Hamlet and Me – Inside Out for Grown Ups

1996. I was sitting alone in a movie theater…well, not alone; I mean I was without company. I mean nobody I knew came with me to the theater. It was a movie house in the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Back then I knew San Francisco well, living just outside the city. I didn’t know it like a native but I knew it like a friend who has never invited you to their home but asks you to drinks regularly and seems generally interested in your life. So, I felt at home, is what I’m trying to say. I wasn’t a tourist so I don’t think I have over sentimentalized the event.hamlet1

I was in the theatre to see Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. It’s a four hour beast, the full text of the play, and the only movie I remember seeing, aside from Gone With The Wind, that requires an intermission. The works of Shakespeare, it turns out, do not come in neatly wrapped and tied packages. Like most holy texts, there are multiple versions, bits here and there. Branagh, the screenwriter, director and lead, pulled from every source available and used every last drop of it and I hung on every word. I was enthralled because Branagh made every effort to bring the text alive and help us interpret Shakespeare through action and emotion. My blog is titled “By These Pickers and Stealers” after a line in Hamlet that I didn’t understand until I watched Kenneth Branagh say it while wiggling his fingers. He made the play bigger and smaller at the same time. It’s a simple story with complex characters and language but a simple story still, and Branagh trusted the easy truth of it beneath all the staging and language and crowded stage.

It’s one of my favorite movies. Already a sucker for Hamlet I reveled in the full text presented without apology and I appreciated Branagh’s production, lovely and precise and visually respectful of the poetry within the play while being something new. I watched it two more times while it was still in theatres (that’s a total of 12 hours) and I have watched it three or four times since. Nobody has ever sat through the entire movie with me.

Ten years later I was disappointed to hear one of my heroes (and a Shakespearean-like character in his own odd and private way), Ray Bradbury, say he preferred Mel Gibson/Franco Zifferelli’s more traditional and truncated 1990 version of Hamlet over Branagh’s. The movies cost about the same to make (Branagh’s 18 million against Gibson’s 20 million), though Gibson’s was half as long.

But I was talking about Bradbury. He liked Mel Gibson’s movie better (Ziffirelli was the director and co-writer but I’m calling it Gibson’s Hamlet out of laziness and focus). It was hard for me to understand Bradbury’s preference.

Though Ray Bradbury recognized me at book signings and speaking engagements and we corresponded occasionally (he answered everybody, by the way), by the time I heard him talk about Hamlet he was in a wheelchair and they didn’t allow people to chat with him much at events because he would tire quickly. So, in 1986 when I first met him we could have talked about Hamlet but in 2006 he no longer had the energy to do more than sign books.

My guess is that Bradbury liked the visceral, crazy, Mel Gibson Hamlet more than the intellectual, crazy, Kenneth Branagh Hamlet. And that would be a good point. You can read Hamlet as broken at the core of his being or you can read him as broken in his ability to process his current reality (and other ways too, I’m not presenting any false dichotomies here). Does Hamlet break from the inside out or the outside in? There you have Gibson and Branagh, in my mind, their Hamlet’s and maybe the actors as well. I am no scholar and an amateur reader at best, but here you also have a central question in the play. What kind of crazy is Hamlet?

Hamlet-hamlet-2646629-997-453Even if you have not seen their depictions of Hamlet, all you need to do is imagine Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh (as they are displayed for better or worse in other movies and in public) and there you see before you the embodiment of the question. Did Hamlet’s madness move north or south from his broken heart?

 

hamlet-mel-and-skullTo ask what kind of crazy is Hamlet is to ask, What sort of crazy am I? That’s sort of what I’m up to here. It’s not my intention to write an analysis of Hamlet. Even if we just count the very good books and essays on Hamlet, they are countless, like Bible commentaries or Chess books. I’m trying to write about why Hamlet as a story and Kenneth Branagh’s movie in particular—even singularly—is so meaningful to me.

Shakespeare, whoever he was, does not need me to vouch for his genius. In the case of Hamlet, I think that genius is most evident while looking at efforts, movies or plays, to present the Hamlet story using only bits and pieces of the original work, as with every other movie version except Branagh’s. I’m not exactly sure why I’m doing this other than to say I just started wondering why I love Branagh’s Hamlet so much.

 

I am fond of the idea that we need stories because all stories are about us. It’s a small twist on the Gestalt method of dream interpretation in which everything within a dream is you. (Warning, giant aside): I’m not a big believer in understanding or interpreting symbols in dreams because I think it misses the point and causes us to act as if the dream came from somewhere else or is a coded message from our subconscious that requires a kind of Orphan Annie decoder ring to understand. If you really want to extract value from a dream simply speak (write) from the point of view of every person, place, or thing within the dream. If you dream of a chair skipping down a street made of green taffy while the Bee Gees sing Staying Alive from their perch on a cloud high above, start with the chair. Write, “I am a chair…” Answer all the basic questions as the chair. Why are you skipping? Where are you going? What are you thinking and how do you feel? Do the same for the taffy street, the clouds, the Bee Gees, and even the song Staying Alive.

Stories work in the same way, I think. But it goes beyond how we identify and empathize with the main character. We are all of the characters in every story if we want to understand, even a little, about why any of them make an impression on us, why we laugh and cry and wish the movie would not end or are grateful when it does.

Yes,  you are Batman.

I like Hamlet because, perhaps like you, I am a little broken in places and a little insane at times. I love Branagh’s Hamlet because he makes me look so stunningly poetic while I slip off the cliff of reason. In the mirror of my personal madness Mel Gibson makes me look like I’m tripping over a rock whereas Branagh makes me look like I’m performing a beautiful swan dive as I descend into the abyss. One is likely and one is aspirational.

We are Hamlet as we are the dead king and traitorous uncle and passionately ambivalent mother. We are the lost and drowning Ophelia, the angry Laertes, the ambitious and angry Fortinbras. We are even the dumbstruck ambassador from England who at the end of the play wonders who he should tell that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” Maybe most of all we are Horatio, the friend, survivor, witness, and surely the teller of the tale.

Hamlet and me. I don’t know for sure why these things come to my mind when thinking about Hamlet more than other stories. I think maybe it’s because within Hamlet one finds so many aspects of personality and the play itself presents a complete picture of being human. And in full text you even get the boring parts to complete the picture.

The best example of the full text providing a full length mirror reflection of being human is the presence of Fortinbras, the prince of Norway. When Hamlet is staged or filmed Fortinbras and his entire subplot are often the first thing to be cut out because he is easily removed without disturbing the central plot and action. He is absent from both Olivia’s and Gibson’s Hamlet. Though he speaks the final words of the play these are sometimes given to Horatio in his absence. But to me it completely ruins the story or, at best, turns it into something else. Fortinbras is the Bizarro World Hamlet. He is a Prince named after his father who was killed (by Hamlet’s father). So they are not just contrasting characters they are entwined.

Hamlet without Fortinbras is incomplete because without Fortinbras, who seeks revenge for his father’s death by any means with determination and without hesitation, we have only Hamlet’s maddening deliberation and self-examination. Hamlet tells the travelling actors visiting the castle to perform the play “Gonzago,” in a way that will cause his murdering Uncle Claudius to display guilt.

Young Fortinbras would not play such games (even if he could conceive of them). If Fortinbras was the main character, it would be a very short play because he would slit his uncle’s throat before the end of Act One, probably in the second scene.

Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is not only without Fortinbras but Horatio is pushed into the background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are removed, eliminating yet another part of “my personality” from the story. (Oddly enough, the play and movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is my second favorite version of Hamlet.)

The Disney Film Inside Out gave us an glimpse inside the emotions of an 11 year old by personifying aspects of her personality. I could have saved you a lot of time by just saying this up front, but I think Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is basically “Inside Out” for my personality, and I don’t think I’m alone. Hamlet has been turned into a movie more than any other Shakespeare play (beating Romeo and Juliette by at least 10 films) and by almost any measure it is his most popular play. Thinking about Hamlet as Inside Out for adults helps me understand why I had enjoyed and appreciated the play but was not stunned by it until I saw Branagh’s full text movie.

It’s easy enough to say Hamlet is a troubled soul but outside of the full text I don’t think he’s troubled enough, or he is troubled in a way that makes the story a different story about a different Hamlet, alternative universe versions, maybe. Hamlet with or without Fortinbras? Spock with Vulcan destroyed or with Vulcan intact?

Well, Hamlet might be in the eye of the beholder, a mystery, an adventure, an Oedipal puzzle and I’m sure my love for the play had different reason at one time than it does now and will change in the future. Nevertheless, there is me in 1996, going to the movie alone and even after four hours remaining in my seat while the credits rolled, my mouth open, forgetting where I am and wondering what just happened. I think I’m just keep trying to explain it to him.

Who Am I if Trump Wins?

Politically I have felt like I was in the minority most of my adult life. Even when the presidents for whom I voted have held office they were either too conservative too much of the time (for me) or in constant deadlock with congress (or being impeached). Generally speaking, I didn’t whine too much. The country waxes and wanes, yes? When Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a justice to the supreme court I turned to a friend and said, “a Democrat was just elected president.”

At the time, I think I was hoping it would be Jerry Brown.

On election day in 2004 I had no plans to vote. I knew Kerry couldn’t win and I was absolutely despondent aside from my confidence that in 2008 we would elect a Democrat. I was walking home from the bus stop when I noticed a hand written sign stapled to a telephone pole, just high enough that it couldn’t easily be torn down, that read: “Terrorists for Kerry.” I shrugged it off but then I saw another one. I changed my route and headed for my polling station to vote, passing four more signs along the way. At that point, I didn’t feel like I was in the minority, I felt like I was part of the opposition. For the last six years I have felt like I belonged to the opposition party. But that was fine. That’s what we do, despite the fact (okay, my belief) that our country was, as George Carlin said, bought and paid for a long time ago, our job was just to keep the money from ruling absolutely.

Looking at the current crop of Republican candidates I’ve had to rethink how I would refer to myself if one of them became president.

As much as I dislike Jeb Bush as presidential material or Chris Christie as human material, if either of them, or several other candidates, became president, I would soldier on as part of the “opposition.”

Even if Ted Cruz became president, I would still think of myself as part of the opposition. I would be more active but I would think of myself as standing in opposition to an extreme interpretation of our democracy. If Ben Carson were elected, I wouldn’t be happy but I wouldn’t worry too much. I’d become a Paul Ryan supporter overnight and I would pay close attention to the White House staff and we would survive. If Nixon couldn’t control the bureaucracy, Carson won’t be able to get out of bed without permission. He wouldn’t win a second term.

But if Donald Trump were elected president, that’s a horse of a different color entirely. If it happened, how would I think of myself? To me it seems like “opposition” is too tame, woefully inadequate.

I mean, I can throw fits pretty good (no surprise) and be good and angry and spout off with a fair degree of steam and a little poetry mixed in, but what do I do, who am I, with a Donald Trump in the White House. I wasn’t sure until recently.

If Donald Trump were elected president of the United States of America, I would then be part of the resistance. What does that mean? Well, I don’t know yet. Elect Trump and we’ll find out, but be certain that if the rules change enough to put a Trump in the White House then the rules change everywhere and in every way.  The day Donald Trump is sworn in as president of the United Sates is the day that all bets are off and precedent, tradition and expectation are flushed down the toilet. You will no longer be allowed to expect me to play nice or adhere to any convention whatsoever.  I will resist. I will resist. I will resist.

And finally, I think what it means is I will rebel. And maybe it’s time anyway.

CVyJNWfWUAEdRtL

The Trumpoll Problem

The history of political polling is rife with examples of polls being wrong. To be sure, they are often right, or right enough, but there are many examples of polls being dramatically wrong and so we understand that polls are not votes. The emergence of online environments and all that they add or subtract from opinion making must, one can imagine, have an impact on the nature of polling. I’m speculating.

I should acknowledge that I have long been more interested and attracted to the failures inherent in social research, including polling, than I am its success as a tool for understanding humans. In fact, I have been guilty of spending more time explaining why a piece of research I have conducted might not be helpful than I spend talking about what we can learn from it.

(“So, are we paying you to tell us why you can’t really tell us anything?”)

So and then it will come as no surprise to you, because you have been thinking the same thing, that I wonder about the polling numbers for Donald Trump. At this point we should pause and take a moment to remove all the energy we now experience around Donald Trump, or set it aside, tie it to a helium balloon, whatever works for you. Whether your energy is negative or positive or simply confused, that is not the thing I am interested in right now.

People lie to pollsters, or tell half formed truths, maybe. It happens. For example, it is well established, though not without caveats, that conservatives are sometimes reticent in offering their true opinions (this is called the “Shy Tory” effect). Another problem is that people might not answer truthfully when one of the candidates is a minority (the “Bradley Effect”). These are relatively exotic problems with polling. Others are more common and mundane, the most common being the sample error relative to size, which polls attempt to correct for by offering a margin of error. The margin of error is a statistical recognition of the fact that you cannot ask everyone the question. If you cannot ask every single adult in America, you are obliged to acknowledge the potential for inaccuracy, which is greater the smaller the sample size.

There are other errors and many of them have to do with how well the sample that is standing in for the general population serves as a microcosm of that population. These can be really interesting because randomness requires discipline, ironically maybe. If you are stopping people on the street to ask them questions, how does your personal preference not become part of the sample? People who look like they’ll kill you if you ask them a question are part of the population, but may not be accurately represented in a sample group.

The biggest problem to my mind, and the one I think is most relevant when it comes to looking at Trump’s poll numbers, is the assumption, both necessary and flawed, that the people who refused to answer your silly questions would have answered them in the same way as those who agreed to answer them.

We know that people who agree to participate in polling are not necessarily accurate representations of everyone. Generally speaking, the reluctance to speak with a pollster is not considered a statistically relevant variable or one that is corrected in the margin of error related to sample size.

Simply put, it is my opinion, based on nothing whatsoever beyond my own personal observations, that Trump supporters, much like their candidate, are very eager to share their opinion; whereas, your average Republican, more thoughtful, has not yet formed an opinion because they are not yet sure what has become of their party or where to assert their support. Trump is simply a more extreme example of how the Tea Party minority has taken a seat at the table just by being consistently vocal.

I live in the most conservative county in the state of Georgia, which is saying something, and yet I can count on one hand the number of Trump bumper stickers I have seen. By this time in the last election I was seeing Romney bumper stickers by the dozens. They were everywhere, at every stop light.

My opinion, and I will not be surprised if I am wrong, is that we are seeing polling anomalies that pace Trump’s incongruence as a candidate. I mean, how many Trump supporters have you met personally and how does that number compete with how many Republicans you know?

I have not met one Trump supporter. I keep thinking about what advertising innovator David Ogilvy, a real life madman, said about focus groups 30 years ago. He said talking to seven of his friends was as good as a sample group. I’ve always believed that was true. If Donald Trump was really going to be relevant in any meaningful way, I think he would have come up in one real world conversation with a supporter by now, or more than two bumper stickers in the most conservative county in Georgia.

It is my opinion that Trump supporters are eager, excited, assertive and want everyone to know what they think and are disproportionately represented in polls at a time when most Republicans don’t know what to think.

And this is not taking into account numerous other issues such as how questions are written or how pollsters contact people. Landlines (inexpensive to reach) will skew Republican. Cell phones (expensive to reach) will skew democratic. Fewer and fewer people are willing to sit through a 30 minute set of polling questions (more questions, more accuracy) so how do people who are willing to sit through 30 minutes skew the results. Are they more passionate? More decided?

Look, I’m not a statistician or a professional researcher or a pollster. But I’ll tell you what, Donald Trump’s seeming popularity does not square with my daily experience. I have this feeling that we’re looking at smoke and mirrors. To what end I cannot even guess. If Trump turned out, as Jeb Bush has suggested, to be a spoiler on behalf of Hilary Clinton, I honestly would not be surprised. Everything is too out of whack not to expect the unexpected.

Finally, any one candidate’s actual chances are difficult to define in a crowded race. There is a large peloton behind Trump. I use this bike racing term as a metaphor because if Trump is truly in the lead then he is winning as Lance Armstrong.

 

 

 

Final Trumpettes

On the eve of his destruction he calls you to his table he
Remains proud and defiant full of the strength you
Suckled like an angry lamb kicking at air and empty dirt

His face is bright and still full of the promise though
Everyone can hear the demons in the jungle having
Finally caught his scent and now drooling over the hunt

As if the day was his as if his hands did not tremble he
Insists everyone lift their glass to glory and nobody
Looks down they know their drinks are red like blood

Like Kool-Aid

Looking Up

Born in 1963, I am at the tail end of the Baby Boomers. No matter how much medicine advances over the next few decades, most of us boomers will be gone in 50 years and I wonder about things that are lost. I mean, when it comes to The Greatest Generation, one no longer runs across people, very often anyway, who fought in WWII. But when I was growing up, I met and spoke with WWII veterans all the time. They were my teachers and neighbors and all my friend’s granddads.

Well, the list is endless, isn’t it? One day there will be no one left who remembers a time before personal computers. I fully expect, should I have any geeky grandchildren (what are the odds?), to watch their mouths drop open as I describe using an Apple IIc, or playing pong, not in exactly the same way I held my grandfather in awe because his ship sank at Pearl Harbor, but you get the idea.

And this is the way of things. I do not lament it, but I am curious. I have realized that one thing that will be lost with Baby Boomers is looking up. I’m not being flippant.

My father and second dad (both of the Silent Generation) look up more than half the time when a plane flies overhead. When I was a kid, my dad looked up at almost every plane. He may have looked up more than most because he was working for an airplane manufacturer, but all my friends’ dads did it too. My grandfathers looked up at planes too. And I look up at anything that is not a high and distant passenger jet, and even then I look up often.

The Xers and Millennials, they don’t look up so much. A few months ago I was taking to a young man in his early 20’s and we were standing under the flight path for a nearby Air Force base. As various transports and miscellaneous aircraft flew over, I was looking up at every single one. I mean I can ignore passengers jets, but military aircraft, c’mon. And then I realized that he didn’t understand what was going on and he was getting impatient with my inattention.

I explained about the planes. I explained how, when my dad was growing up, the skies were transforming from propellers to jets. The sky was full of wonder and planes moved across the sky at ever increasing speeds. My grandfathers grew up at a time when planes were still a marvel. The nose of the Greatest Generation was born before Kitty Hawk. The Millennial kid understood and accepted what I was saying, but he had no empathy.

I inherited the habit of looking up, but it is a habit that will not survive being twice removed from the jet age fascination of my father. Perhaps, when things begin to hover and float and generally defy our current understanding of gravity, kids will start looking up again.

It is a small loss, I know. It’s not the last Civil War soldier (1956 if you can believe it), or the last WWII veteran (more than 500 die every day and we will dip below the 1% remaining mark this year). It’s a random and low impact loss, the generations who looked up. The generations that follow will be those who looked elsewhere, and perhaps with unimaginable results when all is said and done. But I thought it deserved a mention. Here’s to looking up.

The Snow and the Grass

The first poem I can remember returning to of my own free will, meaning I read the poem on my own time apart from any requirement for a test or homework, was Robert Frost’s classic, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROSTRobert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

I still love this poem even though I rarely take well to rhyming poetry. I was in grade school, fourth or fifth grade I think, and it would be years before I ever experienced the utter quiet of snow in the dark. And yet when I read the poem over and over again as a child it was somehow future evocative. When I finally sat alone in the snow at night, perhaps six years after first encountering the poem, it was exactly what I expected because Robert Frost had already told me what it would be like.

This may have been the first poem I ever loved but the first poet I ever loved was Carl Sandburg. In high school I began to seek poetry outside of school assignments. The first book of poetry I ever paid money to own was Poems by Richard Thomas (the actor who41I80Z2YOwL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_ played John Boy Walton), which you can buy now for a penny on Amazon, or $44 for a “like new” copy. What I remember about the poetry of Richard Thomas, who no longer writes poetry, was the accessibility, which is not to say it was bad or less than good. I was exploring poetry and the memory of John Boy, who inspired in part my desire to write, was still fresh in my mind so the poetry of Richard Thomas was my midwife. I had written poems on occasion since junior high but it wasn’t until I read Richard Thomas that I understood there were fewer constraints than I’d imagined.

The second book of poetry I paid to own was Harvest Poems by Carl Sandburg, a thin volume of “greatest hits” covering 1910-1960.  I didn’t know it at the time but Sandburg was like a brother from another poet mother to Frost. They were very different, and were never great friends, but Frost was only four years older than Sandburg, they both lived into their late 80’s.

One of Sandburg’s greatest long form narrative poems was titled The People, Yes (a series of poems actually). He believed in the people. If Robert Frost had produced a mirror series of poems it might have been titled The People, Maybe. Frost was a rural New Englander, suspicious and insular. Sandburg was a Midwestern urban dweller and a Chicagoan above all else, open and extroverted to a fault. Though he relocated to a farm in North Carolina later in life, Sandburg remained a voice for the working class andCarl_Sandburg_NYWTS the city dwellers while Frost remained introspective and studied in a way that could be misunderstood as elitist. Although a modernist for mostly technical reasons, Frost was not an innovator and experimenter and compared to Sandburg was formal. Sandburg was wild and unpredictable, if also at times undisciplined, as a poet. So, of course I fell in love with him.

Frost had the presentation of an academic but it was Sandburg who wrote the first comprehensive and excruciatingly meticulous multi-volume history of Abraham Lincoln. He was a poet but it was history in the form of Lincoln that was his totem.

Such was my love of Sandburg that my best friend in college bought me his complete works for my birthday, for which he paid a hefty sum for a poor college student.  He inscribed the book with a demand that I pay him back with my first born child.

Like Frost, Sandburg wrote some poems that made their way into school text books, the most well-known probably being Fog (remember the little cat feet?). Another is Grass, which has been on my mind a lot lately and in my imagination stands in parallel to Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowing Evening.

Grass

BY CARL SANDBURG

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work—

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

I am the grass.

Let me work.

 

The contrast between these two poems is found not only in the subject matter but the style and form, the line breaks and spaces. The poetry of Robert Frost often touches my heart. The Poetry of Carl Sandburg often reaches much further down.

The poem, Grass, has been on my mind lately because the grass has a lot of work to do lately and Sandburg has been on my mind because he was a socialist democrat. He was also honest, I believe, in a way that is hard to find in the public sphere right now. I know this is likely narcissistic nostalgia because every age has its liars and crooked politician. But every age also has it’s people who stand up and declare that  we are holding the wrong things sacred right now and that people who deserve nothing more than any of us are profiting from the sorrows of the world as if they are too high and mighty now to suffer too. I don’t know how to fight these crooked people but I cling to words and I remember the first three lines of  Sandburg poem titled The Eastland, referring to a touring boat that rolled over in the Chicago river in July 1915, killing 844 passengers.

Let’s be honest now

For a couple of minutes

Even though we’re in Chicago.

The reason I was brought back to these words was the simple plea, which was naive, even silly, 100 years ago when Sandburg wrote it. If we could agree for just a few minutes about what the honest words are…but boats full of people keep sinking, oil keeps spilling, wars keep being profit centers, freedom is still defined mostly by armaments.

And the snow and the grass remain constant and true, at least for now.

 

 

Not Really Much of a Basketball Story

The last time I really had anything to do with basketball was 1973. My Parks & Rec team went undefeated and won the regional championship. This was due, in part, to the fact that my neighbor, Mark, was on the team, a natural athlete and a foot taller than almost everyone in the league.

We were also good. And by “we,” I mean the starters. I scored 6 points all season and I might be exaggerating. I was good at getting fouled and passing the ball like a hot potato. The coach gave me the nickname “Gabby,” because I was quiet, at first. But once I got comfortable, I didn’t shut up. If you know me, maybe you have had this experience. Coach Pebbly was one of the adults who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, “writer.” He said, “good.”

Coach Pebbly worked at Disneyland and when we won the championship he took the entire team to the Magic Kingdom. Growing up just a few miles from Disneyland, a visit was not unusual, but it was still a huge treat. Later I would work at Disneyland and even later I would hold a season pass. But I have to say, I think this trip, with my championship basketball team, was maybe the best visit outside some visits with my kids.

Coach Pebbly had the inside scoop on everything about Disneyland. He knew which rides to visit when and the best spot for watching the fireworks at the end of the night. He remembered I liked magic and made sure we stopped at both magic shops (yes, there used to be two and they were decent shops). What I remember for sure is that all coach Pebbly’s guy friends at Disneyland called him “Rocky” and what I think I remember is all his women friends called him “Pebbles.” He didn’t seem to mind being called Rocky but he seemed embarrassed by Pebbles but only, it seemed, because we were around. I bought a rubber snake in the gift shop across from the Jungle Cruise.

It’s so odd to think of it now but Disneyland was just 18 years old then.

Seventeen years later I was working at Disneyland when the park celebrated its 35 anniversary. In the way that life happens it was one of the most difficult times of my life but I was also having a great deal of fun. The only thing I want to say about that is that female employees outnumbered male employees three to one and a significant portion of the male employees were gay. There you go.

I don’t know how it works now but back then you started as a part-time employee and you were assigned to an area. I worked inside retail stores in New Orleans Square and Critter Country, formerly Bear Country. After a year or so I was made full-time and that meant I could be assigned to work retail anywhere in the park. I had no idea where I was working for the week until I pulled my time card from its slot in the time card shack. Imagine, real time cards that we had to push into a punch clock. My time card would have a slip attached to it that I would take to the wardrobe department and they would give me my uniform/costume.

I always hoped for New Orleans Square because that was where all my friends were, or Critter Country. Frontierland or Fantasyland were fine as far as the work and guests went. I also didn’t mind working Main Street and I actually enjoyed working the stroller shack. I almost always worked night shifts and there are few places as chaotic in Disneyland at night as the place where all the strollers are being returned. There was no time to think, you just had to act. There was a system, tried and true over many years and virtually flawless. There was simply no thinking allowed. Be nice to the guests and follow the system.

I don’t know what type of strollers they have now but no doubt they are different and the system has evolved along with the strollers.  Back then they were the metal framed folding beasts and the measure of a person in the stroller shack was how fast he or she could collapse and stack a stroller.

I had a mad crush on the manager of the South side stroller shack, a woman with the most perfectly articulated mullet I have ever seen, and she made it work. To my great regret I cannot remember her name. I asked her out but she turned me down. She asked me why I was working at Disneyland. I told her I enjoyed it. She asked me what I would doing if I could do anything I wanted to earn a living. I said, “writing.” She nodded and told me to stack the strollers faster.

The one place I didn’t want to work, the land I would avoid at all costs and actively lobby, cajole, and bribe schedulers to escape, was Tomorrowland. Cursed beast.

Every single retail location in Tomorrowland was unceasingly busy and bombed and full of crazed guests seeking revenge on the future by trying to purchase it out of existence. I always ended up in the gift shop at the exit of Star Tours. I sold so many light sabers.

Even now, when a commercial for the movie Tomorrowland comes on TV I start to twitch.

Fantasyland was much more my speed. I have always thought it would be interesting to evaluate consumer behavior in different lands within Disneyland (I’m sure it’s been done) because I could never shake the impression that the “land” influenced how the guests behaved. Tomorowland guests were frenetic and impatient while Fantasyland guests, just a short distance away, were relaxed and deliberative. Who is in a hurry in Sleeping Beauty’s castle? You? Not me.

One day, I climbed the stairway to the administrative office for Fantasyland retail to check in and get my assignment from whoever was the boss for that shift. I was basically a utility player just passing through. I knew the drill. They would give me the crappy jobs, whatever that meant to them, and then ignore me because I was not a permanent Fantasyland employee. I was like a substitute teacher.

When I got to the top of the stairs I see the area manager is holding court with his team, the folks permanently assigned to Fantasyland. And who do you think this boss is? Yup. Coach Pebbly.

I was shocked into silence by what may have been my first experience of overwhelming nostalgia and memory and sense of time. I recognized him because he was already an adult when I knew him before. He was older and heavier and more wrinkled, like I am now, though he was not yet 40 at the time. He didn’t recognize me because I was a child when he had seen me last. I didn’t say anything. I would be assigned to Fantasyland for a week, so the opportunity would come.

I can’t remember how many days passed and I don’t remember many details but I know we were in the administrative office, the “leads” office when I talked to him. I remember the conversation as awkward. I remember the feeling that he did not recollect me specifically, though he remembered the team and the starters. He asked me about some of them. I told him what I could, but they had all been out of my life for over 10 years.  When I told him he had nicknamed me “Gabby” he seemed, for a moment, to glimpse something. He had coached several Parks & Rec basketball teams, though we had been his only championship team. I could tell it made him uncomfortable that he could not remember me exactly.

I think I said a few things about our trip to Disneyland and maybe my rubber snake.

He stopped to talk to me a few times during the week I worked in Fantasyland.   Usually he had some question about Mark or John or Darren, the guys who had really won us the championship. He never really gave me any reason to believe I was more than a vague impression to him and I could never manage to expect more than that.

Not long after that I left Disneyland to work full time with people who were homeless and mentally ill, and take a pay cut in the process. For a long time I was enamored with the contrast between these two jobs, working at Disneyland and working with the homeless. One day I opened a box of donations from Disneyland and it was hundreds of 35th Anniversary t-shirts from when I had worked there. For months and months there were  homeless people walking around Santa Ana, California wearing t-shirts celebrating a Disneyland anniversary and more than a few of them were talking to themselves.

I watched the last 10 minutes of the last game between the Cavs and Warriors. Like I said, this isn’t really much of a basketball story.

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Rust and Wrinkles are Sexy

I like used things. Not everyone does, you know. There is surely much to be said for the new and there are times when new is not only preferred but necessary, or as good as necessary. Toothbrushes.

I have tried to remember when I discovered used bookstores but I am uncertain about it. I would like to remember. It seems like it should be earlier than my memory tells me. I worked in the school library all through junior high, which won’t be a surprise to anyone, and so I had a practically endless supply of reading material. And I was a frequent visitor to the public library because I had a habit of reading everything I could find on a topic. This is how, at age 13, I was an expert on Amelia Earhart and at age 14 an expert on the early history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. I don’t really remember going to bookstores. When I read my first Bob Dylan biography in high school I bought it at the grocery store. Our local K-Mart didn’t have a row of books it had an entire section of the store devoted to books.

My earliest memories of used bookstores are from college. There were three used bookstores in downtown Fullerton, California. One was a small, plain and simple paperback shop, quiet and carpeted, where I started my habit for collecting every edition of Ray Bradbury paperbacks I could find. There was a larger store with tall shelves that required step stools, creaky wooden floors and row upon row of everything, from popular fiction to obscure matter gathering dust. It was a used book shop from central casting complete with a frazzled and twitchy proprietor with aged elfin features who had a seemingly eidetic memory. If you asked him about a book he would close his eyes and tell you precisely where it was in the bookstore. If you asked about a topic he could recite the titles in stock on that topic. The third bookstore was a nerd shop called Aladdin Books and run by twin brothers. Though they carried all kinds of books the science fiction, fantasy, and magic sections were abundant and they also sold movie stills, comic books, and memorabilia, mostly from Star Trek and Star Wars.

The old downtown area of Fullerton was dilapidated back then but on the cusp of a revival of sorts that would eventually drive all three bookstores out. When I returned to live there for a brief time fifteen years ago only Aladdin’s remained. They closed in 2007 but are active on eBay.

Another used book store I visited often over 20 years, the Book Baron in Anaheim, California, also closed in 2007. It was a mighty store in its day, huge and always busy. I could count on them to have almost any title but Book Baron was not one of my favorites. It was clean and organized and had helpful staff. That’s okay. But I like dusty, messy, used book stores with stacks everywhere. My favorite of all time, like so many people, was Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books in Long Beach, California. I was so overwhelmed by this bookstore the first time I visited in the early 90’s I had to leave after 10 minutes.

For 12 years, on and off, I lived just a few miles from this death trap of a book store. I loved it but I knew that being inside during an earthquake might mean the end of me. There were so many books and they created shelving out of every poor excuse for a plank of wood they could find. The shelving itself was a work of art. Despite being designated as a historical landmark Acres of Books gave up the ghost in 2008, just a few months after I visited for the last time. I’m not saying I cried about it but I was mighty pensive on October 18, 2008.

There are so many others, now gone, and I can’t remember their names. I lived in San Jose, California, in the mid 1990’s and there was a small grungy used bookstore downtown that I loved because they had a huge magazine selection and I was just beginning to form an interest in ephemera. They had a large collection of men’s magazines and there was a sign on the wall that read “Shirts must remain tucked in at all times.” From that store I purchased a number of old Forbes magazines, framed the covers and sold them at consignment stores. No, you don’t make a profit doing that sort of thing.

But this is about used things, which means more than books. I don’t think I avoided thrift stores for the first half of my life I just think it didn’t really occur to me to go into them very often. But there was a point in my 20s when I started visiting thrift stores out of necessity. Even still, I went in with a specific target in mind. I didn’t browse. There is a big difference between visiting a thrift store because you need a white dress shirt in good condition and visiting because you collect cast iron skillets.

These days I am a self-designated casual thrift picker. I set aside a very small budget and allow myself one hour total during the week and one hour total over the weekend in thrift stores (including drive time for stores that are not on my way to somewhere else). These sorts of boundaries are necessary as I can become…focused.

I love used things for a few reasons. There is the obvious, paying very little for something relative to its value. That’s the part that’s like a game. I have tried the resale game and though I have a good eye and sold things on eBay for many times what I paid, like framing the Forbes covers you can make money but not profit by simply dabbling. Nevertheless there is something satisfying about buying something useful of high quality and knowing that the “marketplace” puts a dollar value on it that is 10 times what you paid, or 30 or even 60 times.

But the thing I love most about used stuff is thinking about the life a thing lead before it became part of my life. I love opening a used book and finding some random piece of life tucked into it. Receipts, plane tickets, movie tickets, grocery lists, playing cards, pressed flowers. These are all things I have found inside used books. I recently bought a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes published in 1930 and found a poem, written in pencil, tucked into the pages.

The same goes for cast iron cookware (especially when it is over 100 years old) and now cutlery, even though there is no evidence of their past lives like sometimes found in books. Though I once bought a golf club, a driver for $3 that had sold the previous season for over $200, and examining the face of the club I read the story of how the previous owner must have lost a great many golf balls to the right.

There are times when I buy something for almost no reason at all beyond the story it tells. This is dangerous so, of course, there are rules. I won’t pay more than $5 for something that is not functional but nostalgic or perhaps collectible to others if not to me. For example, back in the day G.I. Joe came inside a footlocker and around the time I was born the footlocker was made of wood. I found one at thrift for $3. In the condition it’s in and without Joe or any of the accessories that came with it, it’s worth about $8. One day, at a garage sale probably, I will ask $8 and take $6. Or maybe I’ll just keep it and use it to store all the different colored 3×5 cards I use for storyboarding. There you go.

Finally, I like used things for purely aesthetic reasons too. I just really like how things look when they have been used the same way I like how people look when they have lived. Survival, endurance, wear and tear, experience, and lots of stories. These are things I find attractive on both people and objects. Rust and wrinkles are sexy.

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Coyotes

I have lived in the neighborhood where I live now for just over five years and I have heard about coyotes from those who have seen them here. I have seen their paw prints in the dirt and the snow. My dog seems to have one particular bark he reserves just for passing coyotes. I believe I have, once or twice, heard them cackling away in the distance like they do and like I have heard other places in my life.

I’m not exactly outdoorsy, but I have listened from my sleeping bag on a mountain somewhere, more than a few times, to the sound of coyotes reminding me that I am only a visitor, the way they combine menace with humor, talk about you while you’re still in the room, remain only just out of sight, only just past the turning of your head.

Once, backpacking to Finger Lake northeast of Yosemite in California, I had gained lonesome on the trail with the people ahead and behind out of sight. Climbing a bothersome hill I looked up at the crest of the trail and saw a white coyote. Now, I’m not saying there was a white coyote on the trail, I’m saying I saw a white coyote and then did a full-shake double take and when I looked back the coyote was gone. When I reached the top of the hill I found a small white boulder sticking out of the ground. I kicked at it a bit, daring it to grow legs and ears. It did not.

I did not then and do not now doubt for a moment that my brain conspired with the sweat in my eyes to turn that white boulder, for a fraction of a second, into a white coyote. What I mean is, I have never believed there was actually a white coyote above me on that trail. But I did wonder and wonder still why, of all things, my brain, no doubt bickering with my body at the time about where to feel the most pain, chose to see a white coyote.

Why a white coyote?

I was forced to adopt the white coyote, not as a spirit animal so much as…a spirit animal. I can’t say I actually believe in having a spirit animal, but the white coyote became mine, nevertheless. It was the only rationally irrational response.  For the next few days, each night as I fell asleep, I listened to the coyotes off in the distance, reminding us with their hyena laughter that we belonged somewhere else eventually. And we did.

That was almost half my life ago and just the other day, as it goes. I was in a gift shop one day and found a tile with the image of a white coyote, a Native American image, or so I was told. I bought the tile because who wouldn’t among all of us whose minds had once turned a white boulder into a white coyote.  I still have it.

Since then I have seen one or two coyotes off in the distance, crossing the highway in a desert somewhere near Palm Springs or in New Mexico or while fighting my way across Texas. I once had a staring contest with a coyote at a zoo, before I gave up zoos. I was asking him about the white coyote but he chose to ignore me. That, or he was just an animal thinking about animal things, like when food might arrive.

What I’m saying is my visual encounters with actual rather than imagined coyotes under the 50 yard mark and without a cage between us have been, at least since I was born, zero. Until a recent evening.

I was working at my desk in my home office when my dog started prancing and jumping and generally making a nuisance of himself, which is dog language for wanting to go outside. I let him out and he began to bark. But it wasn’t the people-walking-past bark, or the neighbors-dog-is-loose bark. It was the wild-animal-nearby bark. This was confirmed by dogs all along the street who were all barking insistently. So I grabbed my flashlight and headed out onto the deck to see what I could see for no reason whatsoever.

My backyard is wild, which is how I like it. My neighbors might not agree with my aesthetic preference but I love feeling like those are real woods out back and yonder. I clicked on the flashlight and scanned the brush. About 50 feet out I came across the eye shine, two eyes, reflectors, staring back at me.

I have seen plenty of eye shine in my backyard before, possum and raccoon. But these eyes were further apart and they didn’t sway and fidget like raccoon and possum do. In fact, they stared back at me without flinching or moving at all. Then, without any concern or urgency, the eyes turned away and a coyotes passed across the beam of light. It wasn’t white. For five minutes I listened to what I think was more than one coyote loitering, carefully stepping through the bushes, dead leaves giving them away. I only saw the eye shine one more time, further out, saying goodbye maybe as it headed for the fence line where over the years fallen trees have created many gates.

They’re troublesome during the winter, quietly taking cats like vampires take drunken tourists. And I’m told they can be brazen lately, running across a yard full of children, not in a threatening way but in a taking-the-short-cut way. Still. And the truth is I wasn’t all that comfortable with the size of the animal I saw in my backyard, largish for a coyote I thought.

Coyote attacks on humans are rare enough and only one adult human is known to have been killed by coyotes. They have adapted to nearly every environment imaginable, including major cities like Chicago. And yet the ghost of the prairie is a ghost everywhere. Coyote sightings are unusual relative to their presence. For every coyote you see there are…well, more. The internet can’t make up its mind how many. Estimates range between five and 50 coyotes for every one you see. Coyotes are loners except when they’re not. They run away when you harass them, except when they don’t. They are active at night, except when they’re active during the day. They are blamed for more cat vanishings than they perpetrate. You never hear people saying, “We have to get rid of all these owls.”

Coyote’s, it seems, are like the world in general, at least the world as I know it. They are less dangerous than I imagine but more dangerous than I think. And my response is basically the same. I’m not going to buy a gun but I might start carrying a stick to the bus stop.

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Slippers

I want to talk about slippers again. I may have mentioned how disappointed I am in my slippers. Even though I did not pay anything like retail, my Rockport slippers, nevertheless, are expensive slippers as slippers go and I expected them to last more than a year. They haven’t.

To be fair, without letting go of my disappointment, I am hard on my slippers. I wear them to the bus stop every day so if slippers are “house shoes” and manufactured to meet the expectations of something called a house shoe, I probably have little room to complain.

And yet, one would think that if the daily trek over 100 yards of asphalt were really the issue it would show up in wear and tear to the sole of the slipper. But no, the soles of my slippers, which are thick and unhouse shoe-like, the reason I chose them, are in good repair, showing little sign of bus stop travel abuse. The problem is that the uppers are attempting to divorce themselves from the soles, threatening a total separation.

Setting aside my disappointment I began a search for new slippers. My slipper requirements are as follows, in summary: The slipper must have a closed heel. I’m not a member of the rat pack lounging around Frank’s pool and I’m not in the hospital. The slipper must have a substantial sole. Cloth sole slippers are, perhaps, one of the most useless things imaginable unless you have wall-to-wall carpet and never wear your slippers outside the house. If you never wear your slippers outside the house your priorities are askew and we should part company before unfortunate words are uttered. Finally, slippers must be a color that will not readily reveal coffee stains. This one is entirely personal and practical.

It is a good time to shop for slippers if you have a “pickers” mentality like I do when it comes to shopping. As memories of the holidays fade and warmer weather is theoretically possible, slippers move to the clearance racks. By mid-February slippers have been marked down more than once. It is the slipper sweet spot. But not this year. When I found an appropriate pair, they didn’t have my size (which is common). When I found my size, they had such a poor excuse for a sole I would hold them up and ask rhetorically if they were meant to be disposable slippers.

Today I gave up. As I stood in a store holding a pair of weak-soled slippers in my hand and contemplated whether they would last through the bus-stopless summer I suddenly remembered I kept a miracle in my tool box. The miracle in my toolbox is a hot glue gun. Can you think of any problem that a hot glue gun cannot fix? Of course you can’t.

I brought my sturdy soled Rockport slippers with a separation problem down to the basement, fired up the hot glue gun, and then slathered. I glued like nobody’s business and turned a fine looking pair of slippers into a pair of monsters…monsters that will last for the rest of 2015, I’ll wager.

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