Friday, September 30, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Perdiendo El Norte

This is another example of a movie I wanted to like the moment I spotted it, the other being the baffling French The Bridesmaid two weeks ago. Here, there were two main reasons. One was that Spain was the country of origin, and two, it stars my beloved Ivan and Julia from the t.v. show El Internado. Sadly, neither of these reasons gave the film enough support for me to be a fan.

Ivan (who in real life is known as Yon Gonzalez) plays one Hugo: a young MBA who finds, upon graduating, that present-day Spain is littered with similar youth who have crashed and burned in their attempt to start a career. Rather than languish in their parents' homes, he and his brainy friend Braulio, a molecular biologist with similarly dim prospects, decide to embark on a quest for monetary redemption to Germany: better to have some money with no career, as opposed to no money and no career.

'Spaniards in Germany' could have been a rich source of material for sensitive story-telling, even if humor was the main track the makers were after. The themes, in fact, are many: young dreams, a sense of displacement, the fear of failure, Germany's own attitudes to migrant workers, national identities, and so on. But none of that appears. Hugo quickly decides to flat-out lie to his parents and fiancee about his having a promising job. (He's actually a waiter at a cafe owned by a Turkish chap who goes around mangling both the Spanish language and the German.)Meanwhile, all around him all characters indulge so heavily in slapstick that I was surprised no-one slipped on a banana peel. 

These other characters are mainly the roommates, the sibling pair of Rafa and Carla, the latter being Blanca Suarez who plays Julia in my t.v. show. Now, I know what she and Hugo (Yon Gonzalez) are capable of as actors because of their luminous performances in that show. The chemistry between them and their individual characters' nuances are sensitive and memorable. Here, they seem straitjacketed by the script's insistence on too-easy gags and reliance on stereotypes. Despite doing their best, the two rather fetching actors cannot lift their surroundings out of this dimness.

Even a theme like Alzheimer's which a neighbor, Andres, suffers from, came across as short-changed here, tending towards the facile. Also short-changed were the German characters. There were none, they just appeared as indistinct fillers who vigorously indulged in stereotypical "German" behavior.

In the end it's deception to the rescue again, this time twisted around: Hugo leaves his fiancee at the altar in order to rekindle his flame with Carla, who had before inexplicably been involved with a married man herself. The climax includes a marathon in Berlin and a baby being delivered in a car: sigh.

I was a persistent viewer and did keep at it until the bitter end, and the movie admittedly became slightly better as it progressed. But I was left with a sense of lost potential here, in fact I'm sure most viewers would be. Audiences are now exposed to such fine examples of film-making from the world over, and I was hoping Espana would stand up to the task. Still, there is fine talent aplenty. I'm sure the next Spanish movie I pick will be muy muy bueno.

Director: Nacho Velilla
Overall rating: 4/10

Monday, September 26, 2016

Readings: Under Major Domo Minor

Author Patrick deWitt is back with another wittily (!) titled little novel that manages to defy genre and era. However, this time the effect was not quite as novel (!) as the last time. This was primarily because the characters ultimately remained un-knowable. The strangely deadpan humor and almost exasperating roundabout conversational style is no doubt very engaging. But it does not hold up in the face of the fact that one is never quite sure as to why any of this is happening at all. 

The protagonist, young Lucien Minor, takes off from his village, the deadly dull Bury, after mysteriously escaping death from a serious illness. His father dies instead: a fact that seems to make him even less popular with his stoutly practical mother. He sets off to take up a job in the Castle von Aux, as second-in-command to its major domo, one Mr. Olderslough. Hence the inexplicable title suddenly becomes clear.

En route, he meets two petty thieves named Memel and Mewe whom he befriends, and in the village he meets Memel's daughter Klara, with whom he falls in love. Lucy, as he is known, has a peculiar penchant for lying. Other than that he seems pretty vacant and listless, but then he is only seventeen, and this seems to be a problem I face with such young protagonists. They're teenagers, so motivation and solid character traits are very difficult to pin down. 

So what happens during his job at the castle? Oh, nothing much, except that its owner, the Baron, is a raving (and I mean raving) lunatic, his wife the Baroness is estranged, the major domo himself appears to be slowly losing his marbles, the cook Agnes serves up only unpalatable gruel at all meals, etc. Lucy, however,  does manage to carry on a fairly successful affair with Klara when she's not being aggressively pursued by the local aimless warrior, Adolphus. 

Then the Baroness re-appears, and there is a party hosted at the castle soon after. The guests and the hosts proceed, at this party, to have a rather unsavory orgy which Lucy witnesses. Hereafter, the narrative totally loses steam. In fact in the last third of the book I kept searching for what the story was meant to represent, for surely I was missing a gigantic metaphor of some sort? The ending, also, was meant to tell us that there is a sequel, failing which, it will have left me feeling very unsatisfied indeed.

However, far from this being an inferior work, Under Major Domo Minor is in fact quite accomplished. It is not easy to construct a world peopled by characters whose exchanges are for the most part, unique, and at its heart the writing is quiet and lucid. (I particularly enjoyed the droll and circuitous chats between Lucy and the batty Mr. Olderslough.) It's just that at the beginning, the novel was so promising, and by the end, so disappointing.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Love's austere and lonely offices

The winter that I was eight, my family went on a vacation to Rajasthan. We took a train at one point, I don't recall from where to where but a guess would be from Delhi to Jaipur. In any event, it was mid-morning when we passed an enormous field of mustard. What I remember about this is not the mustard specifically, which was glorious enough in that great blaze of yellow under very blue skies. It is the fact that as we were passing it, my father pulled me onto his knee and pointed at the field, relating some little story of his own childhood and how happy he had been at the time he was recalling. (He grew up in Rajasthan.)

It was one of the best moments of my life, though this memory surfaces only rarely. A few years ago I and many others I knew were going through a particularly trying time in our lives. One night I had a dream that I was gifted with the power of effortless flight, and was flying over a great golden field of flowers under a blue endless sky. The dream brought much solace and peace. Why is it only now that I find the link between my treasured childhood memory and this obvious bit of comfort that my own brain had devised?

I find that this September is a similar time of trials. May everyone find their own dream of yellow flowers. 

I'm also inspired to post a particularly beautiful poem here, in honor of love and loss:

Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices? 

~By Robert Hayden

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two worlds

The whole house smells wonderful tonight. J has been preparing for cooking an Indian dish, spending almost three-quarters of an hour chopping, slicing, roasting, grinding, and then laying out the results in little platters on the counters. The overall effect is of a miniature banquet, totally at odds with the fact that these small treasures will soon be obliterated of their individual identities when they go into the making of a new dish.

It's at times like this that we miss that big old market we used to live close to in Bangalore. Set on both sides of a long, shady street, it would begin at sunrise and carry on to just after sunset. Sometimes we would wake up early, gather a few bags, and walk down. Now they mostly sold to wholesalers, so this resulted in a little bit of amusement when I timidly asked for only three lemons or a single tiny bunch of coriander. (One time the lady, with a gap-toothed grin, just gave me an extra fistful of green chilies for free. She was clearly unsatisfied by my paltry request for a mere bunch.) My rudimentary Kannada earned me many points, however, as did J's rudimentary Hindi.

I remember one occasion when, overcome by the beauty and freshness of the produce, J and I simply went overboard. We could barely return home with our purchases, so heavy were our bags. I had bought mangoes, limes, curry leaf, ginger in great quantities, some bunches of tiny local finger-sized bananas which I could never do without, and a great heap of creamy jasmine blossoms. When we got home, I arranged most of this on the dining table. The mangoes, plump and heavy, smelled vaguely of rain and were tinted with just the faintest flush of rose pink. (Did we even eat them all, I wonder now, or just gape the rest of the week?)

Today we searched the shelves of a local supermarket. We did find a small bottle of coriander seeds, pouncing on it gladly. I experienced the usual odd, juxtaposed feeling of existing in two places at once: One half of my brain was back in that market under the trees, the other was in this Southern California market with its hand-sanitizers and its hybrid fruit and gluten-free what-nots.

Friday, September 23, 2016

French movie Friday: Chic!

"I don't do fashion," said Coco Chanel once," I am fashion". A good philosophy to live by, apparently, since Alicia Ricosi in Chic! has built a fashion empire, is considered a goddess by others in the business, and has a (terrified and sycophantic) staff who will go to absurd lengths to cater to her every whim.

Alicia, played by the magnetic Fanny Ardant, has a rather strangely warm aura for all her kookiness and self-aggrandizing; you can see why her staff is so worshipful. Her second-in-command, the craven, highly temperamental and yet hilarious Alain, is at his wits' end when she goes into a funk following a bad breakup. He turns to his second-in-command, Helene, to rustle up a fellow who will bring Alicia back to herself, her through whatever means necessary. This is a high-risk situation, since Alicia is unable to create a single sketch for the upcoming collection and their entire reputation is at stake. 

Helene, however, delivers a dud. Meanwhile, she is herself being mean and unnecessarily harsh in classic 'kick the cat' progression, with her landscaper, a rustic Breton named Julien. Ultimately, Julien ends up being the much-needed 'muse'; he gets served up to Alicia like a grand entree, and things now seem set to go in a certain direction. But then comes a slow and sly change. You do see it coming, but its pace is leisurely and thus doesn't seem absurd. And there's a nice neat ending to tie things up...but I almost, almost wish for a sequel.

Of the characters, all except Julien were quite a bunch of meanies overall. Still, because they're all so self-aware and capable of great wit and vulnerability, they're not one-dimensional, but human. As a bonus, everyone has spectacular houses, especially the swoon-worthy one in Bretagne belonging to Julien. And Helene and Alicia have the great gift of panache in carrying themselves, making me admire the clothes all the more. (I wished to see more of the couture though.)

Finally, Chic! was just funny in a sort of painful and almost-implausible way; in fact it's the humor that carries the story through in the midst of so much bad behavior by almost everyone. As Alicia tells Alain on one memorable occasion, "If you have to be a shit, be an elegant shit!" Indeed.

Director: Jerome Cornuau
Overall rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Readings: Johannes Cabal the Detective

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L.…
Necromancers can be detectives too. Of course if the necromancer in question is a certain Johannes Cabal, I suspect there are any number of things he could be. Metallurgist? Horologist? Alchemist? I rather like all these ideas. Now if only his creator, the unstoppable Jonathan Howard, would take note. 

In any event, this time Cabal is trying to escape the authorities of some uptight country called Senza because he's stolen a priceless and much-guarded book from its national library. To seal his escape, he dons the identity of one of its civil servants, and proceeds to board the Princess Hortense. This vessel, however, is not a ship, but an even comes with its own delightfully detailed diagram. It's a kind of zeppelin-meets-hot air balloon, and it is here that Cabal runs into some serious trouble. As though impersonating a somewhat-sociable civil servant weren't hard enough, now he has to contend with someone trying to off him by pushing him off the Hortense!

Leonie Barrow from the previous novel, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, is a prominent character here too. The author does try to explain Cabal's and Leonie's antecedents, but readers who haven't read Necromancer might end up feeling a bit foggy. The rest of the cast though is brand new, and no one has any trouble being memorable. The format is classic old-world evening-dress and chit-chat laden, with the quintessential 'suicide or murder' question being presented early in the voyage of the Hortense. Cabal with his relentlessly probing brain notices things about the 'suicide'; very soon after he begins investigating comes the attempt on his life and then he really starts to play detective.

"Play" is of course a loosely-used term. Cabal is still Cabal, after all: a misanthropic loner who only wants to pursue his science in peace. Still, there's the complication of his having gotten his soul back from Satan in his previous caper, so now he has to deal with strange new feelings, i.e., his own conscience. And the redoubtable Miss Barrow is always giving him headaches too. 

All is tied up at the end. I did have a fundamental question about how one of the main characters even got to be a passenger aboard the aeroship considering its ultimate mission, but I will let it rest. There was enough else going on to occupy me, this being a different world altogether from the carnival-train of Necromancer. However, I did miss Horst, Cabal's hip brother, and kept hoping he would make an appearance somehow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

In my corner

About two months ago, I found out that the younger cousin of a close friend had died. This cousin, I will call her A, had been facing quite serious health problems since birth. My friend, whom I'll call B, is years older and is the naturally giving type. So when A had been in and out of hospital, it was B who was at her side. (A was working and living alone.) 

Finally A's time was up. She collapsed in B's arms while recuperating from her latest hospital stay. A nightmarish sequence of events followed, what with ambulance delays, bureaucracy and other such ugly facts. At the age of 26, A's story ended. 

Through the years I've listened to how B has held her hand, chided her, tried to shepherd her down the path of more rigorous self-care, monitored her, fought with doctors, and advised her. When A died, I heard a real sense of resignation in B's voice. Many years of giving of herself like this will no doubt leave their mark. (B is one of the more empathetic souls I've ever known.) 

I was a good listener during my last phone call with B. But in the emotion of the moment, I realized later, I had neglected to say how lucky A had been in the final years to have such a fierce and big heart in her corner. May we all be so lucky. 

All this makes me appreciate the little things all the more. So when I find that as a present for a special occasion, J has procured a bag of black licorice shaped exactly like Scottie dogs, I want to weep with joy.

I'm off to write to B.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I've never been so enthusiastic about television in my entire life. When we first got t.v., we had a b&w one and one channel. There was no remote, and programming began only in the evenings. Now, t.v. is a different beast indeed. I keep discovering new things, and since I am not a binge-watcher, this is enough to keep me satisfied. I have quite a juicy crop going right now:

Les Revenants: A moody, artistic yet creepy version of events when the dead start returning to life in a small French mountain town. Not the zombie variety of un-dead, mind, but the same living and breathing person who just walks back into town with no memory of his or her own death. All this has something to do with the explosion at the local dam, I'm discovering now that I am on to Season 2. A little slow-moving, this, but entirely without high-pitched drama that delivers it straight into disturbing-but-compelling territory.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: The novel on which it is based is an energy-sappingly hefty tome, so when I found this on Netflix it solved my problem. (The problem being, I was itching to read it, but how to devote months of attention to what was probably densely-packed text?) My fretting has ceased now, especially since the one episode I did watch was satisfying and beautifully produced. The subject? Magic, in 19th century England. The two title characters are the 'chosen ones' of sorts to resolve the situation of magic not being practiced, rather, merely studied, like theology or grammar...the return of English magic, if you will.

Lark Rise to Candleford: This is the replacement to the sweet but too-short Cranford. It's the story of two neighboring English villages sometime in the 19th century. I'm only two episodes in but am charmed by the production design which is lovely, particularly the lighting. And English village life, in fact, two English villages! Of course.

Indian Summers: Season 2 is on PBS. It's 1930s India, Shimla, to be precise, and political turmoil is underway along with a lot of personal scheming and entanglements. Despite some maddening errors in casting and language, it's well-directed with convincing characters, plus it's very visually appealing.

Chef's Table: France: This too is a replacement, to the excellent A Cook Abroad which had, regrettably, only six episodes. (The best of these was chef Tony Singh's journey from Scotland to India.) Chef's Table has blown our socks off with the only episode we've watched so far, in which a chef named Alain something-or-other makes the unthinkable leap of cooking only with vegetables. In FRANCE, the brave fellow. Suffice to say, vegetables will now forever look ugly to me when I cook them myself. In fact, it is hard to say when I've seen food presented so beautifully. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

I rarely remember dreams

I had a dream early this morning. There was a big house, a sort of boarding house, the purpose of which wasn't clear but there were other women living there. I saw a staircase with a mirror at one end, many balconies, secret rooms, alcoves. I became friendly with one young woman there. I came to realize that who one sought out and who one befriended were entirely dependent on one's own choices. Was it a sort of half-way house for friends?

Then suddenly I was out on a balcony that overlooked the ocean. The balcony is made of glass, and I can see the ocean in glorious detail: a sunlit day, the water deep green and blue with a lot of surf. And then there's a plane, a giant jet careening down from the sky and just a few feet away from hitting the water, which is now being churned violently from the massive force of the jet. Its doors are opening. A few people jump out to their deaths despite nearly being in the water already. I am very close on the glass balcony watching all this, terror-stricken and mute. The noise is almost deafening. Then I woke up. 

Rarely do I remember a dream in any detail at all, usually even the fragments are gone by the time I'm fully awake. But this time the detail was so vivid that my voice faltered while relating it to J, a good twelve hours later. (He recalls dreams in much greater detail, usually beginning with something like,"there was a cabbage, a purple moon and it was Tuesday...").

No one can truly interpret dreams, I believe. But now I wish someone did. Images that are so critical in their vividness, that affected my brain with their urgency, and left a memory that didn't fade with usual dream-like flimsiness, must mean something.

Friday, September 16, 2016

French movie Friday: The Bridesmaid

Claude Chabrol may be another one of those celebrated directors whose films remain beyond my liking. (There are a few others but with my woeful knowledge of such things I recall no names.) In The Bridesmaid, the central force of the entire narrative is the all-consuming and logic-defying passion felt between the girl and the boy. Now the girl, Stephanie or Senta as she calls herself, is presented upfront as a bit of a kook. The first time we see her, she's in a filmy blue dress the very color of innocence: she's the bridesmaid, though her steely eyes and staccato speech hint at anything but innocence. But the boy, we've been shown, is a fairly responsible, conventional, and dutiful sort, devoted to the welfare of his mom and two younger sisters. 

They meet, and sparks are supposedly flying everywhere: sparks which must have been so tiny that I missed them altogether. Soon after a few cursory sentences for conversation, they are meeting again; she drags him into bed, using the unimaginative but clearly-effective device of "I'm soaked and need to get out of these clothes" that led to the ruination of many a young heroine in our Hindi movies of yore. Philippe, her new amour, is clearly dumbstruck. He gets swept along in her icy, single-minded, and frankly, unnerving lust. That's not what she believes it is at all though, expressionlessly mouthing cliches about undying love and being meant to be together.

Then, she lets slip one of her real desires. And instead of alarm bells going off in Philippe's head, he actually plays along. Now this might have been to illustrate the fact that their sudden passion was  in fact mutual, but for me as a viewer it was excruciating. A character like Philippe was so oblivious to this very disturbed girl's mental state: was this a form of escape for him, from his dutiful life? But he likes that life and is even good at his job. So the only explanation was of course that we are meant to see the obvious and all-consuming devotion that is being shown to us.

Without going into the details, a sad ending prevails. (Apart from the lack of chemistry, there was also a side story involving the stone bust that used to be in the garden of Philippe's house. I could not grasp the relevance of this peculiar track to the story, and this annoyed me.)

I wanted to like this movie particularly since it's an adaptation of a novel by the astounding Ruth Rendell. However, I find that there is nothing that I can say to recommend watching it. In fact I was left baffled and a little sore with disappointment despite the likability of a lot of the characters and because of the attempts at mystery attached to Senta's character like a distracting tinsel crown. Perhaps I should just stick to my usual practice of reading the book first, and then attempting the movie.

Director: Claude Chabrol
Overall rating: 4/10

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Going to the Fog

The chill from yesterday has solidified into a more intense cold today morning. In fact, when we drive out towards Glacier National Park, the whole world seems intimidated by it, crouching down to evade the fog. Suddenly we come upon a slash of green in all the gray: it's the McDonald Falls! We scamper out to look at a fairy-tale pool of the most intense jewel green beneath some foamy cascades. No-one else is there, and this is ours for the moment. 

Then we begin the climb up the famed Going to the Sun Road. We have no hope of seeing anything at all though, because even as we begin, the fog has thickened devilishly. The mountain peaks remain mockingly blurred; when we stop at a somewhat-clear overlook to take a picture it rolls up thickly, racing to defeat our view. We still take a few pictures, huddled together while J keeps a tight hold on my arm to prevent me from being blown off altogether: The wind has teeth here. My eyes water, my hair is whipped wildly, and I can see not an inch of the turquoise-blue lake and the sharp majestic peaks. They must be mere rumors. 

Some time later the fog relents somewhat and allows us a glimpse of another lake, this one vast and dark; it looks like a twin of Loch Ness a continent away. There is no doubt that there is an ancient Nessie living down there in its depths. Still, all this weather seems just. We are, after all, at the mercy of the mountain gods. I recall legends of their harshness from the highest ranges in the world close to the Indian border; one is known as the Savage Mountain, another named after a harvest goddess; a third is worshiped by the local people. It is difficult to imagine that we ever overcame our fear and awe of the mountain; for instance, we are here today just because we wanted to come. It seems almost callous. I look down into the dark lake and the teeth of the mountain just visible high above, and feel spoiled.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Huckleberry country

I realized today that driving through the wilderness of Idaho may be one of the better pastimes in the world. With the Selway river still below for company, we marvel. There are moose and elk rumored to be sighted here, if somewhat rarely. I peer out the windows as thoroughly as possible, unsuccessful in that regard. I do spot some bird of prey perched on a crooked tree, still as stone: an osprey?

Most of the settlements we pass appear ghostly. Logging towns with no people. The effect, situated as these are in the dense greenery of misty pines, is almost cinematic. Once, we drive past a line of rusty old pickup trucks in the lot of an abandoned mill, just standing there glumly under the clean blue sky. I jump out to take a picture then try to creep about in case some hardy rustic type appears, in a rage at my having stepped on his property. Almost sadly, no-one does. 

When the sun comes out again, it isn't long before we pass a gigantic sign: Welcome to Montana. There is an impressive bear painted right above the lettering. We have arrived. As if to solidify the welcome, Lake Flathead comes up suddenly before us. It's immense, like the sea, glimpsed beyond a panoramic golden field of grass. 

However, Missoula, the town that we had planned to spend the afternoon in, fails to thrill us. For what reason? Perhaps it is altogether too urban, and we have been spoiled so far and carry romantic images of something else in our heads. Grumpily, we push on after some coffee and a consultation of the map.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A few thousand miles through time

There is so much livestock in Oregon! The eastern part of this state, J had warned me, is nothing like the western. But for me there is no comparison between east or west or anything for that matter. I'm driving through Oregon, J knows, because there is no traffic; the only traffic we do see is livestock trailers. And wild hares crossing the road, big and brown. There is only land and sky and the hares, in fact. Once or twice we see passing motorbikes and a car, and it seems like a grand social occasion. 

Soon we are driving alongside a lake. A rather large one which we discover is called Lake Abert; it looks morose, with the big gray clouds fallen across its face. This is another change from L.A: that gray substance covering the sun. Clouds. What a strange meteorological phenomenon we are witnessing! Time also seems strange here, like it is not passing at all; we ourselves are merely passing through physically on a ribbon of road and that is all.

Snake River lookout
Then Idaho appears, much to my elation. We stop for lunch at what has to be one of the more scenic rest stops in the country: It overlooks the famous Snake River, has a dormant volcano in the background, and is so clean and staffed with such friendly folk that we wonder if we have actually entered another dimension. We chat with the staff for a bit; I spot an Idaho license plate bearing the merry inscription, "Famous Potatoes!" This looks to be my kind of state. 

It changes not long after this though, into something more dramatic. We are now in the Payette national forest. There is a dense pine forest on either side of a cliffy road, the Selway River is flowing dark and foamy beneath us, and a thin but assertive fog is circling the trees. Witches should be appearing, uttering incantations, anytime now. 

Regrettably, none do. What we do spot is human campers along the river, some with little fires going in spite of the damp: Fresh fish for a late lunch? One tent is absurdly precarious; its owner sits staring blankly at the dark water, a dog sleeping at his side. We wonder what he is recovering from. It's all so beautiful that we feel compelled to take a break just outside of a settlement called Riggins, nothing more really than a clutch of houses and a business or two slapped down on a bend in the river. The cliffs at our stop loom darkly, the sky is gray, and the water is a curious graphite-dark. Still, the overall effect is not one of menace; on the contrary, we feel joyous and giddy, slurping on our coffee and prancing along the whitish pebbled shores of the river.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Strangers in a strange land

I have slept so little that when I do wake, I feel grit beneath my eyelids. I have one quiet, bitter cup of coffee out by the creek, watching the robins diving and soaring. The silence except for their sounds and the creek sound is crystalline, absolute. I have a conversation, one of many to come, in my head with my friend about the absurdity of his departure from this world. He is laughing, and I imagine this brings a shred of peace. Peace without acceptance is simply numbness, though.

It is but natural that we will dedicate this trip to him. (I cannot bring myself to say, 'to his memory.') We drive in silence to Lake Tahoe, the much-awaited sight that I have been thinking of for months. It is there, held like a jewel down many thousands of feet from our vantage point in the mountains. It is ringed by pines and covered with a fine net of sunlight sequins. Driving around the perimeter, we see stylish wooden houses with front doors left open to show off the full view of the lake behind: backless houses, we call them. But to J's chagrin, we discover that the whole area is abuzz with bees. Stopping by a scenic overlook to take pictures, this proves too much for him and he runs off. I spend a few minutes in solitude there.

We find a small pebble beach for breakfast, having carefully ascertained the absence of bees. We've resolved to find only stunning backdrops for our picnic meals, and so far we are doing admirably. The lake is a benevolent blue behind us as we walk around on the smooth shore pebbles.  

Then we push on. (To get to Montana is the sole and vague objective of this trip. The rest is being filled in as we go along.) Briefly, we drive in Nevada which presents us with gambling houses and balding hills as opposed to the pristine California side of the lake. 

Quickly, the route is back in California. We begin seeing mostly ghostly towns with populations in the two digits. My favorite town name for the day: Likely, pop. 73. Its single cafe is named, obviously, The Most Likely Cafe. Perhaps we should have stopped off for a cup, even if it looked unlikely that there was anyone at all to serve it. We see an inviting sign in another town called Litchfield: Come to the Buckaroo Countrywomen's Breakfast! 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Shooting stars from the other side of the world

If there was ever a triumphant start to a trip, this is it: We are in the thick of  traffic on the 405, office-bound. It is only 7 am but everyone, I spy, looks weary. Not we. The morning mist be damned, we feel full of glory and promise. There will have to be a word to describe this feeling at the beginning of a trip, especially a road trip, especially now. I will have to invent it.

Soon it becomes clear that we are out, truly out, of L.A: a bar called the Robbers' Roost, out in the middle of nowhere but promising cheap cold beer, is a sign of this. Some cows, evidently not bothered by it being a robbers' roost, lounge right behind. An unknown radio station is now playing unknown music, all of it good. Suddenly we find ourselves in the town of Bishop, elevation 4150 feet. A mint-green house- already postcard perfect, I think- flashes past, and then I see a sign on it promising 'Watercolors for Sale.' Rolling past the main drag, I see an outdoor market underneath some very old eucalyptus trees, a canal flowing in back. The stalls are all selling local and handmade goods; there's a sign for hand-crafted batches of BBQ seasoning, limited quantities. The whole scene seems out of time. What tranquility here, these people with their canal and their flower-lined main street somewhere in the mountains. This triggers the first stirrings of what we have long ago come to know as the 'let's move here' syndrome. Plainly put, we are wanderers. And wherever we wander, we see places that make us want to stop wandering. But it never does stop. 

The mountains soon make their presence felt. The numbers on the elevation signs rise and rise. The Monitor Pass has impressive ones: 8,314 feet. It was the first pass in the Sierra Nevadas to be crossed by a non-native, one Jedediah Smith in the spring of 1827. This bit of history- supplied by J- gives the mountains a sense of occasion, even if our names will never be recorded as the millionth and such party to cross this pass. 

Saturday, September 03, 2016

This trip's for you

J and I began our much-awaited road trip yesterday. Big open roads and the thrill of adventures yet to come. 

There was one friend in particular who lived for this thrill. So of course I kept bringing him up all day yesterday, especially when we saw those big bikes on the road.

Late last night I got the news that he has gone off on the ultimate road trip, without any of us for company. And I feel bereft, but also numb. I don't have the courage to let it sink in yet. My thoughts are with his wife, his mother, all the other friends and colleagues who make up that very special network I was initiated into more than a decade ago. 

Let's hit the road, R. You know I won't complain even if you smoke in the car.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Rams

Set in Iceland? Of course I was going to watch it. The poster itself seems to suggest that there is a kind of mad hilarity underfoot, and in this it's not misleading. However, that hilarity seems almost un-intentional; indeed hilarity is a too-harsh description of the almost grumpy, earthy humor that underlies Rams.

The first shot, a sweeping view of two sheep farms in a wind-swept Icelandic valley, is breath-taking. These vistas form such a strong visual element- whether showing off primary colors in summertime or then the gelid blue of a winter storm- that they have a narrative voice of their own. Joining this voice is the seldom-heard pair of voices of the two human protagonists, the brothers Gummi and Kiddi: Despite being neighbors, they haven't spoken for four decades.

Then, the sudden onset of a deadly sheep epidemic upsets the rhythm of life in this craggy, slate-gray and indeed masculine world. (The women, we are informed taciturnly, have run away.) We already know that Kiddi is a bit of a hellion, a drinker prone to bursts of rage. Gummi is seemingly more rule-bound. Until, that is, he decides to flout the authorities' decision regarding the curtailment of the sheep disease.

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