breaker one nine
Thursday, October 9 2003
As the first year here in the Catskills draws to an end, I've become familiar with all the seasonal swarms. During the winter, the insulation conceals mobs of hibernating Assassin Bugs. In the spring there were Black Flies, and through the summer I was attacked by various kinds of mosquitoes. Now, as the weather grows gradually colder, I've begun to see ticks on the dogs and clouds of houseflies around Mavis's wet food. The strangest swarm thus far began today with an unexpected mass of ladybugs under the peaked ceiling of the laboratory near the north window. The only thing I could do about them was slurp them up with the vacuum cleaner and release them outside, those who survived the process.
Gretchen and I have a mutual client whose friends just moved to this area from some big ranch out in New Mexico. These friends, a couple with several dogs and cats, bought one of the nicest places on all of Hurley Mountain Road. It's a stone house (built in the 1820s) with a pond and fifty acres. Since the new owners will be away part of the time, they need someone to come over and walk their dogs on occasion. That's how Gretchen and I wound up there today, talking to the pregnant wife about the various dogs and providing one another thumbnail autobiographies. She's a publicist and her husband is a senior editor at a major book publisher, and this accounts for how they could afford a place so lavish. It even comes with a full-time caretaker, who asked before assuming if it was okay to call her new mistress by her first name.
We walked around the property with the wife and she pointed out the flagged boundary designed to contain the dogs with the assistance of elaborate radio-transmitter-based shocking devices on their collars. We'd been joined by this point by our dogs (who are much smaller and blacker than the other dogs), so now our contingent consisted of six dogs, three adults, and one unborn Homo apocalypsipeira.
On the way home, Gretchen and I took our dogs for a walk at Fording Place on Esopus Creek. We walked upstream from the ford, where the creek widens out into tranquil glass-surfaced ponds. In the middle of one such pond was an old tree trunk and on this stood a graceful Blue Heron.
This evening Gretchen and went out for a dinner and a movie. I convinced Gretchen to ride with me in the truck so I could test out the sound system and CB radio on the road for the first time. After I got out of the driveway, I noticed that my dashboard lights were dead, but when I checked the truck at the bus turnaround the headlights seemed good, so I figured I could continue with the evening and worry about debugging the dashboard lights tomorrow.
We ate at an Italian restaurant called Stella's in Uptown Kingston. The food was good but I was particularly struck by the salad. It was a simple lettuce tossed salad without much else, though it was richly smothered in an oil and garlic sauce that made it unlike any other salad I've ever eaten. The sauce was such a good match for the lettuce that I couldn't imagine it being good on anything else - indeed, when I tried to mop it up with some bread, the experience was a far cry from eating it on the substrate for which it was intended. I've never really thought about salad one way or the other - except that it might be an over-rated or over-emphasized distraction from more serious matters. But this particular salad precipitated a radical restructuring of my feelings about salad. I could look forward to eating salad - Hell, I could dream about salad - if it was going to taste like this.
On the way out to US 209 from Uptown, I randomly hit the talk button on my CB radio and said, "Breaker One-Nine!" in that hillbilly trucker accent people always use when talking on CB radios, even here in Upstate New York. Somebody immediately shot back with a "Go 'head" and I was so overwhelmed with performance anxiety that I turned the CB Radio off. This is how certain personality types react to the prospect of losing their virginity. (It's what kept me from losing mine back in 1987.) What was I supposed to say to some random stranger in CBland?
Soon after that, I noticed I had a State Trooper on my tail. I thought I'd just play it cool and everything would be alright, but then on came the disco lights and he was pulling me over. What had I done this time?
This cop was actually nicer than most. He pointed out a "maneuver" I'd made when changing lanes that had supposedly cut off another driver (this seemed unlikely, since I'd undertaken this "maneuver" carefully). Gretchen immediately made up some excuse about how it was her fault because she'd told me at the last minute that we were going north on 209 (towards Rhinebeck) and not south as we usually do (back home to Hurley). Whether or not he believed us, the trooper decided not to pursue the "maneuver." More troubling was his observation that my rear lights were out. He wrote me ticket for this but said that if I corrected the problem within 24 hours, the charges would be dropped.
It was pretty clear to me now that the dashboard light problem was somehow related to the lack of tail lights, and it kind of freaked me out about driving the truck, so I drove us home and we set out again in the car, headed for Upstate Films in dreadful Rhinebeck across the Hudson.
The movie was American Splendor, a cinematic biography of the life and times of the cult comic book author Harvey Pekar. The production was extremely (and somehow unpretentiously) post-modern, with a general blending of cinematic styles and a complete breakdown of the normal conventions of movie making. In one memorable scene, we see the real Harvey Pekar mingling over jelly beans with his buddy Toby Radloff as the two actors who play them sit on director's chairs in the background, looking rather like resting marionettes.
This going back and forth between Pekar, the guy playing him, and the various versions of him that appeared in his comic books would have been an overly-distracting mindfuck in any other cinematic biography, but it made perfect sense here, because Pekar was depicted in several different ways in his comic books, which were illustrated by a variety of artists.
I thought maybe the actor who was portraying Toby was overdoing his nerdy conversational style, particularly the lingering ringing of the "r" sound, but then I heard the real Toby talk and it was clear that the actor hadn't been exaggerating. There was only one diagnosis: Asperger's Syndrome. But Toby had pride in the way he was, sporting a button that read, "Genuine Nerd." (Buttons bearing this slogan, as well as graphics promoting American Splendor, were distributed by the theatre as we departed.) Wait to you see the scene where he is about to drive to Toledo just to see a movie.
I suppose this film would have never been made were it not for the discovery of Harvey Pekar by the folks at Late Night With David Letterman. In the 80s, when this discovery was made, loser culture was just that. If you were a rockstar you were Eddie Van Halen. If you were a movie star, you were Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you were Harvey Pekar or Toby Radloff, your only purpose in life was to prove to the losers in the television audience that there were people even more pathetic than you.
Now, though, we live in an enlightened age where somebody like Harvey Pekar can be a hero of a movie. True - the movie will never be watched by the great mass of Americans, the people whose daughters are anachronistically painting their eyelids sky blue - but if you wear thick-rimmed eyeglasses and stylish shoes, Harvey Pekar can be your role model, except you get to combine your greater photogenicism with his sardonic existentialism.
On the way home, we discussed the movie while driving down Mt. Rutsen Road, the road we're always driving on when discussing the movie we just saw at Upstate Films. Gretchen said that though she was impressed with the production of the film, she wasn't sure she cared enough about the protagonists to like the movie. She was also concerned that people who might never like somebody like Harvey Pekar would come away from this film thinking that Harvey Pekar was, well, cool. I said that I thought liking Harvey Pekar wasn't the point - here was a guy who had these neuroses and a dead-end job who nonetheless his best to make his artistic mark on the world. I thought it was an advancement in our film culture that people like this could now be heroes.
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