Two People In Vienna

Recently, Phillip and I saw two very good movies in the theater: Get Out (An interracial couple spend a weekend with her rich liberal parents. It’s basically a horror movie, but it’s also something so much more.) and Life (An alien creature gets loose aboard the International Space Station and kills the crew members. It’s basically an Alien rip-off, but it’s very well made.)

We recently watched a good movie on our Netflix queue: La Vie en Rose, a biography of Édith Piaf. Phillip found this one. I enjoyed it, even though I’m annoyed by non-linear biographies. (It’s been done too many times. I no longer see the point. Just tell the story.)

We recently saw two very bad, awful, terrible movies on our Netflix queue: Wolfcop and Cabin Fever. We found both of these movies in trailers preceding other movies. In both cases, they looked like mindless, so-bad-it’s-fun entertainment. In both cases, they were just bad.

Last night, though, we watched the most amazing, wonderful film I’ve seen in years. I’ve been reading about 1995’s Before Sunrise, in film lists of masterpiece films, for years. I’ve been wanting to see it. I slipped it into our Netflix queue, along with the second and third film in the trilogy, without telling Phillip. (We both do that, from time to time.) It arrived in our mailbox on Tuesday.

I can’t stop thinking about Before Sunrise.

Two strangers strike up a conversation on a train in Europe. They bond to each other right away. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American tourist. His vacation hasn’t gone as planned, so he’s been spending his remaining days riding around on trains. He’s heading for Vienna, where he’ll catch a flight back to the United States in the morning. He doesn’t have enough money left for a hotel room, so he’ll spend the night walking around Vienna. Céline (Julie Delpy) is a French college student. She’s returning to Paris, after having visited her grandmother in Budapest.

The train arrives in Vienna. Jesse persuades Céline to get off the train with him. She does, and they spend the night walking around Vienna together. And that’s the film: One hour and 40 minutes of two people talking.

They start off as strangers in an unfamiliar city. What should they talk about, and what should they see? They wander, they sightsee, and they talk. They have their first kiss, and their first argument. And they talk some more. They fall in love, knowing that, when the morning comes, they’ll go their separate ways and, most likely, never see each other again.

The power of this simple film comes from its subtly. It relies solely on the acting skills of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. They display great chemistry together.

There’s this wonderful scene, in particular, early in the night. They’re in a listening booth in a record store. Jesse is staring admiringly at Céline, who is looking off into the distance. Nothing is being said – they’re just listening to a record. Céline turns to stare admiringly at Jesse, who then looks off into the distance, as if he hadn’t been staring at her. She turns her gaze away, and he returns to staring at her. This continues for a while, with each person staring at the other in turn, but never looking at each other. It’s obvious that they both know they’re being admired, and they’re both enjoying it, but they both feel it’s too early in their relationship to actually stare into each other’s eyes. The whole scene is told through facial expressions.

Before Sunrise is, indeed, a masterpiece.

Before Sunrise was followed, nine years later, by Before Sunset, and, nine years after that, by Before Midnight.

The only downside of Before Sunset is that it made me realize that one of my favorite films, Lost In Translation, isn’t as original as I’d once thought.

A Tough Commute That Wasn’t

I received a Transit Alert text message late this afternoon. University Street Station was closed. Link light rail would be serving the other tunnel stations.

Then came another alert. Expect transit delays Downtown, due to “a police action”.

There was a police standoff of some sort that closed a block of 3th Avenue, right in the centet of Downtown.

I thought about catching the streetcar home, avoiding the tunnel and Downtown. The streets would be jammed, and Link would be crowded with people. Getting to the streetcar, even heading south to the International District, would be a challenge. Link seemed the best option. Besides, I was a little curious how they’d announce that the train would be bypassing the next stop.

I got to Pioneer Square Station just as a Link train arrived. The train was no more crowded than usual. There was no announcement about a station closure. The train stopped at University Street Station. Apparently, the police action was over.

I walked from Capitol Hill Station to the library. I returned one book and checked out another. Then I walked home.

A commute by light rail is often dull, but that’s a good thing.

A Book About Cats

Cat StoriesWell, I figured, what better way is there to find a book with a cat on the cover than to find a book about cats? I went with the obvious solution for this Category.

James Herriot’s Cat Stories, by James Herriot, was published in 1994. It’s a collection of ten stories about cats. The copy I borrowed from the library has a cat on the cover.

When he entered Veterinary College, James Herriot writes in the introduction, there was nothing being taught, in either the textbooks or in classrooms, about the veterinary care of cats. This was only beginning to change when he graduated. He chose to be a large-animal veterinarian, but on his rounds through the English countryside, he found cats on every farm, either for practical or emotional use.

The stories in this book are semi-autobiographical. Names, places, and time frames have been altered, but are based on real cases. Even “James Herriot” is a pseudonym. (Patients, even non-human ones, deserve their privacy.)

Three of the stories are about the same two cats, Olly and Ginny. They remained wild, but stayed close to the Herriot house, where they were fed. They loved Helen (Mrs. Herriot) but kept their distance from James. (They probably always remembered being stuffed into a cat box and given veterinary treatment.)

It’s a book about medical mysteries. There’s Alfred, who is losing weight but showing no other symptoms. There’s Frisk, who is near death one day and frisky the next day.

There are stories about fascinating cats and their fascinating owners. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Bond, who run a cat establishment.

James Herriot’s Cat Stories is a cute book. It’s a short book (161 pages), full of warmth, heartbreak, and humor. I enjoyed it.

  • A book with a cat on the cover

My Sunday

Today, Phillip and I drove to Everett for a day of gaming. It was the second session of our Vampires in Bellevue game. The first session was way back in December. Sicknesses just kept posponing the game. Today, Kelly couldn’t join us, due to an illness. We played without her.

Today, our loose-knit band of vampires joined forces to prepare a battle against a gang of werewolves from the mid-west and/or Asia. We pretended to be an astronomy club in order to investigate a geisha house in Newcastle.

It’s an unusual game.

Brian cooked a delicious pot of jambalaya.

During a break in the gaming, I got to hold a duck in my arms for the first time in my life.

That was my Sunday.

Not Portland, But Still A Great Day

Last Sunday, as we were driving up to Arlington, Phillip asked me to take Friday off. Sure, but why, I asked. Because I’m taking Friday off, he replied.

Then he had a suggestion for our day off: We could leave either Thursday evening or Friday morning, on a Bolt bus, spend a night or two in Portland, and come back on Saturday.

On Monday, my boss granted my request for a Personal Holiday. Meanwhile, Phillip looked into the Bolt schedule, and we agreed that I could bring a suitcase to work on Thursday, and we’d meet up in the International District right after work.

Monday night, I looked into booking a room at The Mark Spencer, my favorite Portland hotel. The rates were triple what I was expecting. Granted, it’s been five years since I stayed there, but it was still shocking. I searched around for hotels and motels in the city or close enough to light rail. Unless we were willing to stay in Vancouver, Washington (which would be difficult without a car), every room was beyond what we were willing to pay. It seemed to be just this weekend, though, that rooms were double or triple their usual rates. (For instance, a 2-star motel near the convention center was $195 a night this weekend, and $89 a night two weeks from now.) I don’t know why this was.

For a brief moment, we considered spending one day in Portland, leaving and returning the same day. That would be awful, we agreed, after a three hour bus ride, spending a couple of hours in Portland without seeing much, and then boarding a bus for another three hour ride.

So, we took today off, but we didn’t go to Portland.

We rode a 49 bus to the U District. We stopped into Phillip’s office long enough for him to pick up his popcorn bucket, and for me to return White Fang to the food bank shelf. Then we continued on to Sundance Cinema, where we saw Life.

Life is a terrific movie. We both loved it.

After the movie, we dropped Phillip’s popcorn bucket off at his office, then we walked over to Lake Union and had a delicious lunch at Ivar’s Salmon House.

view from Ivars

The view from our table

When the bill came, there was something I wasn’t expecting. “Tipping is not expected,” the bill said. There was a paragraph stating the Ivar’s employees are fairly compensated with wages, so there is no need to tip. I was invited to speak with the manager if I had any questions.

When my credit card receipt was brought for my signature, it had the same “Tipping is not expected” statement. Due to customer requests, it continued, I was invited to leave something extra, if I wished. I was very torn. I believe in tipping at least 20%, but if I did tip, it might send a message to the management that customers want to tip and therefore livable wages are not needed. Phillip left the decision up to me, but suggested I could leave a smaller tip, like 5 or 10 percent.

I signed the credit card receipt without leaving anything extra. I felt like a cheapskate, but realized that it was simply a paradigm shift. It’s a good thing, really, that tipping is not necessary. It will just take some getting used to.

We walked back to Roosevelt Way and caught a 49 bus home.

It wasn’t Portland, but it was still a great day.


A Wolf-Dog’s Story

white-fangWhite Fang is another book I bought from the charity book sale shelf in Phillip’s office. I’d never read anything by Jack London, but I’ve been meaning to for a long time.

White Fang, by Jack London, was originally published in 1906.

It’s the 1890s, and two men, named Bill and Henry, are transporting a dead man, in a coffin, on a dog sled across the wilderness of Canada’s Yukon Territory, to Fort McGurry. Every night, the dogs huddle by the campfire, in fear. At first, Henry and Bill aren’t sure why their dogs are behaving so strangely. Then they realize that a pack of hungry wolves are eating the dogs, one by one.

Henry and Bill accidentally overturn the sled on a bad stretch of trail. The coffin ends up in a tree.

The wolves eat Bill.

Henry is afraid to fall asleep, knowing that once he does, the wolves will attack and eat him. Finally, he can stay awake no longer, and he gives up. At that moment of surrender, men from Fort McGurry arrive to find out where Lord Alfred is. He’s in a tree, Henry tells them, in a coffin.

Then the book switches to the point of view of the pack of starving wolves. They are fighting amongst themselves. They split up into smaller packs.

The point of view then switches to an unnamed she-wolf and a male wolf named One Eye. They produce a litter of cubs. The lack of food kills all but one of the cubs. The hunt for food kills One Eye.

The point of view then switches to the one surviving cub as he grows up and learns his way in the world. The book stays with the cub’s point of view for the rest of the story.

The cub and his mother encounter four Indians. The cub tries to fight back and bites one of the Indians on the hand. The Indians laugh at him and name him White Fang. The cub, meanwhile, is puzzled by his mother’s cowering attitude toward these humans.

The Indians recognize the she-wolf (White Fang’s mother) as a domesticated wolf-dog hybrid named Kiche, who ran away from the Indian tribe a year earlier to join a pack of wolves.

(Bill and Henry had thought that one of the wolves was acting more like a pet dog than a wild wolf.)

White Fang isn’t a book about a coffin in a tree, and it’s not about Fort McGurry. It’s about White Fang’s adventures.

White Fang is brought into the Indian village. He is beaten by his human master, Gray Beaver. He is bullied by a dog named Lip-lip. His mother is sold to another village to pay a debt.

White Fang grows up vicious, feared and unloved. He becomes solitary. And yet, he earns respect (and maybe just a little love) from Gray Beaver and his family.

In a moment of exploited weakness, Gray Beaver is tricked into selling White Fang to a cruel white man named Beauty Smith. White Fang had learned that humans are gods, to be obeyed always, and he learned, through observation, that white gods are superior gods to the Indian gods. Yet this white god, his new master, Beauty Smith, beats him more savagely than Gray Beaver ever did.

Beauty Smith turns White Fang into a professional fighting animal, and White Fang takes to his new role easily. He becomes an undefeated killer. The men who watch the dog fights laugh at White Fang, and poke him with sticks.

The back of this paperback asks the question: “Will White Fang ever know the kindness of a gentle master or will he die a fierce deadly killer?” It’s a good question. How can there be such a thing as a gentle master in the harsh and brutal northern wilderness? And, if White Fang were to find such a master, how could he ever overcome a lifetime of cruelty?

I have another question: What’s the deal with the coffin in the tree? What did it have to do with anything? Was it just a sub-plot that went nowhere? Or was it the continuation of some earlier book I’m unaware of?

White Fang is a fine adventure story of the rugged frontier. It’s a macho story, full of tough manly men. There are few female characters, and when they do appear, they’re background characters. I can imagine young boys in the 1900s eating up this tale of wild Indians and wilder dogs.

The book was, to me, slow at times. It took me a very long time to get through it, and it’s only about 250 pages long. But I did enjoy it, overall. The final chapter, especially, gripped me with a sense that the story could easily end any of several ways.

  • A book with a title that’s a character’s name

Where My Heart Is

I took the 12 bus/streetcar route home today. I got to Marion Street just as a 12 bus was pulling away from the stop. I had a six minute wait for the next bus.

I exited at Broadway and rounded the corner just as a streetcar was leaving the stop. I had an eight minute wait for the next one. I took a seat on left end of the bench at the streetcar stop.

Two semi-homeless men (I guessing) sat down to my right. They started a conversation between themselves. I wasn’t listening, but I did hear some favorable thing about treatment at Harborview. They seemed like pretty nice guys.

Suddenly, I heard: “That guy has a map on the sole of his shoe.”

I looked over and the guy on the far right was smiling at me. “Addis Ababa,” he said, reading my shoe. Then he asked, “What kind of shoes are those?”

“Oliberté,” I replied, “They’re made in Ethiopia. Right there.” I touched Addis Ababa with my finger.

“Isn’t that where your heart is? In reflexology?”

I said I didn’t know, but that sounded right.

He said, “So I guess you can say your heart’s in Ethiopia.”

The three of us chuckled at that.

Lives During Wartime

When the Emperor Was DevineWhen the Emperor Was Divine, a novel by Julie Otsuka, was published in 2002.

It’s 1942, in Berkley, California. A woman, on her way to return an overdue library book, finds that, overnight, signs had been posted everywhere throughout the town. She walks to the hardware store and buys some packing material. She refuses the store owner’s offer of credit. She leaves the money on the counter and walks home.

She calmly gathers the types of things that the signs said her family will be able to bring with them. She packs up the rest of the household belongings and locks them in a back room. They’re not able to bring pets with them, so she kills their chicken and cooks it. She gives the family cat to neighbors. She kills their elderly dog with a shovel and buries it in the yard. Then she sits and waits for her two children to get home from school.

The daughter is ten years old. The son is seven.

The woman and her children will be leaving tomorrow. She doesn’t know where they will be taken, or how long they will be gone. They can bring only what they can carry.

It’s April. Her husband had been arrested last December. She hasn’t seen him since. He’s been able to write letters to her, but they arrive heavily censored by the War Department.

When the Emperor Was Divine is a work of historical fiction, about a time when a specific group of American citizens were imprisoned by their own government for no specific crimes. They just happened to be born into the wrong ancestry. The book is divided into five sections, following the nameless family into an internment camp in a bleak Utah desert, their years spent there, and their return to what’s left of their home. The story is told from the perspective of each family member.

It is a book of intense sadness and injustices. The FBI cuts phone lines and freezes bank accounts. Fathers are taken away from their families without any warning whatsoever. (The father was taken out of the house in his bathrobe and slippers.) Mothers try their best to make their children believe it’s all going to be OK. Children try their best to make their mothers believe it’s all going to be OK.

And yet, the story is told in amazing detail, and with beauty. It’s like poetry at times. The book sits back, tells the story, and lets the horrors speak for themselves.

I especially love this passage:

One evening, before he went to bed, he wrote his name in the dust across the top of the table. All through the night, while he slept, more dust blew through the walls.

By morning his name was gone.

Even though the subject matter is tough to take, I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. It is beautifully written.

When the Emperor Was Divine deals with some horrific subject matter, but it is rarely graphic in its details. Large parts of the book are told through children’s eyes.

  • A novel set during wartime

Seattle Parking

After a 20-day safety check, following a mechanical failure on one of the cars, the First Hill Streetcar returned to service today. I am thrilled.

I decided to celebrate by riding a 12 bus up the hill, and riding the streetcar home.

I got to the stop in front of the Seattle University parking garage. The sign said the streetcar was due in 2 minutes. Just for completeness, I checked OneBusAway. It agreed with the sign, and also told me I’d have a 24-minute wait for a 9 bus.

stuck streetcarThe streetcar showed up on time, but then got stuck just before the stop by a stupidly-parked SUV. It looked like maybe the streetcar could squeeze by if only the SUV’s mirror were folded in. The design of the streetcar is such that only the top half of the driver’s window opens, so the driver couldn’t reach the mirror. I could see her radioing for assistance.

I was thinking that I should walk over and fold the SUV’s mirror in myself. But every time I’d start to take a step into the street, another car would come whipping around the streetcar at high speed, making up for precious seconds lost, as if there couldn’t possibly be anything (anybody) in front.

I woman braver than I did walk out into the street, folded the SUV window in, and dashed back to the stop platform. The streetcar proceeded forward, with just an inch or two between it and the SUV.

We boarded the streetcar, and we were on our way.

I imagine that the owner of the SUV found a parking ticket on their windshield when they returned.