Friday, July 25, 2008

In the family tradition of tackling one thematic topic during my father’s summer visit, the four of us—SJG, my sister, my father, and I--sat on the back porch all afternoon last Sunday to discuss “movie moments.” In a wide-ranging discussion, we made lists of favorite movies, memorable quotes from movies, iconic American movies, best international movies, groundbreaking movies, and everything in between. Later, as I pondered how to organize our stream-of-consciousness observations, it came to me that my father has the most emblematic film memories. Below are his top five.

The Firefly (1937)
My father has loved movies his whole life. As a young boy, he went to the Comet movie theater in Milwaukee every week for double features and, along with all the other children in the audience, shot paper clips at the movie screen and released the flatulence that gave the movie house its "gas house" moniker.

As a six-year-old boy, his favorite movie was The Firefly (above), a smash hit of the late 1930s, starring Allan Jones (left) and Jeannette MacDonald. In this musical romance, Allan Jones--mounted on a white steed--serenades Jeannette MacDonald as she rides in a coach through a desert landscape accompanied by her dark-haired duena. Crooning "The Donkey Serenade" in a robust tenor voice, Jones is able to catch the attention of his seemingly insouciant love interest. As the song comes to a close, Jones raises his arms in a swell of dramatic feeling--and falls off his horse. The carriage continues along, and the horse makes his way back to Jones, who kisses him on the nose. To this day, my father can still be caught singing to himself, "There's a song in the air/But the fair senorita/Doesn't seem to care/For the song in the air."

Pearl Harbor (1941)
Just a few years later, on December 7, 1941, my father learned of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pear Harbor, Hawaii (above)--at the movies. Instead of the usual Movietone News reels that preceded and followed each feature film, staff at the Jackson theater had quickly scrawled on a piece of paper (with a backwards "N") and projected onto the screen, "JAPAN BOMBED PEARL HARBOR!" Even as a nine-year-old boy, my father understood that the announcement meant war for the United States.

The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
After World War II, in which two of my father's brothers served, he saw
The Sands of Iwo Jima, a 1949 film starring John Wayne as Sergeant John Stryker. The Academy Award-nominated film re-creates the drama of the 1945 battle, in which some 28,000 American and 21,000 Japanese soldiers died in the struggle to gain control of the Japanese island. The battle was forever captured in the American psyche through the classic image (above) by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Allied flag raising atop the island's Mount Suribachi. My father denies that he is an impressionable romantic, but it's an empty claim. After the movie, he charged up Wells Street all the way home.

Fanfan La Tulipe (1952)

By the early 1950s, my father had left Milwaukee to study in New York City. There, at the Fine Arts theater, he saw Fanfan La Tulipe, a 1952 French costume drama starring Bosley Crowther's "Italian doll"--Gina Lollobrigida(left). In this swashbuckling romance, Lollobrigida plays Adeline, a luscious young gypsy woman in eighteenth-century France. She fabricates for Fanfan--a handsome peasant played by Gerard Philipe--a prediction of a glorious, romantic future.

My father's memory of the film is the way in which dialogue--in the era of censorship mania--captured lust without showing very much at all. From a tree below which Adeline is standing at one point in the film, Fanfan looks out over the landscape, remarking, as the camera highlights Adeline's revealing peasant blouse, "I can see right down the valley!" Indeed, Adeline's "valley" is irresistable, and her romatic vision comes true. She and Fanfan fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after.

Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Twenty years later, in 1973, the United States was at the height of a sexual revolution. Romantic notions of bucolic love had vanished, replaced by unblinking, graphic portrayals of human sexual drive. Perhaps no other film captured the era so well as Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1973 film about a chance encounter between Paul, an American expatriate in Paris (played by Marlon Brando), and Jeanne, a much younger Parisian woman (played by Maria Schneider). The encounter turns into a loveless three-day, sex-only affair in which the couple (above) engage in every sexual act imaginable. Viewed as obscene by some and critically acclaimed by others, the film was known for the "Go get the butter" scene--an explicit portrayal of anal sex that takes place on the floor with butter as the lubricant.

My father denies that the sexual revolution impacted him, despite the fact that he and my mother divorced at about this time and were young enough, each of them, to move on to other relationships. The Tango scene that sticks in my father's mind as the heart of the movie is not the butter scene. It's a scene in which Paul and Tom, Jeanne's fiance (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), sit on the end of a bed to commiserate about their shared experiences of Jeanne's betrayals. Amazingly unaware of the fact, they each wear matching robes given to them by her.

My father says he had the same experience--minus the butter scene. In high school, he and another boy were in love with the same redhead, who jilted them both for a third fellow at a beachside party. My father and the castoff lover shared their grievances on the sands of Lake Michigan that night. Which proves to me that we bring our own lives to the movies--a giant reflecting surface for the human story.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


This weekend, SJG and I reserved the date and bought the Gehry ring (right) at Tiffany's. So mark your calendars for Wednesday October 8, 2008. At two o'clock in the afternoon, at City Hall in San Francisco, we'll do the paperwork for our marriage license, and at three o'clock, the marriage ceremony will take place!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

You know you're an adult when you spend your economic stimulus package on a new boiler--and you're excited about it. SGJ and I spent ours on the boiler at left (we have radiator heat, so it's technically a boiler, not a furnace). The crew came out on Friday to do the job on what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer so far. With high humidity, the heat index was well above 100 degrees. And then they had to test the boiler after it was installed, so it was roasting at my house that day.

I've read that a large percentage of Americans are using their checks to pay down debt, others are putting the money into savings, and the rest are spending it outright. My sister gave a big chunk of her "free" money to a program that provides laptop computers to children in underdeveloped countries. My father is using his for travel. What are you using yours for?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


For breakfast every day, my father makes four-grain hot cereal. For my visit, he's bought fresh berries to put on top. Unlike him, SJG and I make our cereal double-boiler style, with milk, the way my Missouri grandmother taught me. It makes for an extra-creamy, smooth texture. Here's how:

Four-Grain Hot Cereal Double-Boiler Style
1-1/2 cups dry cereal grains (we mix oatmeal, rye flakes, wheat flakes, and bran flakes in equal measure)
3 cups milk

1) Put water to boil in the bottom of a double boiler.
2) Measure out the cereal grains into the top of the double boiler. Add milk.
3) When the water begins to boil, turn down the heat to a low to medium flame and cook the cereal (covered) for about 45 minutes, until smooth and creamy.
4) Serve with your favorite toppings. SJG and I like brown sugar, fresh fruits, and nuts, plus a little extra milk.

Note: This recipe makes about 4 servings, and you can adapt the amount of cereal by increasing or decreasing the amount of grains and liquid. Whatever you do, just do it in a 2-to-1 ratio (2 parts liquid to 1 part cereal grains).

After breakfast, it's time to head home. I kiss the cats good-bye, and my father helps me pack up the car. On the way out of town, I fill up with gas. It's $3.99 a gallon, which by this time next year will probably seem like a bargain.

All along the interstate in Wisconsin, roadside vendors offer fireworks for sale. Since it's illegal to sell them where I live, I stop at one of the tents to see the selection. I choose a small box of old-fashioned sparklers. SJG and I never get around to lighting them on the Fourth of July; I think the fun was in buying them.

Five long hours later (I'm a rotten solo driver), I pull into my driveway. Buddy flies out the back door of the house and down the porch steps to greet me as if I've been away for months. I'm home.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Harry (above) loves windows and spends most of the night sleeping in a windowsill in my father's bedroom. In the early morning hours, Harry comes to check on me, jumping onto the bed to investigate, leaping into the nearby windowsill, and jumping back onto the bed for attention.

Saturday is a sunny, breezy day, perfect for walking downtown along the lakefront. I've asked the Soap Opera to set aside fifteen bars of Tallba soap. I can't find this Swedish, pine-scented soap where SJG and I live, even though our part of the world was settled by Scandinavians.

After we pick up the soap, my father and I drive into the country to
the Flower Factory. This nursery offers more than four thousand varieties of hardy perennials. I love the drive through the rolling hills of southeastern Wisconsin and have filled my gardens at home with Flower Factory plants. On this visit, I choose deep red Asiatic lilies, to pair with purple Veronica, and maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) in a variety of colors, placement to be determined.

My father waits for me in a shady display garden. It's a quiet day at the nursery, and we sit together on a bench holding hands and watching the hummingbirds at the feeders.

Dark clouds roll in, bringing heavy rain and high winds. We race to the nearest hoop house to wait out the storm. When the skies clear, it's time to go home. Filets mignons await us there.