Stuck in an elevator with …

Before ever hearing of the saying “I’d hate to be stuck in a broken elevator with that guy,” or heard of the list “The Ten Worst People to be Stuck in a Broken Elevator With.” I used to wish to be stuck in a broken elevator with certain people. This was not a sexual thing—a vehicle for picking the ten sexiest women in the world. It was a way to pin someone in a place where I could ask them questions, my questions, and when I got their first pass at answers I could asked for clarification, drill down.

The first person I wished I were stuck in a broken lift with was an owner of a small stereo store back in the late 70s. I used to hang around the store where the very cool, very knowledgeable sound guru would answer my questions about Nakamechi, Macintosh, and “watts per channel.” I never seemed to understand what he told me since someone with money would always walk into his shop and he would walk away from me as if I was an eight track tape player before my understanding of some concept he told me would crystallized.

In college, I became enamored with a college professor. I would sit in the front row and try to understand everything he said. When I decided I didn’t want to share the professor with anyone else I would request a meeting in his office, but these sessions were always too short—even when I got him to agree to meet during one of his open periods.

This idea sounds strange, I know, and probably unhealthy to someone with claustrophobia or someone who is very withdrawn or shy. I am neither of those, but I am someone who tends to retain very little of what I hear or read. Knowledge I glean from a lecture or a book seems to vanish as if the information was a mere vapor. People close to me say that is because I am not really listening for content, but rather for entertainment. Hmm.

I have seen where fictitious characters in film have learned important things from being captive in an elevator with someone:

  • Jack Black’s character in “Shallow Hall,” stuck in an elevator with Tony Roberts, received a spell from the famous motivational speaker that opened Hal’s eyes to inner beauty.
  • Tom Hanks’ character indirectly receives romantic advice from his doorman while stuck in his apartment elevator in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.”
  • Though it’s a stretch, Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, in “The Matrix” reassures himself as he destroys the elevator beneath him and his partner by whispering to himself, “There is no spoon,” which turns out to be a key to his (and the world’s) salvation.

In the years since I graduated, I would read someone’s work or hear someone speak and immediately think of the broken elevator, but for the most part in the last twenty-five years, I really have not found myself confronted with someone I wished an intimate audience with—until lately.

After reading, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” “Death of the Liberal Class,” “Empire of “Illusion” and his column in Truthdig.com, I thought I would like to be stuck in an elevator with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges. But the preceding words are over two years old and things have changed in my life. I suppose I would still like to pick the brains of someone I have enjoyed reading, but seriously, who wants to be stuck in an elevator anyway. Would if the elevator is stuck because the building is on fire. Cooked as if in a Dutch oven!

To tell the truth, the only reason I posted this is to mark a significant change in me. The above was a work in progress back when I was writing my Jockomo blog; I guess I wanted to post it to show myself I have moved on. If you have stumbled onto this blog through a Google search and are now wondering just how batty I am well, pretty batty, but I am getting better!

Shameless Plug for a New Blog

Boy, it has been a long time since my last post. Recently, I have been inspired to post something, but the inspiration is for a series of posts. So, I will start fresh with a new blog. Perhaps this will inspire me to submit more posts to this sorry blog in the meantime. Check my new blog at http://www.burgerscoot.blogspot.com/ or just click on the link under My List on your right. At post the blog is still in progress. I hope to have it up soon, though.

Bad Movies and Lost Time

A few years ago, I received all three Extended Edition “Lord of the Rings” DVDs for Christmas. Though I wasn’t in the mood for watching the movies at the time I wanted to make sure all the discs were in good shape before I placed them in my video library. Coincidently, my wife showed an interest in these movies—she was one of the few people I know who enjoys cinema, but didn’t see the epic trilogy on the big screen. She decided to watch the films with me to find out why these films received so much media attention.

Inside of a week, my youngest son and I watched the three movies with her—my son and I serving as guides helping her remember the odd names; explaining the differences between humans, hobbits, elves, and orcs; and holding her hand through parts of the story she “just couldn’t wrap her head around,” to quote my son. After the trilogy’s climax, when Frodo dispensed with the cursed ring and Gandalf, on a giant eagle, picked him up along with his bodyguard Sam, my wife sat up and looked at me with a mixture of anger and frustration. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it went something like this: “Are you kidding me? We just suffered through over nine hours of Renaissance fair drivel only to find out that the old guy could have flown over the volcano and dropped the ring in himself—he’s got that big eagle thingy!” While I could have told her that the Eye of Sauron would have noticed the conspicuously large fowl and would have made it difficult for Gandalf to do the game-saving slam-dunk, I simply said that there wouldn’t be a story if our heroes didn’t go through all the trials and tribs first.

Of course, she didn’t buy my simple reasoning and her rage reminded me of how mad I felt after seeing a truly horrible film. Recently, while wasting my time on YouTube I came across a clip from the John Waters film Desperate Living—a film my college friend Paul and I watched back in the 80s. In it, a neurotic wife, played by Mink Stole, yells at an errant phone caller the very thing I used to think when having to sit through a horrible film: “How can you repay the 30 seconds you have stolen from my life?” Since I used up countless hours of my precious finite existence watching filmmakers’ bile and gaining absolutely nothing from them, I often felt like Waters’ neurotic character as well as my wife after the Tolkien trilogy. I would get more enjoyment cleaning out colostomy bags or handing out Watchtower and Awake! magazines door to door.

I think I have viewed more rotten cinema than most people have watched any quality of film. Many of these rotten examples of cinema were films I reviewed for a video guide twenty years ago. The idea at first was great: I would write for a nationally distributed video guide; I wouldn’t receive payment, but the movie rentals for the assigned titles and all the ones I wanted to watch were free. How could this be anything but a plus? Unfortunately, after receiving the first list of titles to review I found that nearly all of these videos were found in the “Direct-to-Video” section of my local video store—which is to say these films never made it to the big screen. I would watch the films in my parents’ room sparing them the pain of pre-empting there regularly scheduled programs. When I finished viewing the really rotten ones I always asked myself if this was really worth it; I could have hanged out with my friends or maybe taken in a good movie, or maybe go to a play, or a club. Anything, even suffering through a syndicated episode of “Happy Days,” would be better than “Christmas Evil,” “Bloodbath at the House of Death,” and all the other titles with the word “blood” in them that I was expected to watch, rate, and come up with words to justify my rating. It is not surprising that I gave the “turkey” (aka the 0-star) rating to many of these films. One might understand why an aspiring writer might play the role of the bottom feeder in a movie video guide project—my work was being published and that’s what counted. Ultimately, the price was too high and after four years, I quit.

Money was not the issue, since I was viewing these films free, but what about the theatrical releases—the films I viewed for my own enjoyment? This was a misery laced with anger. Paul and I once sat through the abomination “Yellowbeard.” It just may be the worst comedy ever produced by a major studio. While there is nothing as funny as a horrible horror film, there is nothing as horrible as a bad comedy. I know that I blow the same amount of money on things that are just as much of a waste of time, but I believe there is an informal contract that filmmakers and film viewers go into when paying for the ticket. The viewer pays the industry to make, distribute, and present the film to entertain the viewer. Much like slipping some coin in a jukebox to hear a good song.

This problem of time ill spent is never so evident when you are seeing movies free of charge, since demanding your money back or receiving a credit for a movie you paid for may give you some satisfaction that masks the real problem—lost time. After the “Yellowbeard” incident, in a sarcastic fit I came up with a brilliant albeit sophomoric idea: the “Time Token.” If this Wellsian device existed I would have demanded time tokens in the theatres that presented “Yellowbeard,” “Jaws 3,” and Steven Spielberg’s cinematic turd “1941.” In these and many other occasions too painful to count, I would have hopped in a booth located in the theatre lobby and inserted the token I demanded from the theatre manager, which would be worth the exact amount of time of the film I watched. In less than a minute I wound be transported back to the film’s starting time. Just before exiting the time machine, I would be briefed on what just happened:

Welcome to Flickimark’s Time Reclamation Machine. Tonight, January 17, 2009 at, 7:30 p.m. you purchased a ticket for Bride Wars. You demanded back the 90 minutes you spent watching this film. The time is now 7:30 p.m., again. Please remember to reset your watch. We hope you appreciate this service and return to Flickimark Cinemas.
Disclaimer: the Flickimark’s Time Reclamation Machine is to be used for viewing time redemption only. It is highly discouraged to view the same movie of which you have reclaimed your time—this may cause severe déjà vu…Flickimark’s Time Reclamation Machine is not programmed for future time travel. Any, tampering with the program is unlawful. Any such tampering could irreparably disturb the space-time continuum…

While sitting through a movie like “Red Dawn” would make me as angry as listening to Rush Limbaugh, there was other—equally horrible—films I actually found entertaining. For instance, while I kept my disgust to myself about reviewing most of the crap handed to me by the video guide editor I jumped at the chance to critique the works of Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, and John Waters. (I was honored he handed me the entire Waters catalog to review!) It was at this point I ran into problems with the editor of the guide. I had lost focus on what was “good” and what was “good camp”—the two blurred together and on more than one occasion I had to change my rating of some of these films from three or four stars to two, one, or even a “turkey” rating. Initially, this angered me, but seeing John Water’s “Multiple Maniacs,” which I originally gave a high rating, next to the five-star 1932 classic, “The Mummy” in the movie guide drove home the point: this was a serious movie guide, not some novel collection of camp classics.

This taste for the truly bad started with my friend and college buddy Rick, but didn’t really take off until I met Paul, who worked at a sister theatre. During midnight viewings of films at one of the theatres where we worked, we discovered our mutual love for bad cinema while simultaneously laughing at the unintentionally funny scenes. Our friendship flourished, nurtured by crappy slasher films of the 80s. Around the same time, Paul transferred to the theatre where I worked and shortly after that, I moved into his apartment. As movie theatre employees, Paul and I fully exercised the benefit of the inter-theatre employee pass system. Being able to view any movie in town free was the only benefit minimum wage theatre employees received. We not only watched all the big productions like “Full Metal Jacket,” “Ran,” “House of Games,” and “Mississippi Burning” for free, we saw all the crap, too—especially slasher and exploitation films like “Friday the 13th,” “Prom Night” (the original), “My Bloody Valentine” (also the original), and the Greatest Bad Movie since “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” “Pieces.”

I don’t think any of the theatre managers expected anyone besides naive teenagers to go to these films, but rotten films became comedy classics when you were with a friend who could turn every hackneyed line, every predictable plot turn into comedy funnier than an intentionally humorous films. Paul and I made the best out of films that should have been melted down for the silver; cracking jokes at the screen preceding the cult cable television series Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Still, too many of these films could not be redeemed by our witty remarks and I would often wonder if I could have spent the time doing something productive instead of sitting through “The Jar.”

One Sacramento theatre in particular was infamous for consistently showing the worst exploitation and slasher films in the world. Whenever Paul and I would sign into this theatre to watch such howlers as “Enter the Ninja” and “The Exterminator” the manager would look at us and roll her eyes. On one occasion, she said to Paul as he was signing us in, “I know why we have to show these lousy films, but I don’t know why the hell you have to come and see them.” Paul laugh, but she was serious. There wasn’t a simple explanation why two employees of the city’s premiere art house would want to watch “Gymkata.”

When I think of all the bad cinema I have sat through, I can’t help but wonder if I would have been a successful business man like my father or brother if I would have skipped the self-indulgence. Perhaps if I had taken journalism seriously and skipped the free movies for an internship at the local metropolitan paper I would be a respected reporter by now. Maybe I had done something with my life that would have added up to something more than what I got watching “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” but a part of me thinks I just couldn’t have stood the boredom.

The Transition to Audiobooks

About nine months ago, I put down the book I was struggling through and made the transition to audiobooks. I did not take this move lightly; in fact, I am a little embarrassed by it. It is not that I have never listened to an audiobook before. Even a voracious reader like my wife chose to buy the audiobook version of David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim instead of the paperback. After reading the brilliant Me Talk Pretty One Day, my wife decided to purchase Sedaris’ next book in an audio format just to hear the author’s voice. Although the material wasn’t as good as Sedaris’ previous book, his dry, effeminate voice, replete with hilarious impressions, actually made the audiobook funnier than his earlier work. Before officially making this move I had already listened to the Sedaris audiobook as well as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, and Johnson and Blanchard’s Who Moved My Cheese?. However, my reading problems hadn’t reached such a serious level during the time that I listened to these books on audio CDs.

I have suffered from poor vision throughout my life—I have one lazy eye and elements of both far- and near-sightedness in my dominant eye. I recall my nearsightedness as far back as first grade when I could not see the words on the blackboard. Since I didn’t care much for school, I really didn’t think that sitting in the front row throughout my elementary years was a problem I needed to be concerned with. It wasn’t until a family trip to Disneyland while I was in high school that I realized I had a problem. I remember scoffing at a sign on an empty amphitheatre stage. “Check out the lame rip-off band ‘Doobie Gang,’” I said to my brother. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “It says “Dobie Gray.”

A few years later, I managed to squeak by my first of many vision tests at the DMV. While my “good” eye gave me grief, my lazy eye turned out to cause bigger problems than my inability to get dates. In college I had to read multiple chapters of textbooks every week, I discovered I was not increasing my reading speed, despite Evelyn Wood and other resources, since I was reading with only one eye. Experts told me that this condition was permanent, in terms of my reading speed. My monocular reading condition causes an extra strain on my dominant eye, so I get sleepy easier than most and suffer from headaches during long nights of cramming.

Over the years, I have read many books that I absolutely loved, yet I fought a seemingly endless battle between concentrating and snoozing. Moreover, the older I got, the harder it became to finish books. A few years ago, I started the depressing trend of not finishing books after the first 20 to 50 pages. While some may argue that there is nothing wrong with this habit—perhaps I have become more discerning with and protectiveed of my time, I knew better. Some of these books were quite engaging. The physical task of reading became too tiring for me, and I was annoyed that I could only cover three to five pages before nodding off. What’s worse, I usually ended up embarrassing myself and others, snoring away on the living room easy chair while my sons had to make excuses for me to their girlfriends (I snore loud enough to rattle the windows.)

I started out reading the paperback versions of The Shadow of the Wind and The Glass Castle. After only about a chapter in each I cut over to the audiobook versions and realized that I could consume much more text through my ears than through my eye in a given amount of time. Still, I continued to buy and borrow traditional books instead of audiobooks. It wasn’t until I found myself plodding through Tim Holland’s wonderful Rubicon that I realized I should stick with audiobooks. Alas, the acclaimed British author’s book is not available in audio format on this side of the Atlantic.

In the time it took me to read halfway though Rubicon, I have listened to Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a collection of short stories by Philip Dick, Steven Pressfield’s Killing Rommel, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and most of William Young’s The Shack. (I couldn’t finish that one—it’s horrible!). At this rate, I am sure I will also complete Jose Saramago’s beautifully written Blindness before I finish Holland’s book. I think it is realistic to say I have shelved Rubicon, though it pains me to admit this. In between all these audiobooks, I have also listened to countless recorded sermons, books from the Bible, and a horrible audio class on the Apostle Paul that I purchased through the otherwise wonderful resource, The Teaching Company.

The obvious reason why I now can consume so much literature, compared to when I was reading, is that listening to audiobooks and other audio materials liberates me from the task of holding a book up to my face. I listen while I am commuting, during slow times at work, during my workouts, at bedtime, as well as when I usually would read, sitting at home or while I am taking my lunch at work. You may argue that many, if not all, of the activities mentioned above can be used to read, and I have tried them all, only to arrive at a similar dismal outcome. I often see someone I know from work at a local restaurant—his head always in a book. I also see my fellow commuters reading on their way to or from work, and I notice fellow health club members on elliptical machines employing the book holders while working out. What I’m talking about is using all this time—just about every free chunk of time I have. Of course, I could use some of the more sedentary times to actually read (at home after dinner, during lunch, etc.), but that only starts the read-snore-read-snore cycle again. I have relegated reading time to doctors’ offices and other bits of free time. At this rate, I doubt I will ever finish that book.

One of the drawbacks of listening to books is that you end up tuning out the rest of the world. As bad as the world is becoming, that would seem like a good thing, but not always. When I don my earphones and iPod, people with whom I usually see and greet on the street act as if I don’t want them to bother me. Although untrue, the earphones must send this message, since people on the bus who usually sit near or next to me just smile and look elsewhere. I felt isolated when I first started listening to books during my commute to work. Later, I began speaking up to my fellow commuters when wearing my headphones. I have had many lively conversations in the past with these folks and don’t want to jeopardize our relationship over my wearing headphones. I realized that I may be giving them mixed signals. I’m still working this out.

Another very different drawback to audiobooks is the recording quality. One rarely finds a book where the font is obtrusive to the story, but an audiobook can be poorly narrated or perhaps dramatized in a way that detracts from the story. The biggest drawback to audiobooks is that so many titles are only available in an abridged version. It is a sacrilege to consume an abridged version of Melville’s Moby Dick or Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, but abridged versions of these works are available in both traditional and audiobook formats. The problem is that sometimes the audiobook customer has no choice but to listen to an abridged version. I listened to abridged versions of Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I didn’t feel good about this, but the abridged versions were all my sources offered in these audiobooks. Initially I got most of my titles through the library, which limited my choices. I now have an Audible.com account, but I do not enjoy paying $15 per book each month for the service.

I have now finished Blindness and have moved on to listen to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Ravi Zacharias’ Recapture the Wonder, which I am listening to with my wife at bedtime. She has taken an interest in audiobooks, ironically to help her fall asleep. I originally read On the Road in college, and now I am revisiting this classic twenty years later—something I never would have done without the audiobook format. I have been considering a new, more robust iPod—my Shuffle is difficult to navigate without a screen. At the rate I am going, I will soon have an iTunes library of audiobooks to rival my buckling bookcases.

In Appreciation of Tall Women

This post should be titled “In Appreciation of Volleyball,” but because I have, until recently, thought of the pastime as a woman’s sport, and perhaps deep inside I was a sexist when it came to women in sports, the title will stay with apologies to follow. I never liked volleyball; I always thought it was a sissy sport. When we played volleyball in high school P.E. I would conveniently interpret my own awkwardness as a result of having a Y chromosome. The open-handed “slapping” of the ball and the lob serves didn’t help my image of it either. As for the rules, I just hated them.There were guys who could punch the ball, which improved my opinion of volleyball, but still I didn’t think the game was for men. Many years later, one of my co-workers started watching beach volleyball. He would copy hi-def images to place on his PC’s desktop. While these photos showed very muscular men performing feats of athleticism, I still didn’t buy into volleyball as a man’s sport. Maybe I didn’t like those goofy hats with the bills flipped up.

I felt better about women playing the sport, which I’m sure was a sexist hang-up of mine. In some ways I think I reflected the time: Title IX had just passed, yet sports scholarships were still not encouraged for young women. Part of my problem is I never sat down and watched girls’ volleyball while I was in high school. If I had, I might have changed my mind right then and there.

I played beach volleyball as an adult only once, and it only had a negative affect on my opinion of the game. It was a Boy Scouts camping trip at Point Reyes and a dozen or so of us set up a net on the beach. I would have rather flown kites, or played with the potato cannons, but the scoutmaster wanted to play volleyball. I ended up on a team with a hyper-aggressive assistant scoutmaster who was hell-bent on telling all the scouts on our team how the game should be played.

As (bad) luck would have it, the ball never seemed to come toward him so he crashed into me every time it came my way, showing the scouts how to perform various setups, saves, and spikes. After eating half the sand on the beach, I bowed out, as did a kid on the opposing side. We ran off and stole one of the potato cannons and a sack of ordnance. I wanted to lead a spud attack on the assistant scoutmaster and the whole stupid game, but I had to be responsible and lead by example. I limited the number of projectiles we fired, and made sure we shot them in the opposite direction of the game. At that time I didn’t know what was a lamer game: volleyball or badminton.

My opinion of volleyball warmed a few years ago when I spent a few minutes watching hordes of young women play the game at the Sacramento Convention Center. The only reason I ended up there was because I was in a deli across the street two blocks from work when three guys walked into the store shaking their heads in amazement, one exclaiming, “Those girls are off the hook!” After finishing my lunch, I walked across the street to where the games took place. I remember how fast the games were and noted the intense competitiveness. This was not the sport I remember from high school. I found out just recently that the event I saw only a few minutes of is the

Volleyball Festival. I also learned that this national event was huge—with hundreds of athletes competing in games not only at the Convention Center but also at Cal Expo and in Davis. I was hoping to attend more the following years but my wife told me that Reno now hosts the event.About two weeks ago my wife asked if I would like to go with her to the NCAA final between Stanford and Penn State. I said yes, not because I was interested in the match, but because my wife and I don’t go out much and I knew she was going with or without me. The next night we were in ARCO Arena, up in the nosebleeds watching the match. My only complaint is that I wasn’t close enough to catch all the nuances of the game.

I had no trouble seeing the incredible speed and power with which these tall women played Then I saw the diving saves and blistering spikes and the amazing speed, aggressiveness, and skill; I was impressed with their athleticism. I also couldn’t help but be a little intimidated—what would it be like to be on the receiving end of one of those spikes! The setups made sense to me. There was a beauty to the movement; the best setups were as stunningly beautiful as a perfectly executed double play in baseball; I was finally getting it.

Some stuff was a mystery to me, but my wife helped explain the changes since our high school days. All the changes are definitely for the better, making the game far more interesting and dramatic; for instance, no more specific amount of passes before the spike and more open rules on service. It is all wide-open and that made the action far more dynamic, unpredictable, and explosive. About a game into the match and I began caring about the teams. I became a Stanford fan. Although, just as in NBA games, I thought the cheerleading stuff was dumb and unnecessary. The only thing entertaining about them was how unsynchronized the Stanford cheerleaders were—perhaps they had Finals on their minds. I don’t think you will ever see an apologetic post on this blog about cheerleading. In an evening of pleasant surprises, the only disappointment was the scoring.

I was still into the match when, on the fifth game, it was suddenly over with the scoreboard reading Penn State: 15, Stanford: 8. What is this half-of-a-fifth game all about? The fact that Stanford lost was enough to make virtually everyone (shy of the Penn State players) quiet, but I was still wondering why everyone began shuffling down the stairs. “I guess that’s how they score Game Five,” my wife said. When the match started she told me that the rules from the 70s when she played high school volleyball, had changed, but she didn’t know all the changes, so even she was a little befuddled. While Stanford forced Penn State to a tie-breaking fifth game (30-25, 30-26, 23-30, 19-30, 15-8), I felt I could watch more that night—why not the best of seven like in other post-season sports? I left that evening with an appreciation for a sport I used to discredit and an admiration of the athletes that I rarely gave a second thought. Perhaps I should reconsider badminton, too. Easy there, Jocko!

On Certain Saturdays

Occasionally, when the weather isn’t prohibitive, I walk to a café about two miles from my house. It’s good exercise—and usually boring as hell. The route I take brings me by a small camper, maybe only 15 feet long and not very tall. I’d imagined it was for sleeping only—no stove or toilet, like some have. On one Saturday, while I was walking by the trailer I saw a man in his forties, and what I assume was his teenaged son, unlatch the back wall of the trailer and set it down, revealing two dirt bikes. As they wheeled the two four-stroke motorcycles out of the trailer and onto the front lawn, a melancholy feeling swept over me. I wanted to abort my health walk and start a conversation with the father figure. I had a thousand questions for him and many tales from my youth I wanted to impart. Even if I’d had the nerve to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and he was friendly enough to reciprocate, he would get tired of all my questions and my “When I was into dirt bikes…” stories. Still, the feeling hung with me like a dull ache for many days following the encounter.

First thing the following Monday morning, I emailed someone at work who I knew was a dirt bike enthusiast about some of the changes in the dirt bike world over the last few years. “Ben,” I’ll call him, was happy to fill me in on the details, though, being younger than me, he could not fill me in on all 30 years that I have been away from the sport; in fact, his emails took on a kind of anxious tone when I kept the email correspondence going far beyond his own interest. (Perhaps it was a good idea I kept walking the other day.)

Ben helped me understand why these two dirt bikes I saw, which clearly were racing bikes, replete with number plates, had four-stroke engines—when I followed the sport the four-stroke engine was relegated almost exclusively to the street due to the engine’s weight and poor, low-end performance. California’s green legislation, Ben told me, has hurt the two-stroke motorcycle owners. One can ride a four-stroke dirt bike (also known as a “thumper” because of the low-pitch sound that it makes) year round compared to two-stroke bikes, which can only be ridden when air quality permits; this is determined by the Air Quality Index (AQI). This translates into two-stroke bikers can’t ride on public land during the warm weather months. Also, if for some reason air quality is poor during the cool months, they may not be able to operate their bikes on those days either.

I was a true wannabe dirt biker when I was a kid. For the year or two that he competed, my father was an accomplished novice racer, winning trophies in Enduro, Hare and Hounds (Scrambles), and Hillclimbing competitions. He didn’t like Motocross—what I believe to be the coolest and most exiting motor sport in the world—because “you just go around in circles.” Typically self-effacing, he would come home from a race with a huge trophy, walk directly into the garage, and throw it up in the attic, never to be seen (at least by him) again. I used to go up in that crawl space, set up his trophies—which included awards in auto and boat racing—like a shrine. I couldn’t understand how someone could actually win something like a trophy (and some of them where big, from big events), then just chuck it like an ugly dish won from a coin toss at the State Fair.

In my near 50 years, I have never won a trophy; the closest things I have are the numerous certificates a State employee receives for training. I feel so special when I receive the decoration on multipurpose printer paper and see the blank line where I am supposed to enter my own name, for sleeping through a class on “Professionalism in the Workplace.” Some of my father’s trophies have his name etched on gold plaques.

Though my father was not an expert rider, he occasionally raced with accomplished professional riders like Hall of Fame inductee Dick Mann, who is featured on the 1974 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday; though my dad admits he couldn’t keep up with the legend. I saw the Brown film with my dad when it first came out and then again just a few weeks ago after all these feelings of longing hit me on that street where I saw those two dirt bikes. I think my dad had hopes that his two sons would ride with him, but when he brought a little 50cc Honda mini bike home that fateful day, we were petrified of the little thing.

Later, when I grew out of my fear of falling and, to some extent, my fear of my father, I asked him for a 125cc Honda Elsinore. By that time, he was no longer interested in dirt bikes; he now ran around in the dirt with a dune buggy. I guess he didn’t want to spend the money on a new bike for me since he sold his last bike, or maybe he thought I was just all talk. He later bought me a 70cc Honda. I don’t recall what happened to that bike. However, I do remember riding that bike and my mom’s old 90cc Hodaka, but he only took me out to an OHV park a couple of times to ride it. I usually went out to the gravel pit (now William B. Pond Park at the East end of Arden Way in Carmichael) and played around there.

Similar to how I watched the Oakland Athletics when I was playing little league, I kept up with the professional racing side of the sport, subscribing to Dirt Bike magazine. I had my favorite riders, just as fans of baseball have their favorite players and teams. Only a Motocross maven like me would call it an honor to be clocked by Brad Lackey’s handlebars when we went to Livermore to see an International Motocross. It didn’t feel like an “honor” at first—more as as if I had just walked into Barry Bonds’ wheelhouse as he was swinging for the Bay. I saw all the leaders go by—Swedes, Fins, Belgians, and Germans, then I leaned over to get a better look and Lackey came in close with his lime-green Kawasaki. The next thing I knew I was grabbing my arm and trying not to faint.

I would have loved to get the future World Champion’s autograph next to the big bruise; alas, it would have faded away much as the bruise did. What paled in comparison to the Lackey bruise was the bruise I received by a line-drive foul ball in a 1972 ALCS game at the Oakland Coliseum. I don’t even remember the batter’s name. Who cares who that Baltimore Oriole player was; I got a black, blue, purple, and sickly yellow bruise by Brad Lackey! I would later get 500cc World Champion Roger DeCoster’s signature on a cool 8×10 glossy of him on his Suzuki when I saw him at Carmichael Honda a few months after the race, but I misplaced it. If I ever find it, I will probably also rediscover the banquet program with the autographs of the future 1972-74 World Series Champions; yes, I had a dynasty on a 1968 fund-raiser program and I misplaced it.

In my correspondence with Ben, he also told me about Monkey Butt!, the book written by Dirt Bike magazine’s first editor, Rick Sieman. (The title comes from a condition, the author states, where a person has been riding dirt bikes for so long that his rear end starts to look like a monkey’s ass.) The next day, Ben came down with his worn copy of Sieman’s book. I didn’t ask to borrow the book and felt somewhat awkward taking it, but after I started reading it, I was transfixed. Monkey Butt! is poorly written, poorly edited (if edited at all) and—for someone like me who experienced this subculture (albeit from the cheap seats) some thirty years ago—a blast of a read, typos and all.

The book is a collection of very short essays that range from the whimsical to the outrageous to the occasionally poignant. Sieman is not an accomplished writer; his style is provincial at best, but what better voice for this subject? A friend once told me I was a fool to read Dirt Bike, he told me Cycle World was a better-written and more serious motorcycle magazine. In retrospect, he was correct, but that wasn’t the point—Cycle World was more like the Establishment: proper, sober, and shiny—like a chrome stock fender. Dirt Bike was the Counterculture: irreverent, funny, and as gritty as a Carlsbad berm.

Sieman captures the excitement of experiencing a brand new pastime much like the Bruce Brown film so beautifully celebrates. However, Sieman’s book goes back to the dusty alleys where street bike enthusiasts would tinker with top-heavy, ill-handling road bikes that were stripped down for racing in the desert. The book chronicles the rise of a different kind of motorcycle club dedicated to dirt and desert racing, documenting the synergy of this movement with the evolution of the two-cycle dirt bike to meet these hungry new enthusiasts’ demand of lighter, faster machines. Just like in surfing—which was gathering momentum at the same time—southern California became the Mecca for the dirt and desert racing subculture. In typical American style, dirt bike racing became an “American sport,” despite Europe’s legitimate claim to the pastime. Monkey Butt! is a remembrance of this discovery.

While the first half of the book focuses on the early, developing years, the second half is mainly about the battle between off-road bikers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the other “eco-nazis,” as Sieman calls them. This part is where my love for the dirt bike runs smack into my liberal politics. Still, Sieman puts up a strong argument for desert racing, claiming that the ecosystem of the Mojave Desert, just to name one, is always in a state of change:

“One sandstorm in the Mojave can move millions of tons of sand and dirt over hundreds of miles. One flash flood can tear away the base of a mountain. How can this compare with a set of tire tracks over shifting sands? If all the dirt bikes in America got together and rode around in a circle for a month at a spot in the Mojave, one sandstorm could wipe out every evidence of them having been there. Overnight.”

Still, I know there are other arguments that support the abolishment of desert racing, such as the endangerment of the Mojave Desert Tortoise and other wildlife, but that does not stop developers from creating fire roads, mines, and other types of development that do just as much damage. If Sieman is very critical of the BLM, he equally doles out harsh words about the American Motorcycle Association. He believes they have been impotent against these powers and act like a puppet for Japanese motorcycle corporations who do not support the very people who buy, ride, and race motorcycles because they want to avoid making waves in the U.S.

Reading the book only exasperated my longing for a time I never truly experienced first-hand. I was more like a third-string high school football player, permanently pined for the season, watching my teammates win the State Championship. With each story in the book, I recall names and events that I knew of, but because of either my age or my situation, I was always on the outside looking in.

My last bike was a 125cc Yamaha Enduro DT-1, but I never rode it in the dirt—it was my ride to and from high school for a couple of years. When I got my first car, I was already deep into listening to and writing about rock music and movies, and lost interest in the dirt-racing scene. I never returned to the dirt bike world. Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, and Bob Dylan had replaced Joel Roberts, Roger DeCoster, and Dick Mann in my personal pantheon.

The years went by and I only heard bits of news of the dirt biking world: There’s this thing called Supercross, kind of a combination of motocross and, I don’t know, football? Anyway, it takes place in a stadium where you have an assigned seat as though you’re at a football or baseball game. Hell, that’s no fun; you can’t freely walk around the track to the best berm or the starting line or finish line, where you are inches away from your hero and his handlebars. Ironically, Dirt Bike was instrumental in organizing the first Supercross: the Superbowl of Motocross held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1974. Then there’s the latest thing that I’ve seen on TV, Freestyle Motocross (or FMX) where riders take dirt bikes and try to do daring, artistic moves way up in the air. It looks more dangerous than Motocross, but it still is kind of lame; the whole thing flies in the face of real Motocross, where you want to get as little air as possible. Also, FMX is not a race, but rather something contestants are judged on—like figure skating. Anyway, I guess this old fart is out of it.

On another Saturday walk, I find myself spying on the dirt bike family getting ready for the races. I have my mobile phone to my ear, as though I’m talking to someone, and I stare through my dark shades at the father and son checking out their bikes. The trailer door is down and is now a ramp. (Oh, the trailer is more spacious than I thought, and the amenities!) The father starts one of the bikes. It has an electric starter. Hmm, that seems kind of sissy compared to the old kick-starting method in my day. They look over at me standing in the middle of the street, “talking” to someone on my mobile phone, and then father says something to his son that I can’t hear over the thumper’s pulse. Perhaps they are wondering if I am some kind of wannabe. They don’t know half the story.

Loose Cannons and Gun Control

One winter when I was a teenager, my father, brother, my brother’s friend (I’ll call him “Bob”), and I took up pheasant hunting. I am not sure how this came about. I think my father’s fishing buddy had suggested hunting. It was an interesting venture, but I am sure I never want to do it again. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed hunting for fowl to an extent, but as the season went on, some things developed that confirmed to me that I didn’t want to be around guns.

Before we could go blasting away at the birds, we needed to take a gun safety class. One of the things the instructor taught us was that even when everyone in a hunting party knows that a shotgun is empty, it is rude to point that gun at someone. While this seemed like a very reasonable thing, Bob took this piece of gun etiquette to a ridiculous level. Whenever one of us was cleaning our gun and had the barrel removed from the stock and firing mechanism, Bob would absolutely freak out if you pointed the empty barrel at him. Turning the business end on you and the back end towards him would net the same response, and even having the disconnected barrel on the table with one end pointing in his direction would send Bob under the table yelling, “Stop it!”

Bob’s hypersensitive attitude aside, gun etiquette and safety is nothing to joke about. On one occasion, we invited another kid from the neighborhood (I’ll call him “Chris”) to go skeet shooting with us. At the time, the pheasants were illusive, and the only thing we enjoyed shooting were clay pigeons. My dad bought a little clay pigeon shooter and a few cases of clay pigeons for us to practice on. The clay pigeon shooter was like a spring-loaded, side-arm catapult that acted like a Frisbee flinger. The clay pigeons looked like small soup bowls turned upside down, and shot into the air by the shooter. We had a lot of fun shooting clay pigeons, but for all the power that clay pigeon shooter had, we wanted to try our hand at real skeet shooting – where the targets were fired from a farther distance, at a faster speed, and the direction was unknown to the shotgun operator. So, we loaded up our shotguns, ammo, and neighbor Chris and went out to the range.

I believe some of us could have died that day on the range. Chris, who had absolutely no experience with firearms, couldn’t understand the concept of keeping his shotgun barrel pointed down. He kept it level, and whenever the range employee tried to teach him something, Chris would turn to him with his shotgun pointing wherever he was looking. Each time, he swiveled past my brother, Bob, and me we would scatter, yelling at Chris to point the barrel downward. Even though he didn’t have a shell in the chamber, we were well trained, to avoid the muzzle. Then the guy from the range – red-faced and frustrated – would pull the barrel down and range-ward, took a deep breath, and told him not to point a weapon at anyone. Then he’d give Chris a shell and tell him to load the gun but not close the chamber. Chris didn’t hear the second part and closed the chamber. As all of us screamed at him to keep the chamber open, he swung around, pointing the shotgun at all of us once again. All that needed to happen was for him to slip up and squeeze the trigger, and some/all of us would have been worm food. The range employee caught the swinging barrel and told him to point it towards the range and the skeet shooting commenced. When Chris’ turn was over, we all sighed with relief; someone took the shotgun from him, and the potential for catastrophe ended. Still, he wasn’t the only one who was dangerous with a firearm.

A short time later, a kid I went to high school with (I’ll call him “Paul”) received a shotgun around the same time we started getting into hunting. It turned out to be a foolish decision by his parents. Paul wasn’t an emotionally unbalanced kid, just a little too squirrelly to handle the responsibilities of owning a shotgun. We heard tales of him discharging his weapon in his backyard, and the first and last time I ever visited him at his home, he had the gun down from the rack in the front room and was pointing it at things like a vase, the TV, a window. His oblivious parents got him a shell press for Christmas with enough empty shell casings, shot, primer caps, and gunpowder to light up Carmichael.

Paul would tell us stories at school of how he would modify shells to create a bigger bang – chalking the casing with as much powder as possible and adding some heavy-gauge shot so he could see just how much damage he could do firing at some poor, defenseless 2×4 or one of his sister’s “missing” dolls. No question, this was scary stuff, but it’s all good. Squirrelly Paul finally ran out of powder and, on a dull-gray day with nothing better to do, Paul took one of his casings, installed a primer cap in it, put the casing in a table vice, pumped up his Daisy BB gun real powerful-like and then started taking shots at the primer cap from across his father’s workbench. When he finally hit the cap, it blew up, launching the cap across the workbench, lodging in Paul’s forearm. His father, hearing the screams, came out and saw the damage his son had done and finally had enough of Paul’s mischief. Rumor has it that before he dismantled Paul’s pyrotechnics lab, he took out a pair of needle-nose pliers from his tool kit and pulled the burning cap out of Paul’s arm – no doctor, no numbing agent, just one fed-up dad taking care of his mischievous son. I occasionally see Paul. He appears to be a nice, calm, responsible person, his Ted Kaczynski days behind him.

Our own experience with shotguns turned out less eventful than some of my acquaintances.’ Absolutely no funny business with the shotguns and, aside from a whole mess of shattered clay pigeons, we shot only two pheasants in all our outings, and that happened in one day. (See picture of this humble blogger holding the two lucky birdies.) We would have bagged a few more over the season, but accompanying us were the two most undisciplined German Shorthaired Pointers known to the hunting world. We would be walking an alfalfa field early in the morning, skunked as usual. Then a jackrabbit would dart across the field, and the two “trained” dogs would take off after it barking up a storm. Straight ahead, but just out of range of our guns, a bunch of pheasants would flush – pheasants that would have been game if the dogs were knew anything of their breeding.

When we did get the two birds, no one really knew who got them – we all shot at once. When we landed one of them, it was still flopping around…and it was at that moment I lost my taste for hunting. I don’t know why I’m such a sissy when it comes to killing mammals and most critters larger than a pot roast; I can kill spiders, flies, and other pests, but I just have a thing about larger animals. I guess it’s kind of an anthropomorphic thing – it is closer to a human. This, of course, doesn’t stop me from telling ranchers to go ahead and slaughter them steer. I’m waiting for my steak. I guess I haven’t thought this out thoroughly. A guy I work with has a picture of himself and a dead deer he presumably killed – the proud hunter holding the buck by the antlers. I don’t know why I have a problem with that kind of stuff; I don’t mind venison – especially jerky! Anyway, I used to wish that I shot wide that day, but only God knows. This incident didn’t stop me from finishing-out the season; I just wished I didn’t have to shoot again. In fact, I didn’t.

Getting up at 5 AM on a winter morning was tough for me, even though I was a teenager, but at least we were walking these fields. Duck hunting is something completely different. With pheasant, quail, dove, or turkey hunting, you are always moving; with duck hunting, you are standing still in waist-deep freezing water. I tried duck hunting one time. My neighbor Pat invited me when he found out that I hunted pheasant. He told me about how much more enjoyable it was than pheasant or quail hunting, which he also did.

On one very cold winter morning, we parked his truck and walked to a blind he said he used quite often. Pat let me borrow a pair of waiters. They were excessively big, but Pat told me since I wouldn’t be walking around much, it didn’t really matter. What mattered to him was the orange shotgun safety patch I had my mom sew on my hunting vest. I figured I needed to add some flair to the otherwise drab apparel, and the patch I got for completing the class was all I had. Pat said the bright orange in the patch is visible to fowl and may cause ducks to stay out of shooting distance; he also thought the patch was straight-up gay, which in retrospect he was right. I couldn’t help but comment on how cold the water was. Pat reminded me in an annoyed whisper to be quiet, but I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering. Some time later, I let out a small chuckle when I noticed the floating bubbles in the water were actually thin slices of ice. Pat shot me a mean stare, then looked at my patch again and rolled his eyes.

After not seeing one duck in range for over an hour, Pat left the blind for a while, telling me that he may know of a better location where the ducks may not be flying so high. When he returned with what looked like an instant case of herpes, I asked him what happened to his face. He nonchalantly told me that he had been “rained on,” as if it was something all duck hunters experience from time to time. If the freezing cold weather, immobility, and the fact that ice slices were conspiring to create a skating rink around us wasn’t bad enough, this “rained on” crap was too much. But what was I supposed to do? He had the keys to the truck. Later, I found out that being hit by shot falling from the sky does not hurt or cause shot herpes (my term) – Pat must have caught spray from a discharged shotgun leveled. If he would have been any closer to the center of the spray, he might’ve been seriously injured, and I would have got to ride with him in an ambulance with a heater and warm blankets!

After spending three hours in a giant glass of iced tea, Pat called it quits. On the way home, Pat stopped at A&W for lunch. While the sun was up, my wet jeans were ensuring that even if it hit 80 degrees that day, I still would be miserable until I shed my denim. When Pat ordered a root beer with his lunch, I told him he was crazy. It was at this time that Pat introduced me to the concept of “Reverse Chemistry.” He told me that Eskimos often eat chunks of ice to keep warm. “You see,” he explained, “when the ice hits your system, your body melts the ice and warms the water and, ultimately, your body.” So I ordered a root beer, too. A word to the wise: If you think slamming down an ice-cold A&W Root Beer is going to make your frozen nuts drop again, think again. I sat there in his unheated truck, my teeth chattering through a Teen Burger and a side of calcium deposits, breathing to myself, “Come back, duck blind, all is forgiven!”

Of the few gun tales I have to tell, this last one is the shortest…and darkest. It is also, praise the Lord, the only one of which I do not have firsthand experience. Daniel was an early childhood friend of a friend. Though he lived just around the block, I lost touch with him in my early teens. In his 20s, Daniel became a member of the National Rifle Association. He was also trying to recover from PCP poisoning. I know very little about what happened to him other than he must have smoked pot laced with the pesticide and was later arrested while having a reaction to the drug. After his loving parents had taken him in and tried to help him recover from this very serious problem, he had another reaction that led him to gun down both his parents. His last act as a free man was to call the Sheriff’s Department and inform them of what he had just done.

By the time Daniel murdered his parents, I was completely out of the hunting thing. I remember thinking to myself when the news broke, “Whatever happened to our shotguns?” My guess is, we sold them. With all the gun violence happening in this country over the last 30 years I can see why there are people who want to control the manufacturing, purchasing, and use of firearms. While I have never felt that we should ban weapons used for gaming, I do believe we need to remove handguns and automatic weapons from the market. As for hunting weapons owned by not-so-stable people like Daniel, we need to be far more thorough in our screening and maintenance of gun ownership records. I know this sounds like a red-tape nightmare, but there must be a way to do this effectively. There is something far more important at stake than protecting free enterprise and our “right to bear arms.” I think Daniel’s case is a good argument for that. As for the other loose cannons I’ve been lucky enough to dodge, I haven’t seen a reasonable gun control proposal yet that can keep you safe from the lunacy of puberty.

My All-Too Mortal Game

pat·zer ‘pät-s&r
an inept chess player
Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

I recall filling out the personal information on the Profile page of this blog when I started this thing. Favorite Movies and Favorite Books, as well as my occupation, were easy fields to fill. Where I got stuck was on the Interests field; I had none. This is not exactly true, but unlike my sister, who enjoys golf, hiking, snowshoeing, kayaking, and a plethora of other healthy activities, I had none — or at least none that I wanted to list. I mean, at the time I was entering the information, all I really liked to do was sit on my ass and watch movies, listen to music, and read — that’s it.

Since that initial entry, I am happy to say I have added an interest that requires some movement besides operating a remote control — working out. The thing is, it’s not really an “interest,” it’s more like a chore — like washing my cars. Another interest I listed that is more of an on-again, off-again/love-hate affair is chess. Chess can also at times seem like a chore. It is during those times — usually during a correspondence chess tournament that can become long and drawn out — that I lose whatever transient passion I had for the game, and the rest of the moves become obligatory.

I first became interested in chess back in 1994, after seeing the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After the initial excitement of discovering something new, it became like anything else. In that first year or so, I bought a chess set, chess software, and a couple of books on the game, and as if I knew I was going to become a tournament player, I became a member of the US Chess Federation. This kind of behavior is not unlike me — diving into the latest interest with an open wallet and myopic vision.

The next thing I did was visit a Sacramento Chess Club meeting in hopes of making some friends. I found the chess players there very competitive and aloof. After losing games to a couple of people who thought I was some kind of a joke, I decided to ask for help. The first person who agreed to help me was one of the club’s best who mistook my request for personal training as a request to train my protégé son. It turned out he was not interested in teaching someone who was old enough to grow facial hair. I left discouraged. Online gaming was no better. I joined the Internet Chess Club only to find I was the worst player in the world. I was thoroughly humiliated on a couple of occasions by members who mated me in less then ten moves and then said things like, “My mom wants me to get off the computer and go to bed.” or “37, you’re older than my dad!”

Shortly after this, I discovered that a top-ranked Sacramento Chess Club member was a fellow civil servant and accessible by email through the State email list. I emailed him and asked if he would teach me the basics of chess. This is embarrassing to admit, since most players learn through reading how-to books and playing in club settings; but the books weren’t helping, and I felt I wasn’t good enough to show up at club meetings. The fellow State worker and top-ranking chess club member agreed, and we met at a café in midtown once a week.

On our first meeting, we sat down with our lattes and began a friendly game. A couple of moves later, he asked, “What system are you using?” “What system?” I replied. I never heard of “systems” in chess. (Over the years my “what system” joke has become a tired joke among friends as well as my Blogger account handle. Nobody gets it and for a good reason.) I realized I never learned an opening system for either white or black. Chess was getting more complicated by the game.

About six sessions and two months later, we had our last meeting. I told my own personal chess master that I decided to give up the game. This was in fact a lie; it was getting more embarrassing with each time I paid him to teach me what most people could learn by just playing the game more often then I was playing it. My personal chess master was also getting tired of teaching me. Though he did not say this to me directly, on more than one occasion, when he was frustrated that I could not give him an intelligent reason why I made a particular move, he would say through a sigh, “Look, if you are not going to respect the game, you should stick with checkers.” I know he didn’t say it to hurt my feelings, this guy is a USCF Senior Master and loves the game, I think he was hurt that I was disrespecting that game that he has studied for years.

I also felt tired, and this game requires a lot of concentration and dedication that I no longer wanted to dole out. Take for instance how the number of possible moves in a game grows geometrically with every move. The first move of the game is easy: the player has twenty legal moves, but as the game progresses, the permutations become mind blowing especially when the Queen, Rooks, and Bishops get moving. Perhaps I was taking this all too seriously, but I felt I wanted to learn the science of chess and play in rated tournaments – not just how to play a friendly game. This was my downfall. Ultimately, chess ended up like the drums when I was a kid. When the instructor told me I would not be the next Gene Krupa unless I practiced many hours a week for many years, I dropped the sticks and said forget it.

One of the positive things that came out of these sessions was that I learned the first few moves of three opening systems: for White openings, the Colle System; for Black openings, the Center Counter Defense and the Tarrasch Defense. I purchased books on these three opening games, but as par for the course, never got past the first few pages of each book. In this period of training, I bought many other books on chess — most I don’t think I ever opened! There they sit on my bookshelf, right next to the books on web design, in-line skating, Argentine Tango, and all the other things I thought I would be an expert in by now.

I experienced a renewed interest in the game some time later when I started playing email chess with Gus, an acquaintance from work. The outcomes of the games were not much different from playing either online or at the club — my opponent would beat me or we would draw. Still, Gus was humble and never belittled me. It may sound childish or immature, but it is amazing how small you can feel by losing to someone at chess. If I lose at basketball, I can say I am not athletic. If I lose at a video game, I can write it off as a child’s game. Even if I lose at dominoes or backgammon, I can laugh at how bad I am with numbers. Since chess is all smarts and there is no luck involved, when you loose it is as if your opponent just placed a dunce cap on your head and then proceeded to laugh in your face – it can be that brutal and humiliating.

Last year, Gus and I played another series of games. The outcomes were the same until I started reading the book Logical Chess: Move by Move: Every Move Explained by Irving Chernev. I beat Gus in the last two games we played. While I’m only talking about two games out of probably a half dozen, I think it rattled him; he never lost to me before, now he lost two in a row. We agreed to play OTB (over-the-board), but it never happened. I should have been inspired by these victories and continued to work my way through Chernev’s book (which requires playing through many games while the author explains his tactics). I should have started mixing it up with the guys at the club, and dispatching those pubescent punks online; but for some reason I stopped working through the book and didn’t get back into the game. Perhaps I was comfortable losing — man, that sounds pathetic!

Though I have not played much chess in the last year, I still eagerly await the paperback release of David Shenk’s acclaimed book, The Immortal Game: a History of Chess or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain. The book attempts to illustrate how chess has been an omnipresent factor in the development of civilization, from its invention in India around 500 A.D. to its importance in the development of artificial intelligence. Shenk tries to explain why chess, above the thousands of games invented and played throughout history, thrived within every culture it has touched. Just about everyone has played the game at some point in their lives, and its rules and pieces have served as a metaphor for society, influencing military strategy, mathematics, literature, and the arts.

After browsing through the hardcover edition of Shenk’s book, I bought Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess — a collection of chess puzzles that I worked on during my commutes. I felt inspired that I could solve some of the puzzles that were taken from real games with the greatest player America ever produced. I stopped when the puzzles became too difficult, and I decided to spend my commute time doing something easier on my brain: napping. Recently, I tried to pull out my chess set. I don’t know why exactly. There was no one to play against; I guess I just wanted to lay out the board and pieces. Even with a cheap set like mine, chess is one of the two most beautiful games to behold (pool being the other one; unfortunately, I don’t have a pool table). I looked for my set for half an hour before I quit, picked up the remote control, and watched The Simpsons. I’m doomed to be a patzer-for-life if I can’t stay focused on the game, but I feel so warm and toasty (read superior) watching Homer make an idiot out of himself. If only he played the Immortal Game!

Jason Bourne and the Decline of American Cinema

Between 1979 and 1989, I was a film critic for two college papers, three small-market publications and – for six or so editions – a contributor to the “Mick Martin & Marsha Porter Video Movie Guide.” (Some time in the late ‘90s, before the publication’s name changed to the uninspiring “DVD & Video Guide,” the editors removed my reviews and credit from the publication — so don’t bother trying to find my words of wisdom anywhere but on this blog, unless you dig reading from a microfiche projector.)

Does this make my opinion on cinema and film trends any better than yours? Of course not. Still, I would like to think that my countless hours of viewing, reviewing, and researching films over a quarter of a century counts for something. (I also spent five of those twenty-five years working in an independent “art house.”) So, when I see a couple of trends developing over the last twenty years that frustrates me, I feel like I must speak out. (Anyway, this is my blog so I’ll write what I want!) Since no one wants to hear me talk about how TCM is the best movie house in the world, I guess I will use this space to lay out a couple of things I think are disturbing with Hollywood. Mind you, there are more than just two disturbing trends in film today and, of course, my biggest problem is not with today’s films, but with today’s TV-fed audiences. Still, I think I am in the majority when it comes to this problem, so I will not spend any time on how much I hate those who mix socializing with movie viewing or those who just cannot turn off their mobile devices while inside the theatres.

Sex
A couple of months ago I saw the film, 300. Based on the historic Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, 300 had a lot of violence and gore, not to mention a steamy sex scene. I would have thought that anyone – whether a historian, an action-movie maven, or just someone who came in off the street for a box of popcorn and something to watch will chowing it down – could not help seeing the sex scene as some sort of apparition, or even a director’s joke – it has absolutely no place in the film.

When I saw the infamous scene, it stuck out as if the projectionist had mistakenly switched a 300 reel with a soft porn reel – I almost turned around and looked at the projectionist’s booth the way I would if a hair was in the gate or if the film broke. Of course, neither of these were the case – there was Lena Headey as Spartan Queen Gorgo sweating and moaning like an adult film star, grinding away on our valiant King. What was far more aggravating is how the scene was met with such indifference, as if filmgoers expected to see some T&A for their $9.50.

It is frustrating to hear fellow film enthusiasts argue that there was nothing wrong with that scene in this film, as well as in other films that sport gratuitous sex. My like-minded friend, Gus, complained to me how his friend, Brad, had acted as if Gus was crazy when he protested the scene’s inclusion in the film. About eight years ago, I had the very same argument with Brad about the sex scene in He Got Game. Brad had told me it was the best film Spike Lee had done (up to that time). I agreed, except for the scene where all the college girls have sex with the prep. I suggested to Brad that the graphic sex could have been left out and, by implication, the point of the scene would be maintained. Brad’s reaction was as if I was proposing to rip the heart out of the movie.

Of course, I would not spend all this time on poor ole Brad if I thought he was the only person who judges movies with his libido – it is an epidemic. I have had countless arguments with many people about the cynicism of Hollywood and how it, above all industries, knows the power of sex and exploits it at the cost of content. Brad just looked at me dumbfounded others go to great, and ultimately embarrassing, lengths to try to justify sex on the screen. Here a fellow Netflix member goes to great lengths to explain the art behind Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello getting down multiple times in A History of Violence:

“These scenes honestly, effectively reflected the emotions permeating the characters at the time. The first, a playful (dress up) game that turns into an intense expression of their raw love. These scenes honestly, effectively reflected the emotions permeating the characters at the time.”

I wonder if the filmmakers would have the two characters express such “intense expression of their raw love” if instead of Viggo and Maria the two main characters were portrayed by John C. Reilly and Whoopi Goldberg; I wonder if my fellow Netflix member and others would still defend the sex scenes.

Since I am a Christian some of my non-believing friends write off my opinions as puritanical dogma, but they fail to take note that I am watching these movies in the first place. Many Christians no longer watch movies with ratings beyond PG and do not watch cable television. At times I think I, too, should give up and join my fellow Believers who avoid cinema and television the way they avoid drugs, alcohol, gambling, and popular music. However, I love the art form even if so many of these “artists” have traded content for an appeal to the common denominator.

Sex is a powerful tool in cinema and, if used through implication, helps plot development. As an example, the “sex scene” in The Bourne Identity transforms the two characters, Jason (Matt Damon) and Marie (Franka Potentee), from strangers working together for their own self-preservation into lovers, and everything that happens after that scene changes the entire meaning of the action that follows. What is fascinating about this “sex scene,” vis-à-vis the current trend of sex in American film, is that virtually nothing happens: two people kiss, they begin to disrobe, and the scene cuts to the morning after – we don’t see Potentee’s breasts or ass or the two making love, we don’t even see them supposedly naked under the covers in the morning. Did we have to see the sex? The director proves to adult viewers that there is no reason for it, and I never heard Brad or anyone else complain about it. The day that films get lower ratings or are not recommended by friends and family because none of the characters have sexual intercourse, will be the day I officially hang up my popcorn cup!

Shorter Takes, Whip Pans, and camera behavior for ADHD viewers
The sequel to The Bourne Identity illustrates another disturbing trend in Hollywood. Unlike Identity, The Bourne Supremacy employs whip pans to emphasize action (as if all the car chases didn’t sufficiently scream, “This is an action film!”). I developed a headache watching it in the theatre. When it came to cable television a year or so later, I watched it, remembering what a cool story it is, but forgetting all those annoying whip pans and spastic hand-held camera moves ala NYPD Blue. While it is true that I am picking on this film only because it is a convenient segue into this other bothersome trend, my headaches don’t lie. The worst thing about this technique is that it is a cheap way to emphasize action – I used to do this stupid effect on the family Super-8 camera to punctuate action; I had an excuse, I was a teenager who fancied himself the family biographer. What is director Paul Greengrass’ excuse? Unfortunately, Greengrass has directed the soon-to-be-released third part in the Robert Ludlum trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum. I will definitely see the flick, but I’ll medicate myself first, just in case.

Shorter takes is another depressing trend that seems more like an inevitability than a fad or a trend (i.e., whip pan and other hand-held camera techniques). Thus, this is more depressing than some sophomoric director’s contrivance and it seems indicative of the times. This becomes obvious when comparing a recent film with just about any film from the 1970s and earlier.

I did not realize just how much I was conditioned to “need” shorter takes in a film until I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger. . It took a while to get used to the pacing and the long takes, but ultimately I grew to appreciate what seemed to be a more “natural” presentation than the frenzied camera work that is seen in so many films today. In researching the short/long take issue, I found an entry in the indispensable Wikipedia.org on the Long Take. The entry provides many movie and television productions with notably long takes. Admittedly, there are still filmmakers out there who employ longer takes – in Manhattan Woody Allen employs a static camera and has his subjects move across the POV adding a edgy feeling to the scene. Today, we would most likely see the hand-held camera panning back and forth. Sometimes I think these films should be viewed with a dose of Dramamine. The long take is not dead yet, but it is becoming more of a gimmick or a badge of honor, rather than a standard throughout the industry.

Okay, you can stop reading. I’m finished ragging about how rotten things have become in American cinema. Anyway, North by Northwest is up next on TCM and I just have to see the movie’s sex scene. You know, when Carey Grant and Eva Marie Saint kiss just as their train goes into a tunnel…sexy stuff!