Monday, November 12, 2012

Poem: Election Day

Election Day
I mailed in my ballot, so while
America lined up to vote
and another storm bore down
on an already battered east coast
I took my new dog for a walk
on a local trail that weaves
up, around and through an old ranch
a few miles from the coast.
Not much rain yet, but the first green shoots
of new grass colored the dry
leftovers of summer beneath blue skies
and an unseasonably hot sun.
Kona, a long tall mix
of border collie, shepherd
and who knows what else,
rescued from the local shelter,
loped and sniffed ahead of me
when I let her off the leash,
her ears up and alert,
nose twitching, head swiveling
with the arrival of each
new sound and smell.
Suddenly, a ground squirrel
chirped and darted across the trail
and before I could catch her
Kona chased her prey
down the hill to the arroyo,
bounding like a wolf.
Seconds later, the chirp
became a frantic squeal
and Kona emerged from the ditch
shaking her head fiercely,
the squirrel limp in her mouth
as she trotted up the hill toward me,
head up proudly as if to say,
“Look what I did!”
It was then I saw the coyote
a little farther ahead and above the trail,
watching the scene below her
like a bystander at an accident.
Kona obeyed my command
to drop the fat, dead squirrel
and I quickly leashed her
just as she, too, saw the coyote
and surged against her restraint, wanting
to chase it through the tall brown straw.
Unalarmed, coyote trotted along
ahead of us, its compact tawny body
Appearing and disappearing
in the camouflage of its natural environment
for the next fifteen minutes
until it calmly drifted over a ridge.
Distracted by birds, more squirrels,
a shallow creek, Kona soon forgot
her wild kin, lost in moments
of ever changing stimulus
smiling in that way
that only dogs do
when life is good
and their instincts are on fire.
Meanwhile, at the polling stations,
people waited patiently in long lines
to vote for a leader who would guide them
through the gathering storm.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Movie Review: Samsara

Samsara is defined as the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. In the new movie by director Ron Fricke, shot over five years on five continents, misery is juxtaposed with beauty, both natural and manmade, in scenes from twenty-five countries. Music is nearly the only sound in the film, but much is communicated by the looks in the eyes of many of the humans depicted in a wide variety of activities, from ritual dances, to prayer, to digging through dumps for objects of value. In today's instant travel internet world, there isn't anything in "Samsara" that we don't know already exists, but some of the images are shocking just the same. I came away moved by the intelligence I saw in the eyes of even the most abjectly poor subjects, overwhelmed by a hint of the sheer volume of production, and consequent consumption of resources and subsequent waste, required to keep our species alive, and awed by human diversity and creativity, both in art and the expression of our everyday lives. Taking away answers provided by religion, what purpose and meaning does our species have on this planet? Are we even remotely capable of achieving any kind of compassionate balance with other sentient beings or are we on a course of inevitable destruction resulting from our own behavior? "Samsara" doesn't answer these questions but gives its audience plenty to think about. It's worth the time and money to come up with questions of your own.

Movie Review: Argo and Seven Psychopaths

One is about the production of a fake film used as a ruse to save six Americans trapped in Iran during the Iran hostage crisis in '79 and '80. The other is a film about a film that is being written as the film is unfolding right in front of us. Both are about the idea that anything can happen, no matter how outlandish and impossible that anything may seem to be.

In "Argo," CIA employee Ben Affleck is charged with finding a way to extract six Americans who escaped the overrun American Embassy in Tehran and are hiding out in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Several implausible plans are suggested, including having them ride bicyles three hundred miles to the Turkish border in the winter. Affleck comes up with a better implausible idea: pretend they are members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars ripoff. Involve real Hollywood veterans like special effects artist John Goodman and producer Alan Arkin, set up a fake studio to make a fake movies actors and script included, and convince the Revolutionary Guard this is legit. Ridiculous, right? Wrong. This is exactly what happened, although Affleck adds levels of tension and drama apparently not part of the real experience. That's OK. It makes for a great thriller, complemented by the irreverent and jaded humor of Goodman and Arkin. There's a wonderful pun on the title that includes an expletive and an imperative that both actors deliver with relish throughout the film. It represents yet another impossibility, but reinforces the idea, which is why we love movies, that anything is possible.

In "Seven Psychopaths," screenwriter Colin Farrell and his actor friend Sam Rockwell are collaborating on a script about pyschopathic killers (one of whom is played by American music icon, Tom Waits: worth the price of admission when you realize he's in the same movie as Christopher Walken). As the film frames the stories of the imaginary psychopaths, real psychopaths are on the loose, including the mysterious Jack of Diamonds and a vicious hood played by Woody Harrelson, whose shih tzu, Bonny, has been kidnapped by Christopher Walken and Rockwell, who kidnap dogs and then innocently return them when rewards are posted. In an homage to Tarrantino and slasher movies, buckets of blood ooze and splatter from beginning to end and both the "real" world and the "imaginary" world of the script mix in the end. Yes, anything is possible.

Anyone who has lived long enough can look back over the circumstances of his or her life and point to any number of circumstances and unexpected twists and turns that, in retrospect, changed everything. One's own life can seem like an impossible fiction written by a overly imaginative novelist or screenwriter. Try writing your own script and selling it to Hollywood. If you're lucky, it'll be as entertaining and implausible as "Argo" and "Seven Psychopaths." You might even get to meet Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin during the production of your life story.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

In Paul Thomas Anderson's beautifully filmed "The Master," it's easy to understand why Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a skilless alcoholic WWII vet with post traumatic stress disorder, would willingly attach himself to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman): he's a hopelss drifter running fearfully from life. It's harder to understand why Dodd, the founder of a Scientology-like cult who calls himself "the commander," as well as a writer, a doctor, a theoretical philosopher, and a nuclear physicist, would be interested in attaching himself to Freddie. It's not just because Freddie makes an out-of-this-world home elixir that includes a healthy dose of strained paint thinner. What's in it for Dodd? Is it that others either adore or revile him and Freddie seems almost indifferent? Is it because he wants to prove that the Cause can save even a seemingly ruined human being like Freddie? Or does he need to have a fool, an alter ego, around to reinforce and validate his megalomania? Finding value in the film depends on finding an answer to questions about their relationship. While pondering those questions, you can enjoy outstanding performances by Hoffman, Phoenix and Amy Adams as Dodd's loyal and assertive wife. You can also enjoy some extraordinary scenes, like those when Freddie is working as a department store photographer, an employment bound to go bad, or as a field worker in a Salinas cabbage patch. "The Master" is ambitious film making that may fall a little short of its intended goal, but it is thought provoking and will hold your attention throughout. Definitely worth seeing.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

History of Painters

Published in October issue of "Jounal Plus" magazine.

Josh Cody and Justin Hooper
History of Painters
The earth and all its colors are as vibrant as this feeling
stepping past the worries of the day
A whisper tells me something that I've known all along
The poetry of life is never gone
Chorus from Cathedrals by History of Painters
By the time they were eighteen, Josh Cody and Justin Hooper had already performed at Carnegie Hall…not with their band, History of Painters, but as senior members of the San Luis Obispo High School Concert Choir in March, 2005, under the direction of legendary conductor, Gary Lamprecht. The choir, combined with the Morro Bay High School Concert Choir, was one of three chosen from around the country to sing with a full orchestra, conducted by Craig Jessup, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  
Josh and Justin were both first year choir students, baritones who couldn’t read music. “Learning from Mr. Lamprecht and singing at Carnegie Hall was a huge privilege.  First he taught us how to push for perfection and then further to passion. He expertly combined kindness with discipline, and emphasized having an awareness and appreciation for the moment.” 
They became good friends while participating in choir, eventually leading to creation of their current band, History of Painters, which released its first CD, “The World is Greener,” in February 2011. A follow-up EP was released later that year. The CD was engineered and recorded by Darren Clarke at his Modern Music Academy studio. Darren then produced the EP and continues to work with the band. Most of their music, self-described as alternative folk, can be heard on YouTube and downloaded from iTunes.
Lifetime residents of the Central Coast, Justin and Josh both dabbled in music when they were young. Josh started out on drums while attending Laguna Middle School and later added guitar, with guidance from his father. “Four chords and the truth, he would say, and then play some songs as examples.” Justin took piano lessons when he was nine, but stopped playing for a long time. “When Josh and I became friends, he asked me to play in his band and he assigned me to keyboards. I painstakingly taught myself chords by listening to a chord on the guitar and then closing my eyes and trying to find the notes in that chord on the piano.” Both took guitar classes offered at San Luis Obispo High School and learned a lot by “digging into our instruments and working hard.” Josh has added mandolin to his instrumental repertoire.
When I saw History of Painters perform at the Live Oak Music Festival, Josh also used a bass drum pedal to “play” a percussion instrument made from an empty Samsonite suitcase and a tambourine.  It is part of the charm of the group that odd instruments, like a toy red piano, pop up during a show. Less odd, but equally unique, History of Painters includes two violinists and a cellist, local musicians Raelene Larson, Melissa Newby and Danielle Morrison.  The strings add an ethereal quality and dignity to the music, which is also added by the vocals of Kayla Hooper, Justin’s wife.  “Strings have been speaking to the beauty of the soul for a long time.” Justin and Josh acknowledge being influenced by familiar bands like U2, Counting Crows, Cold Play, and even Simon and Garfunkel, and less familiar bands like Rush of Blood to the Head, Sigur Ros and Sea Wolf. While not overt, strong Christian beliefs also influence the quality of their sound and the content of their lyrics.
While some song writing teams split responsibility for music and lyrics, Josh and Justin contribute equally to both. Each might write some lyrics and music independently, but then they work on it collaboratively.  They take songwriting seriously, and their goal when they work together is to make heartfelt, genuine music, but also to have fun and laugh along the way, something they learned from Darren Clarke: be serious, but don’t take themselves too seriously. In the end they write songs that they describe as “grand, fun and catchy.”
Much of their music is autobiographical, which is reflected in the “painters” part of their band’s name.  While working their way through Cal Poly (Justin) and Hancock (Josh), they took a job canvassing neighborhoods for a painting company. “It was good preparation for the music business: a lot of rejection. If you were annoyed at your home a couple of years ago it was probably us.” The “History” part comes from a shared interest in history, which Justin studied at Poly and Josh enjoyed in high school. Some of their songs include historical themes or references, including “Ninety-five Theses,” based on Martin Luther and the Reformation.  A goal is to have at least one well-written history song on each album. “We respect the past and learn from it and want to reflect that in our work,” Justin said.
Over the years since high school and college, Justin has worked as a history teacher at a private school and currently gives guitar and piano lessons. He has been happily married for two years.  Josh, still single but hoping to be a family man in the future, pursued a career in fire-fighting and as an EMT and spent three years in that line of work. “As much as we loved our other work, we decided to pursue our passion for music fulltime, which includes the business and management side as well as writing and performing.”  They give a lot of credit for their early success to Darren Clarke and also to Alex Kizanis, a local owner of a home studio where they first started getting studio musician experience.  Both have received tremendous support from friends and family.
Josh and Justin were encouraged by the reception to their first recorded efforts, “pleasantly surprised,” as they put it.  Listeners commented on a sense of hope and a meditative quality they experienced in the music.  Totally committed to their art, the dream of the History of Painters duo is to “create the music we hear in our minds, to provide for our families doing what we love,” and to do that for as long as possible.
Impressed by what I heard at Live Oak and by the combination of modesty, maturity, humor and dedication I noted in my interview with them, I expect to be one of those happy locals who can someday say, “I knew them when.” To hear their music and learn more about History of Painters, including where you can hear them play live, go to




The Art of the Letter

Soon to be published on BOBB at

Dear Readers,
Remember the thrill of going to the mailbox and finding an unexpected letter from a family member or friend? Or maybe it was the letter you’d been anticipating for weeks?  Remember actually seeing the mailman approach the house and sprinting to the front door expectantly? Those were exciting times. Sadly, the “art of the letter” days are all but over.
No one can deny the convenience of email, texting, skyping or just plain picking up the phone and calling.  But for those of us who have lived through the transition from “snail mail” to high technology, some of the romance of communication has been lost. Not to the mention loss of personal, family, national and world history that was a by-product of good old fashioned letter writing.  Adams and Jefferson!  Barrett and Browning!  Miller and Nin!
In an old manila envelope I have a collection of letters from the 70’s from a friend in Colorado and my from my brother who was living in Germany. In a shoe box I have letters received over a period of twenty years from a friend who moved around the country and raised a family during those years. In another box I have letters from my father, now deceased, an excellent writer with beautiful handwriting. I know it’s possible to keep a history of emails, but it isn’t the same. So what am I doing to keep the art of letter writing alive?
My first grandchild, Saskia, was born last February. I wrote her a letter and mailed it on the first day of spring.  It was a letter about life and what she might expect as she grows up. Today, the first day of autumn, I wrote her a letter about writing letters and about a gift that her father, my son, gave me ten years ago. He took his brothers and me backpacking, which reawakened my love of the wilderness, and I’ve gone every year but one since then.
Spring and autumn are my two favorite seasons. My plan is to write Saskia a letter on the first day of those seasons for the rest of my life. My hope is she’ll return those letters with letters of her own when she is able and ready. In that way I hope we will grow and age together and keep the art of letter writing alive in our family for another generation.

Will Jones

Friday, September 21, 2012

Farm Cats, 1970

I backed the truck up to the corn crib on the Amish farm about two miles down Chapman Hollow from 11 and 15, the road that parallels the west side of the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg. Because there was no electricity to run a small elevator, my job was to shovel all the corn onto the truck and take it to the mill to be ground up for feed.   I dropped the back gate, opened the corn crib and got to it. Despite the cool fall air, before long I was down to a sweaty t-shirt as I worked.  The scrape of the wide, flat blade made a considerable racket in the morning quiet.  Before long the sound attracted a couple of barn and yard cats.  They sat on their haunches intently watching the crib as I shoveled.  I was mystified.  About a third of the way in, my efforts exposed a handful of fetal mice curled up in a nest of silks and husks. Now I understood the presence of the cats.  Soon mature mice started to appear. With each shovelful they tunneled deeper into the crib. It was just a matter of time.  As I approached the end, one by one the mice made a dash for freedom, only to be caught and gobbled by one of the opportunistic cats. It was the feline equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.  Was it my imagination, or, in silent moments between each shovelful, did I really hear tiny bones crunching?  Was that really the last inch of a mouse’s tail sticking out of a content cat’s mouth as I emptied the crib, closed the gate and headed back to the mill?