Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Origin Story

      Paris, Texas begins with an enigma. What is the gaunt figure stumbling thru the desert looking for? By the end of the film you'll have to decide if he's found it. And maybe you'll question if his search parallels one of your own.

     The first scene is of a landscape so vast that it could easily swallow all the traumas, failures and losses that blow thru our lives like tumbleweeds. But in that vastness there is also the possibility of atonement and redemption. Images and music create a sense of emptiness and longing. The camera looks down railroad tracks that seem to stretch to infinity while a character wonders, "What's out there?"

     The mute wanderer's name is Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton in the performance of a lifetime. The story follows him in an arc from lost to found, from running away to accepting responsibility. He has to acknowledge his mistakes and rise above them for the sake of those he loves.

     We follow Travis on two neon-bathed road trips thru the Southwest. First with his brother Walt to Los Angeles and then with his son Hunter to Houston. There are scenes of trains, planes and automobiles. We see California's tangled highway overpasses and the stark high rises of Houston. There is a restless, relentless coming and going but you see few faces, few people. Everyone is encased in their steel shells and the sense of isolation is palpable.

     The broken family at the center of the picture, Travis and Jane and their son Hunter, need to know where they've come from to find a way forward.There's a revealing scene with seven year old Hunter telling his father about the Big Bang and the creation of the universe: "There was an explosion and ... pfttt ... sparks everywhere ... " There's father and son looking at family albums and home movies of happy times gone by. There's Paris, Texas (a real city by the way) that here functions more as a symbol than a setting. It's where Travis believes he began and where he wants to return to. Where he wants to put down roots, even if, as Hunter points out "We're going to live on dirt?" And finally, in the emotional heart of the film, there's Travis recounting their origin story to Jane as they both must transcend the past for the sake of their son's future.

     Paris, Texas won the Palme d' Or at Cannes in 1984. It's a great example of the collaborative nature of cinema. Wim Wenders directed a core group of five actors from a screenplay that was itself a combined effort of Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson. Cinematographer Robby Müller created the mesmerizing visual look of the picture and slide guitarist Ry Cooder contributed music that matches the landscape and emotions to perfection.

Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski and Wim Wenders

Ry Cooder

     Although the film is held in high regard by critics and industry professionals it was never a big box-office success. No shoot-outs or sex scenes and only one slow motion car chase. Wenders, who is German, also received some push-back from American audiences. "What does this foreigner know about our culture and landscape " type of stuff. Watch Paris, Texas and I think you'll agree, he knows quite a bit.  

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Heavenly Hook-Up

     Nothing like a little voyeurism to get the juices flowing. Especially when it involves watching Roman gods masquerading as planets. Two of them, Venus and Jupiter, are currently having a little tête-à-tête in the evening sky. Look to the west as the sky darkens and you can't miss them. Venus is currently lower and brighter with Jupiter hovering above, but night by night they are drawing together and on March 1st they will be close enough for the goddess to give old Jove a smooch. Astronomers call it a conjunction, while I call it convenient to have a nice sky show in the early evening hours. 

From Sky and Telescope website

        Although the pair will look chummy from our perspective they are actually separated by more than 400 million miles in space. No hanky-panky possible. Another interesting fact: while Jupiter is much the larger of the two, Venus appears brighter because it is both closer to the Sun and to us here on Earth and it also reflects more light, giving it a higher albedo than Jupiter. With both what you are seeing is sunlight reflected off the tops of clouds. While you're watching the planets, notice the shimmering stars of Orion and nearby Sirius. They produce their own light by fusion ( like our Sun ) but because they are vastly further away they don't appear as bright as Venus and Jupiter.

     You might also keep an eye out for the northern lights. The Sun seems to be getting a little more active which increases the chance of aural displays. Carl Heilman, the talented Adirondack photographer, has posted some nice shots on Facebook of aurora taken from his home at Brant Lake. I'll also pass along a photo that originally appeared on the APOD. It was taken in Norway, just in case you want to climb a mountain and be dazzled.


Max Rive image


     Springs coming, the sap is flowing and the sky is putting on a show. What's not to like?   

Friday, February 3, 2023

Who Are You?

     "He was a good man."

     I remember as a youngster hearing older friends of my family speak of my grandfather. I listened respectfully but didn't really have any reference. Mom never talked much about her father. I'ld never seen a photo of him and I'm ashamed to admit that until recently I didn't even know what his first name was.

     I did know that the family name was Varney and that he had worked at a store in Wilton during the tough years of the early '40's. I'm not talking about the malled, big boxed, franchised chaos near Exit 15. What old-timers know as Wilton was the close-knit community at the foot of Mt. McGregor where Rt.9 and Ballard Road meet. The store was located on the northeast corner of the Wilton-Gansevoort Road and Northern Pine Road intersection. I believe it was owned by a Charles Van Rensselaer. It's gone now, razed or burned years ago.


And now...

     With WWII raging, most of the men were off fighting in Europe or the Pacific. Women and children, the elderly and the disabled were left to sacrifice and make do. Some of them were already bereaved widows and orphans. Family lore tells of my grandfather delivering groceries to those with no way to the store, of making sure that those who couldn't even afford a few dollars for food had enough to eat. He kept track of the neighborhood kids whose dads were overseas, becoming a father figure to those who hung out on the store's porch. He bought candy out of his own nearly empty pockets to brighten the day of the little ones.

Family and friends
My grandfather and grandmother are third and fourth from left in backrow
My mother is little girl standing in front of her mother

     Then, in the final desperate months of the war, my grandfather was drafted just a short time before aging out. He left Wilton, never to return. All I know is that he was in a tank closing in on Berlin when he became one of the conflict's last casualties. His body was interred along with thousands of other soldiers in a massive cemetery in the Netherlands. For years afterward a Dutch family, forever grateful for the sacrifice of the Americans, placed flowers on his grave, writing and sending photos to my widowed grandmother.

     My mother was a young teenager when she lost her father. She endured some lean, hard years afterward. Maybe it's the ugliness in Ukraine, the suffering of people there, but lately I've been thinking about how events shaped Mom, and in turn molded me. She always loathed injustice, never trusted government authority and she was always extremely frugal. All traits that, with a little introspection, I see in myself.
     Which brings me to Bennington, Vermont. To a little day trip I took there recently. Exploration is in our genes. Humans are restless, always wondering what's beyond the next hill. Thus the travel 'industry'. As I write this I have a friend wandering the backcountry of Big Bend National Park. Another buddy is going to Costa Rica  and a couple of long time hiking pals are in Antartica communing with penguins! They're sending back great pictures and I'll admit to a little envy. I also know that I could never do things like that. It's the attitude about money that I got from my mother. I have such a hard time spending it on things that aren't basic necessities. Things like travel or entertainment. Still, the itch to 'go' is there so I scratch it as best (and cheaply) as I can. Like spending the exorbitant sum of $30 on my Bennington escape. 

Jim Appleyard's photo of Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park


Steve Mackey's photo of penguins in Antartica

     About a third of my budget went for gas. From my house it's about an hour's drive across the Hudson and thru the Taconic foothills to the Vermont Valley where Bennington hunkers. It's  scenic, pretty countryside on a connect the dots route thru Greenwich, Cambridge, White Creek and North Bennington. It was a Sunday morning and Kings Donut Cart was out but there was a long line so I didn't stop. Love their goodies but I could have easily spent $5 there. You know what they say about a penny saved...


      The next $10 of my splurge went towards admission to the Bennington Museum. I was interested in the Parks and Recreation exhibit but alas, they had already taken most of it down. Still, there was plenty to see. They have a whole gallery of Grandma Moses paintings and another room chronicling the Battle of Bennington, an event which actually took place just across the border in New York. Other current shows were the spooky In the Shadow of the Hills and a pictorial history of the Walloomsac Inn, quite a spooky place in its own right. Note that the museum closes over the winter but will reopen in April with some new exhibits.

'Friendly' faces in the Shadow of the Hills exhibit
The one at upper left sure looks like Shirley Jackson

     Looking at art always makes me hungry ( in truth, just about everything I do makes me hungry! ). So, after the museum the next stop was a no brainer. I took the short drive over to the Blue Benn Diner and slid onto a stool at the counter. Within minutes I was digging into a hot roast beef sandwich with gravy, mashed potatoes and a side of veggies. Haute cuisine? Well, no. Satisfying and cheap? You bet. For $10 I was fat and happy. This place has been putting smiles on faces since 1948. Now you can even buy a coffee table book - Sonny's Blue Benn: Feeding the Soul of a Vermont Town - celebrating the diner in words and vintage photos. 

     With still a little time left in the day I headed back to Old Bennington ( up the hill beyond the Museum ). The juxtaposition of the Old First Church's formality directly across the street from the shambling Walloomsac Inn always tickles me.

     From there I walked down thru the cemetery to visit Robert Frost's grave, where the inscription reads: "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."

The exquisite fence that encloses the cemetery

Frost's grave on a frosty day

     Next stop was just up the street at the Bennington Battle Monument. It's a state historic site open during the warmer months, when there's a fee to take the elevator to an observation level about 2/3's of the way up. My preference would be the original 417 step stairway but I'm not sure if it's still used. From October to May you can walk around the monument but not go inside. It's definitely impressive although I'm still quite fond of our Schuylerville Monument ( hometown pride ). What really amazes me is that all the stone you see, estimated at 19 million pounds, was dragged here from a dolostone quarry in the Town of Kingsbury, Washington County in the late 1800's.


- lyrics from What I am, a song by Edie Brickell

     With dusk settling it was time to head home. I was sorely tempted to stop at Brown's Brewing in Hoosic Falls ( by now, both hungry and thirsty again ) but I knew that would nearly double my day's expenditures so I resisted. One thing about driving alone in the evening: it gives you time to think. It felt like the repercussions of a young girl's loss many years ago were riding in the truck with me. The events of 1945 shaped my mother and she in turn shaped me. I had inherited values and habits that grew out of her deprivations. They say there were three maxims carved in the wall at the Temple of Apollo at Delpi in ancient Greece: "certainty brings ruin", "nothing in excess" and, most famously, "know thyself". Perhaps, if we all took a little time to think about why we believe what we do, to dig into where our personal truths came from and to accept that other's experiences were different, it would be a better world.

One last note...

     I've heard there's an exhibit at the Wilton Town Hall honoring the community's WWII families. I plan on checking it out first chance I get. Sadly, as long as the world keeps producing Hitlers and Putins there will be a need for people like my grandfather Maynard Varney and countless other brave service men and women to protect us.