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Just Kickin’ Hippies’ Asses and Raisin’ Hell

He’s 54 and drinkin’ in a honky-tonk ..” – Ray Wylie Hubbard

Happy Mother’s Day. Mine was the best, which is something many might say but is empirically provable in my case. I used to bring friends home from college, some of whom were prone to brag about their own mothers and would have to pry their fingers loose from the front door frame when it was time to leave. They’d be in a funk for half of the long drive down Highway 5 back to Los Angeles until I promised to bring them back again at Spring Break. But nobody wants to hear a broken man cry about this sort of thing on a day of celebration. Of all my many and varied assumptions, the idea that everyone was as lucky as me in this department was perhaps the most naive. I say “was” because I’ve indeed learned differently over the years. Motherhood in itself does not instill these qualities. This point was driven home last night watching a confessional documentary on SNL veteran everyman Darryl Hammond, whose own mother did quite the number on him. Many mothers do quite the number, as it turns out. Even those mildly indifferent to the title can have a profound impact on their confused offspring. So take heed all you moms and future moms — it ain’t like getting a library card and then forgetting to return a book.

I’ve been living in my mother’s home during this lockdown (and make no mistake about it, this was her home. ) I’ve used the word “reset” several times to describe the experience, and I think it applies to multitudes. This deserves a strong caveat and for those most impacted, the word would be laughable and even insulting. Still, for many this has been a period of reflection, perspective, and taking stock. If your health and that of those you love has remained good, odds are you’ve shifted to next-level concerns. Relationships have solidified or been pushed to the brink, and this includes those with ourselves. If interaction with the outside world serves a specific purpose, it’s self-distraction. I discovered this when I first moved to New York City and was, perhaps, most alone. There is no place on the planet better suited for avoiding the internal. Distraction is still the order of the day in Gotham, but in most unwelcome ways for those struggling to breathe or focused suspiciously on their apartment’s ventilation system. That’s the trouble with this thing; it’s sneaky. Were it even worse it would have flamed-out by now, having run its course through the unfortunate. Instead, it progresses in the most insidious manner, devastating one locale at a time before moving to the next. Those prone to thoughts of conspiracy have little trouble seeing a human hand.

Boo-hoo, you had me and you lost me (to quote Darryl Hammond’s SNL predecessor Phil Hartman as Chairman of the Board on ‘Sinatra Group.’) Not sure about Phil’s mother, but his wife did quite the number on him. The longer you live, the more dead people you know. I made this observation at a funeral in my twenties. Not exactly suitable for the Profundity Hall of Fame but accurate none the less. As with most things, there are two directions to go with it: you can dwell on the impermanence or appreciate the fact that you’re still around to dwell on it. (Religion offers a potential third rail, but I’m saving that blog for my Howard Hughes exit years.) For now, I’m experiencing both of the basic options in spades, appreciating her home as she would and did while unavoidably noting that she isn’t here in mortal form. But best not to dwell on this lest they send the masked guys in white by to retrieve me. And why are they always dressed in white? Something else to ponder on this pandemic Mother’s Day, 2020. A good one with perfect vision to you and yours.

Serial Living

Bill de Blasio. Never has such impressive height been wasted on one man. The New York mayor’s request for citizens to rat-out fellow social distancing violaters via smartphone snaps was apparently flooded with dick-pics and Hitler memes. Dick-pics, for those with lives, are male anatomical self-shots, taken mostly by lonely guys thinking “damn .. I look good from this angle ..” Don’t ask me how I know this. The point is, the images forwarded to de Blasio may be the first legitimate usage of this mildly illicit practice. They could have saved the Hitler memes entirely. It’s also enduring proof that New York City is still great. They’re getting slammed daily by a deadly pandemic yet still have time to drop trow and take a snap for their bumbling, fink-encouraging mayor. San Francisco may have been a front-runner for in-place sheltering, but its humorous sensibilities lean more toward naming a sewage treatment plant after George W Bush. Aren’t we so great? *This* is why you capitalize the “c” in “City.” If de Blasio’s request had been issued in San Francisco, documented proof that violaters had voted republican would have been forwarded as well. New York is as progressive as any city going, yet refuses to play that pussy bullshit. I’ll be back there again, risk groups and mortality rates allowing.

For now, though, I’m choosing to shelter in the gritty confines of Marin County. With neither subways nor crowded streets, Marin’s virus hot-spots are confined mostly to bike trails and jogging paths. Say what you will about white people (and apparently there’s an entire Netflix series dedicated to this) we’re damn good at avoiding one another for a protracted period. This is particularly true in conjunction with affluent liberalism or any ’cause’ that can be practiced publicly for an hour or two before retreating to our dark-bottom pools and Jacuzzis. We’ll even forego wife-swapping and Rolfing if the plan dictates and we don’t have to hold out for too long. There’s a trade-off to all of this privilege, though, and some of the oddest tales of human behavior sprung from the Marin of my youth. Much of Marin County’s reputation pivoted some time in the 70s when Cyra McFadden’s book “The Serial” came out. It focused on the trippier, self-indulgent elements of the county, painting it as a large commune packed with Zen joggers, natural fibers, enzymes, peacock feathers, and whip fantasies. While these things may have been occurring in select pockets, the Marin inhabitants I grew up around were mostly the families of neighborhood guys from the city; Italians who had crossed the bridge seeking more space. I don’t recall anyone producing a peacock feather or doing much enzyme shopping but there was the time Jack Arata buzzed down Joe Picetti’s mailbox to demonstrate the efficiency of a new chainsaw he’d purchased. Darker tales from those in the ‘extended’ group included the pharmacist’s wife who tried to separate him from his head with an axe while he slept. Cyra McFadden was likely indulging in too much high-grade sensimilla to be aware of these stories. The truth is Marin was all of these things but, as with San Francisco, I have little idea what it is now, other than quarantined.

Choice-elimination can be paradoxically liberating. Those who worry about missing the boat can feel secure knowing all are moored. If you balk at parties or social gatherings you likely feel ahead of current curves. And there are less noble endeavors than curbing infection; on a grand scale, it puts buying a vacation home or pursuing your third Ph.D. to shame. This Marin County relevancy doesn’t speak to more typical worries like keeping your kids fed or the rent paid when your waitressing gig disappears. But live long enough and you’ll be tested, even in the leafy confines of NorCal suburbia. All these apologetic caveats get redundant after a while, anyway. Chances are Bill de Blasio wouldn’t fly around these parts, either.

Hat Of A Monkey

My mother had this monkey, George. He was among her few prized possessions, purchased in the early ’70s from a shop in Larkspur. She discovered him while browsing with her friend Inna, fell in love, but decided the price was too dear. Inna, knowing something about my parents’ marriage and my father’s complete ineptitude in choosing gifts, told him to get down there and buy the ceramic monkey for their anniversary. My father wasn’t a man who shopped easily and hardware stores defined the extent of his limited range. Antiques and proprietors of such weren’t exactly his thing. And this task required two visits upon discovering that the proprietor in question didn’t accept credit cards. Pre-ATM days necessitated back-tracking across the Golden Gate Bridge and raiding the petty cash drawer at work. There was probably another phone call to Inna involved, and repeated instruction to “get down there and buy that damn monkey,” but the point is, it got done. The name ‘George’ didn’t come from the curious, children’s book primate, but rather an uncle on my dad’s side. Uncle George was my grandmother’s brother and resident of an old-folks home in Terra Linda. My mom visited him frequently because that’s who she was. It’s who all of us should be, but most aren’t. I digress. George reminded her of my uncle and thus a  monkey’s name was born.

George’s pièce de résistance was his straw hat, perched jauntily atop his head. ‘Straw’ isn’t sufficiently descriptive. The hat was constructed of a thicker, twig-like material, and what’s left of it still is. It’s come apart over time and I’ve found myself re-positioning it atop his head to better hide the flaws. There were two goals in the last years of my parents’ lives: keep them in their home and keep that home as my mother would have wanted it. They’ve been gone over a year now and its upkeep still falls to my charge. I’ve been scouring Amazon for an appropriate monkey hat, but efforts thus far have been inadequate. Of the three I’ve tried, the one that best fits (pictured above) makes George look like a peasant; like some kind of gardener working for Pablo Escobar who is occasionally granted use of his Jacuzzi. The original hat lent a royal yet subdued presence. Hat aside, he sits in a beautiful spot with sweeping views of the water, mountains, birds and Highway 101. Some years back, a Scottish visitor taking in the same view opined “just imagine — Neil Diamond could be in one of those cars!” But I never slept well in the place after my teenage years. Something about the weight of history, and the intensity of most recent experiences, sat too heavily. I’ll come by to cook a meal, fix the gutters or take in the mail, but sleep has eluded me. That is, up until this week. Turns out a single-family home is an ideal spot for a single guy during a pandemic. The same restlessness persisted the first few nights as I moved from room to room, bed to bed. The last resort — my mother’s room — turned out to be my best choice. It was counter-intuitive at first but of course makes perfect sense. I have no plans to move back into the place permanently but this period of reconnecting with the home, and most particularly with what she loved about it, seems almost predestined.

This brings me to the persistence of incremental change. It’s an idea with which one need only live long enough to be familiar. You can side-step change assiduously or run headlong into the fray but neither approach halts its inevitable arrival. Sometimes things change slowly enough to be eminently observable yet still move at lightning speed. I had some life-altering experience with this a few years back, and now it’s playing out on a global level. We have a clearly defined, yet invisible, existential threat. Each of us knows that it’s out there, spreading person to person and that the best we can do in the immediate is to avoid and isolate. This is subject to change, of course; even viruses aren’t immune to the passage of time and human innovation can surprise. But for this moment we have no guarantees. This virus spreads with great facility and kills with notable efficiency, stopping just short of wiping itself out. That last observation is worth pondering, but I have no time for conspiracy theories at present as I’m too busy isolating, denying and pricing monkey hats. And sleeping a bit better, turning on the heat in the morning, making myself a cup of coffee and appreciating my surroundings. And missing her, which is one of the few things I suspect won’t change for the remainder of my days.

Franz Ferdinand & The Wuhan Clan

World War One, by my limited understanding, was started when some Austrian archduke and his pregnant wife were bumped off. That’s a hell of a note. Most will acknowledge the existence of chain-reactions, but like other things we can’t see, they aren’t at the top of our shopping list. Our current global panic was triggered by animals and humans cross-infecting in China. There have been other theories, but as John Adams might point out “facts are stubborn things.” Science falls short of answering spiritual or philosophical queries but it’s pretty damn good when it comes to stuff like this. One needn’t be Einstein nor Hawking to sense that bats stacked atop pangolins don’t make for wet market happy days. There are a lot of fingers being pointed at China now, perhaps rightfully so. People are understandably angry, for both rational and irrational reasons. Outside of the usual knuckle-draggers, that anger is directed at a government and not its citizens. Still, what to do in a country of a billion and a half people? That’s a number we in the west will never get our democratic heads around.

Cultural differences exist for specific reasons. Bitching about them may release steam but is about as useful as an anti-vaccination rally amid a pandemic. This said, pent up steam can be problematic too. Sometimes voicing one’s annoyance about a particular situation or culture provides relief and clarity. You don’t solve the immediate crisis by admonishing the use of “Chinese flu.” We have bigger fish to fry than debating the long-term social implications of calling a spade a spade. Those most suited and needed for this particular fish fry — scientists — aren’t typically known for their social skills, anyway. Best to let them do their jobs.

My own clarity, as evidenced by the above, has been on the decline for some time now. Luckily I’m not a scientist. I am, however, something of a knuckle-dragging cultural observer. I lived in Italy for a while and it’s part of my genetic lineage. I grew up around Italians. Italian-American culture, with all its cross-pollination, has come to define the image as much as gondolas or the Vatican. James Caan, a German-Jew, is taken for Italian as much as Al Pacino because of ‘The Godfather.’ But make no mistake, there are huge differences between the Italians and their American descendants, and some of them relate to this ongoing situation. For all their charm, beauty, and impact on western civilization, they ain’t the most organized people in the world. Lines (or ‘queues’ to use the British vernacular) are a foreign concept in Italy and they couldn’t form an organized one to save their lives. They’re particularly good at striking (as in walking out of work in protest; not hitting one another.) ‘Sciopero’ is the Italian word and it’s practiced as an art form. Both the banks and universities staged walk-outs when I lived there. The latter was particularly curious to me and I never figured out what the students were protesting. But they took to it like champs, sitting in groups outside various institutions of higher learning, holding signs and smoking cigarettes. I’m not claiming a direct correlation between these observations and the speed and intensity with which the coronavirus has torn through Italy. But the Italians sure ain’t the South Koreans.

Our current, crazy time has highlighted a conundrum of contradiction; a paradoxical plethora (if you’ll forgive the alluring alliteration.) In the immediate, it’s a rush to lock down and isolate, to separate from one another in order to save one another. What would seem counter-intuitive has become essential. Act as one, we’re being told, but do it from a distance. We’ve aced parts of  ‘doing it from a distance’ and at this very moment, the best minds around the world are sharing essential, potentially civilization-saving information in both real-time and great detail. But the same technology allowing for this has revealed how uncivil and bitter we can be, given a little anonymity and distance. Was there ever a more appropriately named entity than ‘Twitter’? Yes, it’s included in this realm of sharing useful information, but its more cesspool-like attributes overwhelm. To put it another way, fuck Twitter. Fuck also, anyone in America inclined to politicize or assign blame in this situation. Ignorance, like a virus, spreads through those of all political persuasion. San Francisco is a ridiculous city in multiple regards, but I’m proud to live here at this current juncture and see the proactive measures being taken. I for one am avoiding partisan-chatter, bold attention-demanding headlines, and incendiary social media feeds. The CDC and Johns Hopkins University website will suffice. And anytime I see the name ‘Anthony Fauci’ connected to anything, I’m all over it. My own poorly-connected cultural rants aside, the man is an Italian-American hero and has surpassed Joe Montana in my book of all-time greats.

Viral Notes

Comedians, like viruses and tides, tend to peak and recede. It’s a natural law and even the late, great George Carlin wasn’t immune. He likely peaked prior to a bit he did on ‘saving the planet’ some years back, which was reflective of both his genius and a macabre tone he adopted in later years. It begins with him talking about human arrogance and the idea that ‘we’ can ‘save the planet.’ “The planet isn’t going anywhere .. we are. Pack your shit, folks — we’re going away.” It’s an observation based on common sense and science. The planet has been here billions of years next to our two-hundred or so thousand. “Way over ninety percent of all the species that have ever lived on this planet are gone,” Carlin explains. “We didn’t kill them all; they just disappeared. This is what nature does.” He maintains the uncomfortable hilarity until the end of the routine when he speaks about environmentalists’ illogical obsession with plastic:

The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it. It wanted plastic for itself .. didn’t know how to make it. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question ‘why are we here?’ (Adopting godly tone) “Plastic … assholes!”

It’s in finishing that Carlin gives nod to what would be his late undoing as a comic. He concludes that having invented plastic, “our job is done” and muses about what will do us in as a species. Viruses, he prophetically concludes, would be a fine guess. At that time it was AIDS, which had the added benefit of discouraging procreation. He jumps the shark with a single line — “I can dream, can’t I ?” — which shifts the tone from empathy to one of removed superiority. This was George’s prerogative as he claimed to ‘cherish individuals’ as he met them but ‘abhor’ the groups that they formed. By the end he was a mess, celebrating death and doing long routines on apocalyptic visions. People love laughing at the insinuation that we’re all doomed but when you put too fine a point on it you run the risk of overstaying your welcome. He probably knew his time was up, anyway, having suffered multiple heart attacks before the one that did him in at seventy-one.

Perspective, like Elton John’s persona, is a bitch. We’re all aware that time seems to move faster as we age but the real point is that it doesn’t hit hard until we get there. What took place prior to our birth, whether ten years or a hundred, seems inconceivably removed. No matter how significant or trivial the life, those who live long enough often include the word “folly” when reflecting. You invent the cure for all deadly viruses just as they’re blowing up the world or get the Russians to back out of Cuba just as a new bug appears. I think back a lot to when I was twenty-four and living in Italy. There was a young guy and a fellow student who I dubbed “The Big Turk.” BT chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes and seemed above the general, shirking, university town vibe that permeated Corso Vannuci and the central plaza. “Hey Reeeeek,” he’d say, momentarily pulling the Camel from his lips, “I saw your girlfriend yesterday. She was wearing a Tom Petty teeee-shirrrt.” One time he described the mandatory military service in Turkey that kicked in for all young men at seventeen. “Eeet’s all bull-sheet,” he assured, “they make you sleep on a sheep for six months then send you home.” I’ve thought about him over the years and now wonder, if he survived the chain-smoking, whether he’s been able to get hold of some decent hand-sanitizer.

The flip-side to these disparaging observations about humanity is all that stuff that seems cliche and that many ignore as church-group babble. Turns out that doing for others is, in fact, its own reward. This may seem hard to wrap one’s head around as we try to avoid getting too close to the guy we’re duking it out with over a pallet of two-ply toilet paper at our local Costco. Turns out we’re far more interconnected than most are willing to acknowledge. My dad’s pontificating on the superiority of our (read: ‘his’) clan’s genetic line was, as I suspected, irrelevant. We’re all subject to being dragged down or elevated by virtue of strangers. So, how to best meld this with Carlin’s observation on the value of treasuring the individual over the group? Interact with more individuals in a pleasant, positive or helpful way. Do it from a safe distance if current times mandate, but do it anyway. Then let this spread, like a virus, to the larger group. Sure, you can’t all be pollyannas like me, but even the coldest winter has its spring.

Aye, Corona!

No better means to further cement my ignorance than commenting on an evolving and fluid situation .. so here goes. Let’s start with the reported statistic that 38% of Americans believe it’s unsafe to consume Corona beer at present. This means that four out of every ten people in this country are certified rock-heads. I’ve always been liberal with my rock-head estimates but this number is staggering to me. Every one of those individuals has access to Twitter, Facebook and the like and is fully capable of disseminating information in any manner they see fit, as long as they remain sensitive to “community guidelines” and use the correct, new gender pronouns. Couple these facts with a Commander in Chief who has the light-touch of Ronnie Lott and refers to Tim Cook as “Tim Apple.” Then throw in the approaching home stretch of a national election, automated algorithm-driven stock market transactions and Mardi Gras. And, oh yeah, a genuinely concerning new virus outbreak stemming from China. Buckle up, folks.

There was a march in San Francisco’s Chinatown last weekend, its theme being “Blame the virus; not China.” I have no inclination to blame the Chinese. Shit happens and plenty has emanated from America that hasn’t exactly helped the world. But it seems a bit ridiculous to deny certain cultural customs in vain attempt to harness ‘political correctness.’ One need only take the 30-Stockton bus to observe multiple deboarding Chinese grandmothers hocking massive loogies in phlegm-clearing ritual. Yet you don’t see any CDC Chinatown loogie warnings circulating. And a cursory stroll around the area will reveal all manner of ‘food markets’ selling a wide selection of ‘exotic’ items. ‘Personal space’ is a concept infrequently debated in this particular locale. All of these facts stand readily observable but it isn’t too cool these days to point them out. As I say, I love the Chinese .. without them, we’d have neither firecrackers nor Chinese checkers. (That last line is reminiscent of a Norm Macdonald bit on being a feminist: “I love women. Without them, we’d have no cookies.”) Time to quit while I’m behind.

My sobriety continues, save one bottle of Anchor Steam beer over the weekend. This puts me at roughly three weeks with almost no drinking. “Roughly” and “almost” are words I’d have to work into any abstinence contract. Removing vices from my life has an almost identical effect to adding them; nothing much changes but the habit itself. Back in the 1990s, I took up the habit of running several times a week. “Running” is a loose interpretation of what I do and it fluctuates between something fairly impressive for a guy in his fifth decade to a husky trot. Still, I seem stuck with it now because I feel shitty if I don’t and, as I get older, stopping would reflect some undesirable landmark. Everything continues to boil down to Bill Murray’s line in the film ‘Meatballs’ as he advises a bunch of nerd kids in summer camp on an approaching competition with a cooler camp: “It just doesn’t matter.” You’re born, you’re nurtured for a while if you’re lucky, you long for love in vain, you take up drinking and exercise, you give up drinking, and you die. If you’re lucky, something like ‘The Sopranos’ shows up halfway between.

The above might sound hopeless, but it isn’t. It’s all about gauging expectations and taking it day by day. And, for me, comparing myself frequently with others who project a happy outward image. I may not be great at such projection myself but have an uncanny facility for doubting what I see. This comes in handy at key life junctures and amid virus hysteria. Take Joe Biden, as a relevant and current example. He could have folded in on himself prior to Super Tuesday and amid the recent Bern-feeling climate. Yet he plowed on, mistaking names, forgetting what day it was, and calling young female voters “lying, dog-faced, pony-soldiers.” I’m not sure what a ‘pony-soldier’ is, beyond a soldier atop a pony, but that’s not the point here. He didn’t believe what he saw and now he’s back in the race. Funny that forgoing alcohol, as opposed to taking it up, would lead me to this conclusion. It’s all an illusion. But of course, it is, and this was never in doubt for some. It just doesn’t matter, indeed.

Is it too early for a drink?

Best Part Of Waking Up

I’ve given up drink for a week. Not sure if I will continue for another, through the evening, or beyond the end of this sentence. (OK .. made that last deadline.) Initial observations haven’t been life-changing and the benefits few outside of confirming that I can last this brief stretch. My sleep is shit (as usual) and I’m noticing neither increased energy nor lucidity. Part of my problem is tolerance. This isn’t a macho brag and there are many who put away far more than I do. But I could always inflict a sizable dent in a bottle of single malt without much slurring, stumbling or stares. My tendency to fly under the radar extends to all areas, inebriation included. This may be what got my attention. Nobody was going to notice but me and the same likely applies to sobriety.

I’ve been watching this ex-con motivational speaker on youtube .. Wes Watson. He’s a majorly ripped, tatted-up dude who speaks hard truth at high volume with spittle flying from his mouth. Wes seems a caricature at first glance, easily dismissed until you give him an extended listen. Then you realize that he’s gained more wisdom at 36 than most guys gather by 70. His ability to articulate rivals his muscles, once you get used to the frequent use of ‘motherfucker’ and the sensation that he’s about to jump from the screen and rip your head off. Ol’ Wes is rather straight-edged when it comes to substance use, save his indulgence in Folger’s coffee (served black, of course) when he wakes at 2:45 a.m. It seems penitentiary time has guided his philosophy and greatly expedited life lessons. The more severe the conditions, the faster and greater the wisdom. Fourteen months in solitary equates to three graduate degrees and all the Tolstoy one can consume. At the core of his preaching is the simple principle that serving others is the key to being released from internal suffering. Dude makes Joe Rogan look like Rip Taylor.

Not sure where Wes Watson and my brief flirtation with sobriety cross. I’m already up a lot at 2:45 a.m. but not by course of discipline and I’d have to do too much body shaving to pull off his tattoos. But I do find interest in his “Zen of rage” message even if I don’t subscribe to the method. I was listening to Wes speak about his Folger’s coffee habit around the same time somebody sent me a piece that Warren Zanes had written about Tom Petty. Zanes was Petty’s biographer and wrote some revealing bits about Tom’s heroin habit and personal relationships. The book was OK’d by T.P. but still caused a stir and the article was the first Zanes had written about Petty since his death a few years ago. Coffee again figured centrally; Tom was a Maxwell House man. He arrived at this choice with some serious thought on the matter. He didn’t see the point in fancy coffees or espresso and instead longed for something that would take him back to Gainesville, Florida, sitting in a diner for six hours with a never-empty cup and talking music until the alligators came home. In essence, the coffee was his link to the past; to a purer less complicated time. It all resonated as I’ve been thinking about this myself lately. Not having arrived yet seems less a problem than not being able to go back; not being able to re-set our brains to a time when there was less in there. Not sure how Tom and Wes might have gotten along, but both seem and seemed to know a lot about the same things.

Three-Dot New Year

She said ‘my brother, you know, he used to have this friend ..” – Dwight Yoakam, “Second Hand Heart.”

2020 – holy moly. Getting to the stage where track-covering seems relevant. I’ve got about 30 old journals that need torching before scrubbing all traces of this web-blog from the Internet. Not sure if this is a web-blog or website. Either way, would hate for these musings to be circling the World Wide Whatever indefinitely, like early digital cave drawings pinging out into the blogosphere. The last thing this world needs is confirmation that assholes have always existed, bucking evolution. Was never a secret anyway; some of those early non-Turin shrouds include evidence of hand-buzzers.

Watched the Golden Globes Sunday night for the first time in a decade, perhaps due to interest in The Irishman and seeing the sunglasses Patricia Arquette borrowed from Nick Cage. Enjoyed Ricky Gervais in select moments, including his unheeded cautioning of blowhard celebrity types inclined to lecture the masses on climate change and voting. Nobody, not even those of like-mind, tunes in to this show for edification by way of genetic crap-shoot winners. Didn’t matter though, and they blathered on. Michelle Williams, pregnant, opined on how career-altering her past pregnancies might have been minus the right to choose. Russell Crowe, absent, updated on Australian fires and their cause. Tim Allen, not particularly liberal, said something benign and soaked up the room’s hatred. In the end Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt came through by basking in their handsomeness and reminding all what they’ve been anointed to do.


In local sporting news (“sports” or even “sport” to our tea-swilling British brethren) the 49ers are back in the playoffs after a long stretch of ineptitude. Apparently all they really needed was another paisan at quarterback (sure-footed Mormon royalty notwithstanding.) And Jimmy Garoppolo has been just the ticket. Jimmy G is also exceptionally handsome, in the grand tradition of his particular position in this particularly American sport. You don’t have to be Darwin to spot the starting quarterback at any local high school .. just look for the kid standing several inches above the others, minus the neanderthal slouch of his offensive line and basking in overt female-attention without any particular effort on his part. Also in the tradition of the Great Joe Montana (hallowed be thy name) Garoppolo seems to have keen enough football instincts while maintaining a slightly clueless air about him. Yes, the ability to orchestrate modern offensive schemes is requirement, but you don’t want your QB to be an over-thinker. That same effortless manner that attracted top-tier cheeserettes in high school should signal his leadership capabilities in the pros.

There was a great Sports Illustrated profile on Montana a long while back, after San Francisco had traded him to Kansas City where he continued to excel. The writer was expounding on what made Joe Cool able to both perform and remain calm in the clutchest of clutch moments. As example he used Super Bowl XXIII when, down by three with three minutes left, Montana looked up from the huddle, distracted by something in the stands. “Hey isn’t that John Candy?” he asked befuddled teammates, before leading them down the field to victory. The article noted a similarly pressure-fueled moment in the Chiefs’ huddle when, in the middle of directing another game-winning drive, he diffused tension by calling out one of his wide receivers for possessing notably large ears. This, the writer reasoned, was what he did — saw the potential for others to buckle under pressure and let them know it was just another day at the office. A fine theory but also one debunked when, several days later he caught up with Montana in the locker room doing the same thing .. making fun of this guy’s ears. Apparently it was something he did all the time; the game-winning drive truly was just another day at the office for Joe. Jimmy Garoppolo has a long way to go before being mentioned in these Montana conversations, but he has nailed the nascent stages with a 21-5 record and early career penchant for dating porn stars. The big ear thing will no doubt come with time.


Has the whole world gone nuts?” This is either a) a particularly relevant question as we enter the new decade, b) something that old guys say, or c) a & b. I’m going with “c” but keeping the percentages to myself. All about ‘enthusiasms’ to quote the increasingly quirky DeNiro as Capone in ‘Untouchables.’ He then punctuates said point with a baseball bat, which may or may not be overkill. Pitchers and catchers on the horizon, Yoakam still touring North America and the Niners playing meaningful football into January. Why do I keep looking for that Louisville Slugger shadow on the table cloth?

Goodfellas: The Later Years

OK .. maybe I will tackle ‘The Irishman.’ It’s early in the evaluation game and the film has been playing on Netflix for a week after limited theater release. I’ve seen it in both settings and multiple times. It’s been lauded and bestowed heaps of praise, but as Scorsese might point out this is an Avengers/X-men age we’re living in. I’ve never seen any of ‘those’ movies, so my opinions here are irrelevant. Plenty are acknowledging that it’s good, but perhaps fewer realize just how good it is. If ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Goodfellas’ are the standard, ‘Irishman’ completes the trifecta. It’s a notch above ‘Casino’ and anything starring DiCaprio, and while an argument might be made for ‘Mean Streets’ he was still cutting his teeth back then. ‘The Irishman’ is indeed something special.

It is, in every sense, a Scorsese film. The pacing, vignettes that play like short movies, acting and actors, establishing shots, music, and theme all have his personal stamp. It’s the first work he’s done that truly addresses age and growing old in both subtle and poignant manner. There’s a risk of losing audiences when you tackle this theme. Younger viewers miss the subtleties and things can tilt toward the slow-paced and depressing. But here’s a work of some technological achievement where the actors portraying characters at multiple life stages do so from the perspective of men in their seventies. The much talked-about ‘de-ageing’ process isn’t flawless and it’s impossible to view without some subconscious acknowledgement that these are all older men. (Pacino may be the exception here but more on his excellent performance later.) Even fully cognizant of this modern times sleight of hand, one’s brain adapts — largely due to superb acting and directing. This is particularly true with repeated viewing and, in this select sense it may be the quintessential Netflix production.

Joe Pesci (as Russell Bufalino) is brilliant. Having forged a career as the most explosive little guy in the history of cinema, here he is something else: underplayed, reserved, gently killing it. It’s an odd word to invoke given the mobster genre but there’s a strong and intangible love between Pesci and DeNiro. When they meet in a hushed-tone Italian restaurant, Pesci notes half-jokingly “there’s a lot of tough guys in this place .. you’re not afraid of tough guys, are you?” He already knows the answer but his manner and gentility underlines how this film isn’t ‘Goodfellas’. That ruthless killers can share this bond and dichotomous appeal is at the film’s center. Later, as older men, the two meet early morning, the only ones in a Howard Johnson’s self-serve breakfast nook. They’re on the cusp of their later years and the setting speaks to this — the quietness and intimacy of the moment, the morning sun shining in from another new day begun with many under the bridge. The gravity of the conversation is belied by the mini cereal packages of cornflakes and Total and the non-essential lines in a situation where every word counts. Here Pesci is the gentle father figure, explaining to his grown son how the world works. DeNiro has always been a quiet actor but he says more in silence in this film than any of his previous work.

If I had to (previously) rank my favored order of these three established icons (Pesci, DeNiro and Pacino) Al would perhaps have finished third. This may have changed with ‘Irishman.’ As Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino has done something remarkable. It’s an extraordinary performance and as good as any he’s done. The scenes opposite English actor Stephen Graham (portraying Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano) are worth watching repeatedly. Even paired with an actor thirty-plus years his junior, nothing about Pacino’s digitally-enhanced performance seems aged, fake or manipulated. He adds both weight and levity to the film and his lines (“if you GOT it .. a TRUCK brought it” .. “CHARGE with a gun .. with a knife you run” etc) are instantly quotable. He portrays Hoffa as a man so certain of himself that you have to wonder if he’s figured his inevitable fate and legacy are preferable to those of his mobbed-up counterparts. That Scorsese has waited this long to work with Pacino makes it more special. It’s hard to imagine him in a better or better-cast role.

Supporting performances fire on all cylinders. Ray Romano is fantastic as Bufalino’s attorney cousin and, along with Sebastian Maniscalco as Crazy Joe Gallo and Jim Norton as Don Rickles, testament to the idea that comedians are most suited to transition to dramatic acting roles. Harvey Keitel shines as does the young Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s son. (Did this kid make a conscious decision after “Friday Night Lights” to pack on the extra pounds? Either way, it lends to his dramatic appeal.) There isn’t a bad performance in the movie and at three and a half hours it always holds attention. Anna Paquin and Kathrine Narducci are excellent as is Welker White as Hoffa’s wife. Some shade may be cast on the film for being typically chauvinistic and male-dominated, but it is what it is: a Martin Scorsese mob epic with a who’s who of Italian-American actors. If hitting the ball out of the park doesn’t suffice or justify its existence or cost of production .. well, it isn’t like they’re going to stop making X-men films anytime soon.

The Bear and the Quakerman

The Irishman premieres on Netflix tonight. I had the good fortune of seeing it several weeks back at a first-class venue — Skywalker Ranch. My buddy Tom Myers invited me up for the screening. It was a great low-key atmosphere and we shuffled into the top-flight screening facility just feet from Tom’s office door after a glass of bourbon. There is no luxury in life quite so compelling as circumventing the general public. Sure, Netflix offers this; but this is a film meant to be viewed on the big screen. It didn’t disappoint, but enough has been said of this already. Very rewarding seeing something from my generation transcend to the present and proof that there is some hope in growing older. Magnificent, dialed-down performances all around. Joe Pesci is superb. Was with Tom again a few nights ago for a brief sojourn to Lake Tahoe and a Dwight Yoakam show. I’m nothing if not predictably repetitious, and this is the second time I’ve seen Dwight in Sparks, Nevada over the last few years. All tolled it’s at least the seventh time I’ve seen him since August of 2017. That I’ve apparently lost count speaks for itself. My travel and life was restricted for a while there and most of my away time was spent stalking the music and film icon. The way I figure it, once Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver go, Dwight Yoakam will be just about all that’s left. But that’s just my figuring and is open to argument. If you want to have at it, be prepared to segue into the follow-up debate: there is no better place to see a man performing with a guitar and cowboy hat than the Nugget Casino in Sparks.

In the spirit of circumventing the general public, we headed up Interstate 80 late Thursday night with a brief stopover to eat in Auburn. The place we chose was wrapping up an open-mic music night with the kind of talent you’d expect from second-tier Auburn performers. Tom commented on how long it was taking the last act to set up before realizing that his date was sitting at the table next to us. He made up for the gaffe in fine Quaker form with vigorous applause and whistling as the guy hacked through his poorly-mixed ten minute set. Then it was back on the road for the last leg of the drive before arriving at the cabin, where a dim light was on in the kitchen. This was the first troubling sign of a few that would be coming in rapid succession. Peering in with flashlight, the dim illumination was from the open fridge and the place appeared torn apart. Things got worse around the back where a large opening had been smashed through the door. For the second time in as many years (and offering none of the same rewards as a Dwight Yoakam show) a bear (or bears) had broken into the place. Fortunately Tom is no slouch in the rolling up one’s sleeves department and we dug into tackling the obscene mess after making sure the beds were empty and it wasn’t some real-life Goldilocks scenario. Two hours later the place was again reasonably inhabitable (save the huge hole torn in the back door which I would secure with plywood the following day.) Like Scorsese working with DeNiro and Pesci, there is something to be said for knowing the company one keeps. Additionally, there is something to be said for now knowing the proper response to the old adage “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Yes, of course he does, but this doesn’t stop him from utilizing Rick’s cabin for said purpose, or just about anywhere else he damn-well pleases.

(And after further consideration the Dwight show count is eight; ten if you count a no-show for each of us in Saratoga and Stockton.)