Everything Must Go (Brief Movie Review)

I went to see this film by myself, something I so rarely do I could probably say “never” and not get into trouble. Going to the movies alone is one of those things I used to do that sounds more fun that it probably ever was. The one advantage of sneaking away on an afternoon (cheap tickets) doesn’t exist so much, and I realized that the social aspect of seeing a movie with somebody else is pretty much all that keeps me going to the theater these days. I could have spent $10.50 in a better way.

But I went, for some reason. Maybe because “Everything Must Go” is set, and filmed, in Phoenix, my once-home town. Maybe because I like Will Ferrell and wanted to see him in an unfunny role. Maybe because it was a stressful week and I wanted a temporary escape.

So. First: You can watch this at home, no problem. There’s nothing a smaller screen takes away from this small story, no explosions, no aliens, no 3D, no CGI. Scottsdale doesn’t need any extra help.

Also, it’s not that good. Nice. I enjoyed it, given everything, but I could have managed OK without seeing it.

Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, some sort of sales executive who starts off with a bad day. He gets fired. He goes home to find his wife has left, locked him out of the house, and put all his stuff on the front lawn. Furniture. Clothes. Vinyl albums, sports trophies, detritus of an unexamined life, maybe.

Halsey is an alcoholic. Lots of movie characters get described as alcoholic when all we know is that they drink a lot; this is not usually enough information to make an audience-based diagnosis.

But this guy is an alcoholic. His drinking prompted his job/spouse loss, and it spins him into a few days of stasis, a pretty common state for a drunk. He sits in his recliner in his front yard, among his possessions, drinks gallons of Pabst Blue Ribbon and thinks about his next move, but not that much. Mostly he reacts, and mostly he keeps drinking.

Alcoholics aren’t really static, of course; none of us are. They’re always moving along the continuum between relapse and recovery, and the only cinematic question here is which way Halsey is leaning. That’s why we watch.

Christopher Jordan Wallace plays a kid who’s wary of everyone but hangs out on the lawn with Nick for practical reasons: He needs an adult male, needs some advice, needs a little help. Wallace does a great job at portraying a boy already carrying a little grown-up weariness and skepticism but still just a kid.

Laura Dern has a small, cameo-ish role as a former high school classmate whom Nick looks up on a whim, a stray yearbook comment having caught his eye while he was making an inventory. She’s also a little wary of this strange man, barely remembered, who wants something she can’t quite figure out, but it’s a careful scene; it feels contrived but I recognized the emotion, the urge to find someone from the past who remembers the way we were.

Rebecca Hall looks like she came into this film from a completely different casting session, such a superb actress in such a small film. She plays Nick’s new neighbor across the street, a pregnant woman awaiting her husband’s arrival, and someone who seems, after a bit, to know something about broken men. There’s a wonderful scene, an impromptu Chinese food dinner on the lawn with Nick in which she and we both discover, at the same moment, that it’s possible Halsey has a dark and maybe dangerous side to his drunk. Probably not, but watching Hall gently extricate herself and her baby bump, just in case, was the best moment in the film.

This is a short movie and feels shorter. It’s based on Raymond Carver’s story “Why Don’t You Dance?” (which I actually just read for the first time a month ago), filling in the details that Carver liked to leave for his readers. Maybe this is why it doesn’t linger for me. That, and an ending that doesn’t satisfy us, doesn’t do much of anything, a good choice in a different film but one that doesn’t help here.

Still, it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, as I am, and wonder what he can do, and particularly if you’ve enjoyed his performances in “Stranger Than Fiction” or “Winter Passing.” He could have easily turned scenes into slapstick, but then Nick Halsey’s life has stopped being funny. Sometimes alcoholics need to get rid of their stuff, the junk as well as the precious parts, in order to change. “Everything Must Go” shows us the start of that process and allows us to wonder about the rest, and that’s not a bad story to tell.

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I spent a lot of years wandering on the periphery of the healthcare field, from watching my father to running a business that served medical centers, meaning that I am one of the blind men trying to decipher an elephant. Opinions will vary, whether you park the cars of doctors or hand them retractors.

I have definite opinions, formed from relationships that felt intimate but really weren’t. Dermatologists are essentially salesmen. ENT physicians are crazy. We all know about surgeons. I’ve never met an anesthesiologist I didn’t like a lot. And so on.

And there are plenty of exceptions, but in general that’s been my experience. And this: The closer a physician’s field comes to surgery, the less fun they are. The closer to being a diagnostician, the opposite.

Your internal medicine/family practice docs are a grab bag, of course. Good luck. I’ve been lucky.

And nurses. I love nurses. There are lots of awful nurse stories, but I don’t have any. If I were young now and interested in a medical career, I think I’d pick nursing school.

We had nice nurses yesterday, although they mixed signals and so left me in the waiting room for an extra 90 minutes while my wife stayed flat on her back in the room, wondering where I was. And I was wondering where she was. Thanks for the stress.

But nice anyway, after that. I spent a fair amount of time wandering out to the nursing station at the request of my wife, who wasn’t feeling particularly well at different times for different reasons, and everyone was nice.

And very human. Julie developed a pretty bad headache later in the afternoon, which made her uncomfortable and a little weepy. It’s bad enough to feel helpless, unable to move for a lot of hours because of the femoral artery line, but add a headache and anyone will sniffle and wonder about injustice.

I tried to distract her by musing aloud about the food service menu. There was a strong dietician bias there, of course, in which cholesterol and fat were BAD and carbohydrates were GOOD. Egg substitutes were all over the place. Eggs, a damn near perfect food even if I’m not that much of a fan. But hey, it’s their hospital.

I also noticed a caffeine bias, too. Decaf coffee, decaf mocha, decaf tea. Hmm. Also a headache going on there in my particular patient, who had been given a cup of coffee with her first meal but one that I suspected was missing a key ingredient.

Caffeine headache. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. She doesn’t drink a lot of coffee or other caffeinated drinks, but she has some on a daily basis.

Back to the nursing station. Three of them were hanging around, early evening, coming up on shift change. I brought this up. They all pointed me toward the elevators.

“Go. Now,” they said, indicating that I was not to delay, so I didn’t.

You can make plenty of jokes about Starbuck’s having such a prominent place in the lobby of this hospital, this being Seattle, but I got it immediately. It’s comforting, familiar, a way to maybe reduce stress by encouraging routine. And they have caffeinated beverages.

Headache solved. I headed home then, really tired but satisfied. Don’t ask me to do surgery, but diagnostician? I see potential.

Of course, I completely missed the signs of a heart attack a few weeks ago, so maybe only trust me when it comes to drinks.

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Thinking Uphill

I call it Heartbreak Hill, just for fun, although it’s really a piece of cake. It runs north to south, roughly, for a quarter of a mile. Eyeballing the inclination, I’ll just call it pretty steep.

I walk this little stretch of steepness several times a day, on purpose and not just to pick up the mail. It’s marked off in convenient quarters, too: A quarter mile to the start, up the hill a quarter, a quarter to the next street, down the hill a quarter, you got a mile. Add a half-mile loop around the fire station and then go backwards, and I’ve got a little 2-1/2 mile lap of butt-toning, quad-pushing walking, and I usually do it twice (with some variation occasionally). And then twice again, lately, 5 miles in the morning and 5 miles in the afternoon.

And then I might eat a quart of chocolate chip ice cream while watching a movie at night. Really, it’s not a lifestyle as much as lurching. I am looking for comfort.

My blood pressure apparently remains normal.

I’ve taken it a lot lately. We got a monitor after the cardiologist put Julie on a beta blocker, hoping to alleviate some of her angina, slow the system down, but since she has a stellar blood pressure we need to watch it in case it drops. People with low blood pressure tend to fall over.

Even immediately following my hill hike, I can’t get those numbers to budge. Once I got the systolic up to 131, but then the diastolic was at 68. Sort of like gaining 10 pounds but all muscle. I can’t find fault with my heart at the moment, at least physiologically. I seem to be foolishly consistent at 125/72.

I’m not looking for hypertension, you understand. Mostly it’s because the monitor is electronic, digital and automatic, elevating the toy factor, and also easy. It appeals to the documentarian in my soul. If I could test my electrolytes every morning without drawing blood, I would (RT @ChuckSigars potassium of 4.1 this morning, awesome way to start the day!).

This is also not some form of survivor guilt, or…whatever, pick it. Not that. Mostly musing. I would gladly take heart disease from my wife, but that’s a nonstarter too. So I watch my blood pressure do nothing, and I walk my steep hill, and I wonder.

I’m a believer in incrementalism, more so lately. For a long time tomorrow was just an abstraction to me, which might sound logical but isn’t practical. Most of us have actually have a concrete notion of the future, knowing that what we do today has an effect on tomorrow, but I lost my way for a while.

So I appreciate how little steps add up to a hill. A couple of years ago I decided to start doing push-ups, just on a whim, letter-perfect push-ups, and I could do maybe 3. So I did 3, and then 3 later in the day, then a couple of more. And then the next day. In a couple of months I was doing 300 every day, imagine that. It didn’t change my life, but it proved the point.

The fun in incremental positive changes, though, if you’re honest, invites a close look at the darker side, which is the cumulative effect of bad stuff. A heart attack that didn’t kill her might, actually, make her stronger, and certainly this looks like easy-peasy, put a stent in, take some medication, get that normal cholesterol down into the cellar just in case, and move on.

But we’ve been moving on for a while now, so the total feels a little oppressive. Said that before, won’t say it again, but you know. A little weary here.

In the meantime, I do what I can, as she does. She is much calmer than I am. She’s better at getting the tears out of the way, which is important if you’re going to laugh. We’ve done some laughing. My son is trying to make jokes, which is all he can think of. Me too.

And it doesn’t take much insight to stretch this hill like Silly Putty, make it all about journeys and effort and reaching the top, let’s not go there or start mentioning “Field of Dreams” at all. Nothing is being built here except time, and time is what it is.

But my time will be taken tomorrow, and today there is amazing sun, so I’m heading for the hills. This isn’t profound; it’s about exercise, endorphins, a little meditation, some music. Some offsetting of the ice cream. Start at the bottom, get to the top, do it again. There’s always another hill, and somewhere in the middle is where this is all taking place, anyway.

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Beginning On A High Note

Twenty-nine springs ago, a clause that I don’t like writing and which is not cute at all, Allen O’Reilly and I stood in a hallway at Northern Arizona University and did a little postmortem. We’d just performed a couple of scenes for an assembly of students who were receiving honors, something neither of us had been invited to attend for some mysterious reason, but they sure didn’t mind using us for a little entertainment.

As we talked, a young woman neither of us knew stopped by and told us she’d really enjoyed our performances. This happened sometimes.

Time is what I’m thinking about here, by the way.

Allen moved to Georgia, where he still acts, directs and teaches. Lovely wife, great kids, nice house.

I’m here in the Pacific Northwest, trying to keep my shoes dry and writing for a living (not a good one).

That young woman married me, a little over a year after that meeting in the hallway. Time is weird. It’s just on my mind.

She was a singer then, and now. Of course. Most of you know this. And a teacher of singers, a leader of worship, a mother. A survivor of a brain tumor and surgery last summer. An obnoxiously young-looking and energetic person, given that she’s theoretically older than I am.

And she hit a high note, is all.

She was demonstrating to a student how to commit to a note, how to sing from the floor and put your entire body into it, and she sang a high note to show him how.

I mean. She’s sung all of her life, sung in the shower and in theaters filled with a thousand people. She’s sung on commercials and in operas, in nightclubs and in small churches. She knows how to hit a high note.

And still time caught up with her, at this moment. Not years of singing. Not lifestyle, certainly. She’s a remarkably healthy woman with remarkably healthy habits, stunning blood pressure, near-perfect cholesterol levels, no diabetes, not overweight, not a smoker, and with an excellent diet.

She makes me look like a complete health loser, all those years of smoking and drinking and sedentary living, in fact, and still I seem to be doing great, and my wife sang a high note and had a heart attack.

Time. You can fight it, ignore it, embrace it or just go with it, but it will move forward, you betcha. The only risk factor for heart disease was a father who had a heart attack at approximately the same age, but tell that to atherosclerosis.

Her father is 89, by the way. We believe in happy endings in this household.

And neither of us has an inclination, philosophy or theology that would inspire us to shake our fists at the sky, rail at God, and question the unfairness of it all. Life is a game you won’t like if you believe in fairness. Ask Gabrielle Giffords. Ask people watching the Mississippi rise or walking in the rubble of their homes, destroyed by tornadoes. You can’t blame everything on gay people, you know. There’s too much.

This is what Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote about, following the death of his young son, in his famous book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It is not fair at all.

I have the Kushner book, although I’ve never read it. Maybe I should crack it, although as I say, no fist shaking is going on.

We like her cardiologist, very impressed. So once again I will sit in a waiting room, this Wednesday, as she undergoes cardiac catheterization and probably stent placement. Everyone is very optimistic. Given the nature of this event, the timing, the continuing symptoms and the imaging, we have a good idea of where the blockage is, what the procedure will entail, what the outcome will be and what her life will be like afterward.

Again, this is all optimistic. All shall be well, as my wife says, and believes.

It just seems like a lot. Not just this and the brain tumor; we’ve been through some adventures in the last few years. It would be nice for things to quiet down a bit. We’re also sort of running out of money, but then that’s not something we shake our fists over either. I should just write better (note to self).

This won’t keep me from celebrating the good things. She’s about to be ordained, it looks like, as a tentmaker minister of music and worship, all these years after seminary graduation (Presbyterians and their rules). She’s also looking forward to starting work on a doctorate; why not?

And I will not stop to wonder why bad things happen to very good people, although I’m just human, and a husband, and so of course I will.

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Almost There

Kurt Vonnegut once defined a “New York friend” as someone you have met at least once, a name-dropping exercise and a commentary, I guess, on the tenuous hold we all have on relationships (and language, maybe).

He was joking, as he tended to do, and also prescient. We now have Internet friends; I have a bunch. These are people I’ve connected with but not quite met in person (although sometimes I have). Some of these relationships are casual and some are more intimate, actually, depending on the quality and quantity of conversation.

And then there are Facebook friends, something that cries out for quotation marks or, better, a new and improved form of punctuation. Talk about tenuous, at least in my experience; it’s like a family reunion made up mostly of third cousins. There are connections but a lot of them feel formal, someone who sat behind me in French class 35 years ago and hopefully isn’t involved in multilevel marketing.

One of my New York friends (I may have met him more than once, but I can’t verify that) has written a science fiction novel. I’ve had a copy for weeks now; I promised to write a column about it when it was published, since readers are crucial to this sort of thing.

As it turns out, the publication date has moved from last month to June and now next fall, for reasons I don’t understand but I gather are good, generally.

The book publishing world is crazy, changing, and dying, all at the same time. My NY friend’s book was finished a long time ago, and yet his publisher (a small company located in Seattle) has taken the old-fashioned route, letting his words gather dust while they do whatever it is they do, plot marketing strategy or stitch the binding together, something.

Still, I have a good feeling about this. I’ve only read a little but science fiction has a built-in audience and this one looks interesting and intelligent. Maybe there’s a film offer already in the works. I await the news.

I, on the other hand, can write a book today, have an electronic version available by Monday and a print copy in your hands by the middle of the month.

I don’t think you’d want to read that book, but it could be done.

I’ve spent five years writing something, and it’s almost finished. There was no toiling involved; mostly I spent months not thinking much about it, letting things evolve while I kept busy, a sort of fermentation process. Although procrastination was involved too.

But we’re close. Originally I was looking at a publication date in late August, which seemed symmetrical and symbolic, but I will run out of money before then and I don’t have much to sell, or skills to market, so I might as well try this.

The closer I’ve gotten to the end, the more I’ve eyed the wastebasket, which probably is not uncommon, but inertia is a powerful thing. It exists now, it will exist, I will pack it up soon and send it off into the world, for better or worse, and we shall see.

I do have some exercise equipment I’d be willing to sell, now that I think about it. Let me know.

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A Social Media Prayer

Our Facebook Father, who art in California, blessed be thy name, unless someone else actually invented this, in which case shame on you.

Grant me tolerance and understanding for my friends who obviously suffer from a missing apostrophe key.

Lead me not into temptation, where I will comment on every contraction not contracted and every “their” that is really, really wrong, and deliver me from the evil that is political commentary. They know not what they do, and they watch too much cable.

Also deliver me from cats stuck in boxes.

Forgive me my sins, chief among them that I think I’m being funny when I’m really not, and those who sin against me by posting multiple YouTube clips as if I couldn’t go to YouTube myself and watch the damn Muppets if I were in the mood, which I’m not.

Give me this day my daily update on grandchildren, and remind me that grandparents have lost their minds and so aren’t to be blamed.

If it is thy will, end all apps. Just smite them.

Grant us all the wisdom to see that taking an online IQ test tells us something about our intelligence all right, and not in a good way.

Lead me to green pastures, or really any place that’s outside, as Perpetual Monitor Glow Skin is not a good look for me.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of spammers
I will fear no evil, for I change my password on a regular basis.

Thy minimal graphic interface comforts me. (Tahoma? That was the best you could do?)

Thou surroundest me with high school friends I have no memory of
And friends of friends
And more than one ex-girlfriend
Which my wife tolerates.

Thou preparest a table before me in the
presence of mine enemies, or at least those who have affection for Sarah Palin
Teaching me to question my assumptions
Although not all that much.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life
As long as I keep an eye on my character count
And try not to be funny
And don’t link quite so often.

And I will dwell in the house of Facebook forever
Although no more than 15 minutes a day.
I swear.
And the Muppets are OK. Just not so much.

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That Silver Lining

The NY Times printed a map yesterday, showing the places in the U.S. where one is most and least prone to encounter natural disasters. Least likely? I’m pretty much sitting in the middle of it.

And even though Seattle proper is #8 on a list of 8 “safest” areas, that list is made up of 5 Washington state areas (and Corvallis, OR), so I’m surrounded, more or less. Of course, a massive earthquake could wipe us out and embarrass everyone, but this is about odds. Generally, our risk up here consists of
1. Losing power briefly (winds).
2. Flooding in certain areas.
3. Wet shoes.
4. Clinical depression.

This doesn’t exactly help in our uncertain spring, which has been the coldest on record, but even that’s relative. It hasn’t been rare to wake up and have the temperature be in the 30s and barely reach the 50s at the end of the day (if that), but there are worse things.

Even global warming will be late to the party (the Pacific is cold). It’s not a bad place to be, all in all. It helps to remember.

On the other hand, 5 of the top 8 worst places are in Texas (with a sixth in Shreveport, close enough), where my daughter and other family members live. You can get messed up looking at this stuff.

For me, then, I’m just glad to be here, as dreary and miserable as it’s been, and for reasons that anyone who has ever hit themselves over the head with a hammer multiple times will understand: It feels so good when you stop. Today we have stopped, the sun is shining, we’re already in the 40s (!) at 7am, and the day has many possibilities. The bright side is my favorite, and that’s the side I live on.

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