Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Die Kronzeugin - Mord in den Bergen: Keeps You Guessing to the Very End

It's difficult to be original when it comes to the crime thriller. It's all been done before. Of course, there are the Stieg Larrson novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and Netflix's The Man From Reno, but these are the rare exceptions in a genre full of well-worn formulas. So when I tuned in to ZDF's telefilm, Die Kronzeugin - Mord in den Bergen (Key Witness - Murder in the Mountains), I wasn't expecting much. Boy, was I surprised!

Die Kronzeugin is one of those rare films that's like a Chinese puzzle that blurs the line between truth and lies, and fact and fiction. This taunt emotional film is full of suspense, surprise, and originality. It doesn't play down to its audience or rely on gimmicky special effects. Available online for a limited time on ZDF and Youtube. In German.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Movie Classic: The Group

The Group (1966) was the first mainstream Hollywood movie to tackle lesbianism. Staring Candice Bergen and Larry Hagman, the movie was designated as "adult only" in many theaters and almost destroyed the careers of Bergen and Hagman. Considered tame by today's standards, the movie was based on a novel by Mary McCarthy. Remarkably, it still holds up nearly 50 years later.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Creative Writing: Something Stupid

Something Stupid

My piano teacher, Mrs. Goldman, had suggested the Moldau or Autumn is Here for the recital, but I wanted to play something different, something exciting for my first time on stage. I thought about playing Yesterday, Hey Jude or The Yellow Submarine, but I couldn't afford the sheet music; I'd already spend my allowance. Anyway, Mrs. Goldman disliked anything modern, and I was certain she would refuse to allow a Beatles' song at one of her recitals.   

Hoping to find inspiration, I leafed through one of my sister's music books and found Something Stupid, a Frank and Nancy Sinatra song. It was big hit, and one of my mother's favorites. It didn't look difficult, and I felt confident I could master it before the recital.

As I sat backstage, on the day of the big event, I watched the other kids waiting to go on. I wondered what all the fuss was about. This was just a recital. Nothing to worry about. Yet, Billy Newgate had turned white and looked as if he was going to vomit. Betty Kolwalski, who sat next to me, kept taking deep breathes and murmuring, it's all right, it's all right. Even Alan Segal, Mr. Know-it-All, was sweating. I could see the Brylcreem running down the side of his face, staining his crisp white dress shirt. 

I was scheduled to follow Jeanine Wallace, a girl who had spent the entire month working on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It was a simple song, but Jeanine was was either tone deaf or just stupid. She couldn't get the rhythm. When Jeanine had finished her song and had returned backstage, tears running down her cheeks, I asked her, “How did you do?” And then added, “there doesn't seem to be a twinkle in your eye.” 

“Oscar, stop bothering Jeanine,” shouted Mrs. Goldman. “Do you have your music ready?”

“Yes, Mrs. Goldman, but I won't be playing the Moldau. I've decided to play Something Stupid.” 

“You're playing what?” Mrs Goldman said, her eyes wide open. 

“I'll be playing Something Stupid, you know, 'and then I go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid like I love you.'”

Before Mrs. Goldman could say another word, I was on stage. The William Cullen Bryant Elementary School Auditorium was full. Wow, I'd never seen so many people gathered in one place. I quickly spotted my mom and dad in the third row and gave them a slight wave and big smile. I took my seat and placed the music on the piano. 

Then it happened. I looked at the music, and I was unable to read a note. It was like looking at Chinese. Nothing made sense. I sat motionless. I heard a few people clear their throats, then a few snickers, and then dead silence. I was in a daze. I had no sensation in my fingers, arms, or legs. I felt as if I was suspended above the auditorium hall watching a tragedy unfold. 

It seemed like an eternity before Mrs. Goldman came on stage and whispered, “Oscar, are you all right?” I nodded, but I was unable to speak. “Are you able to play?” I looked at Mrs. Goldman and then at the audience. I shook my head no.  

Heading home and sitting in the back seat of our 1964 blue Pontiac, my mother said, “Stage fright happens. Don't let it bother you. By tomorrow, it will be forgotten.” Of course, tomorrow and for weeks, even months later, it wasn't forgotten. I was the kid who had bombed on stage.

What had happened? Had it been my cockiness? Had God punished me for willfully defying Mrs. Goldman's choice of the Moldau

I promptly gave up the piano and avoided listening to Something Stupid and any Sinatra song. I even hid the Something Stupid album for fear it would be played. Even today, I cringe when I hear the song, reliving the events of that day.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Wolves Sighted in Portland Maine

During the last century, wolves were almost hunted to extinction and efforts to reintroduce wolves into their natural habitat have been controversial. Ranchers fear wolves will harm livestock and many people continue to view the wolf as a Little Red Riding Hood villain. In Portland, Maine, and in other North American cities, wolf packs sometimes enter the urban environment seeking food. These packs are often killed.

In Portland, a small pack of wolves were recently found near an abandon section of waterfront. Luckily, I had my smart phone handy to take a few pictures of these majestic creatures. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Darf Ich Ein Glas Leitungswasser, Bitte? May I Have a Glass of Tap Water, Please?

Asking for a glass of tap water at a German restaurant is troublesome. At best, the wait staff will look at you strangely before begrudgingly bringing you a thumb-sized glass of water. At worst, they will state they don't serve tap water, but you can buy bottled water at around $5-7 a bottle. 

In Germany, tap water is considered unhealthy even though it's likely cleaner and safer than the expensive bottled stuff. So it was refreshing to see a sign at a local Portland restaurant that unabashedly said they proudly serve tap water.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Creative Writing-Short Story: Owen

I got the idea for the this story from a friend. The facts have been modified for fictional purposes.


After an eight hour flight the only thing Robert wanted was a quiet place to stretch his legs and rest his eyes. At the United lounge the two agents manning the front desk seemed preoccupied with a troublesome customer. It always irritated Robert when a person held up the line, oblivious to waiting people.

As the line grew longer, the two agents were joined by a third and then a forth. Finally, the man left the counter and headed toward the door, his eyes had a fiery glow.  As he passed, Robert suddenly recognized him. It was Owen. Robert and Owen had briefly bonded as part of a high school foreign exchange program 15 years ago. They met intermittently at reunions but hadn't kept in touch as their adult lives rolled along. 

“Owen, it's Robert.”

Owen shot a quick glance at Robert and stopped. “Robert, how long has it been, seven years?”

“About that. What was the problem at the desk?” Robert asked.

“I lost my membership card and my name wasn't in the system. They wouldn't let me in. I wasn't going to pay the $50 entrance fee,” he replied with a faint hint of indignation.

“You can join me. I can bring a guest,” Robert said, placing his hand on Owen's shoulder. 

Inside the lounge, the pair found a quiet place to rest. “Would you like a drink? It's on me. I have these free drink coupons, Robert said. 

“Thanks, I'll have a vodka tonic,” replied Owen. 

They talked about Owen's life as a chef in Paris, and how he lost his job as a result of the economic downturn. He'd briefly lived with his girlfriend, but things didn't work out. As Owen put it, “We didn't see eye to eye on things. I needed my freedom.”

“Yes, it was a good life in France,” he continued, finishing his vodka tonic. “Mind if I have another one of those coupons, Robert?”
“Sure, I have plenty.”

As Robert prepared to leave to catch his connecting flight, he tentatively handed Owen his business card. “If you're ever in Portland, give me a call. I would love to have you visit.”

“I might take you up on that. Oh, by the way, do you need the rest of those drink coupons?”

“No, not all,” Robert said handing Owen the remaining coupons. Robert had been thinking of having another drink at his destination, but Owen seemed to need it more. As Robert walked through the terminal, he thought about how good it was to reconnect with Owen, but he also couldn't deny a feeling of relief.

A month later, as Robert sat in his office, he got a telephone call. It was Owen.

“Hey, Robert. It's Owen. I'm here at the airport. I'm passing through and decided to take you up on the offer. Can you come and pick me up?”

“Did I hear right, you're at the airport now?” replied Robert.

“Yes,” Owen said.

Portland isn't a 'passing through' city thought Robert. But Owen was in town, and he should be hospitable. He was always telling himself to loosen up, go with the flow, be spontaneous. 

“Well, it's 2:00, and I'm still at the office. I can't leave, but why don't you take a cab and come over. You can wait in the canteen.”

Thirty minutes later Owen arrived.

“Hey Robert. The cab is out front. I can't seem to find my credit card, and I don't have any cash on me. Could you lend me $40.”

“$40? Cab fair should be $15 tops.” Nevertheless, Robert handed Owen two twenties. 

Over dinner, Owen told Robert that he had spent a few weeks with his parents and then with his brother in New York. “My parents were great, and I love my brother, but we didn't see eye to eye on things. I needed my freedom.”

“I'm glad you decided to visit. I only wish you'd given me a head's up. I would have prepared the house and arranged my schedule,” Robert said, perplexed at Owen's sudden arrival and hoping for Owen to acknowledge that fact.

The first weekend went well. They went hiking at Wolf's Neck and explored Portland. But mid-week, Owen was still there and had settled into a routine. Robert, who was a bit meticulous, would arrive home to find discarded pizza boxes, beer cans, and fast food wrappers scattered throughout the house. Owen was usually watching re-runs of Emergency and the The Rifleman, a beer in his hand. 

“Hey, buddy, we need more beer. I kind of finished off the six-pack,” Owen said jokingly. “And that rotisserie chicken we had the other night was good. Can we have that again?”

Robert looked in the nearly empty refrigerator. Might as well add that to the shopping list, he sighed to himself.

A week later, Robert started dropping hints that Owen should leave. A week after that, Robert tried being more direct. “So when are you planning to leave?”  

“I was thinking of looking for a job in Portland,” Owen said, more interested in his TV show than talking to Robert.

Another week passed and Owen was still there. Robert didn't know what to do. His experience hadn't prepared him for this situation. As the forth week wore on, Robert realized that Owen didn't get hints.

“So, Owen,” he said one evening, in a friendly tone, “seems like it would be a good time for you to be moving on.”

Owen had a look of surprise and hurt. “I'm sorry I've been an imposition. I thought you liked having me here. You know, I'm waiting to hear from a four star restaurant in New York any day now. You wouldn't put a guy on the street would you?”

Robert was stopped again. “Well, if it's only for a few days, you can stay,” he replied quietly.

Another week passed. Owen was still there. Robert wasn't good at confrontation, but necessity is the mother of invention. On the following Thursday, Robert came home looking for Owen and found him, as expected, watching TV, a Subway sandwich in hand. 

“Owen! I have some great news for you. I've bought you a ticket to New York. Your flight is scheduled for tomorrow morning. I'll drive you to the airport. No need for a taxi. That's so impersonal. Where's your bag? I can help you pack.”

Owen was dumbfounded. It was the first time Robert had seen him speechless. 

Late Friday morning as Robert's drove from the airport to his office, he could feel the tautness of his face soften and his muscles relax. 

“So how's Owen,” asked Joan, the office secretary, with a knowing roll of the eye and a nod of sympathy. 

“Oh Owen, he left this morning. We didn't see eye to eye on things. He needed his freedom.” 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Happy International Coffee Day

Today is International Coffee Day, a day that celebrates my favorite beverage. Raymond Chandler said it best: 
"I went to the kitchen to make coffee-yards of coffee. Rich,
strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The life blood
of tired men."

from The Long Goodbye