Sam the Man

I noticed a typo in this week’s column just now, something I first assumed was an editor’s error. Surely I wouldn’t write “Alex” Baldwin. I’m pretty familiar with Alec Baldwin.

But it turned out to be all on me, for some strange reason. Maybe a suggestion from spellcheck, but as I typed it right now I noticed my fingers automatically hitting the “x” and not the “c,” and again right this second. Go figure.

Here’s the column, anyway. No surprises, I would think.

What did surprise me was I’ll See You in My Dreams. But first a word about podcasts.

I’ve been listening to pods for over 10 years. The first was the Slate Political Gabfest, but as various radio shows started offering episodes in a podcast format I gathered quite a few.

The problem with listening, for me, is that I have to be moving. I have no patience for sitting and listening, and probably because I’ve been walking and listening forever. And since my walking has been pretty light this winter and spring, I’m left with listening while working around the house. This summer should explode my opportunities, but meanwhile I try to be selective, given that I only seem to find a few hours a week when my legs are moving consistently.

I end up picking and choosing, then, based on topic or subject interviewed. Occasionally I’ll subscribe to a new pod just because I want to hear a particular episode, sometimes keeping it around and sometimes jettisoning them quickly.

I saw a short one that interested me the other day, although I doubt I’ll continue to listen. Too much to do, too little interest. But Sam Elliott? I’ll listen.

It was a nice interview, and surprising in what it covered considering that Sam tends to speak slowly. You think? He was promoting his new film, The Hero, written with him in mind and apparently a gift for all of us.

He mentioned another film, though, by the “Hero” writer/director, Brett Haley, and that was I’ll See You In My Dreams. I was a little intrigued, and found it streaming on Amazon Prime. Stream away, then.

Sam Elliott is a good actor. He’s appeared in nearly 100 films over nearly 50 years, and a slew of television. His voice is everywhere, as is his moustache (favorite reference is in Grace & Frankie, when Sam Waterston says, “There are only 10 men in the world who can pull off that moustache, and he’s nine of them”).

He’s not my favorite, or close to it, but when he appears my eyes are drawn to the screen and pretty much stay there. I was ready for as much Sam as I could get.

The movie stars Blythe Danner (and ditto for her; always a treat, a reminder of what a special actress she’s always been and getting a little Meet the Fockers taste out of my mouth) as Carol Peterson, a southern California woman in her early 70s (just taking a guess here; the chronology of this character is confusing). A former jazz singer and then teacher, she’s now comfortably retired on her husband’s life insurance, a small benefit from being widowed, suddenly and tragically, 20 years before. She lives quietly in a nice, unremarkable house, alone but for her dog, Hazel; an apparently slow, a little dull and fully predictable life.

And she’s lonely, especially after her beloved Hazel dies after 14 years. She strikes up an unusual friendship with the guy who comes to clean her pool, played by Martin Starr in really the key characterization of the film. Without Starr, it’s a soap opera. With him, there are enough crackling elements to keep my eyes from glazing a bit.

The soap opera is still there. The film is clear-eyed about mortality, and death shows up in various forms (both past and present) to remind us in case we forget. YOLO and all that, we get it.

Sam Elliott murmurs, “Bittersweet” at one point, in the middle of a master class on how to listen supportively while male. It’s a bit much, and hamstrings Elliott’s wry side, but that’s the word. It’s a bittersweet story, saved by the actors from a snoozy fate.

I enjoyed it, even as I turned it off three-quarters through and only finished a couple of hours later, feeling incomplete (didn’t help that I looked the film up before I watched and so got the big plot points ahead of time). Danner was a joy to watch, Starr was amazing, and the supporting cast all got their moments, particularly Mary Kay Place, who shows up in these things playing a woman of a certain age and always seems 20 years younger than she’s supposed to be.

As does Ms. Danner, who does get a chance to play with wry. This is a showcase for her and she elevates the film with just her presence, allowing us to understand how baffling aging can be to someone standing still for 20 years.

It’s not so much a showcase for Sam, although if you like watching him you won’t be disappointed. If we share the skepticism of Carol, who more than once questions his lack of romantic partners (this guy should be swarmed wherever he goes), his character is grounded and wise. His initial appearances belie the character we’d come to know, but why say more? If you like Sam Elliott, and I’m not sure we have anything to talk about if you don’t, you’ll want to watch I’ll See You in My Dreams.

Keep an eye out for Martin Starr, too. He’s done a lot over the past decade, from Party Down to Adventureland to his current Silicon Valley role. This helps explain why.

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The Very First Amendment

My cell phone carrier is Verizon. I’ve been a customer since forever, long enough to shock a young employee there, which has happened more than once.

I don’t know much about Verizon. I’m sure at least a few of their corporate policies I would find objectionable in the abstract, by which I mean I don’t really care. Companies of this size aren’t likely to institutionalize blatantly controversial behaviors; their scope is too big, and they want it to be bigger. If anything, they seem more likely to have progressive, inclusive attitudes when it comes to social hot-button issues, if maybe for cynical reasons.

And if I do find something so objectionable that I don’t want to be associated with them, I’ll go to Sprint or somewhere similar, although I doubt there’s a flawless competitor. Sometimes you live to fight another day.

I have no problems with boycotts and protests. If you don’t like Verizon and want to march outside or organize a campaign, more power to you. We don’t truly have a free market, and we tolerate near-monopolies because it’s convenient or necessary, but hey, power to the people. I’ve got your back.

Kathy Griffin, whose humor doesn’t particularly appeal to me, was much easier to attack than a telecommunications company. And that’s the way the market works, too. Go too far and risk losing everything; risk, in some fields, is your business. Not losing any sleep here over Kathy Griffin.

Nor over Julius Caesar, which has prompted a backlash based, apparently, on less than a working knowledge of the play, or its history (it’s always been the most modern of Shakespeare’s plays to my eye, ripe for translation to current events without much stretching). A Trump-like character as Caesar (who, good grief, is the good guy) probably works as well as the ones with an Obama-like character or a Hillary-like one. Don’t care for the controversy? Pull your sponsorship, don’t buy tickets, protest…do it, fine. Seems awfully misguided to me, but fine.

And now Alex Jones and Megyn Kelly. I am a completely uninterested spectator, not being a TV watcher or a Kelly fan, but I suppose if you object to this then your recourse is pretty obvious. And if you can’t bring yourself to just not watch it, then boycott or whatever away.

What bothers me about all of these situations, but particularly the last, is the notion that some things should not be seen. Alex Jones is some sort of low-level monster, I have no doubt. And his listeners are active participants in his monstrosity.

And I completely understand the Sandy Hook families being outraged at any media attention given this jerk. I understand everything. Go for it.

But don’t tell me that some people are so reprehensible that journalists should just not ask them questions. Don’t tell me we shouldn’t lift up the rock to see what lives underneath. I want to know what’s under the rock. Megyn Kelly aside (I have no real sense of her integrity), interviewing awful people has been a mainstay of journalism, and I think a civic responsibility. Don’t watch, of course. Write letters, organize a boycott, sure. It’s a consumer world, and a particular network news department is in the business of profits, so.

But please don’t tell me that we should be spared mean words from an asshole. Shine that light, shine it brightly, see the cockroaches scatter, etc.

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After The Fall

On August 25, 2007, I decided to make chili. I thought I had all the ingredients I needed, but it turned out I was missing an onion, so I made a quick trip to the store for that one item.

I remember this because it was supposed to be a special day, and it was. It was the one-year anniversary of my first day in a loooong time without drinking, and while that particular day doesn’t mean a lot to me in general, the first year felt special. It felt like chili, at least.

So I grabbed my onion from the bin and headed to checkout, but first I had to turn a corner. Where someone had conveniently left one of those plastic shopping baskets, on the floor, hidden from view until a guy with an onion turned the corner and hit it with his foot.

Many things happened, none of which are hard to imagine. I was at the time over 260 pounds, a roly-poly guy, and gravity was not in a mood to negotiate. My foot got tangled, I tried to compensate, I failed, and the fat guy took a spill in the grocery store.

It turned out OK. I filed a report with the store manager, just in case, but I had a bruise and some sore muscles, all of which were minor and didn’t require medical attention. It was just a fall, awkward and embarrassing but ultimately not worth remembering.

But the day, and the chili, and so on. I remember, although I hadn’t thought of it in years. Since I didn’t know at the time if I’d injured myself in a significant but as-yet-unknown way, I remember thinking that security camera footage would be interesting. I assumed there was such a thing. I’m pretty sure there was.

I just don’t know if there still is. Not worth mentioning except I had a thought: What if it turned out to be actually a funny video? One that some security person clipped and saved, to share with friends? I’d probably watch it. No harm done, and who can resist a fat man falling?

It just struck me today as an interesting visual aid to the future. Here I was, marking a year of better health, better everything (except waistline; I’d gained about 30 pounds that summer), and fate and chance were letting me know the path ahead wasn’t necessarily going to be smooth.

I’d have a good year after that, lots of movement, fortifying myself (I think, now) for the rockiness that would soon come. And in 2010, my wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor and we were off to the races. No health insurance, looming brain surgery and multiple MRIs, and of course the heart attack and breast cancer to follow. Rockier, as I said.

So it makes sense that my first mention in this blog about a water line leak was that summer, the summer when money started disappearing and never came back. That helps explain, at least to me, why I kept kicking the can down the road, fixing leaks every couple of years, knowing that line was crumbling but seeing no way I could to afford to replace it.

Yesterday it got replaced, anyway. It was anticlimactic, thanks to technology. A new generation of PVC-like material produced a pipe that can be shoved underground with a bore and delivered, without additional fittings in the middle, the 190 feet from the street to my house, under my neighbor’s yard, driveway, and fence. Not even a ripple in the sod. It took about six hours, start to finish, including cutting out a square of concrete in my garage.

The water seems and tastes cleaner; hard to say what’s my imagination and what’s real about that. I’ve got water, though, and went another $8500 in debt, a drop in the bucket but a drop that I have to think about.

And what I think is this: I don’t think God, or the universe in general, is picking on me. Water lines break. Unexpected expenses are part of owning a house. The piper eventually needs to get paid, and so on.

I’m left, then, with gratitude that my wife is alive. I’ll pay for that.

Just a bruise.
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Not A Drop

Starting in the late ‘70s and lingering through the early 1990s, developers began using a new kind of PVC-ish material for water lines up here in my area, inexpensive and supposedly more durable. Although you had them at inexpensive, I’m sure.

And, it turned out that, no. After a while, this blue poly vinyl crap (actual name, I believe) begins to crack, which is never a good thing in water lines. There was a class-action lawsuit, etc. I had no idea about any of this.

Until a few years ago, some 20-odd years since installation, when my neighbor (downhill from me) started complaining about a soggy lawn. I dug a big hole and a plumber eventually stopped by and fixed the leak, warning me about the blue pipe.

I repaired another leak later with the help of a friend, and then there was another and, yup, another. Each time, I briefly researched the cost of getting a line replacement and each time I balked at the thousands of dollars involved, as compared to a couple of a hundred to push the problem down the road.

And here we are, at the end of that road. It’s been leaking for a few months now, nothing above ground, just a rising water bill, and then this past weekend I noticed the puddle. It began to spread a little and dribble down the driveway, and I wasn’t about to start digging again.

It’s just part of being a homeowner, of course. Except that over the past nine years, we’ve come face-to-face with big bills that pretty much had to be paid. Not thousands as much as tens and hundreds of thousands, actually. We ran out of money pretty quickly. Bills kept coming. You get it.

But it’s hard to live without water, so these days I turn it off as much as possible while I wait a few days until the line can be replaced. It’s an interesting thing, doling out water to ourselves, improvising and not flushing so much, and it actually can be done pretty easily. It feels like camping, a little.

So, $8000. It’s not an overwhelming number, just frustrating. At least I get to watch this trenchless process, where they shove new pipe underground, under my neighbor’s yard and driveway and fence, 175 feet to my house. Not exactly good money down the drain, although you’ll excuse me if it feels a lot like that.

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Aging Gracefully

I watched If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast last night, an HBO film about…

I’m not sure. About life, sure. About Carl Reiner a little bit. Mostly about other people, all in their 90s or 100s and all keeping pretty busy.

I came to it with a little help: I listen to Marc Maron’s podcast a lot, and a couple of years ago he interviewed Mel Brooks. It was a great fit, and they seemed to bond a little over comedy and being Jewish and just stuff. Brooks set him up with Carl Reiner, and eventually Maron interviewed Dick Van Dyke too. All comedy legends, all getting up in years, and all remarkably engaged and active.

Listening to these three conversations so close together, I started wondering. How was it that these guys, all well past the average lifespan, all having outlived women in their lives, were doing so well?

I thought at first that there must be something about the comic mind that keeps age at bay, although this film shoots through that theory. The subjects of the film are all up there in years, but what they do varies a bit, even given that Reiner and the director have chosen mostly show biz types (and there’s no mention of economic insecurity, which has to play a part).

And all show signs of something that’s just now occurred to me, oddly on my mind the past few weeks: People get better. Listening to James Taylor the other night, it struck me that he was an awfully good guitar player, something I don’t remember focusing on when I was younger, and suddenly it made sense. He’s been playing guitar forever; of course he’s better at it.

We see some of this, in the most amazing harmonica playing I’ve ever heard, in a centenarian singer who still sounds sharp and clear, in some stunning piano playing and dancing and running and yoga. It’s a remarkable display of living.

It’s not a great documentary. Some interviews are dull, and the one with Kirk Douglas provokes more sympathy than insight; it was included as an example of persisting when facing serious illness in later life, although Douglas’s strokes have left him hard to understand, and he’s much more impressive when writing.

There’s also Jerry Seinfeld, a full generation or so behind these people, who provides a little context but for the most part seems to be there because he’s Jerry Seinfeld.

And it’s a little scattershot, but that’s enough. I enjoyed it immensely, and it’s nitpicking to compare it to other documentaries. It’s definitely worth watching for just the joy these folks seem to experience daily. Inspiring is the obvious choice of words, but it’s more than that.

I spent some time yesterday in conversation with my grandson on Facetime. They just moved out of the city to a beautiful house on a lake, well into the hill country, and I watched him toss rocks into the water, in his element. The lake is full of bass and catfish, and I see a fishing rod in his future.

And I see this, which is enough.

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