Saturday, December 31, 2011

A boy, his horse and the war to end all wars

As an editor, back when I worked for that place with a printing press, I occasionally would piece together a story by writing an expansive first paragraph, then tack on vignettes – often from other reporters working on the same project – that fleshed out the article.

That’s pretty much the approach Steven Spielberg has taken with his latest film, War Horse. Instead of taking the time and effort to develop characters and background stories for context and to create a sense of time, place and drama, Spielberg has us dash along with Joey as the horse gallops across one little vignette after another.

Collectively, the film manages to capture the absurd and grisly nature of war, the capriciousness of death and the anguish of loss. At times it even manages to do all this in a grand and entertaining fashion. But ultimately, War Horse comes off feeling like a collection of short stories that is attempting to play out like an epic novel.

It all begins when Joey is purchased, ah, cute and comes to live with the Narracotts. Son Albert quickly takes charge of the animal, forming a special bond that will have you laughing, cheering and reaching for your hankie before the final credits roll.

The opening scenes – the warp and woof of life of a poor farming family in rural England, struggling financially in a world that is on the brink of a world war – end abruptly when Joey is sold off to the British Army. We had just settled in with the Narracotts and their problems, met up with one of the film’s villains – the local landlord – and started to lose ourselves in the lovely English countryside. Suddenly we are off with Joey, charging into battle.

Over the next two hours or so, Joey becomes the focus of all those little vignettes I mentioned above – facing off against the Bosch, an army that has gone high-tech, taking part in the end of a quaint bit of warfare played out with sabers and swords; running away with a couple of deserters, then finding a moment of peace with a young French girl and her grandfather.

Each story brings with it new characters and new problems. The pieces are much greater then the whole, small bits that push along the story and pull at our emotions.

Spielberg raises questions but spends most of the film grazing the surface. Then he snaps his fingers and works his magic, capturing the absolute absurdity of war in a harrowing scene that has Joey wrapped tightly in bands of barbed wire, lost, frightened and wailing on a muddy battlefield before two soldiers – one German, the other British – come to his aid.

Albert, of course, becomes part of the fight eventually. All the emotion created in the opening scenes between boy and horse has to land somewhere, right? The landing offers few surprises, which is not to say it’s not satisfying. Go figure and grab a hankie!

Despite its problems, the beautiful scenery, rich cinematography and John William’s soaring score make War Horse a film worth spending a few hours with this holiday season. After all, Spielberg firing only on one or two cylinders generally manages to produce films that are entertaining and emotionally compelling – a trick many other Hollywood directors have yet to discover with all their special effects, car chases and explosions.

A footnote: Spielberg paints with heavy and broad strokes in the closing moments of the film, pulling together the musical score and cinematography in a nifty homage to another war movie – Gone with the Wind. Sounds weird, but it works.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Back to the future: Politics, the economy, faith

Blogger’s note: Listening to the current crop of presidential candidates reaching for the golden ring, raising issues of religion and faith, reminded me of another presidential race a few years ago. Once upon a time when I worked for that place with a printing press, I wrote a column about presidential politics and religion. The year was 1996 and Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were hot on the campaign trail.

A funny thing happened on the way to electing a President this year. All the talk about the candidates catering to the cares and concerns of the religious right never materialized.

It’s been months since anyone has spent much time debating the religiously-infused topics of abortion, prayer or family values. God has remained an impartial spectator to this point.

Both President Clinton and Sen. Dole have allowed the deity to remain on the sideline, resisting the urge to attach their campaign bandwagons to cosmic coattails. That the economy remains the most pressing concern to many Americans may be one factor the religious card remains on the bottom of the deck.

Worry about the future economic health of the country means most voters are more interested in debate over taxes and the budget, than family values and prayer.

And both men realize that talk of Christian ethics and values might elicit a chorus of amens, but talk of balancing the budget while lowering the deficit will mean votes in November. It could have been different.

Clinton and Dole could have easily spent the last several weeks lacing their speeches with talk of faith and the need for a return to a nation based on Christian ethics and values. They are both men of faith who are comfortable sharing their religious views. Both have quietly called upon such beliefs for strength and guidance during moments of doubt in the past.

The importance of God and country rests easily in the heart of Dole. The same can be said of Clinton.

One story holds that Dole goes nowhere without a prayer tucked away in his shirt pocket. Once asked how he was doing in the campaign, he pointed to his pocket and joked all he had was a prayer. Insiders say the story is true.

That much of his life has been a struggle, that without faith he might still be battling the demons of war and the horrific wounds he suffered in World War II, makes it all the more remarkable that he holds tight and keeps quiet about his religious beliefs. And yet perhaps such reasons are exactly why he refuses to mix religion and politics. Some things are just too important and too personal to share.

Clinton’s angst and spiritual beliefs are linked with his personal and political life, failures and sins that are all a matter of public record. He, too, jokes when asked about such faith. His religion, he says, gives him a second chance. He smiles. But then his eyes begin to water and you realize he’s not really joking, that he
really means what he says.

It takes little effort to see the Methodist in Dole, the Baptist in Clinton. Their lives and personalities are the product of their religious upbringing – Dole, forever the pragmatist, quiet and straightforward, a man who believes deeply in himself, his country and in God; Clinton, fiery and passionate, different personality, different political philosophy and agenda, same religious convictions.

And perhaps that, as much as anything, is why God remains on the sideline. Dole is a conservative republican. Clinton is a liberal Democrat. But both men recognize God is neither.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

All not what it seems when visiting Hiriya

Several friends and relatives will be traveling off to Israel this summer, taking part in a congregational trip sponsored by my synagogue. I won’t be one of the lucky adventurers this time around, visiting all the hot, cool and happening places in the Jewish homeland.

The trip’s itinerary offers up a euphonic blend of ancient and modern sites, all simmering in a spiritual stew that promises to fill the heart and soul – Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias and Jerusalem; Caesarea, Sfat, Masada and the Kotel; the Kinneret, Jordan River and the Dead Sea; Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl and the Israel Museum.

Hiriya, however, is once again being ignored. I spotted this, ah, special place on my first visit to Israel – it’s just outside of Tel Aviv, only a few miles from Ben Gurion International Airport. Most everyone passes the site, certain they are missing out on something special.

You can spot it from the highway (photo above), a distant mountain rising up from the horizon; a surrealistic vision that captures the imagination. Certainly this must be some sort of major archaeological site, a place where our ancient ancestors once settled and lived, right?

In profile it seems to be a tel, a craggy mound of debris, created by generations of humans going about their lives. Over time, the level rises, forming a mound. Archaeologists spend years sifting through such sites, attempting to figure out the distant past.

I know all this because James Michener focused his epic novel “The Source” around a tel in Israel and the generations that called it home. Like any good journalist, I also checked out Wikipedia! But I digress.

For years I wondered about the huge mound in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. On my most recent trip to Israel, volunteering on a military base in the area, I passed the site once again – in fact, passed it at least a half-dozen times, always wondering what secrets the tel held in its guts.

For whatever reasons, I never got around to asking any of my guides about the massive mound; at least not until I was on my way back to Ben Gurion Airport, headed home after a month in Israel.

As we passed the site, I pointed it out and asked my Taxi driver if he knew anything about the mound and the work being done there. He sort of grunted and I figured his lack of English and my lack of Hebrew was the problem.

I persisted, asking if he knew anything at all about the archaeological site. This time he laughed. Then, in absolutely perfect English, he explained that Hiriya might be an archaeological site one day; maybe in another thousand years.

Truth to tell, he explained, Hiriya is a landfill that was closed about a decade ago, the place where the bulk of trash from Tel Aviv had been dumped since the 1950s. Who knew? Like many such places around the world, it has been covered up with dirt and topsoil and plans are still in the works to turn it into some sort of city park.

Despite the hard-to-define vibe – mystical, spiritual, smelly – that spills across the dump, Israelis pretty much ignore the place. Tourists continue to wonder about its secrets, but I’m thinking it will take a few centuries before archaeologists start sifting through the junk.

All that stuff – plastic bottles, tattered clothing, broken cookery; you know, garbage – will probably be worth a fortune one day. Like a really fine wine, the crap of life just needs a little time to properly age. I’m guessing it’ll all end up in a museum or whatever they’re calling e-bay in 2300.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Holiday adventure: New coat both hot and cool

It’s the day after the most wonderful time of year and time to do a little shopping. Some people are into shoes, others sweaters. Me? I believe in that ancient Talmudic saying: You can’t be too rich, too thin or own too many jackets!

So it was that I spent the morning checking out all the special after-holiday sales here in the Land of Cotton. For some bizarre reason, the Sears store in my little corner of the world is selling off all its merchandise, tinkering about with its space and reopening in the early spring as a K-Mart. I understand such things happen. What makes this bizarre, however, is the store was a K-Mart a year or two ago before it closed and reopened as a Sears outlet. Go figure!

Sears mostly offers up, ah, Sears stuff. But they also sell goods by Land’s End – that would be all the warm, comfy, sort-of-rustic-in-a-good-sort-of-way clothing that generally has me thinking of snowy nights sitting beside a crackling fire. But I digress.

I bought a pair of pants – actually, if you only buy one, shouldn’t the proper reference be I bought a “pant”; just wondering. The lovely Miss Wendy was along and also doing a bit of browsing – we’re sort of co-dependent shoppers. She needed to run some errands, so we headed off in different directions.

I ended up at Kohls, a happening place that offers sales on top of sales on top of sales. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever buy anything from this place at full price. Then again, I imagine the store’s full price has been jacked up a 1,000 percent so the merchandise can be discounted and sold off at reasonable sale prices. Oops, I digress yet again.

I spotted a winter jacket, something I need like a new hairbrush, which is to say, ah, not much. I’m pretty certain if I took inventory of my closet, I’d find something like three windbreakers, two leather jackets, three dress coats – two dressy and one sort of casual – a puffy winter parka and at least three light-weight fleece jackets.

But, well, the windbreakers are a little too light, the parka too heavy, the dress coats, um, too dressy. The winter jacket at Kohls seemed to be right in the zone – rain-resistant, not too light or heavy – and just the right size and fit. Besides, I liked the brand name – zeroXposur!

I’m thinking if I wear it along with my new “pant” from Land’s End, I’ll not only be enjoying a snowy evening and crackling fire, but I’ll probably be planning my next snowboarding adventure at the next X-games. Can anyone out there say RAD?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

God only knows what I'd be without you

Blogger's Note: It's that most wonderful time of the year and the lovely Miss Wendy and I spent the evening staying warm, comfy and entertained. I shared our holiday secret last year. I'm sharing it here yet again – the start of a new tradition.

Spent the other night in a lovely way with the lovely Miss Wendy watching “Love, Actually”! It’s become a Grebnief holiday tradition. The film is light and fluffy with a killer soundtrack and a message that goes just as far as you’re willing to take it.

The 2003 romantic comedy, written and directed by Richard Curtis, features an ensemble cast of iconic pros – Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kiera Nightley, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton – whose lives criss-cross in all manner of ways. There’s at least a half-dozen or so story lines that play out during the movie, focusing on the joy, pain and messy madness of love.

Of the half-dozen or so tales that play out during the movie, the one that’s lingering about in my noggin today is the laugh-out-loud funny connection between Jamie and Aurélia (Colin Firth and Lucia Moniz). They meet when Jamie escapes to his cottage in France to work on a novel and lick his wounds after being betrayed by his girlfriend. He meets and pretty quickly falls for Aurélia, his Portuguese housekeeper. Jamie speaks no Portuguese and Aurélia speaks no English. Hijinks ensue!

Jamie makes his way to Portugal on Christmas Eve to ask Aurélia to marry him, a hilarious, joyful bit of filmmaking. The dialogue is sharp and witty and the director manages to add an extra layer of energy by cutting back and forth between this story line and another involving two kids and first love. Trust me, it works!

Starring right along with the great script and wonderful acting is the city of London, all gussied up and twinkling for the holidays. And let’s not forget that killer soundtrack I mentioned earlier, a euphonic blend of pop hits and memorable classics. Highlights include Kelly Clarkson and “The Trouble with Love”, Norah Jones and “Turn Me On”, “Jump (for my love)” by the Pointer Sisters and Joni Mitchell doing “Both Sides Now”. Don’t look now, but I think you’re tapping your tootsies.

Push aside the feel-good vibe of the movie and there’s a little message all wrapped up at the end. The last scene returns to the opening of the movie at Heathrow, most of the film’s characters stumbling into one another – greeting or being greeted – at the international airport outside of London.

As the Beach Boys’ hit “God Only Knows” plays out, the bigger than life vignettes give way to real-life portraits of folks greeting one another – husbands and wives, friends and lovers, people! The screen splits, then splits again; then again and yet again. Hundreds of people hugging, holding tight and living out the lyrics that poignantly explain each of the stories in the movie..

Recall the refrain? If not, check out the headline to this posting to help jog your memory. Now go hug that special person in your life and happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holidays often the most confusing time of year

Blogger's note: Instead of thrashing about a bit and coming up with yet another Hanukkah posting, I've decided to reach back into my vault of golden goodies and reprint my holiday offering from last year. Chag Sameach!

The search for meaning is a constant struggle. Around this time of year, when days grow short, nights long, and the world seems to overflow with things of the spirit and holiday cheer, such philosophical concerns become even a greater problem for some.

Unable to capture just what it is they believe, many people thrash about a bit, taking a little of this and a little of that. They close their eyes and shrug their shoulders, and mostly come up with a whole bunch of nothing.

Such efforts generally are of little import. A person looks, explores, and comes up empty. Maybe next year. No wonder people suffer from holiday depression. They eventually grab hold of only the superficial elements, ignoring the transcendent beauty and wonder to be found during this, um, most wonderful time of the year.

Occasionally all this effort runs amok. In the rush to belong, to understand, and feel good about who and what they are, people sometime forget that ritual and belief need to have something meaningful at its core.

Several years ago, when I was getting paid to write and still worked for that place with a printing press, I received a publicity kit for a new children's book, "Blintzes for Blitzen." I tossed it atop a growing pile of letters, bulletins, books and press releases, planning to study it when I got a moment.

As Hanukkah neared – btw, the eight-day Jewish festival begins this evening – I remembered the colorful cover that featured a drawing of a reindeer and a Menorah, and dug out the promotional material.

At first glance, "Blintzes For Blitzen" seemed to be just another holiday offering; a cute, brightly illustrated children's book that explored the beliefs of two dramatically different religions, capturing the seasonal cheer and worth of both.

But it became clear, very quickly, that mostly this book was filled with a discordant mishmash of this and that, devoid of meaning, message, or cosmic belief.

That the story is moronic – something about one of Santa's reindeer, Blitzen, stumbling across the house of Bernie the deli owner, who is busy making blintzes for Hanukkah – only reinforces the notion that nothing of lasting worth is being offered.

The motives of the book's publisher, MixedBlessing, seem noble enough. "The book blends the traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah into a heartwarming tale of discovery and joy," the publishers write, and is aimed at the "growing number of interfaith families."

Phooey! Raising children of faith is a difficult problem these days. Helping them understand the wonder and beauty of different traditions is a worthwhile undertaking. But trying to blend the disparate traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah is a mistake that honors no one.

Hanukkah has nothing to do with Christmas. Christmas has nothing to do with Hanukkah. Placing a Star of David atop a Christmas tree might seem like a good idea that offers a message of understanding and tolerance. But it trivializes the holidays for those who take their religion seriously, lacks any depth of meaning or transcendent worth and confounds and confuses the brightest of children.

The search for meaning and faith is a struggle that involves understanding who you are and your place in the world. Coming to such belief might begin as an exercise of intellect – a product of the mind – but ultimately finds a resting spot in the heart and soul.

Standing off in the distance and appreciating the beauty of the holiday season is okay. I got no problem with anyone enjoying Christmas Carols and Hanukkah lights, sharing festive meals and handing out gifts to family and friends. It's when some folks try to smoosh everything together, creating Hanukkah bushes and Christmas menorahs, that the season grows bizarre, silly and meaningless.

Hanukkah and Christmas aren't just words, devoid of meaning. Both holidays offer something special for those who are interested in hearing the message. But there's a price that must be paid to appreciate the holidays as anything more than one-dimensional, festive happenings. You have to figure out what you believe and make a choice.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Toe-tapping, feel good flick for the holidays

The lovely Miss Wendy and I were channel surfing earlier this week, in search of something – anything – to distract us for a few hours before calling it quits for the day. The major networks are mostly featuring holiday cartoons and reruns; so it was that we ended up reaching way back into TMC’s vault of golden oldies and spent the evening watching White Christmas.

Just as I clicked onto the movie channel, the opening credits of the holiday classic were playing out and we were once again back on a battlefield in Europe, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye performing for weary troops thinking of home and a “White Christmas”.

The unit's commanding general – a hard but very lovable Dean Jagger – is being replaced by a hard and not so lovable officer; and in these final moments of his command he’s sent off into retirement by his men wishing him well in a teary and musical sort of way.

A decade later, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis – that would be the Crosby and Kaye characters – have become a hugely successful song and dance team. They meet up with the Haynes sisters – Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen – in that oh-so cute way that only happens in Hollywood.

In just about the same sort of cute way, the guys and gals end up stumbling into Bob’s and Phil’s former Army commander who is now the owner of a picturesque – if financially failing – inn in Vermont. Song, dance and hi-jinks ensue.

The film, directed by Michael Curtiz and produced by Paramount Pictures, offers up a toe-tapping, upbeat story that had audiences in 1954 laughing, crying and cheering. It would probably be universally panned and ignored today – no car chases, explosions, shaky camera work or moral ambiguity. Go figure!

What White Christmas does have is the music of Irving Berlin. The film is built around a play that Wallace and Davis hope will save their general’s inn and provides the foundation for a dozen or so classic Berlin tunes – “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”, “Snow”, “Heat Wave”, “Love, You Didn’t Do right By Me”, and of course, “White Christmas”.

I know exactly what’s going to happen when watching the movie, but still I tear up when the general is escorted into his inn’s dining area and is greeted by the men who had served under him a decade earlier in World War II.

It all gets a little – well, actually, hugely – sentimental and gushy when snow begins falling and the final number has Wallace and Davis, the Haynes sisters and a cast of hundreds singing “White Christmas”. In some fashion, I’m thinking the melancholy yearning for family and home; the holiday spirit, love and friendship that’s captured in the movie’s closing moments are exactly what people needed a decade or so after World War II ended.

White Christmas creatively offered up the idea that life had been tough, but that it was getting better. I’m thinking it’s a message – at least for me – that still seems valid and important today.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cool, crisp days with a chance of Ladybugs

I usually don’t think of bugs being a problem when the weather chills out, but in the last week or so an entire generation of Ladybugs has moved into our little corner of the world.

I imagine there’s a good chance I’m noticing the little critters because our home is light and bright now – this is our thanks for dusting things up! The orangey thingies are easily spotted traveling from here to there in search, I reckon, of even smaller critters – aphids, scale insects – to gather up for dinner.

They don’t pose much of a problem and I’m fine with their buggy presence as long as they remain outside. Not being sentient beings, however, the itty-bitty beetles don’t seem to grasp the concept of being unwelcome guests. So I’ve been forced to escort dozens to the door, thank you very much!

This just in to news central, with a tip of the hat to Wikipedia! Apparently, here in the Land of Cotton, Coccinellids – aka Ladybugs – usually begin to appear indoors in the fall. They leave their summer feeding sites in fields, forests and yards looking for a place to spend the winter. Who knew?

I guess that means I should be gussying up the guestroom and stocking up on aphids. I imagine it also wouldn’t hurt to buy a few extra bottles of gin so I can make a few dozen – wait for it – Pink Ladies. Of course me and my ladybug friends will be enjoying cocktails while vegging out to – that’s right – Lady Gaga!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Here’s the inside story on the weather outside

I looked over at the near wall in our beautifully redone kitchen, checking out the temperature outside. Only problem, is in our little dust up recently of our aging castle we decided to toss a few things, including the ancient inside / outside thermometer that came with the house when we bought it – that would be early in the first Reagan administration!

It was old, rusty and featured a dangling bit of wire that snaked for a foot or so across the wall, underneath a window and connected to a metal thingy that registered the outside temp. The unit was paired with an inside thermometer; so I could see both inside and outside temps at a glance.

Practical? Why, yes. High-tech and aesthetically pleasing? In make believe Army speak, that would be a big negatory!

Of course, all I really need do to find out how hot or cold it is in my little corner of the world is log onto my computer and check out any number of weather sites. With the click of a mouse I can find out all sorts of interesting and informative data – including up to the minute temperatures for my region, state, county, city and neighborhood.

The problem is that I still keep glancing over my shoulder when eating breakfast, staring at a blank – if freshly painted – wall in search of weather info. Change, someone once said, is difficult; and habits are hard to break.

So it is that the lovely Miss Wendy and I are now the proud owners of a little bit of high-tech magic – Brookstone’s Wireless Weather Forecaster. It’s a sleek little box that offers up all sorts of data – inside and outside temps, humidity levels, daily forecasts and the time.

The base unit syncs up nicely with a smaller satellite box – it’s about the size of a flip phone – that is placed outside. It quickly provided basic info – outside temperature and humidity – and in another day or so the forecast feature will kick in.

I’m told there are now a veritable cornucopia of devices that offer high-tech solutions for comfy living – portable phones that sync up with base units; sound systems that wirelessly link to stereos and TVs; security and lighting systems that can be controlled remotely through smart phones.

The problem? Check out that bold bit of info I detailed earlier about change and habits. The lovely Miss Wendy and I might have weather info flowing into our home now, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before anyone mistakes us for high-tech geeks!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Didn’t know painting could be so entertaining

Not at all sure of the point of today’s post; but you might file it away under the rubric: Everyone is good at something.

For weeks – months, years – workmen have been zipping about our home, ripping stuff down and nailing stuff up. In recent days a crew of painters has taken center stage and I’m fairly certain that very soon – if and when it quits raining – the final touches of our remodeling plan will be finished. Can I get an Amen out there!

Perched in my small office, I’ve watched in wonder as a small army of worker bees circled my house, caulking every opening, then whizzing about with a super-charged sprayer, laying down a fresh coat of primer.

One fellow seemed bored with all this activity, off by himself as his co-workers dashed here and there doing this and that. The first act complete, the idle guy all of a sudden took charge, grabbing a ladder that stretched out forever, centering it at one end of the house and grabbing hold of the sprayer.

In an act of madness and with the help of his painting troopers, he proceeded to lay down a fresh coat of fresh paint, zipping up and down the ladder and quickly covering every inch of siding before maneuvering the ladder a few feet further along the house.

The mad and amazing part of his work is he never completely left the ladder and never touched the ground once he started his little dance. Occasionally he had to call for help when a bit of landscape blocked his path and he was forced to swing around a bothersome bush or tree.

For an hour or so he hopped, skipped and painted; the sprayer and artist managing to complete a task at warp speed that once upon a time took days. Another group moved in a day later to handle the trim, the aerialist momentarily free to tidy up his equipment and practice his amazing moves.

I haven’t checked out the invoice from the painting contractor yet, but if he reads this blog I’m guessing he’ll be adding a 10 percent surcharge for entertainment. In the overall scheme of things, it would probably be money well spent.