Writing the Obits

I can put it off no longer

No coffee mug large enough

To sip the deed

To be done

It must be drunk

Whole, full-faced

Eye-to-eye, the names

The departed

Journeys

Cut short?

Maybe not.

Maybe

Multiple lives lived

In one

With all the answers

Leaving the living

Clueless with grief

And rose-colored

Verse:

Cleansing

Death’s decay

Gilding with a

Heart’s bouquet

“The Master” Blows

Can a movie that is, in parts, visually pleasing, with great performances, and reference an intriguing, powerful and controversial religious movement, be a failed movie on the whole?  Yes. “The Master” via master film director, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights), fails to assemble all its beautiful parts into a thematic, cinematic whole.

The cinematography is excellent. Establishing shots do what they were meant to do but Anderson fails to leave well enough alone going even further, eventually crushing the movie-going experience with overly long establishing shots minus the mesmerizing cinematic beauty of say, Malick’s “Days of Heaven” or Minghella’s “The English Patient.”  Without these directors’ sweeping panoramas, “The Master” could have saved the viewer’s soul by just getting its characters (in one transition) to the damn front door: Establish the scene with a wide shot of the house, cars of traveling congregants pulling to the curb then cut to the interior. The viewer gets the message. But to hold on to the wide shot, get the characters out of the cars, set the suitcases on the parkway and hugs all-round from wealthy host before strolling up the walkway to the inside is at best boring and at worst, indulgent. There is a belief around the industry (often unspoken, considering the political dynamics between directors and those in post-production)  that a writer should not be allowed in the editing room where his/her work is being brought to life. But maybe these mind numbing, overly long shots were the actual intent of film editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty. Maybe. But doubtful.

“The Master” will and should get Oscar buzz. The actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, turn in riveting performances. Lancaster Dodd is the charismatic leader of the Cause. (“The Master” is loosely based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard). Hoffman’s Dodd forced me to forget the indulgence of the editing, captured as I was by his sonorous, patriarchal manner that invited me to be a part of his “Cause”. Like most charismatic leaders Dodd is quite full of himself and burying his writings in the desert was something akin to the elder Joseph Smith (Church of Latter Day Saints founder) translating scripture from buried ‘golden plates.”  Dodd’s wealthy followers gladly fund his ‘process’ parties providing elegant food and shelter for their leader as they cling to their “master” and his self-styled scientific approach to personal happiness and fulfillment.  Writer/director Anderson is on familiar ground with this ongoing theme of one’s search for meaning (Magnolia) and those leaders who are inclined to see these searchers as manna for their egos. Sadly, Lancaster Dodd is not allowed to take this menacing plot-strand to its ultimate potential.

Unlike Dodd, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is at once dangerous and unsympathetic. Phoenix ups his character’s ‘creep factor’ ten-fold with his continuously slouched posture suggesting a furtive and unhealthy lack of integrity. We first see Quell on a public beach simulating sex with a sand sculpture of a naked woman. If that doesn’t invite a review of one’s lunch then surely Quell’s hand digging sand out the sculpture’s vaginal area creating a more anatomically correct ‘woman’ will. Quell is emotionally lost and, after his stint in the navy during WW II, left to wander the country taking jobs as luck presents itself.   Quell reenters the civilian working world as a hard-drinking, department store photographer with a veneer of civility that is easily cracked by the sobering dullness of his job. Quell’s alcoholism creates a hair-trigger anger that dooms this character to a life of hard labor until, running away from an angry group of migrant laborers, he spies Dodd’s yacht in a San Francisco harbor. It is here I wanted “The Master” to blossom with the intertwining stories of a creature looking for ‘god’ and a man willing, by necessity, to be that god.  But no, what I witnessed was a meandering plot line that did not want (out of fear?) to make Lancaster Dodd the vile, manipulative megalomaniac that comes with the territory of a 20th century charismatic cult leader. Director Anderson shows Dodd as sympathetic, even loving the unlovable drunk that is Freddie Quell. Yes, there is the hint of scandal in Dodd’s arrest for, ostensibly, defrauding rich patrons but that plot line is left hanging. The viewer never learns the truth behind his arrest and quick bail. In fact, that scene serves only to strengthen the viewer’s sympathy for Dodd as he professes to Quell that he (Dodd) is the only one who likes him.  It is hard to understand why Dodd likes Quell even as he drinks the ‘delicious’ paint thinner-laden alcoholic drinks Quell concocts. In fact, alcoholic mixtures of whatever is horribly available seems to be the only talent Quell can bring to Dodd’s empire.  But, Dodd works hard to change the angry ways of his latest acolyte via a suspiciously unscientific method of having Quell walk back and forth from wall to window as the rest of the followers look on until at the end of one session (and the viewer’s emotional rope) Dodd simply says stop. I wanted to scream, “why?” There was not enough space to tread in that dinning room to quell the demons of Freddie Quell. And even this did not kill Quell’s willingness to maim those who found themselves in Dodd’s presence brave enough to express doubt.  By the movie’s end I thought Freddie’s liver would get screen credit for the abuse it received. If not screen credit then surely the disclaimer; no liver was harmed in the making of this movie.

Overall, the acting in “The Master” was superb. I was quite fearful of Freddie Quell’s authenticity and endeared to the calm veneer of Dodd’s easily cracked belief system. But, there is only so much actors can do for a script with no centralized conflict. Truth be told, it was Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s wife who could have provided the evil Shakespearean fulcrum from which to launch the vile net of emotional imprisonment. But, again Anderson skirts the potential for more cinematic substance. Suffice it to say, I came to the end of  “The Master” appreciative of the acting but unimpressed with this 2 ¼ hour movie that could have lost 20 minutes and benefited by the tightening, redirection of stray plot lines and a more fearless director.

Praying, For the Moment

Every thing I knew 

On June 21st seemed

Verdant green and true

Fully righteous

Ripe with data turning

Nature’s analog

To late September digital

Single leaves in

Rapid descent

Falling like knowledge

Slipping behind excuses

Season, age, and disease

Where creature and god

Abide a constant

Warring for truth

Night Dreams

Night comes

Easing an orange sun

Over earth’s dreary edge

Cares drown on the horizon

Yet return in the day’s catch

Some slipping through the wide

Knit of net

Forgotten

Others left unsorted

On the pillow

Of dreams

Caste,  unremembered

Dismembered chunks

Until the slow insurrection

Of a pink and purple daubed

Day break forces fear

To organize and

We remember

Starling Season

A mumuration [flock of starlings] above the River Shannon
Photo by Vimeo

Orchestrated for survival

Gripping their perch

Awaiting the countdown

The murmuration

Becoming rippling periods

From every sentence ever written

This day

An exercise in mimicry

At 20 miles per hour

Swirling a dusky sky

The center black with strength

Graying out to the edge

The weakest

The fodder

For judgment

And sparrowhawks

A Sweet Lesson On Patience: A Facebook Gift

Every morning I am gifted with many photographs from the FB realm.  I remark on the beauty of each and move on with my day.  But, today, I am stopped in my tracks at a photo and story. The following photo and text are not mine and I have no certainty as to their veracity but – there is a lesson for all of us in this poignant  story.

A NYC Taxi driver wrote: 

I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be my last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up to the door and knocked.. ‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across … the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘It’s nothing’, I told her.. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.’

‘Oh, you’re such a good boy, she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’

‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly..

‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued in a soft voice. ‘The doctor says I don’t have very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. ‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired.Let’s go now’. We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

‘How much do I owe you?’ She asked, reaching into her purse.

‘Nothing,’ I said

‘You have to make a living,’ she answered.

‘There are other passengers,’ I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life..

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver,or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware-beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

Coffee and Me: An Affair to Remember – (updated)

I’ve been in love with coffee since I was 25 years old and had the misfortune of being put on the graveyard shift at an all night talk-radio station in Los Angeles. Like most lovers, I have to admit, I have not always been faithful and the sight of the new Starbucks in the CCC commons dining hall brings back more than a little chagrin at my most memorable transgression against the beautiful brown bean.

Coffee is an addiction. I know this  – even as I genuflect every day in front of my coworker’s Keurig® Platinum Brewing machine praying she does not step into traffic, find reason to hate me, or is somehow reposted giving cause for her to dismantle her coffee altar. And I am not a prolific drinker of coffee either. I start my day with one cup, that’s all, but in 1995, my doctor suggested that I give up all caffeine. I stared at her, stunned. How could she even fix her face to insist I give up my daily mug of motivation? I was at a loss for the words that would make her see the importance of my needing to stay up past sundown and read to my son or grade 50 student essays. I left her office more prepared to get a new doctor than a new drug. But, by the time I got to the market, I thought of all the events of the previous week – a week filled with an extreme crankiness that forced students and co-workers alike to tiptoe on conversational eggshells in my presence. So, in total capitulation, standing in a coffee aisle that fairly buzzed with the delicious fragrance of ground and un-ground coffee beans, I reached for my Kryptonite – Postum.

By the time that summer rolled around I was experimenting with all manner of (legal) herbal energizers. Finally, I settled on liquid ginseng. I remember that first morning I poured it into my coffee substitute. I was not disappointed. My body began to hum and my pulse-rate increased along with my energy. I was going to be fine and that summer was going to be my most productive one yet. And to a degree it was until the day I awoke feeling the unexplainable urge to meet a self-imposed deadline.  So, covering all possible areas of distraction, I checked on my eight year old son and some neighborhood friends who were playing in the side yard before bringing in our ailing and aging dog and getting her settled in the kitchen. I poured another cup of my juiced-up Postum. I was free and alive and awake to enjoy it! Freedom lasted 45 minutes before one neighbor child began screaming for help. Startled, I jumped up from the computer and, in pushing my chair back, pulled the cords from the wall outlet. The loss of all that I had just written should have been a warning to me. I dashed down the stairs with the frantic screaming of all the children now ringing in my ears. Tearing through the hallway, I cursed the dining room chair that had fallen over in front of me. In retrospect, I’m glad it was there to slow my progress. I opened the kitchen door to find that my dog had become sick all over the floor. Shutting the door, I fell to my knees retching and gagging. I stopped when the screams from outside, again, became loud and insistent. I jumped to my feet but by the time I got to the side yard ‘joyful’ laughter was all that I could hear. “Hi mom, we’re on a desert island and taking turns screaming for help. Is lunch ready?” They were hungry. I was ticked. I stood at the back door suddenly remembering what lay on the other side. By my watch I had 50 minutes to clean the kitchen floor, fix peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for three dirty kids then drive them 12 miles to soccer camp. If I didn’t take time to retch or pass out I could do it. I had the energy. Everything went well with the clean up until I heard a faint knock at the cellar door off the dinning room. I should say here that my cellar is a dark and dank affair, sometimes home to frogs and other unmentionable vermin at certain times of the year. Why anyone would want to walk into this cellar from the outside entry for anything was a mystery to me. “Who is it? What do you want,” I shouted from the kitchen. It was the furnace cleaner stammering his wish to clean the furnace. “Just a minute,” I yelled.  I slammed lunch down on the patio table before marching back into the kitchen totally lost in consideration of how I was going to maneuver my old pet out of the house. Her forelegs were in fair condition leaving me with the business end of what was a very large dog with very little control over her sick bowels. I got her upright while ignoring more faint knocking from the cellar. And just as I was about to shove the last of my dog outside, another, more insistent knock came from the man behind the cellar door. As if the pounding on the cellar door was her cue, my dog released her own pent-up ‘frustration’ before pulling her hindquarters fully through the doggie door. Angry and soiled, I was too far gone to even cry and the hammering inside my head was the only thing that kept me from screaming. I left the kitchen to answer what was now definite pounding. I snatched at the doorknob opening the door to see the beleaguered furnace cleaner looking at his watch. “What do you want?” I shouted. “M’am, I’m on a schedule here. Could you please turn your thermostat on so I can check…” “Listen you,” I interrupted. “You got a schedule? I got a dog here who thinks my kitchen is her private toilet, three kids to clean, feed and get to soccer camp and a kitchen that stinks to high heaven. So let me tell you what you can do with your schedule…” I slammed the cellar door, looked at my watch, before cleaning the kitchen floor. I jumped in then out of the shower, collected the soccer gear, pushed the kids into the van before throwing a carton of wet towelettes at them. “Here, clean yourselves.” I stepped on the gas and made it to practice with thirty seconds to spare. The children, faces streaked with peanut butter and fear, jumped out of the van and dashed into the gym without looking back.

I took a deep and shameful breath. I looked at my hands draped over my steering wheel. They were shaking – hard. I was wired. I stopped at the little café at the end of Main Street and ordered a small cup of coffee hoping for some mathematical – caffeine plus ginseng – canceling out process. I waited for calm to overtake me before beginning my trek home. Once inside, I flopped down on the sofa. For the first time that morning I could exhale and close my eyes. And then, a soft knocking from the cellar caused me to scramble from my couch slapping my forehead in disbelief. The furnace cleaner was still in my basement! I opened the door and there he was, the man with “a schedule…” sitting and lightly rapping his knuckles on the bottom step. I was ready to give my biggest apology ever but, instead, I said nothing. I went into my kitchen and pulled the coffee maker out of hiding in preparation for one of society’s most humble of peace offerings – real coffee.

Updated, reposted: 9/7/12