feeling talkative. All of this worked out.

It did strike me, though, that this is something I’ve learned lately. Not cleaning; I could always do that. Not working hard, or working long, or working at dull things; this is actually sort of a characteristic of mine, kind of a plodding.

What I’ve learned to do, though, is develop a concrete sense of the future. A sense that a small step has potential, and in fact is just full of potential energy. Sort of an exercise in temporal physics. Do it today, do it tomorrow, and in six months there might be surprises.

I didn’t used to be this way. There was a time when I could fantasize about the future, sure, the way we all do. I’ll go on a diet next week. I’ll start that next summer. I’ll sign up in the fall.

I’ll stop drinking tomorrow. You know.

And I can tell you when I noticed the change. It was the summer of 2007, and I was doing a lot of yard work. A lot of mowing, a lot of weeding, a lot of time spent in maintenance, something I was practicing at that point in my life.

I looked at this one section of my yard, right by the walkway, always an issue. It sloped down, it never grew much grass, it was a pain to mow and it looked ugly. In the past, I could easily imagine it the way I wished it could be. I could see the order past the chaos; I just couldn’t see the steps.

This time, though, I just stuck a shovel in. Just to see. The ground wasn’t all that hard. So I dug a little.

And I kept digging, and eventually I had a flower bed, and had it all level and barked up and planted five tiny rose bushes, which are now five three-feet-high rose bushes and will be bigger next spring. It’s not Better Homes and Gardens. It’s just better, and I did it one step at a time, imagine that.

None of this is noble. I live every day with visible reminders of neglect, mistakes, lack of will and maintenance. And the pitfalls of too much space; less room, and if you tear up a carpet you need to have a plan for it, you can’t just toss it in the garage and hope the carpet elves take care of it for you.

And I’m not going to 12-step through this, although that’s certainly on my mind, yawn.

But there were cuckoo birds in my head for a long time, distorting my vision of what would happen, and as I move through my fifth year away from the broken glass I’ve learned to force the perspective, see the steps singly and not think too much of the future.

When my daughter arrived from the airport and saw our new guest room in the basement, she made murmuring sounds of approval and Julie said, “I just didn’t think your dad could do it.”

We all laughed at that; she didn’t mean ME, of course, she didn’t doubt my willingness, she just thought it was a big, maybe impossible job given time constraints, etc.

Not that I would blame her.

It just occurred to me that this was a mode, now, something I’ve gotten used to. And now maybe I will 12-step, just a bit.

Saying “I’ll stop drinking tomorrow” is maybe not so useful but it’s all about hope; I think sometimes in recovery circles we don’t give hope enough credit, even foolish hope.

But learning to say, I won’t drink today, and maybe that will make tomorrow easier, is more than just a good idea. It’s an exercise in will, and concreteness, and in focus. Pick up the pieces, one by one, give yourself an inch at a time, and surprise: You might be able to park your car in it.

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LOTR, Ctd.

So, here’s how this went down.

After my daughter and her husband came for the holiday, I moved our big screen out of the bedroom into the living room (for various reasons, it’s a better fit in the bedroom. Various and many reasons, actually). It seemed a family thing to do, but mostly I thought it would elevate the holiday feeling, maybe keep a football game on the background, maybe a movie, etc.

My Blu-Ray player is Internet connected, which means we can watch NetFlix on the big screen, which sometimes we do. My daughter pointed out that the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring was available for streaming and we were off. I explained all this.

When that was over, and I had expressed my opinion that yes indeed, that was a fine motion picture, very spectacular and impressive (and it was), Beth insisted that I had to see the other films. Preferably immediately, even though it was getting late and each of the movies is approximately 11 hours long.

My smarty-pants Blu-Ray player also accesses CinemaNow, which is an Internet-based movie site, similiar to Amazon (and similar prices). They certainly had LOTR: The Two Towers available for rent. There was some wrangling to do, since this coincided with some Internet speed issues I was having at the time (still not sure what that was about, maybe just because I’d moved the modem, but it’s all better now), but eventually we had it all set up. It was $2.99 to rent the film, or $3.99 for the HD version. Well. No question about this.

The HD was very nice, making the impressive New Zealand scenery even more impressive, but, again I guess because of our speed problems, from time to time it would slow down and revert to standard definition. Or maybe just because HD streaming is a pretty intensive process.

At any rate, we would occasionally be watching this film in high definition, switch to standard and then switch back. Putting us in the unusual situation of being able to compare.

So in case you were wondering: There is a difference.

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Believe Your Eyes

Richard Wiseman plays a trick on us, or we play it on ourselves. Have fun; watch the first part a couple of times at least to try to figure it out before moving on. The answers are there.

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I’m a big believer in the life-threatening, chest-clutching, turn-purple-keel-over consequences of stress. I’ve become accustomed to spotting it and acknowledging it, and for the most part I’m accomplished at managing it. I’m aware of it, at any rate, which I think sometimes is most of the battle.

Manage is a good word, I think; it’s hard to avoid stress but personally I try to negotiate with it, slip it a few bucks under the table and get it to slink off. In my experience, if you live long enough the phrase What’s the worst that can happen? becomes less rhetorical and more historical. Well, here are a few examples, etc. You start to collect worst things, and also see how you arrived at the other side.

This past holiday wasn’t particularly stressful, but it sure felt busy. And in a way that’s odd, given that there was so much joy in family arriving and then limited options because of our housebound/snow-covered situation. But the visitors left this morning, and now I sit, still with a long list of things to do but feeling sort of aimless. What started with remodeling that room downstairs continued right through making ice cream to go on the apple pie last night, and now I wonder a little if stress abhors a vacuum. Maybe I need to invite strangers to sleep in my basement.

Or not. Will think about that.

Here’s hoping, anyway, that all of you in the U.S. had a happy holiday, as free from stress as possible. I may go remodel something now, just to feel useful.

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Day, Break

My weather widget just clicked over to 30 degrees, first time in days it’s been this warm, a funny way of putting it. This was an early freeze, one for the record books, but nothing all that extreme (although tell that to the commuters who got seriously stuck in traffic on Monday night, yikes).

So as the warm air moves in, and I crawled out of bed at 7am to take out some dough for cinnamon rolls, we got big, fluffy flakes.

By “we” I mean me. I’m carrying this snow burden all by myself.

Also, the kitchen is a mess, not a good way to start the big day, but I’ll get to that soon.

Even though Beth and Cameron were forced to stay put rather than spend a day bopping around Seattle this week, since Seattle streets were a little treacherous, this has been about as good of a holiday week as I could have hoped for; nothing like a little snow and cold to set the mood.

And Beth finally corrected an oversight. Through sheer force of will, which is pretty impressive even on a slow day, she persuaded me to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, something I’ve managed to resist for the better part of a decade.

It was pretty good.

So that’s been done, and other things. We collaborated yesterday on a spontaneous Mexican pizza that possibly is in contention for the highlight of this holiday, it was that good, four of us in the kitchen tossing ingredients on, all of them perfect.

Pies are made, turkey is thawed and ready to go, firewood is stacked, the ring has been destroyed and Frodo lives. I’m going to call all this good, excellent even, and now carry on my holiday, basking a bit and grateful as always. I know winter is coming and things will be gray; this is just being adult about the world. There will be dark days.

But not this day.

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the boy on elm street

(Note: This was first published in November 2003, on the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.)

Maybe he thought it would be a parade. Maybe that’s what his dad told him. “It’s sort of a parade, Joe,” something like that. A five-year-old could grasp that. Maybe he thought there would be elephants.

He was my age then and now, if he’s alive. What memories he might have of that day I can only speculate on, but I suspect they’re fleeting and confused, now meshed with grainy footage and his father’s story. As for me, I remember glimpses only, and mostly that there were no cartoons Saturday morning. Five isn’t really that old.

His father had already been an eyewitness to history, an Army Ranger on the beach and behind the hedgerows on D-Day. He would be an honoree in France in 1985 and 1995. He would also return to Dealey Plaza from time to time, with less fanfare.

Charles Brehm is a familiar name to JFK assassination buffs, a solid story that never changed until his death in 1996. Wounded in World War II, the victim of a bullet that passed through his body and struck his arm, he would actually be among the first to suggest the “magic bullet” theory, that the first shot hit both Kennedy and John Connelly, although he kept his speculation mostly to himself.

You can find him in the footage, a middle-aged man who describes what he saw on that day in Dallas, listen as he hopes aloud that the President survived but suspects the worst. He was no stranger to violence or gunfire, and perhaps that’s why it’s the father’s fear that resonates over the years. “I pushed my boy down,” he says, and his voice quavers.

It’s easy to forget that there were children there. The packrat mentality of contemporary American history keeps our scrapbooks bulging with images of that day in 1963. A triple overpass. A grassy knoll. An unremarkable warehouse with a window on the sixth floor. Blurred Secret Service agents. A woman in a pink suit, scrambling for a piece of her husband’s skull.

And the culture of conspiracy theory has made the witnesses into icons. Babushka Lady. Umbrella Man. The Tramps. The Epileptic. The Man in the Yellow Jacket. There should be a board game (there probably is).

But there was also a little boy, whose father shoved him to the grass. I wonder about him sometimes.

If Joe Brehm had a story to share, we’d have heard it by now. More likely, his memories are of the days and years that followed, as his father became a magnet for historians and wackos and reporters and the just plain curious. Some were not very nice.

“Your father is a goddamn liar!” they’d scream over the phone at one of Charles Brehm’s kids unfortunate enough to answer. For Brehm insisted until his death that there were three shots, that one of them missed high and wide, and that all three came from above him and to the left. In other words, from the School Book Depository.

This is probably part of Joe’s story, then. Growing up as a silent witness, maybe remembering little of that day, seeing the aftermath in his own home, maybe wondering what actually happened.

And what did? Forty years later and most Americans still wonder. Six seconds on a sunny autumn day produced an assassination industry that still thrives, as anyone who’s watched television this week knows. Serious questions remain, perhaps blocked forever by Jack Ruby’s outstretched arm and a street sign in front of Abraham Zapruder’s camera.

And what of the legacy of JFK? Would Vietnam still have scarred a generation had he lived? Would Richard Nixon have resurrected himself at the end of a second Kennedy term? Would we have been spared the cynicism engendered by the Warren Commission and Watergate?

I don’t dwell on these questions anymore, but once I did. Once I thought about them a lot. Because I was a witness, too.

Like Kennedy, I’m a generational chauvinist. I believe my contemporaries and I have a unique perspective on our national trauma, and that it changed us.

We were too young to understand the details, to even really comprehend what a President was, but old enough to understand death and bullets. We watched from the corners, out of the sight and minds of occupied parents, sneaking peeks at the television from the hallway. Something bad had happened, we knew that. There were no cartoons.

This is why I take note every November 22. This is why I went to Dealey Plaza 20 years ago, just to look around. This is why I stop when there’s a clip of a Kennedy press conference or speech on TV, and watch for a moment. This is why I wonder about Joe. Because I remember, too.

Charles Brehm knew they were gunshots. He saw the blood and brains. He pushed his son to the grass on Elm Street and shielded him with his own body, as a father would, thinking he was protecting him, not understanding that it was probably too late.

(Charles Brehm in Dallas, November 22, 1963)

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Leaves of Grass (brief movie review)

Written and directed by, and costarring, Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou”). Considering the under-the-radarness and budget, features a pretty amazing supporting cast (Susan Sarandon, Keri Russell, and a star turn by Richard Dreyfuss).

But this is Edward Norton’s film, written for him. He plays identical twins (yes, but keep reading), vastly different and oh-so-similar. Norton is the best actor of his generation, and as small and unnoticed as this film was, this is why.

Very Cohen Bros. feel, maybe not surprising, so if you really liked “Fargo”? You’ll really like “Leaves of Grass.” Maybe a little more.

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