Thoughts of the Intellectual Few

A tongue-in-cheek look at the world and the life of a man who sees things clearly, albeit through cynical glasses.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On seeing a condor off the coast of Big Sur

From above Big Sur, home of my magical condor

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to see a condor in the wild.

Call it one of those silly yet endearing non-sequitors that kids come up with. One kid wants to be a fireman, another wants to be a pro baseball player and one wants to be made of pudding. I was the last kid except, instead of pudding, I wanted to be a condor. The idea of being the largest bird in the world that soars high on an eight-foot wingspan appealed to me. I'm sure a psychotherapist would see something significant in that .... but I digress.

I had seen condors in zoos, but that never did it for me. They looked so unhappy -- majestic creatures meant for more than an oddity in a cage. No, I needed to see one in the wild, high over rocky cliffs floating on thermals. About four months ago I finally saw one -- two actually, and it was everything I hoped it would be.

From left: Amy, Andy, Paul, Austin, Michael, Shannon, and Jackson in the woods at Big Sur.

The family and I went with a group of old friends camping in Big Sur. I had always wanted to see the place I had read about so many times. Plus, we had just moved back to the west coast and this was the first time we were going to see some of the wonderful friends we had made while living in L.A. It looked to be like a great beginning to our new life in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Well, in short, the trip was wonderful. The scenery was breathtaking, reacquainting with old friends was magical, and camping under the limbs of giant old redwood trees was regenerating to the soul. We swam and ate and laughed and drank. We showered with strangers, roasted marshmallows at night, drank some more, and all remembered what it was like to be that group of friends in our twenties -- priceless.

Of course the long weekend came to a close too quickly. We all had to get back to our lives, so we said goodbye to Michael, Paul, Laura, Megan, Amy and Andy. The boys showed their sadness more than the wife and I, but we all felt it. I figured all the good things had been seen, all the good songs had been sung. We loaded up the car and headed up the coast to Castro Valley.

Now mind you, although I had wanted to see a condor all my life, the thought of that great bird had not really entered my mind while on the trip. Maybe subconsciously I knew that Big Sur was almost the last place to see them flying free in North America, but it wasn't on my radar. But then, almost magically, while negotiating a rather precarious curve hundreds of feet above the ocean, it happened -- a condor floated up above the edge of the cliff about twenty yards out in the abyss. For a split second I saw nothing but the bird hovering almost motionless in the sky, seeming to stare back at me as if to say, "Wish granted young man." Then my wife gasped.

I almost went off the road. The PCH highway on the cliffs of Big Sur is not the best place to take one's eyes off the road. I straightened the course, calmed the family, and continued on. I kept stealing glances in the rear view, trying to fix on the bird. A couple of times I caught brief glimpses of her .... and presumably her mate, which was about five yards below hovering in that same hypnotizing, almost motionless state. And then they were gone -- one curve too many and the birds were gone from sight.

Since the trip the condors come to my mind sometimes. I see them floating in space, happy and free. When they do my heart soars a little as well. That first feeling of elation when I stared in to the eyes and heart of the great bird was one of the best moments of my life -- truly awe inspiring. That feeling doesn't happen much anymore. Thankfully I was there at just the right time, and I can cross seeing the condor off my list.

Jackson at Big Sur, feeling (I imagine) what I felt when I saw the condor.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A discussion about space

Well, fair friends it's been a while.

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but I'm coming back in with the Intellectual Few. Things have gotten in my way up here in my lovely canyon in Castro Valley. I haven't made the time to share my thoughts since we relocated to the Bay Area. Life can get in the way of reflection, as I'm sure you know. Boys go to school, job searches take up time, chores have to be done, and this place can suck you in (I'll get to that later) ... that's the way with things ....

But reflection -- a look inside (and out) is essential, so the blog is back up and running. We may sputter at first, the pump needs to be primed, but the thoughts will be laid out, open and bare, for your observation and entertainment.

To that end, let me tell you about the wonders of space. Not the out-there-stars-in-the-heavens-NASA-type space, but having space to roam, watch animals and trees, and enough room to walk around naked.

When we moved to the Bay Area we were lucky enough to find a place to call home that I wasn't aware existed anymore -- at least not this close to a big city. Here in friendly Castro Valley, less than an hour from San Francisco and ten minutes from Oakland there is a canyon with one way in. If you go about two and a half miles up that windy road, you might find me in a big, beautiful house sitting on 165 acres of hills, creeks, canyon, and trees. Oh, and up here my friends, there is plenty of space.

It's a big house, the kind I pictured might be up in the mountains when I was in a one room apartment many moons ago. It's roomy and solid, with twenty foot windows and an eight foot stone fireplace in the family room. The kitchen is chef caliber, there are more bathrooms (four) than bedrooms (three), the ceilings soar and the floors are lived in, scratched hard wood planks. But it's not all wine and roses; it's colder in the house than out. In some places the walls don't quite square with th floors and ceilings, drafts come in uninvited, and running out of water is always a threat, but all in all, I can't find much to pick at.

However, the joy of this place is seen when you open the door. For about as far as you can see nature looks back at you. There are large fenced in areas for the dogs (not to mention the goats and llamas that have lived here since before we came) and a huge fenced in area for gardening, complete with raised beds and shade protection. After that though, it's just trees, trails, and land, both beautiful and wild, natural and unkempt.

Consequently, we get many visitors -- the kind that arrive on foor legs or by wing. A peacock and a gaggle of guinea hens has adopted us as well as a family of feral cats. Skunks and raccoons mosy down from the hills to eat the cat's food and eagles soar overhead in lazy circles looking for the gophers that are wrecking the one place that has a lawn. Foxes run around down by the creek and deer are always eating something by the barn and the driveway. Although the closest person is too far to see, we are never alone out here.

It's an amazing place. I'm in better shape, both physically and emotionally, than I ever was in Houston or for that matter L.A. Walking around up here, collecting firewood, amending the garden beds, feeding the animals -- it melts away the stress and cares of every day life. Sure there is a Starbucks less than five miles from here, and if you drive the eight minutes to get on the freeway, you'll get stuck in traffic, but up here there is space, room to breathe. I'm thankful my boys are able to grow up a little bit here.

Now I know I'm blessed, that most people don't have this kind of good fortune, but take some time to go to a big park or drive somewhere out in the country where you can find some space -- space to roam, space to smile, space to be. It'll take years off your life.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Thoughts of Scottie

I've been thinking a great deal about my old friend Scott Maitland. It's close to the fifteenth anniversary of my first meeting with Scott. You probably thought I would write something like, "but it seems like yesterday." No. Actually, it seems longer than that. So much has happened since then .... Still, I owe him so much.

In early fall of 1991 I became my own man. It happened as I held the hand of Scott Maitland, the grandest queen I ever knew, as he passed away due to AIDS related pneumonia and other complications. I didn’t know it at the time, but it changed my life.

I met Scott at the P & H, a bar in Memphis frequented by the theatre crowd of that fair city. I was enjoying a patty melt and some cheap beer when we were introduced by a mutual friend. Scott was directing a play called Eastern Standard for the upcoming season at The Circuit Playhouse. This was the summer of 1990, and Allanah Myles was singing on the Jukebox at the P & H.

Scott had seen my work as an actor. I was considered a somewhat mysterious and hot commodity, an image I tried hard to cultivate at the time. I was actually a little full of myself. I had won a best supporting actor award a couple of months before for a mysterious and hot role in Blue Window. Scott told me about the play he was doing and the role he wanted me to audition for.

“Well, Jimmy, I’ve got this gay character, but I want him very macho, very butch. I’m looking for someone that is so blatantly heterosexual he drips testosterone,” Scott said.

I’ve never been accused of dripping with testosterone and I’ve actually been hit on quite a few times by men, but I wasn’t going to argue. I thought I was mysterious and hot, remember.

“So this guy at the beginning of the play has just found out he snagged the HIV. His journey is how he deals with it and how he reveals it,” said Scott.

I was intrigued. The role sounded rich. Plus I was flattered that I was being asked to audition by a prominent member of the theater community. I auditioned, got the part and got to work.
I don’t know if it was my best work, but it was my best experience in the process. My fellow actors were talented and giving, especially the man who played my lover, Kevin Jones.

About two weeks into the rehearsals I found out that Scott was HIV positive. So was Kevin. I was young and naïve. My whole world had been a rather sheltered, easy life, and here I was playing a homosexual man dealing with the reality of AIDS, lost loves and the fear of dying alone, basically telling the story of these two wonderful men.

The play was well received. I got a few good reviews, but mainly I got good friends out of the show. I kept in touch with Kevin and Scott. They both had wonderful stories to tell of glamorous worlds that I knew nothing about. Scott lived in Manhattan in the late ‘70s and early ’80s. Scott had lovers and sugar daddies and one-night-stands. He had beautiful fashion sense and the quickest bitch-wit on Houston Street, he said.

He told one story of living with a well-to-do lawyer in a high-rise apartment in Manhattan. He did the cooking and cleaning, always dressed in matching pajamas and an antique kimono robe, according to him. Every night before he would go to bed, he would open the doors to the balcony, step outside and at the top of his lungs shout “Goodnight New York!” in his best Marlene Dietrich impersonation.

A couple of weeks after the play closed, Scott started to get sick. He still had the same cynical sense of humor, but his body started to betray him. He lost weight, started breaking out with cankers and lost more and more energy. Finally after going below a hundred pounds, he checked into the hospital wheezy and sallow.

The shittiest thing about AIDS is that the people who really need to be there at the end, the lovers and life-partners, stayed at home for fear of going full-blown, as they used to say, by being exposed to the various viruses and sickness. It’s a cruel beast of a disease that denies a dying man the comfort of holding his truelove’s hand or looking in to the eyes of his longtime companion. For that reason if nothing else, AIDS deserves to be at the top of the please-don’t-let-me-die-of-this list.

So Scott was stuck with me, usually me only. I did my best to comfort him and distract him. He had recently told his mother the news, both his disease and the equally devastating surprise that he was gay. We were waiting to see if she was going to come say goodbye to him. It had been close to a week since he told her and she still hadn’t shown. Unfortunately, Scott was fading fast.

AIDS attacks the body, but it also devastates the mind. Scott’s once clear eyes were shrouded with dementia the last couple of days he was alive. He didn’t know me, the nurse or even himself. He would just cry, scream and drool, sometimes begging for “mommy, mommy, mommy.” It was heart wrenching, but I visited as much as I could. I’m not sure why other than wanting him to not be alone.

Scott’s mom finally came after about ten days or so. I was there when she arrived. She asked me if I was his “boyfriend.” I can still hear the confused and somewhat disgusted tone in her voice. I told her that I wasn’t, just a friend and left to get a cup of coffee and a smoke.

When I came back a short while later she was gone. Scott was still in his own gaunt, frightened world. I don’t know if he knew she came or if she even stayed to say anything to him. I doubt there was any sort of reconciliation, but I do believe that he was waiting to see her. Not very long later, he took his last breath while I held his hand.

I can’t really describe all the things that changed in me during the last six weeks of Scott’s life, nor do I want to. I do know that it was the first time in my life that I felt like my own man, and that it laid a foundation for all the future decisions I would make in my life till now.

Years later while in New York on the trip when I proposed to my future wife, I took a little time out from sightseeing, eating and planning the proposal to walk out on the roof of our hotel, raise my arms to the city and shout in my best Marlene Dietrich impersonation, “Good night, New York!”

I hope Scott was listening.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Looking forward, looking back

Hello fair friend ...

It's been a bit since I've checked in, and a great deal has happened in the interim. I am a college graduate. The odyssey that started in Memphis in 1989 has come to completion. My university studies ended with a whimper not a bang -- almost an afterthought. None the less, the family is happy and there is a sense of completion so that is fine.

We are relocating to San Francisco. My amazing wife was promoted again and we are headed back out west. That is definitely for the best. As my friend Michael said, it's about time we went back to a blue state. I see the move as Tom Joad once did -- full of possibilities and endless opportunity. I'm sure there will be more chances for writing and I believe I will try my hand at teaching if I can find a school that will have me. Yes, friends, the future's so bright I gotta wear shades (except in the summer, which in San Francisco is reportedly like winter).

Interesting though to look back at my time in Houston. We moved here in May 2001. An acquaintance asked me recently what I would miss most about Houston. Sadly, I could only think of a couple of eateries and the proximity to my parents house. Man, that is lame. Four years and that's all I could come up with? To be honest, I had a piss-poor attitude the first 18 months. I probably wouldn't have liked anything then, but after that? Why not a few friends? Wherefore the dirth of wonderful memories? Oh, I have a few recollections, but not even close to four years worth.

With the move I am moving forward. I will make friends, make memories. Past failures are behind me.

So here's to you San Francisco. I will see you shortly with flowers in my hair. And here's to you Houston. You are not the brightest light, the fairest maiden, or the best place to raise a family. In fact, you are most things that I dislike, but I should have given you a fair shake. To both cities -- skol.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Quentin Tarantino

I was preparing to move to L.A. when I first saw Reservoir Dogs. I was venturing west to try my hand at acting and writing. QT was not the reason I wanted to be involved with movies. That spot on the influence list was reserved for Buster Keaton, Al Pacino, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese among others. Still I, like a number of young members of Generation X, was blown away by the film. It moved and appealed to me in ways that I didn't see coming. It was as if all the movies I had seen were an appetizer to this cinematic feast. The movie galvanized my belief that acting and writing was what I was meant to do.

You see, I'm old enough to remember what movies were like before Tarantino. It's somewhat difficult to remember that action, horror, heist, or suspense movies were so different from today. They were, on the whole, mind-numbingly formulaic, predictable, and simple with generic unrealistic dialogue. The characters were two-dimensional, and the humor consisted of a punnishly stupid one-liner before or after someone was killed. Even the entertaining and successful ones like Die Hard, Rambo, and Terminator followed this easy and simple blueprint.

Then, with that first electric film about the men with the color-coded names and the the equally as dynamic Pulp Fiction, Tarantino chnaged it all. In what has become known as the "Reservoir Dogs watershed" the formula for those types of movies was thrown on it's head, beaten up, and replaced with a fresher, more genuine cinema style that jumped out of a noir setting in broad daylight. The story was so non-linear it was everywhere, the dialogue was as real and raw as could be imagined, the bad guys became the protagonist the audience identified with, and the entire package was laid out in all its gritty unHollywood glory with a 70's dance tune as the backdrop.

It was so different and exciting that it was quickly aped and plagiarized to the point that it created its own genre -- a "Tarantino script." Pretty soon, everyone was trying to make a Tarantino movie, so much so that there was an inevitable backlash. All of the Tarantino rip-offs (you know you saw them -- Killing Zoe, Two Days in the Valley, and even QT's Destiny Turns on the Radio) had the effect of a hit song being overplayed on the radio to the point that you don't even remember why you like the song in the first place.

The thing is, without Tarantino, the cinema that we know today would not have existed. There would be no Memento, Sin City, or The Usual Suspects. He laid the foundation for Robert Rodriguez, Alexander Payne, and a host of other talented directors that didn't want t0 play by mainstream rules. He revived the careers of talented actors that had fallen out of favor. Maybe most importantly he took independent movies out of the art houses and into mainstream. Before Tarantino, Miramax handled foreign films and small, arty films. Today Miramax is considered a beast -- a major player in the movie world.

Because Tarantino's movies became so much more than movies, some peolpe have forgotten what made them so special. Watch his movies again, especially the first two and it is crystal why they had the impact. The scripts are brilliant. The way his characters talk is blazingly real and precise, and the stories are just enough off the center of normal that they become addictive. It's apparent that Tarantino lives, breathes, and eats movies. His scene homages are legendary, crafted to a point close enough for some to call it stealing. But his movies are his own, his voice, and his vision. His enthusiasm and confidence are, to me, what is so infectious about his movies. He makes the movies he wants because he loves them and has fun with them. In doing so he made going to the movies better for all of us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


I can't believe we still have soldiers in Iraq. Even more, I can't believe that the war has become a background to other things going on. More coverage is devoted to American Idol, Michael Jackson, and Tom Delay. It's as if the American people have resigned themselves to the occupation with no exit plan and no change in the foreseeable future.

I'm against the war in Iraq, as you can probably tell. I have been since before it started. I didn't think we should invade the country back when WMDs and al Qaeda links were still accepted as probabilities and I sure don't think we should have gone to war now that we know the reasons were flat out lies. No, I was never going to be in favor of war ... any war, especially one built on deception. I'm for peace and tolerance -- two ideas in short supply here in Houston, deep in the heart of hatred.

So I understand why I was in the minority (although not as much of a minority as the conservative pundits would have you believe) and why a number of people were so bloodthirsty for some sort of revenge after the 9/11 tragedy. But what I don't understand is why we are still there and why a majority of the people don't see the problem.

I recently wrote a paper aiming to convince people to support getting out of Iraq, and most of the research pointed to people feeling like even though it may have been a mistake, we are already in there, it's too late now, so let's make the most of a bad situation. What a load of shit.

Certainly invading Iraq was a mistake. We invaded a sovereign nation and committed unspeakable acts of violence on normal, every day, wake-up-in-the-morning-go-to-work-care-for-your-kids people when diplomacy would have been a much better option. The claim was that Hussein was a bad man and the world would be better and Iraq safer with him gone. Now we see that even if he was a bad man, the world and Iraq is no safer. We replaced a bad man with a number of bad men and a horrible spiral of violence and lawlessness. Our mission, which was misguided, a lie, and morally bankrupt, was a total failure.

What made people think that we had the right to force our idea of what is right on a totally different culture in the first place? What arrogance. What greed. With practically no global support and a rush to arms we effectively destroyed a nation and alienated ourselves from friends and allies. What shame we should feel.

Yet surprisingly we don't. We continue along hearing the latest attack and the most up to date body count in the background on TV and read it on page six of the paper. In writing my paper I doubt I convinced anyone. I don't think many people are listening, and the few who listen are like me, growing more frustrated and numb at the same time.

We should get out of this tragedy now. Perhaps then the other problems like the economy, the chaos in Iraq, and the growing divide between the right and the left of the country could be dealt with. Because as long as soldiers and citizens are dying in Iraq America will continue to suffer at home.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


I've been thinking a great deal about mysteries lately. As part of my comp class I've re-read Sherlock Holmes, watched CSI and other shows that incorporate logic. I've also been sort of revisiting books and movies that I've seen or read previously, thinking about how they did what they did.

Figuring out how the protagonists use logic and how logic eventually wins out is interesting -- fun even, but what about the bigger picture. Why mysteries in the first place? Are mysteries simply a mental exercise and form of entertainment, like a puzzle or Rubic's cube? Or do mysteries have a higher purpose?

I have a theory that all genres of movies and books mean more to the audience than entertainment, escape, or getting a story. I feel that any movie or book teaches us something mentally and emotionally -- both with knowledge and understanding. Let's say you see a comedy. Most likely you will learn something you didn't know that you may use later. For instance, if you include "Carneys"(the odd, smelly subculture that works as geeks and callers at traveling carnivals) in a story, that story will be funnier than if you left out the Carney reference.

More than the intellectual gains though are the emotional ones. You laugh (or groan), you smile and feel better. Laughter and a sense of humor are essential to a healthy, happy laugh. A comedy gives you laughter and humor and lets you know what makes you laugh and smile. The same holds true for the other categories. Drama, fantasy, western, history, etc. -- they all have a two-fold purpose at a minimum.

Mysteries are a little different. Mysteries teach people how to deduce on their own. Often times, the lessons are learned without the person knowing. When you read a mystery, you experience the story, learn interesting facts, get the emotional plus of perhaps a little fear, excitement, and surprise all rolled into one. On a different level, you also get the tools and blueprint for solving mysteries on your own. Someone who read Encyclopedia Brown or The Hardy Boys when he was growing up was exposed to logic and steps of deduction. Plus, the added benefit of seeing the self-confidence that is generated when someone can figure things out and solve mysteries on his own.

Another part of it is that the reader identifies with the protagonist, who is usually smart, resourceful, self-confident, and brave in mysteries. The reader sees what can be accomplished by someone that uses these tools. Mysteries are amazing teachers, and often times, creators of logical, self-confident people.