Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Big Jules

For no really good reason, I thought I'd post a home movie made of my family during the Yuletide season.

Hey, it's a home movie -- you expected quality? :-)

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Magpie 101

I don't usually do reruns. But the prompt this week seems to demand re-posting the following from several years ago.
You see, I was once pleased to be given an interesting assignment: I was to make a movie about a top American corporation. The film would involve some shooting in Japan.

So I flew to Tokyo, ready to go to work. As I got off the plane, I believed that the Japanese were really taking this motion picture project seriously because, as I was surprised to see, I was being met at the airport by a large limo. And not just a limo; the car had a uniformed driver and another chap, also uniformed, who rode shotgun - though in Japan I suppose it would be shogun :-) - in the front passenger seat.

I was able to cruise through the world-famous Tokyo traffic jam in comfort. In fact, I had never had a job, of any kind, that started off so auspiciously. They drove me to their head office and I got to meet everyone. They were all friendly and welcoming; there was a lot of bowing, me doing my share, of course.

It was lunchtime, so they asked if I would prefer going to a steak-house or would I like to try some authentic Japanese food? Well, of course, we had steak-houses back in the Stytes and besides, I thought it would be a good political move to opt for the indigenous cuisine, so we headed off for what I would today recognize as a sushi place.

I say I would recognize it today; I didn’t recognize it then. Truth is, a few decades ago there weren’t many sushi joints in the U S of A, and you certainly didn’t see sushi for sale in just about any American grocery store. Most Yankees of that era didn’t know from sushi; the idea of eating raw fish was regarded as just sort of weird.

However I could see that this restaurant I was being taken to was elegant and upscale – i.e., expensive – so I looked forward to an excellent meal.
But there was a fly in the saki. Something had been worrying me, and it had nothing to do with raw fish. It had gradually dawned on me, as time went on, that I was inadvertently sailing under false colors.
The reason for the great welcome I had received? I came to realize that they thought that I, a humble artisan, a simple, rather impecunious documentary-maker, was actually one of the top executives of the American corporation in question. That explained the limo and its two charioteers.
That was bad enough. Just as bad was the question, how on earth do I go about telling them of the mistake? I had heard all about the importance of saving face in the Orient; would they think I had intentionally tried to trick them? Would hara kiri knives be involved in any way?
At this point the waiter served the meal. I felt like I had just come into the big city from Mayberry; I recognized absolutely nothing that was being served. But one thing struck me forcibly. Among everything else on the plate there was a little creature there – who was walking around.
I had never gone in for ambulatory victuals. However, when in Rome… I took up my chopsticks and went after him. He valiantly fought off my preliminary attack. This was followed by a certain amount of thrusting and parrying. Fortunately, I remembered the rules of fencing from my college days. What was odd was that he seemed to know them too.
Then, while I sat there planning my next move, the little fellow climbed over the edge of the plate and headed off to the left. The Japanese are a polite people; the two guys with me were trying desperately not to laugh, but not succeeding. The waiter took pity on me and swooped the whatever-it-was away with a towel. In a way I was sorry to see the little chap leave; he had fought well, and with a certain panache.
Well, long story short – it’s been long enough – the gentlemen I was visiting took the explanation of the misconception well enough and, as that great Japanese playwright Shakespeare used to say, all was well that ended well.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brief Encounter

In 1985 my boss, Mr. Grandfromage (not his real name), wanted me to become a technical writer. “You write film scripts, right?” he said. “Well, we need someone to write technical scripts. There’s a demand for technical films.”

“But I’m not really a technical person,” I replied.

“Don’t worry about that. We can get technical people and they can give you the basic information. Trouble is, it’s never in film form. So you take their info and write a suitable film script.”

“Well, if you say so.”

“There’s a Technical Writers Convention in Houston next week. I want you to go there and see what you can pick up.”

So I flew to Houston. I couldn’t make head or tail of many of the highly technical topics and subjects that were to be discussed at the convention so I picked one I thought I’d be able to understand. It was a seminar – six people around a small table – discussing how to staple reports.

That was the topic; the boring discussion went on and on. Should one just use staples on the report or should one create a sort of spine to make it look a little more like a book?

I kept eyeing the door, wondering if I could make a dash for it. Suddenly something remarkable happened.

An astronaut appeared in the doorway. Not just an astronaut, a very attractive young woman astronaut. In full fig, as our British friends say – in full astronaut uniform. And she sat next to me.

It seems that, as part of their duties, astronauts had to visit various meetings and conventions that were held in Houston; evidently it was good PR for NASA. I wondered if the astronauts knew about this requirement when they signed up. :-)

Well, she listened dutifully to the seminar discussion and after a suitable period of time the PR person who was taking her around said the astronaut had to visit some other seminars, so she got up to leave. I was sorry to see her go.

She couldn’t resist making a small wry comment as she stepped out the door. “I hadn’t realized your work was so complex,” she said.

We had been talking about how to staple reports.

Back in New York I was working on a film in an editing suite in January of ’86. We stopped work to see a blastoff on the TV monitor because this was to be a special rocket launch: for the first time there was a civilian, a high school teacher, to ride into space with the regular astronauts.

As they filed out to board the spaceship named Challenger I was startled to see my astronaut was among the group, one of the two women.

The catastrophe that followed, 73 seconds after liftoff, happened before my eyes, before the eyes of the entire world. The sleek space machine Challenger erupted into a fireball and clouds of smoke that were seared into my brain forever.

Judith Resnik was a remarkable person. She had a PhD in electrical engineering, she was a classical pianist and she was beautiful too. Her family handled her death with quiet dignity. There was a lot of publicity after the explosion about the other astronauts who had died; the Resniks sought no publicity.

No question, my encounter with Dr. Resnik had been brief; I never had the opportunity to really get to know her.

But I’ll never forget her.

This week, I thought you might be interested in checking out A Little Blog About Nothing, where an interesting question has been posed: What's the best advice you've received?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Odd Santa

Try to picture this setting.

First off, it’s very hot, the sun’s beating down; we’re in the tropics. There’s a beautiful beach and the ocean, it’s the Mediterranean, is dazzling.

This is what they call the Turkish Riviera, and the name is justified; it can hold its own with the French Riviera.

Reason I’m telling you about this place is that this is, after all, the Christmas season. And some years ago I was in this tropical paradise and had a chance to meet Santa. The real Santa.

Everyone knows that ol’ S. Claus lives up in the frozen north with Mrs Claus and a houseful of industrious, non-union elves, not to mention a stable of reindeer, and that Santa has always lived there.

Not true.

Santa Claus was originally Saint Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century and who never saw the North Pole (and maybe never saw any snow). He was born and lived right here in the hot, sunny Turkish Riviera, though the name would not have been familiar to him.

I was there working on a tourism-promotion project for the Turkish government and I thought it would be interesting to show Santa’s real home, where he was born and raised.

As for the actual saint, Nicholas, he had been famous for his generosity, for the way he gave gifts to the needy. (Well, he should have; he was a saint.) He became known throughout the Christian world.

He wound up in Holland, where they changed his appearance somewhat. They also took his name and sort of Dutchified it: St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas.

When the Dutch lived in New Amsterdam they celebrated Christmas with Sinterklaas and all the English folks living around them thought the old fellow was sort of cool so they adopted him for their Christmas too.

They couldn’t quite pronounce “Sinterklaas” however; the closest they could get to it was “Santa Claus.”

So somehow the old fellow had metamorphosed from a 4th-century saint to a corpulent chap in a red suit who was always smiling about something.

One day I was standing on that beach, working, when an Orthodox Christian priest approached and asked if I would like to see the bones of St. Nicholas? Of course, I said.

He returned with a small case, beautifully made, lined with satin, that, he assured me, contained some of the bones of the Saint. I was aware of the thousands of kids who go to see Santa at Christmastime and here I was getting to see the real Santa.

For a fleeting moment I thought of saying that I wanted a pony for Christmas, but I couldn’t be sure Orthodox priests had a sense of humor. 

This week, if you’ve had the experience, the joys as well as the plain old hard work, of raising a teenager – and yes, I’ve been there, done that – check out the clever comments of A Mom on Spin.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Remembering Miss Gustafsson

Scene: Stockholm, Sweden, a few decades ago.

I was making a tourism-promotion film for the Swedish government. Included in the list of things to show in the movie was Stockholm’s magnificent department store “NK” -- pronounced “Enkaw.” A huge place, some 12 million visitors annually, and with a staff of 1200. The client very much wanted it in the film.

So I’m standing across the street taking its picture. As I was working an employee of the store came over to me with a strange question: “You’re American? Would you like to meet an old man who was a good friend of Miss Gustafsson way back when they were both teenagers?”

Of course I would. Any friend of Miss Gustafsson would be a friend of mine.

He took me upstairs and I met the old gentleman in question. He told me how they had both, right around the time of the end of World War I, worked together at NK, a couple of kids, in the same department.

Of course, he didn’t call her Miss Gustafsson; he called her by her first name, Greta.

One day an ad agency person – yes, they had ad agencies in Sweden even then, nearly a century ago – an ad agency guy came through their workplace. He was looking for a comely female employee they might be able to use in their newspaper advertising.

Truth is, Miss Gustafsson was then a bit more on the plump side than she was later, but she was selected to pose for the ads.

It could only happen in Hollywood – or in Stockholm. A movie director liked her pictures in the paper and she suddenly found herself embarked on an amazing film career. It was clear that the name “Gustafsson” had to go; she became Greta Garbo.

“Anna Christie,” “Grand Hotel,” “Anna Karenina,” “Camille” and “Ninotchka,” among other film classics, turned Miss Gustafsson into one of the great legends of screen history.

She later stated that she had never said “I want to be alone,” though that had become sort of her trademark. What she had said, she carefully explained, was that she wanted to be left alone, which was quite different.

This week, because of the huge snowstorms in various parts of our country, I recommend Willow's winter poetry over at Willow Manor. (As the child said in "The Winter's Tale": "A sad tale's best for winter.")

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Award from Raisin Chronicles?

My thanks, Jeanne. I'm new enough as a bloggoist -- tho old enough as an egoist -- to be quite pleased with such a gift. Joyeux, as they say in Bordeaux, Noel!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright,
In your Cadillac that night.
It's clear - no need for judge or jury -
'Twas "woman scorned" who brought the fury.
--William Blake (sort of)

Bicker Stumper:
(Michael, that is)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I’ve always been a fan of recliners – got one in the living-room and one in the bedroom.

I come home at night and there’s this friend, my recliner, good to look at with its sharp, traditional styling, welcoming me with the promise of deep comfort. But truth is, the one in the bedroom, after years of faithful service, had reached a state of near collapse. It was pretty well worn out.

Look who’s talking. :-)

So I shopped around for a new one – on the internet, naturally.

The price range for such items surprised me. Some good-looking recliners were advertised for under 200 dollars; others were over the thousand-clam mark. Yet they looked about the same.

I decided to get a cheap one; a recliner is pretty much a recliner, Ned’s pa? I bought from a well-known business organization that will be nameless except that its advertising motto is “save money, live better.”

Well, I saved money. As for the rest…

When I filled out the order, there was one line of small print that should have represented to me a huge red flag waving energetically in the breeze. It read: “Some assembly required.”

As Alfred E Newman used to say: What, me worry? There should be no problem, I thought to myself; I’m as good a handyman as any average guy – which is probably, unfortunately, true.

It started off badly. The thing arrived in two huge boxes, each weighing a ton. By the way, have you noticed that many businesses these days describe delivery of their products, especially the large ones, as “curbside delivery.” In other words, they just dump the stuff in front of your house or garage and what happens after that is somebody’s business else.

After I had struggled to get the two huge boxes inside, I began the job of putting the various pieces together. After an hour or so I remembered a documentary I saw recently about the building of Hoover Dam. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate – assembling that recliner was not as difficult as building that dam – but it was only a matter of degree.

As Plato, or maybe it was Archimedes, once remarked: cheap is cheap. With a more expensive recliner if there were some assembly, my guess is that pieces that were supposed to fit together would actually FIT TOGETHER!

That, I was to learn, was not necessarily the case with cheap recliners. But I had saved money.

It was just as well that it was for the bedroom; the lashup that resulted, a recliner with one arm-rest drooping down in a forlorn way and the other sticking up at an odd angle, would not have contributed to the artistic and sophisticated, not to mention upscale, décor of my living-room – which has little enough such décor as it is.

I’d invite people over to see my new recliner, but I’d be afraid someone might try to sit on it. :-D

Each week I'd like to mention a blog I especially enjoyed. This week it's the way the Peach Tart spontaneously burst into dance while in line at Urban Outfitters. Check it out.
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