Thursday, September 28, 2023

Character Studies

            Summer is over. Winter is coming. Many of us will spend more time indoors, and that for us means watching movies – though we’ve already watched quite a few during afternoon naptime. We are especially drawn to character studies, which usually accompany great acting. Here are a few we can recommend:


(Note: When I say it’s on Amazon, it often means through one of the Amazon subscriptions – Acorn, iFC, PBS Masterpiece, etc.)


The Chimp Empire (Netflix) – a documentary about a group of chimpanzees in an African jungle. Movingly told, it almost takes the form of a tragedy. If you have doubts about our close kinship to chimps, this series will make it clear.


The Mustang (Netflix) - No, it’s not about the car. A reality-based story showing how a hardened criminal participates in a rehabilitation program by training wild horses.


Jury Duty – a series showing the process of jury selection, the trial, discussions, and numerous problems and personal moments. The catch is that everyone involved is an actor – except for one person who is chosen to be Jury Foreman and has to deal with all this nonsense. Very entertaining!


Forward. Side. Close! (Amazon) – A grumpy old man living in an Austrian castle is forced to celebrate his 70thbirthday. This movie is much better than it sounds.


Acquitted (Amazon) – a man returns to his home town in Norway 20 years after being acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend. The town isn’t buying it.


Bedtime (Amazon) – Set during the half-hour before bedtime, this series goes behind closed doors to offer a revealing – and very funny – peek at the nighttime conversations between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, and more.


Half Broken Things (Amazon) – a house-sitter bonds with a petty thief and his pregnant girlfriend to form an idyllic “family,” until the past intrudes. Fascinating psychology.


Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix) – A British politician admits to having an affair, which turns into an accusation of rape. Again – fascinating psychology, plus some good courtroom scenes. And what’s with those wigs!


Borgen (Amazon) – Political drama series about the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark. You will learn much about a political system that makes our American system look simple. Great character studies.


Maudie (Amazon) – True story about a Canadian folk artist who struggles with rheumatoid arthritis and a doubting family before moving in with a surly fishmonger. Another great character study. Better than I make it sound.


The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (Amazon) – An Australian series starring Sigourney Weaver about a nine-year-old girl who is raised by her grandmother on a flower farm, where there are secrets within secrets. The plot is slow-moving, but the characters are powerfully drawn.


Women Talking (Amazon) – Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The women of an isolated religious community grapple with reconciling a brutal male-dominated reality with their faith. (Guys, we can be better than this!)


Phantom Thread (Netflix) – In 1954 London, an obsessive and controlling dressmaker (Daniel Day Lewis) forms a relationship with a waitress, who becomes his model and mistress. Fascinating dynamic between them.


Hampstead (Amazon) – Diane Keaton plays an American widow who finds unexpected love with a man living wild on Hampstead Heath. They take on developers who want to destroy his home. It’s a good Keaton vehicle.


Made in Italy (Amazon) – Liam Neeson is an artist, estranged from his son. They reconnect when working to restore and sell a badly neglected house in Italy. Great character/relationship study.


Your Sister’s Sister (Amazon) – Thoroughly delightful rom-com!


After the Wedding (Amazon) – The title sounds like a rom-com, but it’s certainly not that. A man travels from India, where he runs a charity for kids, to Denmark, where he hopes to meet a wealthy donor. He’s invited to the donor’s daughter’s wedding, and here’s where the surprises begin. It’s a powerfully acted and filmed work – it had both of us in tears. Again, a great character study.



Thursday, September 21, 2023


            The other day Kim asked me what the word “superstition” meant. I pondered for a minute and then told her I’d look it up.


            From Wikipedia I learned that it’s pretty much a negative term, one that non-practitioners use to disparage the “irrational” beliefs or practices of others, largely because those beliefs involve some sort of magic, especially in foretelling future events. Sometimes an entire religion can be written off as “mere superstition.” I’ve not heard of followers of two different religions each accusing the other of being superstitious, but it probably has happened.


            Let me skip over the religion/superstition comparison, as there is obviously a lot more involved in religious practices than avoiding cracks in sidewalks or having a lucky number. (My long-time lucky number, 8, has consistently come up empty for me ever since it was my winning number in some sort of lottery when I was, maybe, nine years old.) On the other hand, Kim and I have a lucky number – two numbers, really – the date of Kim’s birthday. I have appropriated it as “our” lucky number, and it works, for whenever we see it, usually on a digital clock, I feel a wave of warm appreciation for our marriage. I also feel this warmth when I use our anniversary numbers on the keypad to open our garage door. In other words, my “lucky number” superstition works – except for my 8. (I admit that my lucky numbers have not helped me with the lottery, which I foolishly enter from time to time as a sort of voluntary tax payment to Michigan. A friend, a math teacher, told me that whenever he felt an urge to buy a lottery ticket, he flushed a $5 bill down the toilet – same result.)


            So, what about such “superstitious” practices as astrology, fortune telling, or belief in what can be labeled as “paranormal”? If “paranormal” means, simply, beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding, then how can we deny the existence and power of the paranormal – do we really think that science can or will explain everything? Really? How soon will that happen? Maybe it’s time to re-visit the writings on the inevitable Uncertainty acknowledged by quantum mechanics, where, according to Heisenberg, the path a particle takes “only comes into existence through this: that we observe it.” Or maybe the paranormal, the engine driving superstition, lives in the space with Kim’s magical birthday numbers, where my belief, in fact, gives them power to warm my spirit. If you hear your fortune told, maybe it’s the hearing, and believing, that makes it come true. I predict that some of you will disagree. But in my 30+ years of teaching, I rarely had a cold, and when I thought I felt one coming on, I would lie back and visualize my white blood cells attacking and destroying cold “germs” – an image probably derived from Pac-Man. Whatever – it worked for me. Science? Paranormal?


            Another confession: In my post-divorce pre-Kim bachelor days, I would play solitaire, using my success or failure to predict how well my day would go. Sometimes it would take two or three games to get me to a successful day ahead. More than one meant that I would have to work a bit to have a good day.


            The word “superstition” comes from the Latin, roughly meaning a station or status that is more or beyond: super-station. How can we object to that?


            Most common superstitions involve predicting or controlling what we call “luck,” perhaps the subject of a future blog entry. Some favorites:


·      Walking under a ladder will bring bad luck. This may be more common sense than superstition.

·      Don’t let a black cat cross your path. OK – but it may take you longer to get where you want to go.

·      Cross your fingers to prevent bad luck. Works for me because I’m lucky.

·      Beginner’s luck. There should be a veteran equivalent to this. Suggestions?

·      Friday the 13th means bad luck – unless it’s Kim’s birthday, as it is this year

·      Rabbit’s foot will bring you luck – unless you are the dead rabbit.

·      Knocking on wood brings good luck – unless the wood’s in your head.

·      Keeping your legs crossed means you won’t get pregnant. Kim’s grandmother taught her this one.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Fungi from a Fun Guy


            When I was in college I took a philosophy course in Aesthetics. We spent a semester discussing different ideas about the nature of beauty. We read a lot of theories, finding problems with all of them, and saw a few examples. But I don’t think we saw any pictures of mushrooms.


            Some aspects of nature are obviously beautiful: flowers, butterflies, birds, sunsets, etc. I’m attracted to the humbler, less obvious beauty of mushrooms. This summer Kim has roamed our modest acre of land, photographing our mushroom friends. Here are a few beauties:

At one point my plan was to identify all of these. This plan lasted about two hours, with no success except for the ones Kim had identified. Help from Mushroom People is appreciated! Kim says I know as much about fungi as I do about being a fun guy.

I think that each mushroom has its own personality - and that is beautiful.

Same mushrooms as the previous photo - different angle.

My plan was to include my favorite 15 shots. Sorry - too many favorites!

Morel, maybe

False Morel - don't eat it.

Who knew there was all this beauty around us? Or that what we can see can be seen as beautiful?

Thursday, September 7, 2023

High Points

            Kim and I have gotten into an occasional practice of asking each other what was the “high point” of our day. I think we first saw this in a movie, years ago, and then Genne´’s ex-husband would ask at the dinner table. He would also ask about “low points,” but we tend not to do that.


            I thought it would be educational to share with you some of my “high points” over the years.


·      One morning I successfully opened a package of bacon without using scissors. It took a while. [Time for a joke: An old guy goes into a sperm donor clinic, argues that he has a degree from Amherst, a Ph.D. from Harvard, and a Nobel Prize, so his sperm is worth collecting, despite his age. They give him a jar and send him to the bathroom to collect a sample. Half an hour later he emerges, looking very frustrated. “I tried everything! I put hot water on it, and cold water on it! I squeezed it! I even beat it against the sink! But I could not get the lid off the jar!”]

·      I noticed when I was typing that my “w” key would not work unless I pounded on it. I imagined what it would take to get it fixed, and whether I might need a new computer. Then I slipped a fingernail under the key, and the problem was fixed. Made my day.

·      I successfully reattached a wheel to our barbecue grill by properly inserting a cotter pin. This may seem to be a small victory to some of you.

·      Eating Kim’s scones is often a high point.

·      The other day we saw some mushrooms just off our back porch that looked like erect penises (not mine!). They are called “Devil’s Dipstick,” among other things. We learned that Victorian ladies would find them in the woods and destroy them because they looked evil. (Maybe they felt tempted . . ..) Here’s a photo.

Kim, for some reason, was more excited by these than I was.

·      I spent $10 to buy lottery tickets and won $5. I felt good about this.

·      Kim whispered something in my ear. I don’t remember what it was. Doesn’t matter.

·      We watched a team of guys take down a huge poplar tree right next to a neighbor’s house. They were amazing with ropes, saws and pulleys. It’s great to witness such skills at work.

·      When we hugged, we scratched each other’s back.

·      Getting up every morning, still alive, and seeing this beautiful place where we live: the lake, the sunrise, the woods, the birds . . ..

·      Sometimes a response to my blog is a high point. Not that I’m asking . . ..

·      A guy came over to change the filters on our reverse osmosis system. He was soaking wet, as his previous stop had him dealing with a large machine outside in the rain. Kim told him to take off his shirt and undershirt, and she would put them in the dryer. He didn’t believe the offer, but after we insisted, he stripped down and completed the job in the kitchen bare-chested, as we chatted with him. The whole time he was saying, “I don’t believe this,” and “This makes my day.” My response: “That’s my wife.” His enthusiastic incredulity made this a high point for us.


            A smart person now could stand back and draw some conclusions about the kind of person that would list things like these as “high points.” I am not the person to do this.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Afghan

             One of our new routines is the afternoon nap, often in front of a forgettable movie. Kim usually lies on the couch, wrapped in the afghan that her grandmother made for her years ago. It is light but warm. (Our television is in the basement, which we keep cool.) Kim says that when she is wrapped in the afghan she feels the presence of her grandmother, and she appreciates, now, all the work that went into it. She is thankful, now, every day. She did not feel this appreciation, she says, when she was young. Some days she wraps herself in a light blanket that was a gift from a good friend, and she feels the love in that blanket, too.


            This kind of gift can be wasted on the young, caught up, as they are, in the present. A lovingly knit sweater can be casually tossed aside, a hand-made quilt spread out on the ground for a messy picnic. I was in my 20s when my father offered me a collection of books written by my grandfather, Arthur Stringer, a prolific and successful author of popular fiction. I declined, except for one slim volume of poetry. Dad looked surprised and a bit annoyed, and later he donated the books to the University of Western Ontario. When I was in my 50s I realized my short-sightedness, and I began collecting Artie’s books – work that he had committed his time and talent to creating, a commitment that I had rejected. I am passing my current collection of over fifty volumes to my grandson, Lucas, himself a writer, who is eager to have them. What was once wasted on me is not being wasted on him.


            Most of us have some version of Kim’s afghan. It need not be something physical, but it nonetheless is an experience of appreciation. Here’s an example: Last week I sent my brother and sister a note reminding them that the 19th was Dad’s birthday – he would have been 106. My sister, Candace, wrote back a charming reminiscence of Dad’s jokes and games at the dinner table, plus a few other memories. Now, when I thought of Dad, I thought of him as emotionally distant – seeing him that way must fulfill some psychological need of mine. But Candy’s message opened a window to his warmth, perhaps fueled by an after-work cocktail (or two), but still . . .. It was an afghan experience for me – not a blanket, but a memory. And no, I can’t cuddle up on the couch wrapped in my college diploma – which Dad paid for – something I took for granted at the time – but the thought of it warms me today. Thanks, Dad.


            Kim is able to generate afghan experiences of a more concrete nature. She makes scrapbooks for the grandkids, and though they may not now appreciate the work, talent and love that she puts into them, they will some day, and they will be warmed. It’s not just the scrapbooks – it’s the appreciation of Kim that will provide the warmth. The “afghans” she knits for me daily take the form of the meals she prepares and presents, despite her growing pain and fatigue. I pause, and appreciate, as I wrap myself around the chicken stir-fry, the soya beef-strips, the scones, and much, much more. And only now do I appreciate the meals that Mom put on the table when I was young. Thanks, Mom.


            What do I do to create afghan warmth? Hard to say. These blog posts may help do the job, and Kim, in going through her files as part of an ongoing downsizing effort, has found some old poems I wrote. And I suppose she can wrap herself in these. I can’t speak for my sons, but I think that the afghan I make for them often takes the form of checks that I occasionally send south – that, and my sometimes failed efforts to coach them through some troubles. I sense some of my own father’s distance . . ..


            Diplomas, checks, poems – these are words. But now, as we are slowly downsizing, we are dealing with things – things we may want to move, or discard, or pass on to family and friends. I am learning, mainly from Kim, how each thing carries its own version of her afghan’s warmth – its history, the love or artistry that made it, or the wonderful natural world that created it. Things glow. I’m a word guy, and as such, I have a lot to learn.


Thursday, August 24, 2023

Everything We Need

            We’d heard a brief bit of music – I’m not sure where – that was identified as “Bach, Unaccompanied Cello.” We liked the small bit we heard, so we asked Alexa to give us more. She complied, and so Kim and I sat in our living room to listen. It was amazingly beautiful. And as we listened, we saw projected on the wall and ceiling a dancing pattern of light, the morning sun reflected from the lake, shimmering through our windows onto the living room wall and ceiling. It was a perfect match with the music, and it was just what we needed after discussing various stressful family matters. The world can surprise us with its beauty. Sometimes everything is just right.


            Everything We Need


The deer snorts and I turn, in my hand

a just-sprouting-legs tadpole moments ago

raked from the pond while I scooped


string algae, and as I glance from tadpole

to deer’s antler nubs, reddish coat,

flanks thin from a cold spring, and he


stares back at me, bends to nibble

tiny buckthorn I should pull from the woods,

and he grazes past the poison ivy I sprayed,


ferns moved up from the fen to behind

the hickory tree, and I say, “Stay, but

don’t eat the flowers,” the cat emerges


from behind the woodpile, creeps

closer to the buck, who looks from me

to the leaves to the approaching cat


and then back to the leaves he snatched

from the redbud we were hoping to save,

and his jaw moves narrow and loose


as he stares, chews, stares, looks back

at the stalking cat, lowers his nose to her,

a tawny white calico blending with


the reddish tan deer, both enclosed

in deep green shadows, dark brown

path and woodpile, vertical rainbow


of gray, brown and green trunks,

diagonal sunlight slicing the air

of our woods, and I balance


our whole life in this one moment

then drop the tadpole into the pond,

and the buck carefully walks away,


lifting his feet high, and the cat

follows him, until all that remains

is everything we need.


            It’s not, of course, quite everything we need. But still, with all the horrors afoot in the world, and with more likely to come, we need to pay attention. I acknowledge that I’m not great at paying attention, as Kim can testify. I spend too much time “in my head” or on my computer. I do, however, wish to celebrate these moments when I was paying attention to the dance that goes on around us all the time.