Wednesday, May 15, 2019

#75 - British Homeless Guy

I've written a few time, here, about living in what I call Dude-Central, also know as Venice, California. I've lived in Venice a couple different times in my life, and have planted roots in my current apartment for more than four and a half years now. It is Dude-central, not just because Venice is where The Dude lived in The Big Lebowski, but because the ACTUAL Dude lives here, the Original Dude, the guy who the Coen Brothers based the character on. His name is Jeff Dowd. Look him up.

I share a laundromat with him.

This isn't really about the Original Dude, though, although now that I've mentioned him, I'll stick with him for a little bit. No, this is more about the laundromat, actually. More on that later.

The Dude - the Original Dude, Jeff Dowd, is a recognizeable character in the neighborhood. His crazy long 70-ish white hair can be spotted from blocks away. Even if he didn't have the crazy hair, he could be spotted from blocks away because he is usually struggling to steer his bike down the street, with grocery bags dangling from the handle bars, going about 2 miles per hour.

Anyway, enough about him. Let's get to the laundromat.

Venice is a diverse neighborhood. You might find yourself carrying your laundry down the street to the local laundromat, passing between million dollar condos and homeless campouts.

I was doing this one day recently; carrying my laundry in a backpack to the laundromat. This is where I encountered a very startling man.

I made the mistake of leaving my backpack on top of the washing machine while my clothes washed, and I went off to do other things. When I came back a half-hour later, my backpack was gone.

Rage bubbled up in me (I can already hear my sister saying, "Dude, you're being very un-dude right now"). "Where's my fucking backpack?!" I demanded of the world.

I went back out the front door, onto the sidewalk of Rose avenue, looking for someone to confront.

No backpack.

I went back into the laundromat, I searched high and low. I went out the back door of the laundromat, into the alley.

Aha! The culprit! There he was, bearded, un-showered, the face of death warmed over, with MY BACKPACK dangling casually from his shoulder.

"Hey, man!" I said, not fully in control of myself, "That's my fucking backpack! You stole my fiucking backpack!"

The crazy, death-looking homeless guy looked at me calmly....and this is where my brain did a summersault, and my world went upside down.

Out of this death-like face, this un-shaven, un-showered, barely alive being, came a voice as proper, British, and refined as any I've ever heard.

"Pardon me. Pardon me," he began, sounding like a posh waiter at London's finest restaraunt. "I don't believe I stole your backpack."

I was disoriented, but tried my best to stay angry. "That's my fucking backpack, man!" I said. "You fucking stole it!"

At this point Posh-death-looking-guy raised his hands in a calming motion and tried to bring me under control.

"Now, listen to me. Listen to me," he said. "I did not steal your backpack. It had been placed by someone else on the sidewalk, and left abandoned. I was lead to believe it was unclaimed. I will of course return it to you with no harm intended."

I couldn't be mad anymore. It was hopeless.

Was I just talked down from my rage by some crazy bearded British homeless guy? I asked myself.

And I wanted to ask him...where did your life go off the rails, that you sound like The Queen's press secretary, but you're living on the street in Venice, California?

The whole incident ended on this weird anti-climactic note.

I had my backpack. The British homless guy had been polite, calm, and reasoned. I had lost my cool, and was talked down from the ledge by bearded un-showered homeless Shakespeare.

All I could do was walk home shaking my head. What just happened?

I still haven't quite figured it out.

Life in Venice, Calfornia...
-Peter Wick
May 15, 2019

Monday, April 15, 2019

#74 - My brother John Wick - Growing up with a future hitman

When the third movie in the "John Wick" series is released next month, I will be forced, once again, to go through the gut wrenching process of reliving my early years as the younger brother of a future hit man. It's something we don't talk much about these days. As a family we try to let it live in the past. Ever since the first movie came out, though, these difficult memories have been impossible to avoid.

Let's say I make a reservation at a restaurant and give my full name - Peter Wick - inevitably I get the joking response, "Oh, any relation to John?"

"Yes," I say, surprising just about everyone who asks. "He's my brother, a year older than me. Thanks for reminding me of all the almost-buried memories, the childhood trauma, the lingering scars that simply will not fade."

I remember being 5 years old. John was 6. We were both building elaborate towers out of Legos. John was better than me at most things, but somehow I was pretty damn good with Legos. My tower was more intresting, taller, more creative. When our mom casually walked by and commented on my Lego tower, rather than John's, he lost it. Not only did he smash my Lego tower, he took it apart piece by piece, put all of my Lego pieces in a metal briefcase, buried them in the back yard, and covered the whole thing with cement. Seriously, that's where the whole cement idea got started; MY LEGOS!

Of course being John Wick's brother sometimes had its benefits.

One day in first grade some 4th-grade bullies were giving me a hard time. I was struggling to hold my own, trying to counter their pushing and shoving with witty comebacks. John - himself only a second grader -  decided to get involved. He had only been taking martial arts classes for a few weeks, but he had learned enough. A dozen 4th graders were nothing. He took them all on by himself. It was an impressive display. Ten minutes later the playground was littered with the bodies of a dozen bloody, moaning, defeated 4th graders.

Actions have consequences, though. The 4th graders put a bounty on John's head; land a punch on John Wick, and you get a year's supply of Super-stuffed Oreos.

When the 5th graders heard about the bounty, John's life was endangered. A pack of big tough 5th graders spread out across the school grounds like a massive net, set to ensnare John. Desparate, John snuck down into the school janitor's underground private residence. The janitor - we called him Snuckerman - decided to help John escape, and let him out into the narrow, dark, winding sewer that snaked underground through the whole city.

That was the last time we saw John Wick. My brother never returned. For years we did not know whether he made it out of the city alive. I mean, how does a 2nd grader sneak out of a city and survive? How does he manage to continue growing up?

My mother was heart-broken.

It took me years to get over the empty feeling in my stomach.

When the first movie of the franchise came out several years ago, it was like a bomb blowing up right in the middle of my family. It couldn't be him, could it? Yes, it turns out it was, it was my brother, John Wick, right there in the big screen. It was eerie how he had changed, but also not changed at all.

The memories came pouring back too fast to process them all. Maybe someday I'll tell more. This is therapeutic, after all. Writing it down helps process what we have been through.

So, when you go out for a night's entertainment next month, enjoying the drama of another John Wick movie, just remember that Wick has a family that misses him.

John, if you're out there, it would be nice to meet again, to sit down and talk. Is it too late to tell you that your Lego tower was pretty damn good?
-Peter Wick
April 15, 2019

Friday, March 15, 2019

#73 - Milo and Meg (Just a little bit more)

[Note: I was pleasantly surprised when the first Milo and Meg sneak peek, two months ago, quickly became the most widely read and shared post in the entire 7-plus years of Simple Displeasures. Here is another little preview. But PEOPLE...PLEASE, remember, this book will not be ready for everyone to read until something like a year from now. Anyway, enjoy. -PW]

The first time they had arrived in Icarus, a week earlier, panic had come over both Milo and Meg.

Still feeling like your normal self, but looking down to find that you have become a drawing, can cause shock and confusion.

The second time they came they barely had time to think about it before a large winged creature swooped down out of the sky and tried ot attack them.

This time they knew better.

They ran quickly along the edge of the watercolor forest, to Nanette's small hut, knocked on the door, and nearly dove into the hut as Nanette opened it.

"Thank goodness!" Nanetter said, closing the door as quickly as she had opened it. "We were afraid we had lost you for good."

"What's going on?" Meg asked.

"Someone's been erasing us," Nanette said.

"Erasing..." Milo looked horrified.

"The mountain in the distance," said Nanette, barely able to keep her voice steady. "One day the peak was gone. Missing. The next day it was completely re-drawn, taller than before." Nanette paused and took a breath before continuing. "And Wolf..."

"Wolf." Meg sounded worried.

"I don't know where he is. I think he was erased. We're all so scared."

"What can we possibly do?" Meg asked.

"We hoped you would have some ideas," said Nanette. "I mean, you come from the solid world. You are constant."

Milo and Meg looked at each other and shared a silent moment of confusion.

"Here, have some tea," Nanette said, setting a cup in front of each of them.

Meg looked at the cup for a moment. It was a drawing of a cup, not a real cup.

Everything in Icarus was either a drawing or a painting.

That watercolor forest outside, the blues, greens, reds, and yellows...

In here, though, in Nanette's hut, everything was pencil lines.

Pencil lines can be erased.

Meg picked up the cup and looked at the swirling steam that rose from the hot tea. A thin pencil line of steam seemed to draw itself up out of the cup and into the air.

[There will be another preview or 2 of Milo and Meg during the coming year, but don't expect them every month. I'll do a couple more as the year moves along.]
-Peter Wick
March 15, 2019

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

#72 - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck


“Art is our best weapon against political extremism.”

Florian Henckel von Donnersmark said these words a couple days ago, while introducing his Oscar-nominated film, “Never Look Away.”

I’ve been lucky the past couple months. I’ve had the enjoyable and eye-opening experience of following an Oscar campaign closer than I have before. I’ve come to know Florian v.Donnersmarck some, and he’s been generous enough with his time and friendship to let me tag along and witness an awards campaign from a more personal perspective than I had expected.

He won the Oscar, for Best Foreign Language film a dozen years ago, for his German film (do I need to mention that he is from Germany), “The Lives of Others.” His new film, also in German, tracks nearly 30 years in the life of a German Artist, based loosely on the actual life of German Artist, Gerhard Richter.

This is not a review. It is not an ‘interview.’ I am not a critic or a journalist (well, yes, sometimes I have been a journalist). I am someone who wants Hollywood to create good work. I love movies...when they are good, and this is a good movie.

Any quotes or references to things he has said come from an amalgam of conversations, Q and A’s, speeches, and a symposium prior to the Golden Globes, that he was generous enough to invite me to, over the course of the last couple months.

Why am I writing about a German-language film? Because I appreciate the many ways the film plays against the worst instincts of Hollywood. Florian openly embraces his film about Art. It is about more than an Artist, though. It is about Art as social liberator. It is about Art surviving real political tyranny (growing up in Nazi Germany, then having the misfortune of living in East Germany, and spending those following years under Soviet tyranny). It is also about more than Art in the sense that it is about “Creation”; creation on an artistic level, but also literal creation, as in the creation of a human life (as in, a child).

It is important to remember, when watching the film, that it is based on the life of a real person. How much of it is based on Richter’s actual life, though? We don’t get to know. “My agreement with Richter,” Donnersmarck has said, “is that neither of us will tell how much is real, and how much is made up. I won’t tell how much I took from his real life, and he won’t say how much I made up.” He has also said, though, that some of the most bizarre, unbelievable events in the film are the most real. Beyond that, he leaves the question tantalizingly unanswered.

The film has some laughs in it as well. It is not heavy-handed lecturing. It is a human story, and there are many welcome light-hearted moments along the way. When our main character – Kurt Barnet – finally makes his way out of East Germany, and enters a prestigious Art Academy in Düsseldorf, in West Germany, his first tour of the academy treats us to all of the experimental indulgence of early 1960’s Art with a delicate blend of respect and humor. Not all experimental Art from this period hit the mark. The point was the process – the freedom – of discovery. Some of it hit the mark. Some of it is okay to chuckle at.

I was struck, listening to Donnersmarck on one occasion, by his passion regarding the troubled history of communist East Germany. This is something he focused on in his earlier film, “The Lives of others.” Many of us who are not from Germany might be tempted to take a united Germany for granted. But the trauma of a divided Germany, and the pain caused by it, remain alive and well in Donnersmarck. He has said that when he thinks back on the history of communist East Germany, particularly how the East German government interfered in the arts, and compromised – sometimes even destroyed – Artists, it is something that he feels genuinely angry about even today.

My point is a simple one. Donnersmarck makes movies for the right reason; he is exploring ideas. While he has been bouncing around Hollywood, enjoying the ‘glamour’ of a second Oscar nomination, there is no hiding the fact that he makes movies for a very non-Hollywood reason. While much of Hollywood output happens backwards - it begins with a marketing plan, followed by a pitch, then a hired writer - he works in the right direction; he starts with an idea he wants to explore.

He writes in layers. His films are about more than what is on the screen.

His film might be an Oscar winner, or it might not be. Sometimes I find it even more fascinating to follow this process, knowing that the film is an underdog.

Whatever happens on Oscar night, one thing is certain, I will continue to find inspiration from this man’s career. He is unique. He is an Artist. Most in Hollywood are not. In fact, I have been told directly by the odd Producer, “Don’t be an Artist,” that they “can’t sell Art.”

Based on what I see, for better or worse, I plan to continue to ignore their advice.
-Peter Wick
February 13, 2019

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

71. Milo and Meg, Brother and Sister (just the beginning)

[Note: I don't know when this will be finished. "Milo and Meg" is a new book I have begun writing, ideally ready to be released at the end of 2019. I can't promise that, though. This is just an early taste of the beginning of the story. -P.W.]

"Pothole!" Meg said.

"I know where the pothole is," said Milo, jumping across the hole in the ground.

"Okay, I won't tell you next time."

THWACK!

Milo stumbled into the second pothole and flailed awkwardly to the ground.

"Ow! Geez!"

"Nice one," Meg said, smiling her sarcastic sideways smile.

Meg was 12, a little more than a year younger than her 13-year-old brother Milo.

They were hurrying down the hill toward the street to their house.

"Come on," Meg said. "We're late. "Mom and Dad are going to be suspicious this time."

"We'll be fine," Milo said, moving with a limp, and letting out a gasp of pain as he walked.

The city of August isn't the biggest city, or the coolest city. Milo and Meg liked their hometown, though, and thought they knew August the way children know everything about the city they grow up in. This week, though, they had discovered something in the city of August that they did not understand.

They had not told anyone what they discovered.

They also wondered if they were the only ones who knew.

"Besides," Milo said, "it's never later here than it was when we went inside. No time passes."

"I know," Meg said.

"So, what are you worried about?"

Meg looked over at Milo and rolled her eyes. "I'm worried that you won't be able to keep your mouth shut."

"I won't say anything," Milo protested. "I haven't said anything ever.. Why would I spill it now?"

"This time was different," Meg said.

"I won't say anything."

"Okay."

Milo and Meg walked in silence for a moment.

Finally the hill opened up onto the street and they were almost home.

[Stay tuned during the coming year, for updates and another sneak peek or two from Milo and Meg.]
Peter Wick
January 15, 2019


Thursday, November 15, 2018

70. Amazon, Free Speech, and Sarcasm, Satire, and Mockery

First, let me start with a spoiler. This story ends well, and I am not mad at Amazon.

One morning in late October I discovered that Amazon had removed the Kindle edition of my new book, "The Past is Going to Suck." It hit me like a shock. I was disoriented at first, and did not fully believe what I was looking at. Only the paperback edition was available. The paperback edition arrives at Amazon from a different company, but the Kindle edition is published directly through Amazon itself.

I did a quick check around the world. Amazon UK still had both editions up. So did Amazon Australia, Japan, Italy. Both editions were up everywhere in the world except the U.S.

The book had been out for 2 months, and was selling at a modest but steady rate. How the hell could it be pulled down? I found myself asking.

I received cryptic vague responses saying things like, "We are investigating your issue."

I turned my thoughts to the content of the book; Jokes, often biting, harsh jokes, but JOKES about key moments in the history of the 20th century. The jokes often target political figures of the time.

Could my book have been pulled as 'offensive content?' I wondered.

I kept trying to get answers from Amazon, but I understood that they are a gigantic corporation, and the poor mid-level PR people respnding to my emails probably genuinely did not know the real answer.

I got vague references to things like a 'known issue' or a  'technical issue' (which could not explain why it was still up everywhere else in the world).

Had someone in the U.S. complained about my book because I had joked about  - well, who knows - Ronald Reagan? Teddy Roosevelt? The Republican Party as a whole?

I never received an answer to any of these questions.

Then, after 3 days, the book was back up. Just like that, no explanation, no changes, exacty as it was before, a mystery not so much solved, as simply passed by.

I was left to speculate and wonder; Did someone's complaint cause Amazon to pull it and put it through a full review? If so, I had to admit that they must have found no fault, realized that the jokes are jokes, that in the end they found no reason to keep the book from being available.

The whole experience caused me to sit and think about my book. I knew when I was writing it that I was at times going after some people's heroes. In the age of Trump, sarcasm, satire, and mockery are sometimes met with hostility. This response, though, only makes sarcasm, satire and mockery that much more important. While I limit the scope of the book to the 20th century (forcing myself NOT to take on anything happeneing today) I was aware while writing it, that we live in a time when mockery and satire are more important than ever.

Friends who knew what I was going through accused me of being much too patient with Amazon. "Free speech!" one of my friends kept yelling at me. "I'll stay calm," I said. "I think this will work out in the end."

My patience, and my trust of Amazon proved right in the end.

Amazon is a gigantic corporation. They have to be careful not to allow biased hate-speech to infect their website (are you listening, Facebook?). I support their caution, and their conclusion that my book is only sarcasm, satire, and mockery, even though that mockery is sure to upset someone.

Humor is not just a shield, James Thurber once said, it is also a weapon.

We are living in a time when those of us prone to using mockery as a weapon must be bold and use it unflinchingly.

We live in uncertain times. What we say has consequences. And sometimes the most important thing to say is a joke, to mock, to poke fun. Bursting poeple's bubbles, and making people laugh in the process...if I can accomplish that, I think I'm doing alright.
-Peter Wick
November 15, 2018

Monday, October 15, 2018

#69 - The Second Avenue Extension - Part 2

After all my friends dropped out of the 2nd Ave Extension in September, I stayed on to help run the new restaraunt.

A new and even more bizarre collection of co-workers settled into my life.

Big Dave and Little Dave were a couple of strange characters in their own right. Ron, the new Manager who I became Assitant Manager to, was a fairly 'normal' guy, if we define 'normal' in the loosest way possible. Everyone, though, no matter how bizarre or strange, seemed refreshingly sane compared to Bob.

To write about Bob accurately, I have pulled an old notebook, from the time, out of my old stacks of notebooks. I want to convince you first of all that I am not making anything up about Bob. This all comes from notes I wrote down at the time.

Bob was obsessed with meeting a Princess. Literally. this was his obsession. And it wasn't just about meeting her, he had to win her heart the way a person won someone's heart in the middle-ages.

"No one WINS a girl the way they used to," Bob said to me one day.

"No," I said, "we don't really live like that any more."

"We should," Bob said.

I wasn't really sure where this conversation was going, so I tried my best to act busy and distracted, but once Bob started on a topic, he refused to let it go.

"In the old Norwegian tales," he began - I knew I would not be able to escape, so I sighed a sigh of acceptance and did my best to act interested. "A guy would walk right up to a maiden - " (a 'maiden'? I thought, really? 'a maiden'?) - "a maiden he had never even seen before, and say, 'Hey, will you marry me?' And then she would tell him to fight the troll, climb a mountain and bring back the horn of a Viking, and then they would get married."

I had to wonder if he had  his Norwegian mythology right, but I decide to let it go.

Ron, our new manager, couldn't take the craziness. Believing I was the only sane person at the restaraunt, Ron often came up to me, pulling his hair, and whispering loudly, "This place is crazy! THIS PLACE IS CRAZY!"

Big Dave and Little Dave didn't help.

Big Dave hardly ever said anything. When he did open his mouth, it was usually to let out a loud, manic laugh. That was all. He would laugh like a wild maniac for a minute, then stop laughing, and turn back to whatever food he was cooking, as if nothing had ever happened.

Ron and I would usually make brief eye contact after one of Big Dave's manic laughing fits, shake our heads, and somehow just get on with things.

I don't remember much about Little Dave, other than the avocado pit he was trying to cultivate in an empty jar. Little Dave seemed more or less normal - if by 'normal' we mean he could carry on a converation without resorting to ancient mythological attitudes - until the day he was arrested.

I never knew what he was arrested for. He just didn't show up for work one day, and somehow we found out later that he was in jail.

Bob became obsessed with Little Dave's avocado pit after the arrest, as if Little Dave had died.

Ron wanted to throw the avocado pit out one day but Bob nearly lost control of himself. "NO!" he screamed. "You can't throw out Little Dave's avocado pit!"

"Why not?" Ron asked

"It's all that's left of Little Dave!" Bob exclaimed.

"It's not Little Dave!" Ron said, trying desparately to reason with Bob. "It's an avocado pit!"

"It's Little Dave!" Bob yelled back. "IT'S LITTLE DAVE!"

Ron looked at me, defeated. He threw his hands in the air and walked away.

One morning Bob came to work very excited. "I met a girl last night," he said.

"Really?"

"Yes, a Princess. A real Princess!"

I was curious to hear more, not because I thought he was telling the truth, but because I wanted to be entertained.

"She's a Princess of some small country somehwere. I don't rmember where. But I'm going to marry her."

"Marry her!" I said. "Really!?"

"Just as soon as I find out what my quest is going to be."

"Your quest," I said.

"Yes, I haven't spoken to her yet, but I know we will get married. I'll just have to fight a dragon, or kill the Evil Lord. Oh, this is great!"

He went off to tell Ron about his good fortune, while I turned to the sound of Big Dave laughing maniacally.

Moments later I heard Ron yell from the office, "Get out of here, you crazy fuck!" Apparently he was less open to the entertainment value of Bob's stories than I was.

The end of Bob's tenure at the restaraunt came a few days later.

Bob had failed to win the heart of his new Maiden, or worse, maybe he had never even been given a quest to win her heart with.

He began moping and dragging around the restaraunt barely doing any work at all.

Then one mornng he came to work an hour late. He was stumbling, acting a little bit drunk at 10 in the morning. He didn't say anything for a while. He put on an apron and leaned against the counter, staring blankly. He just stayed that way, staring blankly for 30 minutes. Ron and I shook our heads, the way we often did, accepting the absurdity of the monent, while continuing to do whatever work needed to be done.

After 30 minutes of silent staring, Bob, took his apron off, put on his coat, and left.

"Where are you going?" Ron asked.

"I'm leaving," was all he said.

Two days went by, and Bob did not show up for work at all.

Knowing he lived just a couple blocks away, Ron decided to go out looking for him. He found him in the neighborhood, sitting on a bench, starring up at the treetops.

Ron slowly walked up to him and said, "Bob, you have to come to work."

Bob did not look at Ron. He continued starring up at the trees. "No," said, "I don't think I should work right now."

"But you've got to come to work," Ron said.

Reluctantly, Bob came with Ron. As he entered the restaraunt, he looked around, shook his head, and said, "No, I can't work here anymore. No more work for me. No more drinking either. That's all there is to it. I gotta get outta here." and he turned around and left for the last time.

Ron watched him go and shook his head.

Big Dave let out a particularly loud and manic laugh.

"This whole goddam restaraunt is crazy," Ron said. "the whole goddam restaurant is fucking CRAZY!"

-Peter Wick
October 15, 2018