Maundy Thoughts

I commented on Facebook last night that I was currently a C&E churchgoer (Christmas and Easter), just a joke, and just because of the contrast from a few years ago. These things happen, and happened to me: Things change, my wife’s occupation tends to promote movement, I’ve had interesting schedules, etc. I don’t think about it a lot and assume that my future is unknown, but I do miss people.

It was a treat, then, to go to a Maundy Thursday service last night. It’s always been my favorite of the Holy Week nights, and I was a free agent, no responsibilities. I could just sit and soak it up.

(For the unaware: Maundy Thursday recalls what some refer to as The Last Supper, the upper room meal between Jesus and his disciples on the night he was betrayed in the garden. Maybe it’s coming back to you now.)

This particular service had this particular ministry anxious, because there would be foot washing. This refers to Jesus taking off his outer garments, grabbing a cloth and washing the feet of the others, an object lesson in service.

There was also a lot of cryptic stuff coming out of Jesus’ mouth, according to the Gospels, which happened sometimes. He was looking ahead to a big weekend after all, most of it not pleasant.

The staff was nervous because foot washing was a new thing for this church, and people had strong views, apparently. For some in this Presbyterian community, it probably felt alien, like that speaking in tongues and rolling around on the floor stuff those crazy people down south do. These are the frozen chosen, after all.

And then some, I guess, would see it as empty ritual, high churchish and meaningless, led by priest wannabees with a lot of Latin. People worry about a lot of things.

Actually, as I came to understand, reluctance may have been more about intimacy. Washing somebody’s feet is up close and personal, although not like it used to be. In Jesus’ time, people walked through poop a lot; the streets were probably full of it. Keeping your nose clean was easier than the soles of your feet, and thus we have a profound and moving act of supplication, if you look at it that way.

Anyway, it was fine. People who were bothered didn’t show up, I guess, and those of us there had a great time. My feet were washed by a little red-haired girl, which moved me tremendously as you might imagine.

It was a ritual. I doubt anyone had poop on their feet. I tend to roll my eyes at comments about ritual, since we still exhange rings at weddings and put candles on birthday cakes. This is what we do, incorporate symbols and acts that cause us to remember, and we do it every day, and to argue against it as being an impediment to spiritual awareness never has made sense. This is how the door opens; we are reminded, we remember, we are aware of and act on the memory, and the walls come tumbling down.

On a good day, of course.

I am using symbols right now. And now. Now too. And ritual (Grammar! Exclamation points!). No sweat.

I was going to bounce off Maundy Thursday because I had a GREAT idea about service and community and Medicare, but maybe I’ll leave that for another time. My feet are clean today, they needed to be. Enough said.

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What Ifs

New column is now online, in which I stick my toe into controversy and then quickly back away.

I have no horse in this race. I’m a 52-year-old man who over the years has seen his weight do truly remarkable things, almost all of them unfortunate. I’d say that I’ve struggled with my weight but I keep imagining some CSI unit stating that they found no signs of a struggle.

I’m much better now, due to an awareness a few years ago that I was quickly moving into the neighborhood of 300 pounds. Almost next door. I could see 300 pounds from my window on a clear day. It was eating ice cream and not mowing its lawn.

This is all just joking around (I am serious about staying out of the comments section on a lot of sites, but you know about that), although the Gary Taubes thing is provocative, and was when I read it nine years ago, for a bigger reason than just food.

We look at a picture, a plate of bacon and burgers, dripping with fat, and we immediately see exploding arteries. We know this is bad for us. We know it. Everybody knows it.

And yet here’s this science writer who wandered over to the discussion, looked at the facts and the research and basic biology, and said, hmmm. Actually, this might be the best thing for us to eat, being human, in terms of staying healthy.

I mean, the mind staggers, clutches its chest and falls over. We know this is wrong.

As I say in the column, this is not my fight. I eat what I want to eat, and stop when my pants get tight (or I hope, anyway). I know leafy green vegetables are good for me, but I don’t particularly like leafy green vegetables. I also know berries are good for me, and I happen to like berries.

And despite the headline of the Taubes piece (link at the bottom of this), and despite the fun it is to assume conspiracies, this isn’t a lie as much as a bandwagon. Up until the late 1970s, in fact, the conventional wisdom was that people generally got fat by eating pasta and potatoes, the carbs that suddenly twisted into a food pyramid because…because of a lot of reasons.

What interests me more is this conventional wisdom thing, not just the myths and the folklore but the assumptions made by educated people, too. Not lies, just following the leader. How many more are out there, and how will we know?

(Here’s a Nightline interview with Taubes from 2007. Here’s the NYT Magazine article. Don’t kill the messenger, by which I mean me.)

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Weight, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

I wrote a column this morning about disagreements that an ignorant and/or reckless person can run across online, maybe in surprising places.

Well, we all know this. Post an opinion about cute cats and some anonymous commenter will have a few things to say about it, and about you and probably your immediate family. Best to lurk and move on.

My topic de jour, though, was about someone I know trying to lose weight and how quickly solutions are offered up, and others rejected, and with vehemence. People know. And you don’t know.

This has been on my mind because for a while now I’ve been playing around at writing a short book, maybe for the e-book market, on the comic adventure that was my experience with this whole weight-loss thing. Not a manual or suggestions or a diet book, mostly misadventures and not a little success. I thought it might be cute and quite possibly pay my mortgage if it were funny enough.

This also sort of provoked an uneasy feeling, which is that if I’m going to write something like this, shouldn’t I clean up my act? That low-water mark of 168 pounds just after Beth’s wedding has faded a bit, you could say, into a little romance with the 190s.

I mean. For a guy who stayed around 265 for an awful lot of years, I’m supposed to fret about 196 pounds? Be serious. The only unfortunate aspect is one pair of jeans is a little tight and the other is hanging up for a better time. No sweat, no problems, no mirror avoidance. Just some indulgence in what has arguably been a complicated six or seven months, ripe for refined carbs and irregular exercise.

Still, maybe shaving a few of those pounds off before I hit the Oprah big money circuit would be a good idea, so I continue to work on it, but in the meantime I’ve come to the conclusion that writing anything about weight loss, particularly in a book, even in a humor book by me that no one will actually read, is just asking for grief. People have opinions, and even if they’re crazy they will still offer them and then some. Do I need this?

Probably not, is my feeling. Maybe I’ll turn to writing about Sarah Palin instead, much calmer and fewer calories anyway.

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Welcome To The Rileys (Brief Movie Review)

I can name this tune in 4 notes; so can you.

Doug (James Gandolfini) is in his early 50s, a successful business owner (something to do with plumbing supplies) who lives in a nice Indianapolis suburb with his wife of nearly 30 years, Lois (Melissa Leo). Doug and Lois are gentle people who dance around each other in the way some couples do, with courtesy and concern, and even affection. They haven’t run out of love, in other words, just luck.

We soon figure out why Doug, who seems soft-spoken and friendly, enjoying his weekly poker game, looks the way he does when he steps outside to smoke. Thoughtful, maybe a little sad.

We figure out that Lois, who seems to be an accomplished artist, doesn’t get out of the house much, and then we see she doesn’t get out at all.

And we figure out, and learn soon enough, that they lost a daughter, Emily, somehow, tragically, and this is why we see the dance. Doug is desperately trying to figure out how to keep living, while Lois is quietly preparing to die.

Doug goes to a convention in New Orleans and encounters a 16-year-old stripper/prostitute, Mallory, or Allison, or a couple of other names (played by Kristen Stewart), sort of haphazardly insinuates himself into her life, and there you go. You know now, or you think you know. Grieving father, distant mother, hooker with a heart of gold.

The best part of “Welcome To The Rileys” isn’t that the film manages to avoid the movie cliches we see coming from way off, although that’s a plus. It’s that it makes us forget for a while that those cliches even exist, because we’re busy watching real people do what all real people do: The best they can.

And by the time Lois says, “She’s not Emily, Doug,” it’s an aside, unnecessary for him to hear, or us. Doug wasn’t trying to replace his daughter; he didn’t, in fact, have much of an idea about what he was doing, other than trying to help.

All three of these actors were spectacular. The script had a couple of turns that felt false to me, but otherwise this was a gem, a little film about ordinary people that moved me more than I expected.

If you can imagine the life of a 16-year-old runaway who works in the sex industry, you can probably imagine how she views life and what kind of language she uses; this is why “Welcome To The Rileys” has an R rating. If that’s something you’ll be bothered by, now you know.

Otherwise, no sex or violence to speak of, although there is one scene in which Doug unclogs a toilet with a plumbing snake. If that sort of thing also bothers you.

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Sweating The Small Stuff

My son John has been blessed with a sweet disposition, a big heart, a healthy appetite and a neurologically-based compulsion to tell the truth and speak his mind.

You may discuss the meaning of “blessed” among yourselves.

His discretion has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, but family is a different story. No bald spot or butt crack goes unremarked upon, and boundaries get fuzzy. There’s no finessing this, trying to make it a teachable moment; you either handle the truth as he sees it or you get grumpy.

So there have been observations on his father’s sweating lately. This is an easy one, not hard to take, but when I’m soaked with my own perspiration, and not in a good way, it’s not really necessary to be told that I’m sweating like a pig.

I’m sweating on purpose. Rearranging my work (heh) space last week, I took the stationary bike that had been shoved against a wall and stuck it in a neutral corner, and something just clicked. There are millions of words out there about design and space and how that affects us subconsciously, I guess, but I haven’t bothered. The bike sits in a spot that lets me swing my monitor over easily, right in front of it. Even though I’ve used this bike off and on for months, pumping my legs and going nowhere isn’t my favorite thing, but something just seemed…convenient. I could ride and read. I could ride and watch. I could ride and learn, if that’s possible, but definitely I could ride and sweat.

Sweating is sort of unique for me, someone who prefers to walk outside in the Pacific Northwest where La Nina has kept us cool and wet much longer than anyone wants. I might start to sweat 20 minutes into a brisk walk but it’s not serious, beading mostly.

On the bike, though, it starts around the 10-minute mark and just gets worse, and by the end of 30 minutes or so everything is stuck to everything else and my son is thinking of pigs. I hold a wet T-shirt contest every day.

Sweat is good, though. It tells me I’m working harder than just cruising the neighborhood while I listen to podcasts. It feels cardiovascular as opposed to mostly moving, and I’m sure it is.

Every time I write in the newspaper about exercise in any way, I get sarcastic emails. They’re meant to be funny, I’m sure, although they talk about death a lot. “You’re going to look great in your coffin” sort of emails. Kidding me about taking health too seriously and not appreciating life, I guess.

I don’t take health very seriously. I should, but I don’t. So, they’re wrong. Also rude, but thanks for writing.

I’m chasing endorphins, is what I’m doing, trying to provoke my brain into a pain response, fooling it into mediating discomfort by releasing chemicals. Dark days and some stress can make me gloomy, so now I sweat. It works, too, in a mild way but measurable.

I learned this a few years ago by accident, although it was right there. I don’t want a chore; show me something I don’t want to do and probably I won’t do it. And I’m lucky that nothing pushed me out on the road, no warnings from a doctor, no chest pains, no clogged arteries.

It’s not my favorite thing, riding miles to nowhere, but it has benefits. It burns a lot of calories, not a bad thing in a winter of comfort food. Apparently my color is better. I could hope that my heart is stronger, blood is flowing faster and freer, that I’m keeping something at bay.

But the thing about sweating, for me, is the sense that I’m getting rid of something, making room for something else, and as crazy as that sounds it keeps me riding.

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In Defense Of Funny Drunks

I spent a few minutes this morning reading reviews of the new “Arthur” movie, the remake featuring Russell Brand and Helen Mirren. These were mixed, I guess, although dribbling toward the thumbs-down side. If you have something else to do, they seem to say, do it.

The original “Arthur” is a snapshot movie for me, so set in a time and place(s) that I can reconstruct whole evenings around it, who went with me and what we did before and after. As a younger generation of movie critics settles in, it’s worth noting that Dudley Moore’s version was something their parents went to see, or a film they caught on cable when they figured out the remote. This will always matter with a great film (“Arthur” is a great film), where and when, but I’d suggest it’s more important with a comedy. Humor evolves; jokes lose their dynamic when the culture shifts, and sometimes first laughs are last ones. We change and everything else does, and so these memories maybe stick around. Oh how we laughed on the night we were young.

I have no built-in animosity toward remakes at all; feel free. No one is painting over the Mona Lisa; originals are already defined and stay that way. Set “Hamlet” in Iowa for all I care; if it’s good I might watch and my underwear will stay unbunched. Go ahead and remake “Casablanca”; set it in Cairo in 1990 with Bruce Willis, Natalie Portman, Keanu Reeves and Steve Buscemi (Ugarte) and hey, I’ll go if it’s good.

Roger Ebert says the new “Arthur” is not a bad effort. Dana Stevens in Slate says skip it, it doesn’t work because we’re more aware of the dark side of alcoholism. Dana is one of the younger ones I was referring to, and even though I like her reviews generally this seems a little weak; are Laurel and Hardy less funny because we now understand the risks of falling pianos? The willing suspension of disbelief is never more important than in a comedy, or else we spend too much time wondering where they got all those pies and who’s going to clean it up.

Arthur isn’t an alcoholic, in other words; he’s a fictional character who drinks. If we’re going to get concerned about his physical and spiritual health, we’re not going to laugh and we’re also tying humor’s hands, and who wants that?

It’s a tricky thing, I agree. When “The Andy Griffith Show” was reprised for a TV movie years ago, they sobered Otis up; no longer locking himself up in the jail every night, he now was in recovery and driving an ice cream truck. Good for Otis, I guess, but again: That piano might seriously hurt someone, you know.

In real life, there are funny drunks, but they’re rarer than in the movies and not nearly as neat. But then, I’m off topic here.

I’m not rushing out to see the new “Arthur” because I don’t go out to see movies all that often these days, and I have better choices available. I’m mildly curious but that’s what reviews are for, to fill me in.

Mostly it’s reminded me of one particular year. I saw “Arthur” maybe half a dozen times in 1981, always taking someone new to watch them laugh. We repeated the lines and imitated the actors. “I’ll alert the media,” became our personal tag line, and if we ever ran across a stuffed moose on the wall (another animal would do), well. Someone must have hated that moose, we’d say, and laugh all over again.

Again, I have no problems with anyone remaking “Arthur,” well or not so. It just reminded me that 30 years feels like a long time, and still how sharp my memory is when it comes to funny. I can tell you all sorts of things about seeing that movie, and every time, and mostly it’s about being young and laughing all night long.

(Montage of funny moments from the original)

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These Days

He is such an old dog. He will not get any older, either. There will be minor things, most of them unpleasant, but no big changes coming down the pike. He turned 14 last month and is living on borrowed time now, every day an anomaly.

It’s funny, even knowing how quickly it passed, that I have so few memories of him as a puppy. He nipped. He had accidents. I had to carry him, this little thing, down the stairs to the yard to do his business.

And that’s it. The rest has been his constant presence in this household, and only later have I seen the changes. I can’t tell you the last time he went on a barking jag as one of us prepared to leave the house; it’s been ages, though. Same thing for the last time he made it down the stairs on his own power, much less up. Didn’t we use to toss rubber toys for him to fetch? Of course we did, everybody does that. His toys are lost now, his ropes and his bones.

I was never a pet person, and I wasn’t enthused about this one, either. Too much responsibility for a family that already had problems with that, but that was then. As I said, a presence.

My daughter is starting a relationship with a kitten now, something I definitely wouldn’t have accepted. I have a healthy and uneasy respect for cats, but it does not involve renting them a room. I see evolution very clearly in them; in fact, most of the time I think of cats as wormhole tigers, having somehow transported here from the savannah or wherever, forced by the mechanics of molecular dissolution and reconstruction to appear small and safe, like holograms with benefits, but with their real nature intact. I like cats, I like when they purr and nuzzle me, crawl indifferently over my lap and look into my soul, but I see the truth in their eyes. I would absolutely eat you, they are telling me.

But dogs, oh. You know. For all of the different roles they play, they become living metaphors for everything we cherish, everything we seek. Friendship, affection, playfulness, loyalty, love.

And the temporary nature of all of that, the fleeting joy, the complacency and ultimately the regret of not being able to freeze time, take it back, fight off the ephemeral.

I used to calculate his final days, imagine myself in my early 50s, a fantasy back then in those chaotic days. I would be calm and mature. Funny. I am.

And I am the alpha for him, always have been. He follows me when he can, we all note it and laugh. He is waiting for his orders. You are retired, soldier, you earned it. Go sit.

Maybe this is why I’m the one who fusses over the details more, wonders how it will end. Worries about being home alone, with no car, with rain pouring down and an old dog in pain and in need. I try to get into his head, see through his old eyes, wonder why he does what he does and if he knows. I take my alpha seriously.

Mostly? I try to keep him comfortable. I note that he eats well, wanders around the yard OK, seems content and not lost. He was never a puppy, I think sometimes, just Strider, just always here. I carry him every day now. I don’t mind.

(The one puppy picture I could find)

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As I’ve mentioned before, I only keep a toe dipped in the Twitter world. I wondered if I could find a use for it and I did, too, and others have taken that further, but it’s not a big part of my life. I can go days without checking that feed, and weeks or months without contributing.

What SHOULD appeal to me is the way Twitter allows a public person, or at least a person whose name and identity play an important part in, say, whether or not he makes the mortgage or gets to eat, to build a base of fans. Writers in particular, since the way the world works these days, you’re on your own. The most successful writers in the coming years, at least according to this Salon piece by Laura Miller, will be the best at marketing, something she worries about. Me, too. I suck at selling myself, and not because I’m shy or without ego or confidence. I’m just not good at it, I don’t understand it, and I’m sort of lazy. This will have to change or it won’t, and there’s no use in crying about it, and thus we have Twitter.

Enough about me, though. Albert Brooks, funny man, accomplished and always interesting, has written a comic novel. It comes out pretty soon, and apparently the publishing people told him he had to do the Twitter thing. Again, it makes perfect sense: Brooks has a lot of fans who might otherwise not know about his book, and sure enough his list of followers jumped almost immediately, helped by famous friends who also tweet (he currently has about 40,000 followers, a drop in the bucket for celebrity tweeters and a damn shame given his output, but a lot of potential readers/buyers anyway).

Twitter is a pretty fertile ground for comics and witty people, and Brooks was right at home: His tweets were funny and clever, and he mused in 140 characters or so about what he was doing while he did it. I wondered about him then, wondered what he was thinking, having to come up with these little humor drops 10 times a day because some publicist told him to, and so I mused aloud too.
And five minutes later…

Well, y’know. I’m a big fan, longtime watcher, first time tweeter. I got a little thrill, no shame there.

I also got new followers, people who follow celebrities and who I suspect mistakenly believe that because Albert Brooks read my tweet, I must be some sort of celebrity. Maybe Albert and I go way back, get together a couple of times a year, talk shop, exchange ironic emails and so on.

I feel conflicted about this. Not only am I not famous, but I don’t have anything to say on Twitter usually that’s worth following, at least not for your average celebrity watcher. In theory I should jump on this, try to be funny and relevant and get interest ginned up in my books, etc., but the numbers don’t work, and as I say, I suck at this. So mostly now I worry about disappointed people, but then I have sort of a history there.

But I was running some errands the other day, and stopped by a local restaurant to pick up a meal for my neighbor, who busted his ankle and was housebound at the time. This was a teriyaki place my daughter used to frequent when she was in high school. I mentioned this place in a column once, just in passing, back in 2003 when Beth had left for college, and they put it up on the wall. Over 7 years ago, you understand. And I hadn’t been in there in a very long time. The place looked the same; the prices maybe were a bit higher, but it was pretty much the same.

So, for any frustrated Twitter users who feel cheated — I’m a sort of celebrity, although not in Albert Brooks’ league (or anyone else’s; I have a league of my own), if that makes you feel any better. How many people have read that dumb column on the wall of this little restaurant in the past 7 years while waiting for their food?

I have no idea. I’m just hoping it’s been at least 75, which is the number of Twitter followers I currently have, thanks to Albert, a number that might actually sum up my influence in the writing world, and for which I’m eternally grateful, of course. Keep in touch, don’t forget to write.

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