Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Like Animals But . . .

In a gesture to Earth Day, my wife and I headed to the Quality Cinema in Ann Arbor to see the movie Earth. It's a magnificently filmed portrayal of our Mother Earth and its relationship with plants and animals. It also depicts the often sad symbiosis between predator and prey.

Though this flick was rated G, I wondered how a three-year-old in the audience might react to the extended chase sequence where a lone wolf tried to catch a baby caribou that was separated from the herd up near the Arctic Circle. The narrator explained that though the caribou was young, it still was faster than the wolf and had a fifty-fifty chance of escaping.

"I've got a dollar on the wolf," I said to Wendy. I didn't hear Wendy agree to the bet, but I would have doubled my money. A later scene showed a polar bear marauding through a group of walruses hoping to separate out a pup he could then kill. However, the polar bear was weak, having barely survived a long swim across the melting Arctic waters. Still, I put another dollar on the bear.

This time I wasn't so lucky. Neither was the bear. Wounded from fighting with the walruses, he lay down in the snow after his unsuccessful attack, apparently to go to sleep and die.

Much of the film was shot from a hot air balloon which gave viewers an eagle's eye view of the action throughout the film. From north pole to south pole, from the Himalayas to the ocean, the viewer constantly felt up close and personal with nature. That's all well and good on the screen but . . .

Early one morning this past week I was awakened before dawn by racket that sounded like something rattling the screen of our bedroom window. Hail! At least that's what I thought in my somnambulor stupor. Then I awoke fully to see a critter out our bedroow window, trying to get up close and personal with US.

I should note that our bedroom sits on the second floor, but the windows face out over our family room roof. Any animal that climbs up to the roof could easily enter our bedroom if the windows were clear of any impediments. In this case, I had the window open because it was quite warm, so only the screen separated us from this would-be intruder.

He didn't even flee when I flicked on the light on my nightstand. I could see a small head with two pointy ears. Could have been a possum or a raccoon, but the glare off the window made it too difficult to see. For Wendy too, since once roused, she tried to see what I saw but didn't.

In fact, she thinks I didn't see anything at all. Just had a bad dream. Or maybe a hallucination. When I recounted my close encounter for others, Wendy compared it to the Twilight Zone episode where the plane passenger thinks he sees some fantastic creature out the plane window, standing on the wing. Part of me wants that creature to pay a return visit so my wife can see that I was right. Then again, part of me doesn't want to deal with that kind of close encounter anytime soon.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Burn That Mortgage!

My wife and I are approaching a major financial milestone. By our calculations, we will pay off our mortgage next month. My boss says we should have a mortgage-burning party. But wait.

We got mail from our bank, also our mortgage holder. I was hoping it was information on our escrow, which I assumed must have a major surplus since our property taxes are due this summer and haven't been paid yet. Ordinarily, this would be paid out of our escrow which we contribute to every couple weeks. But once our mortgage is paid in full, that property tax bill of several thousand dollars would be our's alone to be paid at once. The city doesn't let us do monthly installments.

When I opened the envelope, however, I was in for a rude awakening. It was a coupon booklet to continue making mortgage payments, enough for another year or more. What's the problem? Can't banks do math anymore?

Booklet in hand, Wendy and I marched over to our local bank. We were determined to speak to someone face to face and clear this up. Is anybody out there chuckling over our naivete? Let me repeat, we wanted to speak to someone face-to-face about our outstanding home mortage.

So we were in for another rude awakening. Among the over half-dozen branches our bank has in the Ann Arbor metropolitan area, there's apparently only one official home mortgage officer. We were welcome to make an appointment to see him. An appointment?!

Our second option was to call the "customer service" department at the local branch which we did. The representative quickly told us that she couldn't help us. Her records didn't even show our loan because it was so old. So now we were at option three, the dreaded 1-800 number.

I called that and spoke to a lady who sounded so young I felt she had to be an intern from the local high school. When I told her that we had not received our yearly escrow statement, she checked and enthusiastically informed me that they were to be mailed out next week. And that we were $175 short in our escrow. And that our monthly payments would reflect an increase . . . starting in June.

I replied that my calculations showed that we would pay off our mortgage in May. And we didn't even make monthly payments. We were on a bi-weekly payment program. I was put on hold. Apparently she had to check something with her supervisor.

Back on the line, she said that I appeared to be correct. But this "accelerated equity" payment program was run through a private third party, so she couldn't verify that. But wait a minute. We didn't sign up through any private third party. This bi-weekly payment was deducted from our bank, from our account, to pay for our mortgage which was also administered by our bank.

Back on hold while she checked again. She returned to say that this payment program was "affiliated" with our bank, but was run out of a different location and she would have to transfer me to another number. Fine. Do it.

A young man by the name of Carlos with a thick Latino accent answered. He asked me for my ten-digit loan number which I gave him.

"I don't have any loan for that number," he said. I read it to him again. Still nothing. He asked me for my phone number. I gave him that.

"I still don't see any loan for you. What is your name?"

I gave him that. He still didn't see any loan. I gave him Wendy's name. Nope, nothing there either. He said he was going to transfer me to another location, one which handled a different type of "accelerated equity" payment program. That's when I got cut off. And I gave up.

Maybe somehow my bank got mixed up and sold my loan to the government as part of this "toxic asset" bailout being handled through the Treasury Department. Maybe that would be a good thing, maybe not. It depends on whom I would rather be handling my mortgage--someone like Carlos, or the government.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Film And Performance Art

In an effort to broaden my perspective on the arts, I've attended the annual Ann Arbor Film Festival off and on for many years. Support the local arts, right? This past month I attended one session in the weeklong festival. That's enough really. I just don't get a lot of this newfangled artsy stuff.

The session I attended featured a retrospective of the film-maker Bruce Conner, who frequently entered his experimental film clips to festivals like the one in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, Bruce died this past year.

One of his films I saw contained about 20 minutes of stock footage showing the first atom bomb test in the Bikini atoll. The same bomb. The same explosion with the same mushroom cloud. Over and over. For 20 minutes total. The camera angle might be different. Sometimes the camera would linger on the image as the mushroom cloud rose and fell, or as a wave of atomic fog slowly enveloped the ships that were anchored in the atoll.

But there was no narration. No people. No color either as it was all in black and white. If this is art, this is some of the stuff I don't get. Another Conner film featured a nearly naked Marilyn Monroe look-alike who seemed to adlib for the camera like some sexy model. Though there was probably less than a minute's footage of her, the film looped that same footage over and again while the real Marilyn Monroe crooned a song that served as the background music. When the song was finished, it re-played from the beginning while the same footage played once more. This happened five times in all. I didn't get this film either but it was a little more bearable to watch.

Before the films all began, a performance artist by the name of Pat Oleszko did a little skit for the audience there at the Michigan Theatre. Dressed like a shiny, updated version of the tin man from the Wizard of Oz, Ms. Oleszko read a narrative about the traveler Gulliblur. Eventually, her narrative came to life in the form of a giant inflated creature of some sort, a rocket on a stick carried about the stage by an actor, finger puppets, and the deep, blue sea--which resembled a giant snake made up of bright blue bubble-wrap.

The energetic Ms. Oleszko eventually led the actors who played the sea off the stage and out into the audience where they bobbed like waves, while holding up ships, mermaids and other props. If there were a deeper meaning to all this, I didn't get it either though it was all very bright and colorful. So I got the art part in a way. Just not the performance part.

After I go see something like this, I like to come home and watch a good horror movie (or even a not-so-good horror movie). The killer or monster represents evil. The damsel in distress represents innocence. And the hero represents, well, the good guys. This I get and I don't even have to think about it.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Visit With Grandma

[I want to take this opportunity to wish my younger brother Gary, aka The Enforcer, a happy 54th birthday since today, April 7th, is his birthday, and I forgot to send a card. Hea, he's got $10 of my money though since he won his son's NCAA bracket tourney. Since he's retired from GM, I imagine he'll spend today feeding the ducks at the park across the street; or heating up glass of warm milk, wrapping himself up in a comforter and watching Matlock. Happy birthday, bro!]

My grandma moved into assisted living over a month ago. This took some convincing because even though she is 97-years-old, she remains fairly strong-willed. Moving out of the home she had lived in for over 50 years wasn't easy, even if it was rather lonely there since my grandfather had passed away about ten years ago.

. . .
I visited my grandma in her new home after the move. The house where is staying in now used to belong to the rock star Madonna's family. Remember, Madonna lived in Bay City for a time during her youth. So now I can say I spent time in Madonna's bedroom for what it's worth.
. . .
Not sure how many senior citizens live in this particular home but it seemed like maybe seven or eight. Grandma has a bedroom by herself with a view of a park across the street out front. She says she used to pick tomatoes in the field there when she was just a girl. Now the farms are all gone in this part of town.
. . .
It seemed like all the residents there had their own reclining chair in the living room and a walker to get around. I felt as if I were in some video game, ducking aside while the residents passed by me with their walkers. Sort of like being in a live version of Pac-man game in slow time.
. . .
Anyway, there was not much in her room when I visited: her bed, a rocking chair, a nightstand, a dresser and a few pictures around was what I recall. The picture I uploaded here was one of them. My dad took the original photo for me from grandma and gave her back a copy. I don't remember ever seeing that picture of me playing the accordion, but then again my memory probably isn't much better than grandma's if it's better at all.
. . .

That's my grandma on the drums, grandpa and my uncle playing the saxophone. Of course, that picture was taken at least 30 years ago. But I like it because I look rather fit there, don't I? And it's nice having a picture of me and grandma playing music together. She really did play the drums too.
. . .
When I visited with grandma last, she entertained me with the usual stories, tales about her family, about her visits to the doctor, about her youth. I think she embellishes at times. But, hea, I do here on my blog too. She probably figures nobody's the wiser. I know I do.
. . .
Too bad grandma can't make it to my son's wedding coming up next month. I'm practicing my accordion so I can play a few polkas at the reception. My dad is practicing his saxophone. I believe my brother Gary is going to join us up on stage. We did have to find a drummer. My nephew Billy is going to volunteer there. It'll be just like the old days. Well, not quite but almost.

[Pardon the elipses, the . . ., as Blogspot seems to be messing with my formating today]