Saturday, May 25, 2013

There's Something About Mary (Poppins)

One summer I lived alone in a cottage my grandfather had built on an Indiana lake.  When I would come home from my job in the state park, I would put on the one album in the place, turn it up loud, strip down and jump into the water.  I didn’t know it then – thank God – but I was probably at the height of my virility and health and coolness.  19.  Hair.  Money in my pocket.  A place of my own.  A motorcycle parked in back.  And music blaring out across the lake.  What was it?  The Allman brothers?  The Doors?  Zeppelin?  The Police?
Mary Poppins.
I don’t know where the record came from, or why it was there.  I also never thought much about my constant playing of it.  It was just what you did.  You played music.  As loud as you could.  Whatever you had.  During high school, we would drive to places -- parks, parking lots, fields --, and when we arrived, we opened the doors and trunks, so the car speakers could blast onto the landscape.  We seemed to think life needed a soundtrack.  Any soundtrack.
I know now I should have been more concerned about putting all those chemicals in the water – the shampoo and soap  -- they would linger for a long time.  And I probably should have been more concerned about what I was putting into my head.  Thirty years later, I can still sing the songs.  Not just the hits like “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but the others like “A British Bank” and “Sister Suffragette.”  While my peers were listening to punk and new wave and Springsteen, I was singing, “Tuppence.  Ten Cents a Bag.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the story itself.  It was years before I learned what tuppence or a suffragette actually was.  The overall narrative, as so many children’s stories are, is about bad parenting.  In Mary Poppins the parents are distant.  The mother engages in political activity to the neglect of the household, and the father is consumed with work.  As the song says, Mr. Banks comes home at 6:00 and at 6:03 gives his kids a pat on the head and sends them off to bed. Mary Poppins arrives, not to work with the children, but to work with the adults. But none of this meant anything to me as a teenager.  It did, however, after I had kids.  When I watched the film a couple years ago, not only did I impress my family by knowing all the words, but I thought, “Why am I working so much?  I’m going to quit my job and hug my children more!”  We even bought kites and spent one frustrating afternoon trying to get them to stay in the air for longer than thirty seconds.  Eventually we balled them up, shoved them in the trunk, and went for ice cream. It’s not as easy as they make it look at the end of that movie.
In part, what happened to Mr. Banks is he forgot what it meant to be young (or perhaps never knew), and, as it turns out, sometimes I do too. Having been unable to even swim without music, I now find myself telling my son and daughter, “No you can’t climb the tree listening to your ipod.” and “No, you can’t wear your headphones as we take a walk.”  Actually, it’s not accurate to say that I’ve forgotten.  I understand the compulsion, but I recognize now it’s not always safe.
But living with the album did teach me a few things.  I respect compound interest, the right to vote, Chimney sweepers, and the power of umbrellas.  And, perhaps it made me a more tolerant parent.  When my children want to play the same songs over and over, as loud as possible,  – “Gangem Style” or Taylor Swift – I understand.  In fact, I think it’s funny, and I do love to laugh.  Loud and long and clear.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Memorable Glasses of Wine

           Since my wife and I are doing some wine tasting tonight, I thought I would post an article that I once published in the now defunct "Small Winery Magazine."  It's still accurate.

           When people ask about memorable wines that I have drank, I think they expect, even desire, to hear certain names dropped, like Opus One or Yquem or Bordeaux first-growths or prestigious Napa Valley releases.  If so, I disappoint them because the wines I remember most fondly aren’t identifiable by vintage or wineries.
            The first wine I ever tasted was at a neighbor’s house, the man that everyone, even my father, called Grandpa Joe.  A stone mason and carpenter, Grandpa Joe had helped build most of the houses, garages, and walls in the neighborhood.  Every weekend, you could hear a bandsaw keening in his garage, and, when he was in his eighties, one day it sliced his palm to the bone.  I remember that night he sat laughing on our porch and waving his bandaged hand around like a club.  The next morning, at breakfast, we heard the saw screeching into more wood. 
            Each Christmas my family would go over to give him a holiday poinsettia and a box of chocolate covered cherries.  He would invite us in to the small stone cottage that he had built, and, as we sorted out a seating arrangement, he would take out special glasses of cut crystal.  Then he would get a bottle of wine he had made that year and pour some for each of us.
            I don’t know what Grandpa Joe made his wine from, but it was orange, and it burned the throat.  I didn’t realize for years these weren’t typical characteristics.  I suspect that by almost any standards of taste no one would have considered this wine good, but even though it made me feel slightly sick, I loved it.  At the time, I couldn’t have said why; I have figured it out since.
            I was a shy kid who didn’t do much but read, and Grandpa Joe was an intimidating diesel of a man who seemed to be able to do anything.  I was afraid of him, and yet he always shook my hand and talked to me like an adult.  At Christmas he would give me a glass and include me in the toast without asking permission from my parents.  He never condescended.  He never winked at the other adults as if it was them against us.  He treated everyone as equals who, when they were under his roof, had a right to share what he had made.  As a result, my first experience with wine was as part of an act of generosity and inclusive hospitality.
            A second memorable glass didn’t involve a glass at all.  I was thirty and touring Spain with two women.  None of us had known each other for long; we were all in the same exchange program in France, and we had decided to pool our money and take a road trip together.  One day, we planned a visit to the Benedictine monastery Mont Serrat near Barcelona, and on the way we stopped to have a picnic.  We had sandwiches, cheeses, a good bottle of wine, but we discovered that we had forgotten glasses.  To me, the obvious solution was to drink right from the bottle.  One women, however, suggested that we not open it.  Her hesitation wasn’t because of health concerns, but etiquette.  She felt if we didn’t have glasses, we shouldn’t drink.  The other woman and I uncorked it anyway and began swigging like sailors.  Eventually the first woman joined us, but each time her turn came, she would look around, then crouch beside the car door and quickly take a sip.  She found it almost unbearable that people might see her drinking like this.  We stopped hanging out soon after this journey, but the second woman and I continued traveling to other places together, including a trip to Las Vegas where we got married.
            The third glass of wine involved a glass, but it wasn’t a wine . . . yet.  My wife and I had stopped at a small North Carolina farm house that two artists were renovating and had converted into a winery.  We walked around the grounds, and at the crush pad a man wearing dirty clothes and a backward baseball cap was directing grapes into a crusher.  Without saying anything, he motioned us over, dipped a plastic cup into the just pressed juice, and handed it to me.  It was delicious.  We later learned that he owned the winery – Hanover Park – with his wife.
            My good memories of wine all involve people rather than flavor profiles.  That, to me, is what wine is about.  I often don’t remember the taste of a wine, but I remember the taste of generosity, adventure, improvisation, spontaneity, connection...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Getting Knocked Sideways

Occasionally I write about interesting interpretations and misinterpretations of works:  Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" or the Village People's "YMCA."  As we head into the wine festival season, here's a brief consideration of an oddly influential film.

            I love the paradoxes and ironies of the wine industry.  For example, I’m delighted that the bubbles of champagne – that romantic image of luxury – are formed by the microscopic dirt in the glass.  And, it's funny that dust in a wine cellar becomes a mark of quality.  Everywhere else it’s an embarrassment, but in the basement, it shows that someone has had these bottles for a while.  I confess, however, that I’ve always been bewildered by the so-called Sideways effect.
            In this Alexander Payne film, at one point, the main character Miles, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, insists not only that he won’t drink Merlot, but that he won’t have dinner with anyone who will.  He rants, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.  I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot.”  It’s a funny scene, and I know people who quote it with affection.  Sometimes they even substitute other popular varietals, such as Chardonnay. 
Miles loves Pinot Noir, a finicky grape that, like him, can be difficult to appreciate.  Miles speaks of it in beautiful terms, saying, “it’s a hard grape to grow… it’s thin-skinned, temperamental … Pinot needs constant care and attention . . . Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”  Miles’ admiration, and the popularity of Sideways, created a surge in Pinot Noir’s popularity, and, for a while, a slight decrease in Merlot’s.
The irony of the Sideways effect is that Miles is clearly a wreck.  He steals from his mother.  He seems to be a functioning alcoholic.  He can’t maintain relationships except for his friend, Jack, who is also a loser.  A compulsive womanizer, Jack turns to sex, the way Miles turns to wine.  Miles even blows the one chance to drink a special wine that he has been saving.  He ends up sipping it out of a paper bag at a fast food restaurant.  This is not someone from whom we should be taking any advice.
            Sideways is a beautiful, sad, film, but like so many works of literature, it seems to have been misinterpreted.  If you’re inspired to hit the road after reading On the Road, you’ve misread the book.  If you think in the poem “A Road Not Taken,” that the narrator really takes the road less traveled, you haven’t paid attention to the lines that each path “equally lay” and were “equally worn.”  And, if you scorn Merlot and drink Pinot Noir because Miles does, you might want to see the movie again.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Filmmaker Julian Semillian Answers a Few Questions

Filmmaker and writer, Julian Semillian's most recent work is Gazing Oozing with Mendacity, a meditation on the works of Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, and Arthur Rimbaud.  His other films include Devotees of the Precipitate and Tear Void Insomnia Mist.  He joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 1998.

How did it happen?
 My right hand covers my mouth in what could be viewed as a posture of puzzlement.

Describe a dream.
Fish are circling my torso which is a field of dead soldiers' graves, who knows what war, stained by flames which mysteriously form the signs of an unknown alphabet, interrupted by oscillating compasses which appear at irregular intervals, but do appear regularly. In the background, parade the tools of another century.

What should you have done then?
 This question is the reason for my posture of puzzlement. Perhaps I should have taken notes.

What question are you afraid of getting?
 What would you do if you were unbearably thirsty and suddenly arrived at the Well of the Eternal?

Name it!
Here I must cover my mouth.