Posted on 2013.11.29 at 13:29
Current Mood: full
Current Music: Ho, Ho, Ho (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas) - Elton John
The day after finds me happily sampling leftovers from yesterday’s feast, which took place courtesy of my brother D and sister-in-law N. If this had been my Thanksgiving board of fare 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought anything was different other than the deliciousness of every last course. But in fact, this was a vegetarian feast.
They’ve come a long way over the years in preparing fake meats, as attested by both the tofurkey and the veggie meatloaf; in both cases, I went back for seconds. Other dishes on display here include corn pudding, sweet potatoes, dressing, the best collard greens I’ve ever had, green beans, vegan mac & cheese, mashed cauliflower, cranberry sauce, vegetarian jello, and rolls. Not shown: the sweet potato pie, the bread pudding, and the fine folks with whom I shared the day.
After all of that, I did not eat again for about 14 hours, which may not be a long time for you, but it certainly is for me. There is yet another family gathering in the offing at the home of my sister E and brother-in-law J. If I am able to type afterwards, I may report back.
Heartiest thanks once again to D&N for their hospitality and generosity! I hope everyone reading this had a warm place, a warm meal, and warm people on their holiday.
Posted on 2013.11.02 at 18:32
I just want to share this photo of Smoke and Flecks. They have the same mom & dad, though Smoke was born a couple years before Flecks. There's a whole story there, but I'm not going to get into it just now; far be it from me to cast aspersions on the morality of non-humans. Just enjoy the picture!
Posted on 2013.10.09 at 15:13
Current Mood: cheerful
Later this month, we will arrive at what would have been my late mother’s 81st birthday. I have a few quick vignettes about her to offer today:
• My parents did some amateur theater together before they were married, mainly through the religious organization they both belonged to, the Third Order of St. Francis. My mother once told me of a particular show they were doing in which she and my father had a scene together (though I don’t believe they had begun dating each other at this point). Mom said her job in the scene was simple – she just had to sit there while my father’s character ranted at her in a long speech. Somewhere along the way, though, Dad drew a blank; he didn’t know what to say next. His way of dealing with it was to look at Mom and growl, “Well don’t just sit there; say something!” It really is a wonder they ever began to date one another after a moment such as this.
• One late summer night, I walked into the house to find mom watching TV in the living room. On the screen was a popular black singer and her backing vocal group. “Gladys Knight?” I queried. Her immediate reply: “I sure am – it was hot today!”
• I was maybe 12 years old. I don’t know what we were watching, but they shifted to a beach scene featuring a lovely young woman in a yellow bikini. My mother only said two words, but she said them in a tone of semi-disgust: “Egg yolks.” She may even have waved her arm dismissively.
If you’d like to see more stories about Mom, CLICK HERE
to read a post I wrote in 2005, just a few months after her passing.
Posted on 2013.09.20 at 00:24
Current Mood: accomplished
Last Friday, CC and I drove to Detroit to spend the weekend at Fort Wayne. It’s an actual military fort that dates back to 1845. It sits on the banks of the Detroit River near the intersection of Livernois and West Jefferson. One may still go into the old fort and peek through the narrow gun slots in the fort’s thick outer walls. The fort and surrounding area remained an active military installation right through the Vietnam War, so there are buildings from a wide span of American history, including a jail that was built during the Spanish-American War and housing built during both world wars.
The occasion was Civil War Days at Fort Wayne, and we were there as vendors, though the term used among Civil War reenactors is “sutler” rather than “vendor”. It’s a historic term that refers to the merchants who would follow armies around in the 19th century and sell them all manner of supplies. CC was there to sell her historically accurate caps, shirts, kerchiefs, and pokes (a poke is a small cloth bag with a drawstring closure).
The following photos should give you a flavor of our fun and fascinating weekend.
This is CC crocheting outside of her tent. The shot reminded me of an Impressionist painting, so I’ve rendered it to look (somewhat) like one.
A couple of patrons who were into it enough to come in period dress. That’s the three-story barracks building in the old fort behind them.
CC with a most enjoyable patron. She was there in the character of an actual historical figure – a freed slave who became well educated and later went to work as a spy for the North by posing as a kitchen worker and finding employment in Jefferson Davis’ household! This woman was a high-energy delight – and was the only person with the sense to have brought a parasol on that sunny day.
CC in front of her tent, open for business. In case you’re wondering, she made the dress she’s wearing here, as well as all of the wares on display.
A proper view of CC’s caps. The ones down front are designed in Union or Confederate colors, while the other ones are generally less overtly militaristic. I talked her into making the rainbow one and I still think somebody’s going to see it and will have to have it.
A Confederate company marching by, in time with their drummers. CC would typically run to the edge of the road and wave her kerchief at such groups as they passed. Occasionally, one of these stoic lads would subtly tip his cap to her. True to her non-partisan, pacifistic spirit, CC would wave her kerchief at both Confederate and Union companies.
On Sunday, two teams of 19th century baseball reenactors played an actual game according to bygone rules, with bygone dress and equipment. These fellows are members of the Detroit Early Riser Base Ball Club. There actually was a ball club going by that name in the years leading up to the Civil War. Their present-day namesakes play games throughout the warmer months against other old-time teams from other Michigan cities.
Their opponents in red on this day were from Flint, though I did not catch the team’s nickname. Just pretend you don’t see the soccer nets in the distance.
There is also a ladies’ vintage baseball team called the Detroit River Belles, and several of them participated in the game for a couple of innings. The pitch shown here was smacked far into left field for a double. Just pretend you don’t see the Ambassador Bridge to Canada at the far right of the picture.
Ma & Pa Reenactor posing for an archival photo. In case you didn’t know, the reason so few people are smiling in 19th century photos is that the cameras of the day required lengthy time exposures, so one had to assume a relaxed expression that one could hold without moving. Also note that CC made the cap and shirt I’m wearing. It was a fun and fascinating weekend. We met a lot of interesting folks and saw some memorable sights. It was my first time attending such an event, but it will surely not be my last time!
Posted on 2013.09.05 at 19:37
Current Mood: busy
We saw the film Blue Jasmine
the other day. Fair warning: I’m going to give away key plot points in this discussion, so if you’d rather not know, best to stop right here.
I can say some wonderful things about Blue Jasmine.
I can say some disparaging things about it as well. This is often the case with Woody Allen’s films, even in the best of times. Let’s begin with some of the wonderful stuff.
At the head of the list is Cate Blanchett. If there’s anything she can’t do as an actress, I haven’t seen it yet. She carries the film as its title character. Her performance embraces the big moments and the little ones, her character’s madness, near-madness, desperation, cultured shallowness, and spiritual blindness. If she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, I will be shocked.
Let’s talk a bit more about Ms. Blanchett; specifically about her face. It is a wondrous thing. You could say that her eyes, though large, were kind of squinty and you’d be right. You could say that her nose was slightly bulbous and you’d be right. You could say that her mouth was too wide and you’d be right. You could say that she wasn’t beautiful and you’d be right… and you’d be very wrong. She has one of the great faces in movie history. When she wishes it to be beautiful, that is what it is. I have a theory that Woody Allen has developed a fascination with faces over the years, and in that respect, he may have found his ultimate leading lady.Blue Jasmine
unfolds in two alternating time frames. One is in the present, where we watch Jasmine trying to put her life back together, beginning with moving into her sister’s apartment in San Francisco. The other time frame is in the past, where we watch Jasmine living the high life with her wealthy, wheeler-dealer husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). We watch as Hal plants the seeds of his own destruction – shady business dealings and countless dalliances with other women. Jasmine is oblivious to all of this for years before it comes crashing down upon her. When Jasmine learns of her husband’s affairs, it is she (apparently) who turns him in to the FBI. By the time of the present-day time line, her husband has committed suicide in prison and all of the money, the houses, the jewelry, etc. are long gone.
For much of the movie, we wonder how Jasmine is going to learn to be a whole person again. But the more we see of her in flashback, the more we realize that she’s never been whole to begin with. Still, given the usual conventions of drama, we wait for the moment of self-realization, the moment when she begins to grow into the person she needs to become.
There is a key moment when our expectations for Jasmine begin to tilt irrevocably downward. At a party, she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a man with money, intelligence, and charm. He aspires to a career in politics, and we get the feeling he might do well in that arena. He is instantly smitten with Jasmine. She realizes in a flush of excitement that he could be her ticket out of her sister’s cramped, working-class apartment and back into the moneyed life of leisure she craves. The key moment is when Dwight begins to ask her about herself and her past. What comes out of her mouth is a string of lies – no child in her past, no disgraced dead husband, no destitute living arrangement with her sister, and a sudden imaginary career as an interior designer. As Jasmine piles lie upon lie, we realize that she is digging herself a deep, deep hole from which this relationship cannot possibly escape intact. We know that her one chance for salvation must begin with an acceptance of the truth and a rejection of her shallow past, but Jasmine lacks the vision and the courage to take that step. When it all comes out – on the day the two of them have begun to window-shop for wedding rings – the dissolution of their relationship is merely the inevitable dropping of the other shoe that we’ve been awaiting.
There is another substantial phase of the plot involving Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger’s marriage with Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) ended sometime between the two time lines of the film, probably as a result of an enormous monetary investment gone bad. Ginger and Augie were not people of great means, but they’d had the good fortune to win $200,000 in the lottery. They’d handed all of it over to Jasmine’s husband Hal for him to invest and give them a handsome return. Ah, but then came Hal’s downfall and with it went all of Ginger and Augie’s money – which they saw as their one shot to move into a higher social class. Apparently, their marriage was unable to survive this trauma.
By the time Jasmine arrives in San Francisco, Ginger has taken up with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a big, strong, loud working stiff. He might not be the kind of guy you or I would ever hang around with, but he’s basically a pretty good guy. Ginger could do a lot worse.
There’s a recurring friction between Ginger’s world and Jasmine’s. When Jasmine gets overwrought (which is never far off), she just can’t keep her mouth shut about her low opinion of Ginger’s lifestyle, apartment, friends, and choice of male companionship. There is no happy medium between Jasmine and Ginger, and we know early on that this is not a sustainable living arrangement unless something or someone changes in a big way. I won’t say more about the Ginger subplot, and here’s why: While there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s perfectly watchable and entertaining, it’s ultimately a sidebar to the story that carries us along – Jasmine’s.
It was only after I’d left the theater that it occurred to me that Allen has actually served up an extremely loose retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The parallel was pretty clear once it entered my mind – the widowed madwoman forced by circumstance to live with her poor sister and her brutish male companion. But in fairness, Allen has used Streetcar
only as a jumping-off point (note that the names Blanche and Jasmine both come to us from the French language). Blue Jasmine
is rather like a jazz riff on Streetcar.
Just as a jazz riff on the song “Blue Moon” might take it to places that Rodgers & Hart would never have imagined or intended, Allen’s riff on Streetcar
creates a wholly new piece of drama that is connected to its source only by its most basic elements.
I have chosen this jazz metaphor quite purposefully. It is no secret that Woody Allen has played clarinet in a jazz combo throughout his adult life. It makes sense that a jazz sensibility should cross over to other expressions of his art.
So what is the downside to Blue Jasmine
? A few things stand out. The moment I referred to earlier, when Jasmine and Dwight are shopping for wedding rings. It is at precisely that moment when Ginger’s ex-husband Augie runs into them on the street. He then proceeds, unfortunately for Jasmine, to articulate the truth about every lie she has told to Dwight, even though Augie has never met Dwight and hasn’t seen Jasmine for a few years. It sounds as though Augie, without truly realizing it, is going through a checklist of ways to ruin Jasmine.
In a stylized farce, this sort of scene would be completely acceptable. We might even enjoy watching it happen. But in a movie such as this, which tends towards realism, it feels forced. It feels like lazy writing. Oh it’s dramatic, certainly, but it also takes us out of the drama and reminds us that we’re listening to the gears of a climaxing plot as they furiously grind away. I’m not going to sit here and tell Woody precisely how he should have written these revelations, but there had to be a way of doing it that would have been truer to the style of the film.
My companion at the showing I attended had an intriguing idea. She thought this film should have been made 40 years ago. It certainly seems more in the company of such films as Five Easy Pieces
or A Woman Under the Influence
than the company of any current American films. But on the balance, I’m glad it got made now, because it stands in stark contrast to the mass appeal confections that more and more define Hollywood.
So do I think you should see Blue Jasmine
? How the heck should I know? A certain kind of moviegoer will enjoy it. Another kind will not. I can tell you that I’m glad I saw it and I found it engrossing, thanks to Woody Allen’s intelligent if flawed screenplay and the all-around good performances – with Cate Blanchett occupying the throne (as is her habit in cinema). But make no mistake (here I go again with the spoilers) – the film does not have a happy ending. Jasmine does not have a moment of transcendence, a moment where she grows into the person she needs to become. She ends up as she must, out on the street, babbling to herself and anyone within earshot, depending upon the kindness of strangers.
Posted on 2013.07.18 at 12:17
Current Mood: amused
Current Music: You'll know soon enough
I was a teenager living in Detroit in 1974. At that moment in time, most of my siblings were teenagers as well. Like many people in that age range, music was a big part of our lives. The big pop music radio station in Detroit was unquestionably CKLW, at 800 kHz on the AM dial. As the call letters imply, CKLW was a Canadian station. It was based in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, but it enjoyed a long run in the 60s and 70s as an influential pop behemoth.
At some point in 1974, CKLW began an extensive promotion. They asked listeners to send in post cards (how very quaint!) listing their favorite songs of all time. It was either 3 songs or 5 they wanted; I forget which. For that matter, I don’t recall whether I sent in a post card. After some weeks of collecting data, Radio 8 (as they called themselves) began playing the results of our voting, presented as The Top 300 Songs of All Time.
Those 300 songs were played over the course of a weekend, played in reverse order, climaxing with the great reveal of Number One. A few siblings and I really got into it, with someone manning the radio at almost all times, writing down each song as it came.
Momentum built slowly. The songs at the bottom of the list were a mixed bag, many of them relatively obscure records older than any of us. While I don’t recall any specific titles, I imagine the list’s lower tiers included such ditties as “Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind or “Personality” by Lloyd Price – or songs that us kids didn’t know at all, which would have given us an excuse to grab a snack or go to the bathroom.
As we got into the top 100, excitement began to build. We were now in territory where we knew every song. The stylistic breadth of the collection was striking, ranging from Motown to bubblegum to adult contemporary to rock n’ roll to novelty songs, and everything in between.
When we reached the top 10, the heavy hitters came up to bat. I think “Hey Jude” by the Beatles was in there, for example. A lengthy commercial break preceded the playing of Number One. It gave us time to wrack our brains and try to figure out what mammoth classic hadn’t been played yet. I must confess we were stumped.
The commercial break ended. The DJ’s excited, resonant voice boomed out, “And now, the number one song of all time!”… and we heard a man’s voice singing “O ho-ho-ho… O ho-ho-ho…” Yes, the number one song of all time was “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas. Yes it was. My siblings and I let out a moan of anguish. Nowadays, I might call shenanigans, but I’d never heard that expression in 1974. You see, “Kung Fu Fighting” was indeed a big hit. It had climbed to #1 on the charts only weeks earlier. And we knew, beyond all doubt, that this was the ONLY reason it was now the number one song of all time.
We knew it was a goofy near-novelty song. It did not belong among the pantheon of immortal songs we’d been listening to all weekend. Despite our tender young ages, I think we all knew that this contest had just been unmasked as a sham. I think we grew up a little bit at that moment; lost a bit of innocence. We had just been told, in big capital letters, that PEOPLE WERE STUPID, that their better sense could be swayed en masse by whatever song happened to be atop the charts at that moment.
History seems to have borne us out in the succeeding four decades. “Kung Fu Fighting”, if it is played at all nowadays, is heard as a goofy piece of nearly forgotten disco fluff. Not that it’s a bad song; heck, you can dance to it and do faux kung fu moves for all 3:15 of its running time. If someone wants to include it somewhere on their Top 300 list, I won’t quibble. But those DJ’s words still ring bitterly in my ears after all these years:“And now, the number one song of all time!”…
Posted on 2013.07.02 at 20:09
Current Mood: amused
Current Music: Make 'Em Laugh - from Singin' in the Rain
The late Johnny Carson was fond of saying that there was nothing in the world more boring than listening to comics talk about comedy. Mr. Carson was probably right about that. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what I’ve come here today to discuss. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject of humor that have been straining to come out into written words for a long time. So maybe this is a bit of self-therapy for me, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining.* * *
Here’s what it comes down to: I’ve been trying for most of my life to make people laugh. I know I’ve had some success at this. I know it because I have ears and I’ve heard the laughter loud and clear. In some circles, humor seems to be my defining characteristic. By “some circles” I mean people who don’t know me very well. But we’ll get back to that; I want to address this topic more or less chronologically.
My late mother owned various 78 RPM records. Her collection included recordings by Spike Jones, Rosemary Clooney, and Louis Armstrong. She once told me of an incident that occurred when I was still a crib-bound infant with only rudimentary communication skills. One day, she noticed that I was attempting to imitate the guttural voice of Louis Armstrong as she was playing one of his records, even though I was nowhere near uttering my first word. Although I have no memory of the incident, I’d like to think that she reacted by laughing and fawning over me, thus reinforcing the behavior. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
(Hmmm… maybe I’ve missed my calling… maybe I should be the front man for a Louis Armstrong tribute band…)
As my childhood progressed, I added various tools to my humor kit. This was a matter of necessity; I discovered early on that if I could get kids to laugh, it might distract them from actively picking on me or beating me up. But even in less dire circumstances, such as family gatherings, humor was a way for me to be noticed and appreciated by adults. This was no small accomplishment. Many adults pay scant attention to children, particularly other people’s children. By making them laugh, I became, if only for a moment, their peer. That’s a wondrous feeling for a child who might otherwise have been powerless to make an impression – a positive one, that is – on an adult.
There is a story, once again passed along by my mother, that I find fascinating. I don’t know how old I was – maybe 12 or so. Just for fun, I was spending the weekend at Aunt Rosie and Uncle Andy’s house. Aunt Rosie was a bit of a night owl, and we sat up together on her front porch in our pajamas late on a sultry Saturday night, talking for hours about this or that. It was, I think, the only in-depth conversation I ever had with her.
A few days after I’d returned home, my mother related a phone conversation she’d just had with her sister, Aunt Rosie. She quoted Rosie as saying something like, “You know, for the longest time, I thought Charles was such a rude little boy. But I finally figured it out – he was just trying to be funny.”
Well, *sigh*, there’s the epitaph for many a failed joke: He came across as rude when he was just trying to be funny. There are some great lessons to be drawn from that moment. For starters, it was a call to me to be tuned in to my audience’s sensibilities as well as my own. If I want my performing art – or any other kind of art – to matter, then it absolutely has to touch my audience’s world and their realities. Otherwise, I’m engaged in nothing more than public self-gratification, which is not my thing. The public part anyway. So a belated thank you goes out to my Aunt Rosie who, like my mother, has moved on to that big comedy club in the sky.
Humor served me well in grade school. I learned quickly that a well-placed joke in a written essay could distract (some) teachers from noticing a lack of content or proper structure. And besides, making people laugh was fun! In retrospect, striving for humorous effect in school essays was also honing my skills as a writer, since one must attain a kind of mastery over wording and structure in order to pull off a written joke. Privately, I liked to think of myself as a class clown – ah, but here was the twist: I looked down my nose at those class clowns whose highest aspiration was to disrupt the class by making rude sound effects or blurting out non-sequiturs. Mere disruption was never my goal. I wanted everyone laughing, including the teacher. A side benefit of this was that if the teacher was laughing, I couldn’t get into too much trouble.
This set of guidelines reached its highest moment of expression one day when I was in the 7th grade. I was in the back of the room (I was generally placed there on account of my height) showing handkerchief tricks to my friend Leo. Please note that most of these tricks had been taught to me by my dear mother. When Leo guffawed loudly, Sister Ildefonse (yes, that was her name) snapped, “Leo! What is so funny?” And my good buddy Leo threw it right on me: “Chuck’s doing his handkerchief tricks!” Thanks Leo. I owe you one. Sister switched her attention to me and said sarcastically, “Well, perhaps Charles would like to do his tricks for the entire class!” I shrugged and said, “OK.” Sister wasn’t ready for that. She paused a moment to collect her thoughts, then said, “All right, at the start of class tomorrow, Charles will do his handkerchief tricks!”
And so it came to pass. I had a day to put my act together. The big moment was my closing trick. As noted earlier, it had been taught to me by my dear, God-fearing, church organist mother. It had a bit of a risqué kick to it though (as did my mother). It was a multi-character story that ended with me folding my large handkerchief into the shape of a brassiere. It took some cojones on my part to go through with this at St. Ignatius of Antioch Elementary School, but well… you never really know where the line is until you cross it.
The moment of truth arrived. I sprang the punch line and held up the hankie-bra for all to see. The room fell apart in hysterics. I peeked around to see what Sister Ildefonse was doing. She was bent over in hysteria, her face turning purple with helpless laughter. Oh yeah! Just what I was praying for! I returned to my seat, and Sister Ildefonse never again cited me for inducing laughter. Nor did she ever again invite me to perform for the class. Coincidence? I think not. But that’s okay. Really.
From that point forward, I began to accelerate in my exploration of humor. A key discovery was in stumbling upon the power of humorous self-effacement; that is, making oneself the butt of the joke. Like so many scientific breakthroughs, this one came about by accident. I was engaged in some verbal/mental gymnastics with my older brother, which we did a LOT at that time in our lives. I accidentally phrased something incorrectly in such a way that I was making an extremely disparaging remark about myself. My brother laughed himself to near hysterics. And I made a Note To Self about the power of self-effacement. Nobody else I knew was purposely exploiting this area of humor, and I felt as if I’d stumbled onto a gold mine.
Also at about this time, I began to learn that humor was useful for far, far more than merely evoking laughter. I’d read anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln, about how he was fond of telling funny stories and singing funny songs, and about how he would use these stories as parables to make political or philosophical points. Those accounts of Honest Abe were a source of inspiration for me, spurring me to study the uses and effects of humor even more closely.
As you may be noticing, a lot of what I’m describing is simply the process of becoming an aware adult. Lots of people go through this (with, alas, many exceptions), but the difference is that my primary medium of communication and growth remained humor. In time, though, I perceived that what I was doing with humor was entirely translatable to other emotions and other systems of thought. All of these manipulations of language, perspective, and character could be used independently of humor to serve many varied goals. Sometimes, humor was simply the spoonful of sugar that allowed me to express something a bit weightier (nicely mixed metaphor there).
So, you may wonder, does this mean I’m just a big phony? Presenting myself as one thing while serving my own private agenda? Let me answer that question simply: No! And yes. I hope that’s clear.
Okay, a bit more detail then: It is my fondest wish to be understood; to present myself clearly and honestly; to have others respond in kind; to accept and appreciate others; to be accepted and appreciated myself. If I come across as serious and thoughtful, it’s because I am serious and thoughtful. If I come across as goofy, scattered, amusing, and a little too in love with the sound of my own voice, it’s because I am those things as well. Yes, humor is a valuable tool for me. It’s also something I genuinely enjoy. When I look in the mirror, I don’t know whether I see an artist looking back, but I do see an entertainer looking back.
Those of you who’ve known me for a long time might expect me to move on to a discussion of my high school years, when I became somewhat notorious for the humorous pieces I wrote for my high school newspaper, but I’m not going there today. Here’s why that’s a separate discussion: By the time I got to high school, most of my approach to humor had been established. Mind you, I’ve done plenty of refining since then; I cringe when I read some of the things I wrote in high school. But generally speaking, I had moved into the polishing phase of a humor sensibility that was pretty well worked out. I decided that this post was long enough simply with an examination of how my base of humor was established. So this post is by no means a complete manifesto of my thoughts on humor and how I’ve used it, but it will do for a start. I may revisit the topic down the road if I am so moved. Thanks for coming along!
ADDENDUM — Things That Make Me Laugh
Many times over the years, CC and I have been in the company of friends, bantering and having a good time, when the friends have said, “You guys must just laugh together all the time at your house!” – or words to that effect. This makes us laugh, because the truth is ever so mundane. At home, we generally go quietly about our respective pursuits. CC might be working on a craft project or calmly surfing the internet for one purpose or another. I might be ensconced on the couch watching TV, taken up with a sporting event or an episode of Chopped on the Food Network… or maybe writing for my blog. Oh all right… we do have fun together. There are plenty of laughs. The fact that we can still make each other laugh after knowing each other for over 25 years is a wonderful thing. But our household is not nearly the circus one may imagine it to be. We’re almost like real people.
Posted on 2013.07.01 at 15:31
Current Mood: dorky
Current Music: Jump in the Line - Harry Belafonte
“Cordelia Brown” is a song from my childhood. It is a song with a secret that I have only recently learned. I know the song because my father was a fan of Harry Belafonte’s music and “Cordelia Brown” was on a Belafonte album us kids played to death. For the uninitiated, “us kids” refers to me and my seven siblings.
Our investigation begins with a listing of the lyrics, as sung by Belafonte:
Oh, Cordelia Brown, although you never tell,
Oh, Cordelia Brown, still I know your secret well
Yes you fell in love with Ned
And when he left, your head turned red
And right well you know,
That what I say is true
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
You say you come out in the sunshine
With nothing on your head
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, yes I’ve been far and wide
Now I’m telling you, every girl wants to be a bride
So I know what happen to you
And please strike me down if it isn’t true
He said he never would wed,
And that when your head turned red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
You say you come out in the sunshine
With nothing on your head
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, Saw you waiting at the train,
Yes, he’s gone away, might never return again
Now miss Brown may I confess,
I've yearned this long for your caress
Since your head so red
I think I’ll marry Mabel instead
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
You say you come out in the sunshine
With nothing on your head
Oh, Cordelia Brown, what make your head so red
Even as a child, I could tell that Cordelia was having relationship troubles. Oh, and she also had a problem with her head being red. And while we’re at it, the tune was incredibly catchy. Digging a little deeper, it seemed plausible that Cordelia’s head was red out of embarrassment from being dumped by Ned, the man she loves. But even after I’d figured out that part, it seemed odd to me that the singer was going to marry someone else even though he longed for Cordelia, and he was doing it entirely because Cordelia was embarrassed about Ned (or simply because her head was red). I thought it made the singer seem kind of unsympathetic.
Even after all these years, that song would still puzzle me when I thought of it. The other day, it occurred to me that there might be information available online that could illuminate and alleviate my puzzlement. Belafonte’s recording wasn’t a hit single, but it was part of a very popular album, Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean, released in 1957. So I began Googling.
In a matter of moments, it became clear that many people have looked into the history of “Cordelia Brown.” I’m not going to post any links here, because I’ve gathered information from several sources and they’re all easy to find.
It turns out that Belafonte’s rendition of “Cordelia Brown” was credited to songwriter Lord Burgess, who was a frequent Belafonte collaborator. But his version was adapted from an earlier Jamaican folk song that told the story a little differently. The original lyrics are tough sledding for a northern white boy such as myself, as they are written in a Jamaican-English patois. Here’s a sample:
O Cudelia Brown, Wha mek yu head so red? (Yu head so red!)
O Cudelia Brown, Wha mek yu head so red? (Yu head so red!)
Yu si' dung eena di sunshine wit' nut'n 'pon yu head,
O Cudelia Brown,
Wha mek yu head so red? (Yu head so red!)
On a moonshine night, on a moonshine night,
I met Missa Ivan, an' Missa Ivan tol' me,
Sey dat 'im gi Neita di drop, Jamaica flop, and di moonshine drop,
Ee-hee-aw, haw; Ee-hee-aw, haw; Ee-hee-aw, haw.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of translations available online. In the original song, Cudelia is taunted by other people because of her red hair. And why? Because her red hair reveals her to be of mixed racial heritage. In the above lyric, it is made plain that Cudelia’s mother Neita has been impregnated by “Missa Ivan” – though whether it was consensual or non-consensual is not made clear. The idea that Cudelia’s hair has turned red from prolonged exposure to the sun is presented as a sarcastic excuse.
So it seems that Lord Burgess “cleaned up” the song considerably for Belafonte and the American audience of the 1950s. The only clear hint given by Burgess of the original intent of the song comes at the very end, when the singer apparently decides that he cannot approach Cordelia, even though he yearns for her, because she wears the mark of mixed racial heritage.
I also learned that “Cordelia [Cudelia] Brown” is not actually a calypso song; that it belongs to another branch of Caribbean music known as mento. Apparently, mento songs are frequently coyly suggestive and humorous in nature, so this song fits right into that style. This is also a great example of a question I couldn’t possibly have researched without the Internet. So thank you, Internet.
Posted on 2013.06.28 at 12:17
Current Mood: satisfied
Current Music: Games People Play - The Alan Parsons Project
“Builders of Boys; Makers of Men”
That was my high school’s official motto. These were not empty words. There were many dedicated and brilliant teachers and administrators at my school. Standards, expectations, and achievements were all high. It was an all-boys Catholic school on the east side of Detroit that had been there for over fifty years. It still exists today, though the school moved to the northern suburbs a long time ago in a strategic move that has allowed it to thrive right up to the present day. By all reports, it remains a superior place to send one’s sons to ensure a quality education.
That’s the good part, and I mean every word of it. But today, I want to talk about something a little less savory; a moment when my dear alma mater failed to look out for a student’s best interests – though I’m sure many people would fault me rather than the school in the tale I’m about to tell.
It was around November of my freshman year. The weather had been unseasonably warm that week. The ground wasn’t frozen and the weather that day was fairly mild, so Phys Ed would consist of touch football games out on the practice field. I think everybody was happy to have an excuse to get out of our dank little gym and into the fresh air. At that age, I was bigger than over ninety percent of my classmates, so I was generally relegated to defensive or offensive line work rather than any of the “glamor” positions. But our Phys Ed teacher, who was also the varsity football coach, insisted that everyone should get a shot at playing quarterback.
When my turn came, I considered what sort of talent we had on our team and how I might best utilize it. There was one obvious asset: Tim B. He was not a big kid, but he was a fast runner. He was a track guy, from a family of track guys. He was probably the fastest runner in the freshman class. And to start my drive, I had a basic football play in mind.
“Just run down the left side as fast as you can until you get near the end zone,” I told him, “Then look up for the ball.” It wasn’t a new idea; it’s a concept any team with a fast receiver will try to use. The way Tim was being defended, it was clear that he would be all alone out there because all of their guys were up near the line of scrimmage, and there was no way any of them would be able to keep up with him. My pass wouldn’t even need to be all that accurate; if I could get it anywhere near Tim, he could adjust, make the catch, and score an easy touchdown.
So we ran the play. I heaved the ball downfield, and it all worked exactly the way we’d drawn it up. To make it even better, I’d had the good fortune to throw a perfect pass that was dropping into Tim’s arms as soon as he looked up for it, without him needing to make any course corrections. Touchdown, good guys! Yay team! Everybody laughed and clapped, even our football coach.
The story should have ended right there. A kid in Phys Ed makes a lucky toss to a fast runner and gets an easy touchdown. Big deal. Happens every day in schoolyards across America. But coach was watching, and he had other ideas.
After class had ended and students were making their way to the locker room, coach stopped me and asked if I’d considered going out for the team… Okay, let’s stop right here.
I was (and still am) a big sports fan. I watched all kinds of sports on TV, and along with my brothers and neighborhood kids, I played a lot of baseball and football on our front lawn and on the streets near our house. But organized sports were not my thing. I’d had one brief encounter with a summer baseball league a few years earlier that had left a bad taste in my mouth. Also, I felt no kinship whatsoever with many of the kids who played on my high school’s sports teams. Many of them were kids who’d go out of their way to tease a bookish, awkward nerd such as myself, and I’d go out of my way to avoid them. I was not interested in “working through” these differences; I was entirely satisfied to simply avoid the situation. To top it all off, my interest in playing sports was pleasure-oriented, not team-oriented. What I mean is this: I could stay out by the garage shooting hoops with my brothers until mom or dad yelled at us to get into the house. I could play ball on the lawn until I was exhausted. I could do those things because they were pure fun. I’d seen enough of high school team sports to know that they were not my idea of fun.
This was particularly true of football. The kids on the team were not all bad guys, but included in their numbers were some of my least favorite people socially. What’s more, they were the ones most likely to limp into the classroom on Monday morning with their arms in a sling, scratches on their faces, and casts on their legs. It was crystal clear that this would be some form of hell for me. No mere game was worth that kind of pain. Not to me anyway. On the other hand, I attended most of the football team’s home games and I rooted earnestly. I was a knowledgeable and loyal fan. But I had zero inclination to ever play on the team. And I was just fine with that. I harbored no secret fantasies about being a football hero. Me fan, you player. It was an ideal relationship.
So there I was, standing on the practice field, and coach was trying to recruit me for the team. I initially attempted a quick, friendly brush-off, smiling and looking away as I said “No… that’s not something I’m interested in…” But coach was serious. After telling me that he thought I had some genuine ability, he quickly went into Threat Mode.
“Well, if you’re not going out for football, that tells me you’re not performing up to your athletic potential, and it would have to affect your Phys Ed grade.
I think I mumbled something like, “I’ll think about it,” and got the heck out of there. As you might guess, I never considered taking him up on his offer, even for a moment. To me, it was nothing more than an offer to be miserable, to devote long hours to a series of military-esque exercises and games that I would dread and loathe. In a way, actual military service would have been preferable; in the military, you might actually be performing a tangible service to protect your country. But taking a fun activity I’d enjoyed for years – playing football – and turning it into something awful just to placate a coach who put his own interests above mine – that made no sense to me. And as if I wouldn’t have hated it enough already, I’d have known that I was only on the team because I’d given in to threats from someone who was supposed to be a trusted role model.
Now if you played high school sports yourself and you treasure those memories, you might think that I hadn’t given it a fair shake; that I might have surprised myself with what I’d have gotten out of it; that one’s teenage years are for stretching and growing and finding one’s limits. Those are all fine old concepts about growing up, and if we were talking about something else, I might even agree with you. But I would choose a different image – the one about not having to put one’s hand into a grease fire in order to find out if it might be painful. I may not have been all grown up at the age of 15, but I’d figured out a few things.
Coach and I never discussed the matter again. I never lifted a finger to join the team, and true to his word, he lowered my Phys Ed grade to a C from that point onward. The one saving grace in my lowered grade was that Phys Ed was not a component in calculating one’s Grade Point Average.
The other thing I did NOT do was tell anyone about it. I especially did not tell my dad about it. Dad was an intelligent and fair-minded man, but there were a couple different ways I could have envisioned him reacting to this, and some of those scenarios would not have been good for me.
In Scenario A, dad might have sided with coach and urged me to try out for the team. If anyone thinks that’s far-fetched, please note that in the summer before I entered high school, my dad and a family friend had gotten together as a tag team and had tried to pressure me to specifically go out for the football team that fall, thinking that it would be good exercise for me. At the time, I viewed it as my dad trying to live vicariously through me, since he hadn’t been in a position to play high school football himself. That may have been a little unfair of me, but it’s what I thought at the time.
In Scenario B, dad might have become indignant and gone to the school to complain about coach’s conduct. Once again, this seemed like a bad deal for me. Coach had been at my school for a long time. Football was an important part of the culture there. It seemed to me that whatever tactics coach used to conduct his business had to have the support, even if tacitly, of the school’s administration. The most I stood to gain from any such action would have been an increase in my Phys Ed grade. Big deal. But I stood to lose in all sorts of ways. Certain teachers and administrators might have been ticked off at me. So might the guys on the football team – JUST the guys I was already trying to distance myself from. If things went really badly, I might even have needed to find a new school – and I truly felt that my school offered a superior education to any of the alternatives in the area.
So it was quickly apparent to me that my best course of action would be to take the demotion in my Phys Ed grade and hope the matter ended right there, which is precisely what came to pass. But it was an educational moment in my young life; a lesson in how even an honored institution may have its own form of corruption around the edges; blind self-interest disguised as hard work and nobility of effort. Builders of boys; makers of men indeed, proving once again that the most important lessons we learn from our elders are the ones they don’t realize they’re teaching us.
Posted on 2013.06.25 at 16:27
Current Mood: athletic
Current Music: We Are the Champions - Queen
This took place a long time ago. A real long time ago. We’re talking Roman Empire. Maybe it didn’t transpire exactly the way I’m going to describe it, but I believe it happened about like this:
Marcus Titanicus was a champion gladiator. He won his first match when he was a relative nobody, when he disemboweled the legendary Biggus Dealius. Marcus went on to win hundreds of matches before retiring to a villa in Herculaneum in 78 A.D.
One day, well into his career as a champion, Marcus defeated a nobody: Pliny the Unlucky Shepherd from Umbria. The match was over in approximately 17 seconds and the outcome was never in doubt, particularly when Pliny went into a sneezing fit from the dust on the Coliseum floor, which contained a wide range of organic allergens. Most of those 17 seconds were simply the time it took for Marcus to run across the field before he swung his sword. After the match, as thousands chanted Marcus’ name and prepared to carry him to a lavish bacchanalia, an interview took place:
“How was it out there today, Marcus?”
“It was good, it was a good day for Team Marcus.”
“Tell me about your opponent, Pliny the Unlucky.”
“He fought a good fight… tough guy from a tough tribe… I was very fortunate out there… just made one less mistake than he did.”
“Put this into perspective for me, Marcus. How does this compare to your other victories? How does it compare to your victory over Biggus Dealius? Is this your most satisfying championship?”
“No doubt… definitely. You know, when I defeated Biggus, I thought winning was easy. I didn’t really appreciate how special the moment was. So yeah, this one is the sweetest of them all, because I know that it could have easily gone the other way, and it might not happen again. And by the way, I just want to salute Pliny and all of the folks from Umbria who came out to support him today, and who volunteered to clean up the mess afterward…”
I tell this story to illustrate my belief that the art of B.S. by athletic champions has been with us for a long time. I want to especially focus on this business of comparing championships, i.e., the habit interviewers have of asking repeat champions whether the championship they’ve just won is more satisfying than a past championship. It is a breathtakingly idiotic question that invariably makes me want to change the channel, even if my team is the new champion.
Here’s a post-game interview I’ve never heard – nor do I ever expect to:
“Bobby, how does this championship compare to your other ones? Is this the sweetest of them all?”
“Well, this one is nice, but it can’t hold a candle to that first one. I mean, until we won the whole thing, we didn’t truly know if we could ever do it. So yeah, today is really awesome… but please, nothing can ever compare to that first one.”
“Well then, how does today compare to your second championship?”
“That second one was awesome; the way we came from behind so many times… that incredible play Jackson made coming off the bench when he hadn’t scored in a month… the way everyone had written us off… so yeah, that second one was better than this too. All in all, as difficult as this was, it was honestly the least special of our championships.”
“But Bobby, a lot of people think this victory was incredibly difficult and think it’s far more satisfying than those other ones.”
“Look, it’s tough winning any championship. But honestly, I think these people have forgotten how special that first one was. I mean, this is going to be a big party for sure, but please folks, look up some video from that first title game and victory parade if you want to see some crazy joy and real hysteria.”
So of course no one would answer it that way – even if it was the truth – because fans, broadcasters, and many players live in the moment. The moment of winning a championship is, among other things, a moment to indulge the shallow pleasures of that moment. Any true perspective on the moment, and on one’s career, is not likely to be voiced until years later, probably after retirement. To expect honesty in such a moment would be foolish. But for those of us who’ve figured all of that out, these post-game interviews are likely to send our fingers flying to the remote control, seeking another channel that is covering anything but the sport in question. Or maybe we’ll simply seek out a replay of the championship game itself – you know, the actual important part of the evening’s festivities.
So why do they always ask that question? Hard to say – there are various possible stupid reasons for asking it. Maybe the interviewer is so vacuous that it’s truly the best question they can think of. Maybe they’re afraid that if they don’t ask it, some other bubblehead will ask it and “scoop” them on the reply. Maybe they have such a low opinion of their audience that they believe this is the question we want answered. Maybe the interviewer has never known a moment of victory in their own pathetic life and lacks the mental flexibility to consider what that might be like. I could posit other possible reasons, but I think you get my drift. I’m a big, big sports fan, but my focus is mostly on the actual game. The vast majority of the public statements and events surrounding the game are a waste of my time – white noise at best, genuinely irritating at worst.
Posted on 2013.06.10 at 11:30
Current Mood: awake
Current Music: The End - The Doors
I’m here today to talk about the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
I didn’t just draw this movie out of a hat to talk about; this is actually on the short list of the greatest films I have seen. But in the case of Apocalypse Now,
there are far more layers to my appreciation of it than there are to most great films.
The first point I should make is that "great" can never mean "flawless," particularly in art. Part of my fascination for Apocalypse Now
actually lies in its many flaws. It’s kind of an epic mess of a film, out of which emerges a moving and unforgettable story and overall experience. This is due, more than anything, to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola.
On an obvious level, Coppola and screenwriter John Milius have taken Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness,
written in 1899, and liberally adapted it to a setting of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The novel tells the story of a journey into the deep jungle to rescue one Mr. Kurtz. In the film, Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a Special Forces colonel who has gone deep into the jungle to fight the war on his own terms. He has surrounded himself with a village of fanatical followers, and Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent into the deep jungle not to rescue Kurtz, but to kill him; or as he is ordered, to “terminate with extreme prejudice.”
The casting was equal parts genius and dumb luck, an example of how we sometimes succeed despite our own bad instincts. We don’t meet Kurtz until about two hours into the movie, and Coppola clearly understood that there would be a built-up expectation on the part of the audience, so he knew he needed an actor with a certain mystique. Regardless of how one feels about Brando as an actor, his mystique was considerable and undeniable.
Coppola’s genius comes in with regard to how he dealt with Brando. When Brando showed up to begin filming, Coppola was dismayed to learn that Brando had become grossly overweight and could not possibly portray Kurtz as the lean, mean fighting machine the screenplay had originally described. On the fly, Coppola decided to reconceive Kurtz as the dissipated remnant of a once great soldier. In addition, virtually every shot of Kurtz is from the chest up and in dim light. Well, it all worked. Coppola had taken lemons and created solid gold.
The role of Captain Willard was originally given to Harvey Keitel. After a couple weeks of filming, though, Coppola fired him and hired Martin Sheen. It seems a curious left turn on the surface. It takes very little imagination to picture Keitel as a military hit man, but Sheen is another matter. There’s something inherently thoughtful, and even tender, about Sheen’s persona. But once again, through either genius or dumb luck, Coppola got it right. Sheen’s persona made him kind of inscrutable and intriguing as a hit man, while his academic air made it believable that he would begin to question the wisdom of his orders as well as the wisdom of the entire wider military operation.
If you’ve never seen Apocalypse Now
and are looking to rent it, I have a vital piece of advice for you: Do NOT rent the Apocalypse Now: Redux
edition. I consider that version to be for fans only. Here’s the problem: The original film is two and half hours long; the Redux edition, which was released in 2001, is about three hours and ten minutes long, and a lot of that added material was best left out, especially with regard to its effect on the pacing of the film. Now for big fans such as myself, the Redux edition is absolutely fascinating and essential, but the casual viewer is apt to get worn out trying to watch it.
That being said, a few of the Redux scenes are very illuminating. For example, one deleted sequence shows Kurtz talking to Willard in broad daylight rather than in the murky nighttime to which I referred earlier. Seeing Kurtz in that daylight robs him of so much mystery and power that I would like to personally thank Coppola for leaving the scene out of the original edition. Another lengthy sequence shows Captain Willard and his group stumbling upon a French plantation in the middle of his journey from Vietnam to Cambodia. The place is a vestige of the days before American involvement in Vietnam, when it was a French concern. The people living there are French people who have managed to survive, beyond all logic, on their crumbling plantation. They are weirdly lost souls, belonging neither to Vietnam nor to France. It is a fascinating and quietly sad sequence. But I understand why it was left out; the fact is that the movie was already getting pretty long, and this extended sequence does absolutely nothing to advance the story. As I said, for big fans like myself, seeing this is a treat. But for the non-fanatics – beware.
There are many stories about the difficulties of getting Apocalypse Now
produced at all. The original version was supposed to have been directed by George Lucas, who planned to shoot it in a quasi-documentary style. But years of delay ensued, and by the time the project came to fruition, Lucas was busy shooting a sci-fi movie called Star Wars,
so the project fell into Coppola’s lap. The production spiraled ridiculously over budget, particularly after a typhoon blew away all of their sets in the Philippines. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack in the middle of filming, a fact which Coppola hid from his studio bosses, since they probably would have shut down the whole production if they’d found out; Coppola opted instead to shoot around Sheen’s absence while the latter recuperated from what was called “exhaustion.”
I referred earlier to the film’s many flaws. Just to single out a few: It does drag a bit in the middle. We’re ready for Willard to get to Kurtz for some time before he finally arrives. I understand that Coppola needed to take his time to build up our sense of being sucked up the river to Kurtz’ compound. It’s a tough balancing act and he doesn’t pull it off perfectly.
And yes, about that sense of expectation in finally getting to meet Colonel Kurtz – it may be that Coppola and Milius set themselves up for failure. In spite of their best efforts, Kurtz doesn’t – and maybe never could – meet our expectations for the power and mystery Kurtz must possess. But if the filmmakers have committed an artistic sin, it is the sin of ambition. Seeing their grand failures makes one realize how unambitious and safe most films are. Coppola goes on the high wire without a net and makes us glad we’re in the audience. And when he falls off the wire and breaks a bone or two, he manages to somehow reappear a moment later, back up there in the rafters, where he continues the show.
That show also includes Dennis Hopper, who shows up unexpectedly most of the way through the film as a photojournalist who has made his way to Kurtz’ village. He seems to move seamlessly through the village as the king’s insane jester, and it is he who greets Willard’s boat as it pulls up to the shore. His presence throws our perception of the village even further off-kilter while injecting a much needed air of relative lightness to the proceedings. Once again, Hopper is the ideal actor for the job, given his known persona, his acting resumé, and his square-peg presence. We could debate the casting of the other leads here, but Hopper stands alone.
Of less significance is Robert Duvall’s turn as Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. Yes, he utters the movie’s most famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” but he isn’t quite as essential to the movie as the other actors I’ve mentioned. Kilgore is in only one sequence, a memorable one to be sure, showing an attack on a Vietnamese village and its aftermath. I’m glad it’s in the movie; it establishes some of the cruelty and other mind-sets that go into conducting a war, and for simple entertainment value, it’s probably the high point of the film, though it does little to actually advance the story. Still, Duvall took a showy role, played it for all it was worth, and completely deserved the Oscar nomination he got for his work.
Although I was only 20 when Apocalypse Now
debuted, I was keenly aware that it had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, so my friend Ed and I saw it the week it opened in Detroit. Supposedly, the print we saw was the same physical print that had been screened at Cannes, but I can’t confirm that. I saw it several times more in the theater and have picked it up in various TV showings in the years since then (though I dread watching it with edits and commercial interruptions). It’s become an old friend of mine; a messy but wonderful old friend who still has the same problems as when we first met decades ago, yet we’ve remained close.Postscript —
My friend Ed and I made several amateur films when we were in our late teens, using his Super-8 silent film camera. One project we talked about but never filmed was going to be our own version of Apocalypse Now.
Ed was working as a movie theater usher/manager at the time, so we were going to use his theater to film the story of a renegade theater manager whose “methods have become unsound” (to quote a line from the film we were parodying). The renegade manager only shows weird, independent, or foreign films and he has attracted a clientele of fanatically devoted moviegoers. An usher from another theater is sent on a journey up Jefferson Avenue to terminate the manager’s command. We had an excellent reason not to ever film it: a lot of what we were imagining involved clever dialogue that parodied Apocalypse Now’s
dialogue – and as I mentioned, all we had was a silent film camera. And that’s a good thing. The project held every promise of being a film that Ed and I would have giggled incessantly about, but that probably no one else would have appreciated. All we might have expected from our audience would have been to hear them quietly murmuring, “The horror… the horror.”
Posted on 2013.06.06 at 20:10
Current Mood: amused
Current Music: The Minstrel Boy (trad. Irish)
For the uninitiated, “rennie” refers to people who are way into taking part in Renaissance faires. The hard-core ones may not even have fixed addresses, living from Ren faire to Ren faire, criss-crossing the country for years on end. They may be entertainers, craftspeople, or simply people who like the lifestyle.
I myself was never that sort of rennie. But it’s true that for over a decade, I had an on-and-off job as emcee and entertainment coordinator for a Medieval feast catering company run by a friend of mine. It’s also true that I’ve made many trips in recent years across the border into Wisconsin to visit the Bristol Renaissance Faire. And for one memorable season, I was the Assistant Entertainment Director for the Michigan Renaissance Festival. That’s the gig I want to talk about today.
It was the 1980s. I was in my 20s and working a lot in the entertainment field, whether as a stage actor, commercial/film/voice-over actor, singing telegram messenger… or any of the varied odd jobs that professional actors find themselves agreeing to do (example: I once spent an afternoon wandering the floor at a trade show in Cobo Hall dressed as a 12-foot-tall Pillsbury Doughboy).
One day in the spring of 1986, I received a phone call from my friend Dana (no last names here; some of you know them). He was the Entertainment Director for the Michigan Renaissance Festival and he needed an assistant… and might I be interested? Why yes, I might be. So a pitch session was set up, to take place at Pasquale’s Italian Restaurant on Woodward Avenue. My friend Maggie, also on the festival staff, came along.
The lunch did not progress like any recruiting session I’d ever imagined. Dana and Maggie seemed to be taking turns telling me horror stories about the place; about how awfully management could treat people; about how flaky and unreliable certain people could be; about how much work was involved for not a lot of money. An uninformed eavesdropper might have reasonably concluded that they were trying to talk me out of taking the job.
After a while, I felt compelled to point this out to them, and I asked them why they were conducting the “pitch” in this manner. They told me that they wanted me to come in with open eyes; to be ready for all of the nonsense and craziness.
As we were finishing our desserts (Dana and Maggie picked up the check, by the way), I told them this: “You’ve said a lot of awful, scary things, but there’s one overriding fact in all of this. It’s that the two of you continue to come back and work for the festival year after year. To me, that speaks more loudly than all of your scary stories.”
So I took the job. And were they right about all the awful things, difficult people, and hard work? Oh yes they were. Months later, after the festival had closed for the year, they related a little tradition in which I happily took part. It went like this: On the last day of working in the office, after we’d left the building for the last time, we stood in the parking lot and swore that we would never, ever work for this company again. It was a satisfying moment. But then, the following spring… well no, I didn’t go back there. Don’t get me wrong; I would have, but I had other commitments that precluded any such possibility. If I remember correctly, though, Dana and Maggie went back there. Their eyes were open.
There are many stories I could share from those months, particularly concerning incidents and people on festival days. Many of these stories, though, have no place in a public journal such as this, where my nieces and nephews might see them and reconsider their image of Uncle Chuck. A few anecdotes might even leave me legally liable, since I’m not sure about all of the parameters of the statute of limitations. So I’ll settle for this one, which illustrates the strange dichotomy one lives with while running a Ren faire:
We needed someone to run our archery and hatchet throwing games. After asking around, I got a good recommendation on a fellow named Ted [last name redacted]. I was told that Ted ran archery games at faires all around the country, and he brought his own staff with him. He sounded like just what we were looking for. Ah, but where to find Ted? No one seemed to know.
So from my modern, air conditioned office in downtown Birmingham, Michigan, I began cold-calling faires that were in progress at that time. I finally got a hit when I called the Scarborough Faire in Waxahachie, Texas.
“Yeah, Ted’s running games for us,” drawled the voice on the other end.
“Could I get a message to him?”
“Well, he’s living back in the woods behind the site, but there’s a tree we post messages on and he checks it every couple of days.”
“Okay great. Could I give you my name and phone number and have you post a message for Ted asking him to please call me collect?”
“Sure, no problem.”
So that’s what we did. A day or two later, my phone rang with a collect call and I found myself talking to Ted. We quickly struck a deal and a few months later, he and his people hitchhiked up to Michigan and began working for us. He ran his games very well; he was very professional… but you had to accept the fact that this was how some of the rennies ran their lives. Some of them were as off-the-grid in their lifestyles as anyone I’ve ever known.
I haven’t worked for a Ren faire since my year at the MRF. I haven’t ruled it out, though. For all of the craziness (or maybe because of the craziness), it can be a joyous lifestyle, and some of the folks you meet there are as genuine and delightful as anyone you’d care to know.
Posted on 2013.05.27 at 18:26
Current Mood: contemplative
Current Music: Rock & Roll Never Forgets - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
This is a post about a gravesite. It is not a post about Memorial Day. As I write this, that’s what day it is, and this holiday’s theme has been a source of inspiration in composing this, but I’m not seeking to make a statement about our armed forces or those who have served in them. The fact is, social media and blogs are swimming in Memorial Day photos, quotes, and essays right now, and many of them are more eloquent than anything I could hope to muster.
What I want to discuss today is something far more personal. It’s about my relationship with my late parents and how those relationships are memorialized.
Let’s recap: My mother passed away eight years ago this month. My father passed away a little over a year ago. I had a good relationship with both of them and I regularly wish they were still here, that we might catch each other up on what’s going on in our respective lives. Mom could catch me up on assorted family gossip and I could update her on my life in Chicago. Dad could regale me with oft-told tales about his time in the Air Force and his years in the automotive business, as well as offer his frequently insightful commentary on philosophy and religion.
Upon re-reading the preceding paragraph, it becomes clearer than ever that talking with my parents wasn’t necessarily about what we talked about so much as it was about simply being in contact and serving as mutual touchstones to remind us where we stood in this world. Their absence creates the need to rebuild and redefine some of the underpinnings of my own identity. This is how it has always been; I have no doubt that they contended with this when their own parents died (though we never discussed it in this way), just as every person who loses a loved one must adapt to a world that has suddenly been reshaped.
Somewhere in a suburb north of Detroit, there is a cemetery. A gravestone there bears both of my parents’ names, as well as their dates of birth and death. I have been told, and I have no reason to doubt, that their earthly remains are in caskets buried some feet beneath that marker. I’ve seen photographs of the site, but I’ve never been there myself, nor do I feel any particular need to do so. Oh, I’m not saying it will never happen; maybe I’ll be in town one day and I’ll accompany a sibling who’s headed up there. But I don’t feel as if I’m missing anything. Now maybe I’d feel differently if I were standing there looking at their gravestone in person with my feet standing upon that earth. But I doubt it.
I look at those photos I mentioned and I see nothing, nothing at all that reminds me of my parents. Trees? Open skies? Wide open green spaces? Engraved stones? Far-flung northern suburbs? These have nothing to do with my parents. They were urban kids from the near east side of Detroit. The furthest they lived from there was their last home in Roseville, Michigan, barely three miles from the city limits of Detroit. I would be much more in mind of them if I were traveling down Meldrum or Congress or Parker Street, where their feet took a million steps as they grew into the people who brought me into this world.
More to the point, my parents aren’t in those graves, only their physical remains. And something tells me that neither of them looks very presentable these days. So why would I want to go there?
Some people might say that I should go there to respect them, to honor them, or to remember them. This notion makes no sense to me. I prefer a more meaningful form of respect and honor, which is to measure my words and deeds against what they taught me, and against what they might have hoped for me. As their living progeny, I feel a clear calling to respect and honor the living, which includes me and all those whose lives I might touch.
In terms of memory – well, as I said earlier, there is no memory of them at that gravesite other than an etched stone. The true memory of my parents is around me every day, in ways both tangible and intangible. The tangible reminders are readily apparent. From where I sit at this moment, I can see a lamp my father designed and gave to me and a set of shelves he made for CC. I can see a watch I gave to my mother as a present which was returned to me after her death. There are other items here as well, but those examples will suffice. Oh, and one other exceedingly tangible reminder, which I see every time I look in a mirror.
The intangible memory of my parents is something I carry with me always. It is as close as my skin, and closer than my skin. It can never be forgotten so long as I live. If I have to journey to a windswept cemetery plot that neither my parents nor I ever visited in life in order to be reminded of them, then I think something is seriously out of whack.
There is one other thing I want to make clear: I am not so egotistical as to offer my approach as an ideal; I don’t commend it to others as a superior form of memorializing. I don’t think I should make it my business to tell others how to mourn or how to remember. If a gravesite holds a special meaning or a special power for you, it is not for me to invalidate it, or to presume I know what another person is going through. I can only speak of what holds meaning for me. And for me, what is important is not what I may feel or the words I may deliver while standing at the graveside. No, what is important is what I deliver to the world outside of that cemetery. It is there that I may create a true memorial to my parents’ legacy.
Posted on 2013.05.19 at 23:31
Current Mood: enthralled
Current Music: King of Pain - The Police
While channel-surfing late last night, I came across a movie I’d heard about but never expected to see on broadcast TV – the 1957 adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex.
If you’re a fan of Tom Lehrer’s music, this is the very film he was referring to when he wrote his parody song “Oedipus Rex”, which he proposed as a song that might have helped the movie to be more successful at the box office.
This movie is done in what possibly comes across as a jarringly unusual style, particularly to a modern audience, and particularly to an audience unfamiliar with Greek drama. First of all, the entire production is performed on a small set with few distinguishing features. Visually, it employs a limited color palette and only a few pillars, doorways, and steps. Also, the actors’ faces are never seen other than their mouths, as everyone is wearing masks.
Perhaps most jarring, though, is the acting style of the production. After a few minutes of watching, part of me was thinking, “Gee whiz, guys! You want to turn it down a notch? Give it some dynamic levels?” Every line was being declaimed in a semi-monotonous sing-songy manner. Yet a certain morbid curiosity kept me watching… and then I started to get into it. I began to realize that it wasn’t that the acting lacked dynamic levels; it was that these levels were occurring in different places than what I was used to. It was a little like tuning one’s ears to a new dialect. The style was nowhere near any kind of modern naturalism or contemporary cinematic pacing, which is why this must be hard for a modern audience to watch. Allow me to digress:
When Sophocles wrote this, it was meant to be performed live, in a quasi-religious setting. They were depicting the deeds and words of kings and gods, whose passions were outsized far beyond those of the common man. For centuries thereafter, the acting style of the stage continued to be exaggerated or stylized in ways that would seem unrealistic to most of us nowadays. And why is that? Why do we expect more naturalistic acting nowadays? One of the first reasons was the invention of motion pictures. These allowed us to be practically cheek-to-cheek with the actors and allowed – demanded, even – that they tone down the acting techniques required in a large theater. Then came television, which put this level of intimacy into every home. Additionally, television has usually been a medium that leaves us as the audience physically larger than the show we’re watching. We are no longer guests in their world; they are guests in ours.
All of this has led us down the road of more naturalistic acting over the past century. For us as an audience to now go back and view the acting style of a bygone time, we have to adjust our ears and our expectations or we will miss a lot of what is going on. So it is with this film.Oedipus Rex
was directed by Tyrone Guthrie, one of the titans of 20th century theater on both sides of the Atlantic. The movie was filmed in Ontario, Canada. The cast consists entirely of members of Guthrie’s acting company at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival. Trivia: One of the chorus members in this film is a young William Shatner, though I couldn’t identify him by sight on account of the masks, and I never heard a voice that sounded like his, so he may not have any lines other than in unison with his fellow chorus members.
The title role of King Oedipus is played by Douglas Campbell, and I was very pleased to finally see some of his work, since I met him while taking part in a two-day classical theater workshop he ran in 1988. In fact, one of my treasured memories of that workshop is a story he told that referred directly to his role as Oedipus. I am paraphrasing (since I do not possess a photographic memory), but his story went like this:
“We were rehearsing the scene where I enter after my character has gouged his eyes out after learning that he has killed his father and unknowingly married his own mother, who has just committed suicide, all of which had been prophesied to me by the Oracle when I was a young man. I entered with the weight of this unimaginable tragedy wracking my body. Tyrone [the director] cut me off and told me I was all wrong and I should try it again. So I went out and came in again, determined to express all of this. He cut me off again and sent me back to try it again. This happened time after time until I was completely exhausted from trying to express all of that passion. I finally entered completely blank, completely spent, showing no emotion whatsoever, and went about practically sleep walking. Tyrone said, ‘There, now you’re getting it!’ The point is, you can’t
play ‘I’ve just caused the deaths of my parents and gouged out my eyes’; it’s simply too horrible. You have to let the audience create the horror in their own minds.”
It was an educational and fascinating weekend working with Campbell, a walking theatrical encyclopedia who had seen and done it all, from London to Broadway to Hollywood to many a touring show along the way. He told many other wonderful stories that you should ask me to recount sometime, and he offered invaluable insights to all of us about our individual work. Campbell died in 2009 at the age of 87.
So in a very roundabout way, I felt as if I had a personal connection to this movie. I commend it to your attention, but with heavy advisement – it isn’t going to speak to everyone. If you’re unfamiliar with the material or the style, it could be tough going. But if you’re up for a glimpse into a mostly lost artistic style, you might want to seek this one out.
A few other random notes: The screenplay was adapted from a translation by William Butler Yeats, and it felt to me as if this film must have been a strategic condensation of Yeats’ original (unless it was Yeats who condensed Sophocles’ original). With a running time of just under 90 minutes, certain parts felt a bit rushed. I can hardly blame Guthrie for doing this (if that’s what happened), as many classical drama pieces are several hours long if performed uncut. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the marvelous masks created by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. The longer one looks at them, the more expressive they become, particularly when used by such skilled performers.
Posted on 2013.05.02 at 17:56
Current Mood: busy
Just a couple of photos to share today. They both date from 1975. The first one shows my three youngest siblings standing in our back yard in Detroit. From left to right, their names and ages are Frank (10), Helene (8), and Greg (9).
The other photo shows the Greatest Rosebush of Them All, which grew in our back yard. Oh, and that’s Greg again peeking out from behind. This bush was there when we moved into the house. It was typically covered with large, fragrant roses from spring through the second or third frost. It was just an awesome rosebush.
Posted on 2013.03.29 at 15:07
Current Music: Time Has Come Today - The Chambers Brothers
About 25 years ago, CC and I were living in Detroit. We were renting a three-bedroom house in a lousy neighborhood near Six Mile & Mound Rd., but getting a whole house to ourselves for a mere $200 a month was too good a deal to pass up… or so we told ourselves… but that’s another story.
We both worked in theater, so it is probably redundant to say that money was tight. Still, we did have a certain amount of disposable income. It usually got blown on such frivolous items as rent, gasoline, toilet paper, and bleacher seats at Detroit Tigers games. One day, we decided to dispose of some income at the Value Village resale shop on Gratiot (I believe near about 12 Mile Rd.). My sole purchase that day was the clock you see here. It was made right here in the good old US of A by the Seth Thomas Clock Company. It set me back one dollar. You see, it had lost its electrical cord, so there was no way of knowing whether it worked or whether it was simply a stylish mid-century paperweight, so I wouldn’t have blamed the checkout clerk if she’d muttered “Sucker” as I walked out the door.
After departing Value Village, we stopped at a nearby drugstore where I bought a short extension cord, which set me back an additional buck and a half. When I got home, I unscrewed the back of the clock, cut off the outlet end of the extension cord, stripped the ends off the wires, and screwed them into place inside the clock.
Then came the moment of truth – plugging in the clock. I pressed the plug gingerly into the outlet, ready for anything from a shower of sparks to an ugly grinding noise. Neither of those things occurred. Instead – drum roll please – the second hand began to sweep in a clockwise direction. That’s all. I then pounded a nail into a wall, hung up the clock, plugged it back in, and got on with my life.
All I’d really wanted was a clock that reminded me of the clock that hung in my family’s kitchen when I was a kid. That’s why I’d decided to risk two and a half bucks of my disposable income. As for the clock – it has followed me from place to place ever since. It hangs in my kitchen today. And it still keeps perfectly good time, without complaint, and without a moment of service in the past quarter century. As investments go, it has outperformed many a stock I could name.
Posted on 2013.03.04 at 17:46
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: Mexico - James Taylor
…Dennis Weaver plays a nervous hotel clerk, and Zsa Zsa Gabor plays a strip-club owner. Does this sound like A) A skit on an old Bob Hope special, or B) A classic film noir directed by Orson Welles? Clue: Let’s add Marlene Dietrich as the madam at a brothel and Welles himself as a corpulent, corrupt cop. And that’s Janet Leigh in the photo next to Chuck Heston in the role of his wife. Yes, it’s the 1958 film Touch of Evil,
regarded by many as the last of the great film noir productions. I’d never seen the whole thing so I watched it late last night (one doesn’t take in film noir as a matinee). OK, so I’m 55 years late to the party, but here is my review.
This is not a simple film to describe, in part because it deliberately plays against some of our cultural and cinematic expectations. But I’ll get to that in a minute. I should begin by talking about the opening shot. It is one of the most famous shots in movie history; a remarkable moving crane shot over three minutes long that takes us from the planting of a time bomb in the trunk of a car, to that car driving through the busy streets of a Mexican border town and crossing the border into the U.S., to Heston and Leigh strolling down the sidewalk and briefly chatting with the occupants of the car, to the car bomb’s inevitable detonation. You might not notice that it’s one unbroken shot if I didn’t point it out to you… so I’m pointing it out to you. It’s a shot that deserves its fame.
Soon enough, the American cop Quinlan (Welles) arrives on the scene and begins asking questions. Ah, but Vargas (Heston) is a cop too, albeit a Mexican one. Even though the explosion occurred on U.S. soil, the story – and the bomb – began in Mexico, and the two men quickly rub each other the wrong way but are stuck with each other.
I’m going to stop describing the plot in laborious detail now, because one of Welles’ games is that he wanted the plot to be confusing, much as Howard Hawks felt when he was directing The Big Sleep
a dozen years earlier. So this is a tension for the viewer, because we naturally try to follow the story in a movie, particularly when the movie feels like some sort of gritty police procedural. But that’s not really what the movie is about.
At some point, we realize this and we go where Welles is steering us.
So then, what is Touch of Evil
really about? I think it’s about characters and what happens when they bump into each other. It’s also about how we the viewers react when stereotypes are flipped. Note that it was Welles who changed the script to make Heston’s character a Mexican. It was also Welles who changed the setting from being entirely American to a border town. On top of that, it is Heston’s Mexican cop who is the good guy and it is Welles’ American cop who has an air of rancid, pathetic corruption about him. It is worth noting that Welles wore a considerable amount of padding and facial prosthetics for this role, which we might not have guessed as we view the film in 2013 and recall the 1970s’ Welles who became extremely obese.
More than one critic has suggested that this movie might have been thematically autobiographical on Welles’ part. Consider: Quinlan is a man who has been consumed by his past failures and regrets. His propensity for excess has made him a physical wreck, and the once good cop has devolved into a bitter, evil man. Late in the film, a drunk Quinlan asks Tanya (Dietrich) to read his future in the tarot cards:
Quinlan: Come on, read my future for me.
Tanya: You haven’t got any.
Quinlan: Hmm? What do you mean?
Tanya: Your future’s all used up.
Note also that Touch of Evil
was the last film Welles ever directed in Hollywood. The rest of his career consisted mostly of half finished projects and films that could never get off the ground. Welles may not have achieved Quinlan’s level of evil in his own life, but he captured the pathetic part.
With regard to Janet Leigh, it is intriguing that she plays the part of a woman who is on her own in an out of the way motel for much of the movie, and that she is ultimately terrorized by unwanted visitors who break in on her and mean her great harm. Two years later, Leigh would appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,
and one can’t help but speculate that Hitchcock saw Touch of Evil
and got an idea.
Ultimately, it is a tricky business recommending Touch of Evil.
It has to be recommended in a certain way because of all the things it’s not. It’s not pretty to look at in any conventional sense. It’s not pretty to listen to, as much of the music is intentionally jarring and much of the dialogue overlaps and creates confusion. A substantial amount of the dialogue has clearly been looped, with the typical result that there is often a slight mismatch between the vocal dynamics and the visuals. It’s hard to say much about the acting because it’s hard to separate it from the whole experience – so I suppose the acting must be pretty good. Even Charlton Heston, whom I consider to be an exceptionally wooden and unnatural actor, passes through this film with flying colors. I’ve always had the impression that Heston speaks as if everything he says is in quotes. Maybe it’s not a problem here because we know Heston; he’s consistent if nothing else, so we stop worrying about it pretty quickly and accept him as the good guy amidst all the distasteful, weak, and creepy folks who surround him.
The real pleasures of Touch of Evil
require a slight refocusing of one’s perspective to appreciate. They’re in Welles’ direction. I’m tempted to use the word “masterful” but that’s not quite right; Welles made lots of mistakes. He made them because his vision and ambition were always charging ahead of the painful practical constraints of the logistical world. It is a great shame that his personal and professional style never did – and maybe never could – mesh with the Hollywood way of doing business. In the end, it meant that we only got a handful of fully realized projects from Welles, an auteur who showed up in Hollywood a couple decades too soon for his own good.
Posted on 2013.02.28 at 16:28
Current Mood: amused
Current Music: Purple Rain - Prince
With the impending selection of a new Roman Catholic Pope, I want to weigh in with my preferences regarding the new pope’s name. This is not a flippant, informal, disrespectful exercise… for the new pope. I, on the other hand, am not bound by the same considerations and protocols.
I did set a few ground rules for myself. Most importantly, I looked over the list of pope names through the centuries and decided to choose among them for the names that I think need to be resurrected (as it were). Here is my modest list of finalists and the reasons for their inclusion (Roman numerals indicate what the new pope’s name would be, e.g., the last pope was named Benedict XVI, so the new pope could be Benedict XVII):Innocent XIV
– Come on, how cool a name would that be? NOBODY names their kid Innocent anymore. Plus, it would be an insurance policy against bad press. I mean, how can you believe bad things about someone when the writer has to accuse Innocent of doing it?Urban IX
– Doesn’t sound old-fashioned at all. Sounds very hip and up to date. Sure to connect with the kids.Lando II
– Yes! There was a Pope Lando from 913 to 914. Once again, an opportunity for the church to connect with a huge new audience.Sixtus VI
– I just like the way “Sixtus the Sixth” rolls off the tongue.Marcellus III
– You have to like anybody whose namesake is a character in The Music Man.
If there had ever been a Pope Winthrop, he’d totally be on this list.Callistus IV
– Just so old school. Puttin’ the Roman back in Roman Catholic.Eugene V
– It’s like Revenge of the Nerds
set in Rome.Hilarius II
– No really, you could look it up. Hilarius the First was pope from 461 to 468. If the new guy picks this name, I’m converting.
– Okay, this one is new to the papacy. But Prince isn’t using it anymore, and in this multimedia, electronic era, why couldn’t the pope’s name be an unpronounceable symbol?
As always, I will happily accept any additional suggestions.
Posted on 2013.02.19 at 01:55
Current Mood: accomplished
Current Music: Flowers on the Wall - The Statler Brothers
Last week, my friend Alison and I spent several days in Branson, Missouri. You may well wonder why. Branson, after all, is popularly thought of as the cheesiest of tourist traps (at least among the hip northern urbanites with whom I typically associate). In an episode of The Simpsons,
Branson was memorably described as “Las Vegas if it was run by Ned Flanders.” Yet we went.
I can’t speak for my traveling companion, but my reason for going began with simply wanting to take a road trip to somewhere I’d never been. As far as Branson’s aforementioned reputation, I decided that this would be part of my mission for the trip – to drink deeply of whatever I found in that metaphorical cup called Branson. So I arrived in town expecting, nay seeking, cheesy fun. I found it there, plus a few unexpected attractions that belied the town’s reputation.
Branson is in southwestern Missouri near the Arkansas border, so make no mistake – when you’re in Branson, you’re in The South; you’re in The Bible Belt. Its population is just a little over 10,000. I mention that number chiefly to contrast it with Nashville, Tennessee, the city to which it is often linked culturally. Nashville, despite feeling like a spread-out small town, has over half a million residents, so the cities aren’t really comparable at all. Contrary to what one might expect, though, there is a far larger and more diverse assortment of entertainment in Branson than there is in Nashville. But while one might conceivably become lost in Nashville and be in the utterly wrong part of town, it’s pretty much impossible to be lost in Branson for more than a few minutes.
Most of the theaters and other tourist attractions are on (or just off of) state route 76, which runs east/west through the entire town, so once you’ve found route 76, you’re all set. The roster of attractions on that road includes Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater, Andy Williams’ Theater, the Dinosaur Museum, the Hollywood Wax Museum, the Titanic Museum, and many, many others.
Ah, the Titanic Museum… If you’re looking for cheesiness, look elsewhere – unless, of course, you consider anything having to do with the Titanic to be cheesy. The Titanic Museum boasts the largest collection of genuine Titanic artifacts in one place anywhere in the world. After spending several hours there, I believe them. If you’re interested in the subject, you simply have to go there. Yes, you. The place is big, filled with fascinating details, and very well designed, containing a maze of diverse galleries covering different aspects of the Titanic story, as well as a full-scale reproduction of the grand staircase that you are free to walk upon. Here’s what the front of the building looks like (Alison not included):
OK, so maybe the exterior of the Titanic Museum is a little cheesy.
Our next stop was the Stone Hill Winery, where we enjoyed a tour and took part in a tasting of about ten different beverages. Understand this: For years, I’ve had to hear about my friends going on vacation and visiting wineries and taking part in wine tastings, but I’d never done it myself. Well folks, I just want you to know that I’m cool now; I’ve done it. I’m part of the In Crowd.
And heck, I thought, why not take the tour? Admission was free; the tasting was free. Obviously, they assume they’ll make their money when you buy a few bottles of the wines you’ve just tasted. O, how little they know me! I walked out no poorer than when I walked in, though I did enjoy the tasting. In fact, let me toss out this bouquet – the Stone Hill Cream Sherry was stunning. They trumpet it as their signature product, and they’ll get no argument from me. I should also note that, at 19% alcohol content, it packs a bit more pop than their excellent wines.
The most utterly Branson-ish show we saw was The Baldknobbers Jamboree. It’s a music & comedy variety show that’s been running in Branson since 1959. It’s produced by, and still stars, members of the same local family. It is indisputably one of the shows that built Branson into what it is today.
Having said that, the show itself was a mixed bag. A sharp distinction must be made between the musical segments and the comedy segments. The music was consistently well done and very polished, with excellent singers backed by a slick country band. The worst thing I could say about the music was that some of the soloists were far better suited to being back-up vocalists; their harmonies were tight as a drum, but their solo work sometimes lacked the dynamism one might wish for. But I quibble.
The comedy was another matter. It was consistently dreadful. As the show progressed, the reasons for this became clearer. The two older gentlemen doing most of the comedy have been doing this show for many years. Most significantly, one of them is the show’s producer, so he’s not going anywhere; nor would he have any hope of appearing on the professional stage were he forced to compete in an open audition. The other comic, i.e., the one with some actual talent, seems to have been doing this for too long, such that he’s gotten into a slew of bad habits that just kill the comedy time after time. Look, it’s country corn material; I accept that. But even country corn has a way that it works, and this duo has lost its way.
Even taking these problems into account, I’m very happy that we went. Hey, it’s a Branson institution, and we went there to discover Branson. The music was better than what I was prepared for; I was left with the impression that the musical director has high standards and they let him do his thing, and that the director of the comedy bits (if there is one), is somebody else.
I should also talk about the show’s audience, because they are a key part of understanding the Branson ethos. The audience was about 75% aged 65 or older, mostly southern, and about 100% white. The show played right into their mindset. An entire musical medley was devoted to the various branches of the U.S. military, and all veterans in the audience were asked to stand up for a moment to be honored in song. There was also a segment of southern gospel music that was introduced with an explicit reference or “our lord and savior Jesus Christ.” One more example: right before intermission, one cast member made an announcement about the various souvenirs for sale at the theater, including “cookbooks for the ladies.” So this show, and I’m sure many others in Branson, was aimed squarely at white Christians with traditional values. Whether this reflected the true sentiments of the show’s producers or whether it was a cynical choice meant to pander to the audience, I do not know. Some bloggers might describe this scene using far more pejorative descriptors, but I seek only to describe the scene and leave any further comment or judgment to my readers. I will say this: It was completely consistent with everything else I saw and heard while I was in Branson. Just so you know.
Postscript about the Baldknobbers show: The audience may have been entirely white, but the cast wasn’t. There was one non-white cast member – a Japanese-American man who played the fiddle and performed a noteworthy musical solo as a yodeler. Ten points to the Baldknobbers for cultural diversity.
On our last day in Branson, we got off the route 76 Strip and explored downtown. The main shopping district is the Branson Landing – a stretch of several blocks closed to automobiles. We walked the entire length of it and had fun, though we weren’t there to shop, so the area’s retail options were largely wasted on us.
A few blocks away, we had a far more interesting time exploring the various flea market emporiums in the downtown area. Most of them consisted of room after room of 20th century junk – the kind of stuff that needs to be examined closely in order to find the interesting shit. The most memorable of these shops was one that specialized in Victorian style materials; at least that’s what it promised. What it actually delivered looked like the afterbirth from the unholy union of Anne Rice and Walt Disney. I will leave the rest to your imagination.
We decided to splurge on one fabulous dinner to mark our final night in Branson. After asking around, we settled on the White River Fish House. It actually floats on Lake Taneycomo at the southern end of the Branson Landing shopping area. It is huge, with high ceilings, old wood everywhere, and a profusion of nautical themed antiques (or faux antiques) on every wall. More importantly, the food is divine. I enjoyed a generous serving of spicy breaded shrimp that was served with a blackened catfish étoufée and an iron skillet of freshly baked cornbread. This was perfectly complemented by an exceptional glass of Pinot Grigio and followed up with a most excellent warm bread pudding with caramel sauce. I’m going to take a break from typing now and salivate for a moment.
The drive between Chicago and Branson is a little over 550 miles each way, so it’s a full day of driving, particularly when the person you’re traveling with doesn’t have a driver’s license. But I’m not complaining. We had a great time! I’d love to go back there some time when it’s actually tourist season. You see, we avoided the crowds and saved a lot of time and money by going there in February, but the trade-off was that many of the live shows were on sabbatical until March or April. For example, we’d have bought tickets to “The 3 Redneck Tenors” in a heartbeat if they’d have been performing. No, I’m not making that up.
In closing, there are a couple more photos I’d like to share. The first one was taken outside a restaurant on the route 76 Strip. We didn’t eat there, but Alison insisted we pull over for a photo. She’s the one at the bottom of the picture.
This is me standing next to a bronze statue of a bear just outside the Bass Pro Shop. That’s the bear on the right.
Posted on 2013.01.05 at 16:11
Current Mood: content
Current Music: The Safety Dance - Men Without Hats
I want to show you my favorite Christmas present this year. It is precisely what it seems to be – a simple, unadorned hat. And that’s the point! Allow me to explain.
CC made this hat for me. It therefore fits better than any store-bought hat ever could. She made it because she’s heard me complain for years about my inability to find a hat with two key attributes: 1) That it fits my big head; and 2) That it has no corporate logos, no sports team logos, and no extraneous decoration (e.g., metal bands, hip-hop culture, Hello Kitty, or any combination thereof), any of which would likely misrepresent my actual affiliations and senses of dignity and decorum.
Long ago, I owned a lovely plain gray baseball cap that met all of my spartan criteria. Alas, in a careless moment, I left it atop a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the Cleveland Greyhound station as I boarded a bus to Buffalo. The years since that sad day have seen me sport a variety of logo-emblazoned caps, none of which have reposed elegantly upon my ample cranium. Along the way, I have endured terminology ranging from “pin head” to “short bus.” So this seemingly humble cap has immediately become my very favorite item of clothing. Thank you CC!
Posted on 2012.12.26 at 00:09
Current Mood: satisfied
Current Music: I've Seen All Good People - Yes
This year, I didn’t get most of my crossword puzzle Christmas cards sent out until after Christmas, so if you’re looking at this within a few days of Christmas, yours may still be on the way. In other words – Hold off looking at these answers until you’ve taken a crack at the puzzle! While we’re at it – if it gets to be New Year’s Day and you haven’t received one, and you’d like one, for gosh sakes let me know – it’s probably either an oversight on my part or I just don’t have your address.
Also, I did two separate puzzles this year. One has a theme that is geared toward the coworkers at my job. The other is geared toward friends and family. If you want to see the solutions to both puzzles,( CLICK HERE!Collapse )
Posted on 2012.12.18 at 21:07
Current Mood: dorky
Current Music: The Letter - The Box Tops
I’ve been sending text messages on my cell phone for some years now, but I know a few folks who are relative newcomers to the practice. If that describes you, then you’ve probably found yourself bewildered at times by the many abbreviations and symbols commonly used by veteran texters. As a public service, I’ve assembled a list of the more common ones. I require no thanks for this; I’m here to share.
First, a brief word on emoticons. You may have seen these; if you look at them sideways, they look like little faces. Most of us know the common ones such as :-) and :-( which denote happy and sad faces, but there is a host of other ones. Rather than try to list them all, I will single out a few of the odder ones that might puzzle a first-timer:
.-( – Somebody put my eye out
(-: – I’m in the Southern Hemisphere
2W<# – I’m a Picasso drawing
Now, on to the more standard text abbreviations:
AFK – Admires Freddy Krueger
BFF – Busty French Female
BRB – Bob Ross’ Brush (considered a rude euphemism)
BTW – Bought Twin Wolverines
F2F – Far Too Fruity (assumed to be a wine tasting reference)
FML – Frantically Making Lasagna
IDK – Idolizing Don Knotts
IMHO – Ignoring Mental Health Options
IRL – I’m Rusty at Latin
JK – Familiar form of address for author of Harry Potter books
LMFAO – Let Me Fry An Omelet
LOL – Lusting for Old Librarian
MILF – Medieval Italian Literary Form
NSFW – Nice Scenes of Film Work
OMG – Zero Milligrams (used primarily by dieters)
ROFL – Ran Out For Latkes
WTF – Waiting for Train at Fullerton
WTG – Waving at Teri Garr
If you have any additions to this list, please feel free to share them.
Posted on 2012.12.12 at 23:30
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: Under the Sea (from The Little Mermaid)
That’s the same title I used for the entries I made in 2008 discussing my week in Florida. Once again, it didn’t actually cost that much – but it sure felt
that way. This time around, the trip wasn’t nearly as long, so I’ll only take two blog entries to talk about it. Today, I’m going to talk about our trip to Sea World in Orlando.
This is CC kissing a flamingo. Even taking into account that tens of thousands of people visited the park while we were there, I told CC that I’d be willing to bet she was the only person there who kissed a flamingo on that particular day.( click here to see more photos, etc.Collapse )
In part 2, we’ll talk about our visit to the incomparable Epcot.
Posted on 2012.12.03 at 22:47
Current Mood: chipper
Current Music: Red Rubber Ball - The Cyrkle
This is my baseball; the only baseball I own at present. It is covered with the autographs of people I never met, but when I first got the ball, it had no signatures on it. Here’s what happened:
The ball itself is not a regulation major league baseball. I acquired it when I was a paperboy for The Detroit News
as a prize for selling new subscriptions. Note: The guys who sold a lot
of subscriptions got prizes like bicycles and trips to Washington DC, but this was the best prize I ever got from them, so you can see how good a salesman I was. Still, I had various prizes to choose from and I picked the baseball. Like I said, it had no signatures on it at this point.
A year or so later, my sisters B and E began attending autograph sessions prior to Detroit Tigers baseball games. I never accompanied them to these, but it was plain that they planned on attending them throughout the season. I proffered my baseball to sister E and asked her if she’d mind taking it with her whenever she attended an autograph session and filling it up with signatures. She obliged and by late in the season, it was covered with ink scrawls of varying degrees of legibility.
There’s one sad part to the story: My sisters had been collecting their autographs on paper – notebooks of some sort, I assume, but they had not brought baseballs of their own. Sister E was a mere 14 years old at the time, and it was a tearful parting when she had to surrender the baseball to me. She briefly made an appeal to my compassion, hoping that I might let her keep the ball, but my 18-year-old heart had little compassion in it when it came to such matters. A deal was a deal, I reasoned, and so the ball came into my possession.
The ball has seen little light in the intervening years, remaining mostly in storage, but my nephew A recently gave me a clear plastic display case, so the ball is finally on display in my living room (though never in direct sunlight) where any lucky guest may view it.
The autographs are from members of the 1977 Detroit Tigers. Because it was signed over the course of the season at various autograph sessions, quality control was a little spotty. The most obvious result of this may be seen in the above photo, which shows two separate autographs from Steve Kemp, who was a rookie that year. Also seen here are the signatures of pitchers Steve Grilli and the late, great Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
Another autograph on the ball is that of rookie pitcher Jack Morris, who stands a good chance of being elected to the Hall of Fame in a few weeks. So that’s cool. Thanks again, after all these years, to sister E for enabling me to possess this wonderful little sphere of memories.
Posted on 2012.11.28 at 22:15
Current Mood: full
Current Music: I Started a Joke - Bee Gees
For a short period of time, there was a Pizza Hut near my apartment. It hadn’t been there long when the incident occurred, and it closed its doors for good not long afterward. Perhaps the incident I am about to relate was a contributing cause of the restaurant’s demise. We’ll never know for sure; we can only wonder. It happened over a decade ago, but the memory haunts me still.
One dark night, CC and I ordered two medium pizzas for delivery. She wanted sausage and onions on hers; I wanted mushrooms, black olives, and onions on mine. Remember that; it’s important – mushrooms, black olives, and onions.
After a conventional wait – maybe 40 minutes or so – the pizzas arrived. I paid the man at the door and brought the pizzas into the living room. After pouring beverages for both CC and myself, I settled down on the couch, ready to enjoy my dinner. I opened the box –
– and there, in profusion upon my pizza, was a substantial serving of ham. Ham! It was nestled among the expected mushrooms and black olives. I wasn’t about to eat it – I don’t do ham, okay? I called Pizza Hut and explained the problem. They were extremely apologetic and said they would make a new pizza for me with mushrooms, black olives, and onions. Sure enough, not half an hour later, our driver appeared again at the door with a fresh pizza in hand. This time, I popped the box open while he was standing there, only to find –
– Ham! Ham again, nestled among the mushrooms and black olives. This time I was a little indignant, a little self-righteous, a little irritated even. And more than a little hungry. The driver was as apologetic as could be and he immediately called over to the restaurant, which promised to send the correct pizza my way ASAP.
The wait this time was no more than 20 minutes. And this time, we had a different driver. She had the air about her of someone who didn’t usually do deliveries – likely a manager. She gave me a longer and more erudite apology than any I’d received to that point and handed the pizza to me. I opened the box right there at the door, and saw –
– mushrooms, black olives, and… well… onions. Yes those were onions! And I realized in a flash that these were not the usual white onions I typically saw on pizzas. No these were, well… red onions. Wide slices. Red onions that could be mistaken for, well… ham… if one didn’t… examine them closely enough. As I was realizing this, the delivery person got back in her car and drove off.
Yes… all three of those pizzas had been prepared with onions on them. Not ham, onions. Do you hear me Chuck? Onions! Red onions! As red as the color of my face at that moment. As red as the metaphoric blood on my hands when I saw that the Pizza Hut had closed.
In retrospect, I should have called the pizzeria and apologized – profusely, that is, commensurate with the pizzeria’s many apologies. But (sigh) my embarrassment was such that I just wanted to forget the whole sorry episode. If St. Peter is waiting for me at The Gates, I may not have heard the end of this.
Still… waste not, want not. We were, at that point, in possession of a total of three medium pizzas with mushrooms, black olives, and onions. It stored well in the freezer and was consumed over the next few weeks. But without quite the enthusiasm with which I normally greet a hot plate of pizza.
Posted on 2012.11.25 at 23:34
Current Mood: nostalgic
Current Music: Peg - Steely Dan
I borrowed these from my sister E and scanned them. By the way, they’re magic because I remember when they looked just like me, but with the passing years, they have changed so much that I am now barely recognizable in them.
This is an old photo of CC and me. We’re in the basement at my parents’ house. If you know CC, you know that this bears no resemblance to her whatsoever. I believe the left side of this photo has somehow become stretched out over the years, creating this distorted image.
This is me (with the beard) next to my father. A box of old clothes had come into our house, and a bunch of us had set about trying on some of the monstrosities found therein. The fact that we actually got dad to take part in the hijinks was a major exception to his usual reserved attitude. While we never wore any of these clothes again after that night, I must admit that the dark wraparound sunglasses I’m wearing were actually mine. What can I say… it was another time in my life.
Posted on 2012.11.04 at 23:59
Current Mood: awake
Current Music: Hold On - Wilson Phillips
In late October, I attended the Northwestern-Iowa football game in Evanston, Illinois. I’m not here to talk about the game, though. I mean really – if you’re a fan, you already know that Northwestern won handily by a score of 28 to 17. And besides, this isn’t a sports news site; it’s my personal blog, so reporting on such a widely known event is never my purpose here. I simply want to report on a particular event that occurred during halftime.
First, a few side notes. The above photo was taken from my seat at Ryan Field. I went alone, so I was able to get a decent seat even though I bought it only a few weeks in advance. Quick Tip:
When attending sporting or theatrical events, it is often possible to find excellent single seats at a late date, even at the last minute.
My entire reason for attending the game could perhaps be described as a mini-mid-life crisis. I realized recently that as big a fan as I am of college football, I’d only attended one college game in my life. Well now, here I am living on the north side of Chicago, only minutes away from a Big Ten school and stadium! I decided this had to change. Full disclosure – Many years ago, my brother Dan and I stood on a wooded hillside in Ithaca, New York that happened to overlook a football stadium and watched a few minutes of an Ithaca College game, but I can’t count that as properly attending a game, particularly since we couldn’t even tell who they were playing.
Back to the matter at hand – at halftime of the Northwestern-Iowa game, the Northwestern University Marching Band came out on the field to perform for us. At the same time, I was sitting in my seat, debating whether my bladder could make it through the second half, or whether I should brave the crowds leading up the men’s room and perhaps miss the start of the third quarter.
The stadium announcer’s voice rang out: “We begin with our tribute to Hollywood and television theme songs, beginning with ‘Goldfinger.’” As the band played a lively, solidly rhythmic rendition of that familiar theme, they marched into a formation that spelled out James Bond’s designation, “007”.
Ah, but you see, I was sitting on the visitor’s side of the field, so the marching band’s formation was upside down from where I sat. I looked up and saw that, to my eye, the band had spelled out “LOO”.
That cinched it. It was a sign. I immediately bolted from my seat and made my way to the line leading to the men’s room. And for the record, the line moved quickly and I was back in my seat just in time for the second half kickoff.
In closing, I just want to say that I had a great time. The vibe at a college football game is vastly different from what you feel at an NFL game. Each is wonderful in its own way, but there is a level of emotion and charm at a college game that I have resolved to experience more often going forward.
Posted on 2012.10.29 at 15:00
Current Mood: academic
Current Music: Word Up - Cameo
The letters NHL are widely understood to stand for the National Hockey League. I’ve gone through many a long year blithely using the term, never bothering to understand what the words meant. Well, I’ve done a little digging lately, and what I’ve learned may surprise you.
The first word – “National” – is actually an acronym (who knew?) for Not Amenable To Including Options Not Anti-Labor. The third word – “League” – is generally understood as a reference to being “in league” with dark forces of some sort. It’s that second word – “Hockey” – that tells the most interesting story.
In the context of the acronym “NHL”, the word Hockey is subject to various interpretations, all of which may contain a shred of truth. The most plausible theory is that it is a combination of the words “hocked” and “hokey”, but that may be too Anglo-centric of a viewpoint, ignoring hockey’s international and ancient origins.
As a part of the complex phrase described above (NHL), the word Hockey may derive from the German word hoch,
meaning tall, describing the apparent height of someone standing on skates. It may also derive from the Finnish word hakea,
meaning “to fetch”, referring to the handsome prices the top franchises fetch when they come on the market. Alternately, it may derive from the Japanese word hoshi,
meaning star, as a reminder that the game’s stars drive a lot of fan interest, though that interpretation appears lost on the current franchise owners.
The more likely origin, in my view, is that “Hockey” in this case derives from another Japanese word, hyaka,
meaning one hundred, so that if one reads the entire phrase, the implication is that the league is “one hundred percent in league with dark forces.”
The jury is still out on the definitive etymology of “NHL”, but it’s clear that the final answer will require extensive cross-disciplinary study and collaboration. Still, it appears we will have plenty of time to research the matter in the months to come, without any actual NHL games to distract us, so there may be more arcane revelations to come.
Posted on 2012.10.28 at 16:31
Current Mood: amused
This sign is a surprise that appeared recently in my neighborhood. As you might guess, it came to light as the result of a building demolition, which revealed this remarkably well preserved Coca-Cola sign. If you want to see it, it’s on the side of the building located at 5438 North Clark Street in Chicago.
You might wonder what year the sign dates from. Well… it’s hard to say, at least for me. The building certainly dates back to the late 19th or early 20th century. One clue is the fact that Coke is being advertised here as costing five cents, but that turns out to not be a very good clue. According to my research, a bottle of Coke cost five cents at least as far back as 1905, and it still cost five cents at least as late as the mid-1940s. To my eye, the sign seems clearly to date from before World War II, but it would take a better advertising scholar than me to narrow it down any further.
In any case, it’s certainly rare to see an unrestored painted Coke sign this old in such excellent condition. I can’t help but wonder whether a new building will soon be built on the now-empty lot next to it. Perhaps this sign will soon be covered up again, to be rediscovered again a century hence. In the meantime, we will appreciate this little piece of early 20th century Americana that is now (presumably briefly) on public display.Update —
My friend Vince did some research and reports that this building was built in 1915. Gratzi Vince!
Posted on 2012.10.24 at 16:54
Current Mood: refreshed
Current Music: Viva La Vida - Coldplay
Earlier today, I was contemplating the opening speech from Shakespeare’s Richard III, i.e., “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York…”, when it suddenly occurred to me that Gloucester has a perfect counterpart in the present day: None other than NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman! Bear with me on this…
Consider: a small, deformed man, his twisted body mirroring his twisted soul. A man whose sole delight is in his machinations to set one group against another to further his own consolidation of power. The likeness came to me in the following passage, which is from that same opening speech:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams…
I offer this to those of my readers who share my tastes for theater and hockey.
Posted on 2012.10.10 at 18:23
Current Mood: curious
Current Music: Drive - The Cars
That’s a funny phrase when applied to potential relationships – “Out of my league.” Or at least, it’s funny now. When I was in my 20s, it seemed like a perfectly sensible concept. One heard it all the time, usually in reference to extremely stylish-looking women. The reference was usually spoken by men who were anything but stylish – or it was spoken by men who thought that YOU were anything but stylish.
The phrase could actually mean several different things. It could mean “You are not what she’s looking for, so don’t waste your time” – which now strikes me as an extremely presumptuous attitude. It could be an insult meaning “You’re a schlub who should be looking at either the back of the bar, the bottom of the barrel, or the personal notices in the alternative newspaper. You have nothing to offer to someone classy.” Once again, an extremely presumptuous attitude towards both the men and the women.
Once, I was told by a guy I knew that a certain woman was out of my league, and when I pressed for a clarification, he told me that the woman in question was looking for a man with a lot of money, and men of modest means – such as myself – should not apply. Well… if that was a true picture of her, I’m not sure she occupied a league that could be described as higher than mine.
But I suppose that’s part of what we do in our youth – and hopefully, for the rest of our lives – we figure out who we are, who other people are, what might be the truth, and what just might be a lot of widely accepted BS.
With regard to the topic at hand, I gradually came to the realization that this “out of my league” concept fell into the BS category. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anyone who could be described that way in relation to anyone else. Now, having said that, there are myriad other reasons why relationships don’t work out, or never even start. Among them: immaturity, self-centeredness that the other half of the relationship doesn’t wish to indulge, lack of common interests, lack of commitment to working through issues, and unfaithfulness. And let’s not forget this one, which has got to be at or near the top of the list – one or both parties isn’t being honest with themselves about what they’re looking for and are thus doomed to pinball from one unsatisfying relationship to another until they get a little smarter about themselves.
As I considered this topic, an incident from my 20s came to mind. It’s one of those memories that reminds me of how far I’ve come – and a possible blind spot I probably still need to guard against.
She was one of those women I considered at the time to be “out of my league” – classy, sassy, smart, stylish, personable, sexy – the whole package. She and I had a lot of friends in common, so we were often at the same events. I’d spent enough time with her that I’d become comfortable with this “out of my league” concept. And then, one night…
…We were out with a gaggle of theater friends after a play I’d performed in earlier that evening. The restaurant was a couple miles from the theater. As the evening was wrapping up, she asked me if I could give her a lift back to her car, which she’d left at the theater. Well of course, I said, thinking nothing of it. I could, for example, have wondered why she wasn’t catching a ride back there with whoever had driven her to the restaurant. But I didn’t think of it at the time.
We pulled into the theater’s parking lot, which was at a dark and desolate suburban intersection. The lights in the lot had been turned off at this late hour, so we had to carefully navigate over to where her car was parked. I stopped my car and assumed she would get out. Only she didn’t. She was suddenly inclined to make cute small talk, showing no inclination to move on. Then she sat there in silence, and a sudden realization dawned on me – she thought we’d come there to make out! A sudden flood of images from the preceding couple hours made it clear that she’d been working this angle, or so she thought, for some time. I realized all this as I was in the middle of wishing her a good night and telling her to drive safely (since she had at least several drinks in her). She abruptly clambered out of my car and got into hers, with only the tersest of Good Nights directed my way.
I sat there until she’d started her car and driven off, and I tried to figure out how I’d missed what ought to have been some pretty obvious signs.
Did we see each other after that? Of course we did. As I said, we had many friends in common. But she never again made so much effort to engage me in conversation, and she never again asked me for a ride. As for me, I didn’t quite know what to do, since we hadn’t actually had any overt disagreement or unkind word between us. It would be easy to say that it’s all for the best, it never would have worked, etc. – and that might all be true, but that’s not really the point, is it?
It was a curious moment, a dully painful moment, but an instructive moment. It was a lesson to me in several aspects of my own personality, including an implicit suggestion that there were some things I needed to learn about listening to people and observing their unspoken cues. But to the topic at hand, it was also a lesson about what nonsense this whole “out of my league” business was. In the end, someone actually is out of your league only in the moment either of you believe it to be so. After you’ve dealt with that, you may find other reasons to accept or reject them, but you can then do it while they’re at eye level.
As for me – ah well, I still have plenty to learn. But I think maybe I’ve learned a little bit along the way, so I offer it here for the edification of any who may find it.
Posted on 2012.10.01 at 11:39
Current Mood: pleased
Current Music: Travelin' Man - Ricky Nelson
We got out of town over the weekend, probably for the last time this year before the weather becomes a discouraging factor in our travel planning. I have a handful of photos to share from the weekend.
This statue is in Oregon, Illinois, on a high bluff overlooking the Rock River. It is often referred to as the Black Hawk statue or just the Indian Statue, but its more formal name is The Eternal Indian. It was created a little over a century ago by the celebrated sculptor Lorado Taft. To give you a sense of scale, the statue is about 50 feet tall and this picture shows about the upper two-thirds of it. And then there’s that impossibly blue sky behind it, commanding any spectator with a camera to document the moment. Also, I decided that if I were going to post this photo, it had to be large enough to convey a sense of the massiveness of the thing.
These are CC’s cats. Despite the difference in their markings and despite the fact that one is about half the size of the other, these two are sisters and litter-mates. The patchy-coated one is named Patchy and the one with the flecks of color on her coat is named Flecks. Another difference is that Flecks will pose nicely for any wandering portraitist or photographer, while Patchy never stops moving for long and can be a tad skittish, which necessitated the zoomed-in, grainy shot of her you see here.
Finally, I was in fine and lovely company on this trip, with CC and Alison. This was taken at possibly the finest restaurant in Dixon, Illinois, The Basil Tree, just after we’d finished consuming a fabulous meal and various glasses of wine/cocktails. It was a good night and a very satisfying weekend.
Posted on 2012.09.18 at 16:56
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: Play Me - Neil Diamond
I’m a hockey fan. Some of my best friends are hockeyholics. I assume they have meetings where they introduce themselves to the group, e.g., “Hi, I’m Jerry and I’m a hockeyholic.” “Hi, Jerry.” I don’t normally bother to make the distinction between fans and -holics, but I think it’s necessary in order for me to discuss the present lockout of NHL players by management. First, a brief recap for my non-holic and non-fan readers. (Note – I am not referring to long-time NHL player Bobby Holik, who retired in 2009)
It’s like this: The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NHL Players Association and the league is up for renegotiation. The league, led by commissioner Gary Bettman, has decided to lock out the players and play no more hockey – and pay the players no more money – until the union agrees to a new CBA. So just to be clear, there is no strike occurring. In fact, the players have indicated a willingness to play under an extension of the expiring CBA while a new one is negotiated, but Bettman is intent upon extracting major concessions from the players and sees a lockout as the best way to expedite the attainment of his goals. The players feel that they made considerable concessions in the previous CBA, so they are not sympathetic to what they perceive as either A) A naked opportunistic money grab by the owners, or B) A sign that the owners are unable to work together for their own common good and will now try to force the players to subsidize their own bad management.
While I’m not aware of any formal scientific polls on the subject, anecdotal evidence (by which I mean internet postings) seems to indicate that fans and -holics alike substantially favor the players’ position in this matter. I’m sure there’s a certain percentage who favor either the players or management based on their general philosophy about unions, but still, the overwhelming indication is that the hockey public agrees with the players’ position.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of fans and -holics primarily want this dispute to end; they just want the players back on the ice. There’s one big reason why it’s appropriate for us to feel that way: It is crystal clear that we don’t get a vote in the matter. Both sides in this dispute have far greater considerations than worrying about hurting the feelings of Jane Hockey Fan or Jerry Hockeyholic.
On the players’ side, they are acutely aware of how short their careers will be. Even the greatest among them can have their careers put into sudden jeopardy (see Exhibit A: Crosby, Sidney). Furthermore, most of them have dreamed of little but hockey since they were children, so for most of them, Plan B, if they even have a Plan B, is something far less lucrative than being a professional hockey player. So their emphasis must be on maximizing the return on their precious time on NHL ice.
On the owners’ side, there are two main considerations: A) Making lots of money, and B) Winning. It seems that some owners value item A more highly, and some others value item B more highly. The lucky few get to succeed in both A and B, but there is a long tradition in professional sports ownership of owners who have made their millions in other industries, so they can afford to play around with losing money on their sports team. In addressing this inequity, the NHL has conspicuously lagged behind the other professional sports leagues.
Pete Rozelle, as NFL commissioner, achieved a level of profit sharing that some leagues have used as a model, while others (i.e., the NHL) have wrinkled their noses at the thought. Rozelle led the way in getting teams to share revenues, and it helped turn the NFL into the juggernaut it is today. While it hasn’t prevented a few NFL teams from getting into financial trouble, it has helped ensure profitability for most. Another part of Rozelle’s genius was in de-emphasizing the distinction between traditional teams (e.g., Bears, Giants, Packers) and new teams coming over through the NFL/AFL merger (e.g., Raiders, Chiefs, Chargers). The NHL, by comparison, prides itself on such phrases as “Original Six.” Which is all well and good if you’re one of the Original Six, but if you’re not one of them, it automatically suggests that you’re somehow not so special. I’m not saying they should forget the Original Six, but keep those memories in the museum where they belong and try to think as a league. The NFL and the NBA embraced this philosophy as they grew and merged with other leagues in the 60s and 70s. The NHL, to their detriment, has not, and has furthermore tried to pass off this counterproductive philosophy as somehow laudable. “Hockey’s special”… “You don’t understand how hockey is”… these are euphemisms excusing backward thinking.
As you might have inferred by now, I tend to side with the players in this dispute, though it’s hard to be optimistic about their chances for success. My pessimism does not so much come from a feeling that the owners are holding all the cards; heck, there have been plenty of victories by players’ unions over the years, so it can certainly happen. But the circumstances and timing of this dispute seem to favor the owners. First, we are in a time of waning union power in the United States, which emboldens management in all businesses to take a more hard-line approach. More importantly, commissioner Bettman seems to have consolidated the cooperation of the owners to an unprecedented extent. If he can keep enough owners from giving in, he can deliver the goods. In this respect, Bettman becomes a familiar figure from today’s corporate world – someone whose only goal, whose only moral tenet, is delivering the bottom line and being recognized as the one who did it.
Bettman seems to care little about whether the players or the fans perceive him as an insincere tool. No, he doesn’t mind bearing those titles one bit, so long as he can make his bosses happy. They are his only constituents. His true title is Commissioner of the NHL Owners. He serves at their pleasure and I don’t doubt that he wants to be remembered as the man who delivered unprecedented piles of money to them. Period. Anything else is gravy that he’ll happily smile and take credit for, but that sort of gravy is not the real prize he craves.
At the beginning of this essay, I made a distinction between hockey fans and hockeyholics. Here’s a key difference, I think: The hockeyholics will not rest easily until the lockout ends. They may try to amuse themselves with college hockey, minor league hockey, and European leagues, but it will be a restless time for them until the NHL is back on the ice.
For mere hockey fans such as myself, the stakes are not so high. Sure, I’ll be happy when they take the ice again, but I’ll tend to not think about it much. I’ll busy myself with the other athletic joys of the season – college & pro football, the baseball playoffs, even the early stirrings of the basketball season. For that matter, I might go to more movies and watch more documentaries this winter if there’s no hockey. I’m not caught up in the strident arguments that some of the hockeyholics are so fond of brandishing, e.g., “Hockey is the best sport by far!!!!!”; “Those other sports WISH they were as exciting as hockey!!!!!”; etc., etc. I’m not particularly moved by arguments that seek to make objective truths out of subjective, personal opinions. I can get awfully caught up in a LOT of different sports and games. If hockey is the only thing that makes a friend of mine feel that way, then I hope for their sake that this lockout ends soon. I’m not saying my way is better than theirs, but that’s just how it is — and may I add, Vive la Différence!
Finally, I want to make it clear that I’m not going to be one of those jilted fans who swears that they’ve given their last nickel to the NHL. For one thing, I suspect that the vast majority of the people making those statements are going to be right back in the stands in pretty short order. For another thing, I’ve already laid out some bucks to the Chicago Blackhawks for tickets to a January 2013 game vs. the Philadelphia Flyers. That being said, if this ends up being a quickie, abbreviated season, I may not shell out for the NHL Center Ice TV package this time around. Not as a protest, but simply because I’ll be pursuing other amusements.
Commissioner Bettman has essentially admitted publicly that he takes the fans for granted. He sleeps secure in the knowledge that they’ll always come back. Maybe he’s right, or maybe his hard line tactics will do long-term damage to the popularity of the NHL. Frankly, I don’t think he cares, at least not directly. He can live with less fan interest. He can live with losing top players to European leagues if it comes to that. I don’t think he views it as essential that the NHL have the world’s best talent or the world’s best game. He can live with all of those things if he knows he’s delivered a greater profit to his bosses, but he’ll give lip service to the rest of it.
At the other end of the spectrum sits me, Chuck Fan. My wishes are far different from Bettman’s. Here’s what I want: I want the highest quality hockey in the world being played by the teams I root for. For what it’s worth, I’d like to see everyone involved in the business handsomely rewarded for bringing me that level of quality. I recognize that the conflict between labor and management is a never-ending process and that the phrase “labor peace” evokes memories of author Richard Armour’s definition of peace as “brief period of preparation for the next war.”
There are also some things I don’t want: I don’t want to one day realize that the highest quality hockey league is on another continent, because then I may have to pick one of those teams to root for, particularly if my native league wants to pretend they’re still the best when they have no interest in paying for the privilege. And though it’s hard to compare myself to a professional athlete in either abilities or compensation, permit me this: As a working person, I don’t want to see the public accept any old lie or distortion that management wants to throw out there. I aspire to be a little smarter and more empowered than that, and I aspire to live in a world that’s a little smarter and more empowered than that. I donate my passion to sports, not my brain.
Posted on 2012.08.30 at 17:30
Current Mood: accomplished
“Twenty years, where’d they go? Twenty years, I don’t know…”
So goes the lyric from the Bob Seger classic “Like a Rock,” but I post that lyric with tongue in cheek, because I do
have a sense of where the time has gone. Three weeks from today will be the 20th anniversary of my move from Detroit to Chicago, and I have to say this: Most of the time, it does in fact feel like I’ve been here for 20 years. Only occasionally do the years suddenly compress and disorient me.Quick one-liner — If you were forced to leave China, would you become dis-Oriented?
It’s been said that we make our own luck, and the circumstances of my move to Chicago constitute a perfect example. I was living just outside of Detroit and working downtown in 1992. I was acting steadily and had a lot of friends… but it wasn’t working for me, on a deep level. The problem was that I’d said goodbye to Detroit several years earlier, when CC and I had moved to East Lansing. Neither of us had any intention of coming back to Detroit when her time at Michigan State University was over. We thought we’d be in East Lansing for four years or so, after which we’d go somewhere else to be determined. But… unforeseen things happened. Life happened. Death happened. Boredom happened… and a year later, instead of digging into a life in East Lansing, we found ourselves heading back to Detroit in a move that… well, seemed to make sense at the time (the story is far too complex to lay out in detail in this forum).
So it was back into the Detroit theater whirl for me. As before, I had little trouble keeping busy, though the acting business was not nearly lucrative enough to keep me from having to hold a regular office job. For the next few years, we lived in a spacious rented house near Six Mile & Mound Road, before the wheel turned again. CC took a job in Nashville, Tennessee, and the two of us broke up as a couple. So there I was, living by myself in a city I’d already said goodbye to – and, by the way, I was in no small amount of debt. It was 1992 and I was looking for an alternative.
It came as the result of a pointed remark from an outside consultant, a remark I jumped on (this was the moment of “making my own luck”). I was working for Detroit Edison and one day, after looking over some of my work, the consultant said, “You know, you could work for us.” Oh really? He told me that his company had offices all over the country – all over the world in fact – and that he’d put in a good word for me if I applied there.
He was as good as his word, and a few weeks later, I was on a plane to Chicago for a job interview. The interview went well, a job offer was made, the offer was accepted, and a few weeks after that, I was driving my dad’s yellow station wagon to Chicago along with most of my possessions.* * * *
On the eve of my move to Chicago, I gave myself a little pep talk. The substance of it went something like this: “You are changed by everything you do, by everything and everyone you interact with. This move to Chicago will change you as well, probably more so than anything else you’ve ever done. You don’t know where you’re going to be living. You’re going to make new friends – a whole bunch of them with any luck – and right now, you can’t imagine who they’re going to be. But you know one thing about them – they’ll be different from anyone you know now. You will affect them and they will affect you. You’re going to be away from all the family, all the familiar places, all the familiar influences – for better and for worse. You will become a subtly different person. And you have no way of knowing in advance who that person will be. This is a leap of faith. You’re going in the direction you need to go, reaching for the things you instinctively need. So what you become will be something more than you were before. This is the next step towards becoming who you need to be; maybe the next step towards becoming who you truly are.”
Or something like that.
If I hadn’t left the Detroit area, maybe I wouldn’t feel now as if so much time had passed. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for sure. But so many changes have occurred, it seems only natural that many years have elapsed. My life and philosophies have evolved. I’ve cultivated a love for learning that I hope will never leave me. People have come… and gone… or stayed around for the long haul. I’ve entertained – or maybe just tickled the brains of – countless thousands of people, both as a performer and as a writer. And I’ve traveled; I can’t overstate the importance of that in my life. There’s a timeworn metaphor about life being like an onion, that you peel it a layer at a time, and sometimes you cry. Awww… isn’t that sweet? But for me, I feel more as if life has been a process not of peeling the onion, but of adding layers to it. Hmmm… I suppose the logical implication of this metaphor is that by the end, I’ll be a complete vegetable.
But truly, I have a sense that the many and varied people, places, emotions, left turns. U-turns, disappointments, deceptions, free lunches and assorted victories have continued to deepen my understanding of myself and the world through which I’m traveling.
Which, please note, is a far cry from actually claiming to possess any true wisdom or insight. But I’m trying to move in that direction.
A few frames from the kaleidoscope of the past 20 years:
* * * *
- The night I came to Chicago. My friend KA agreed to let me sleep on her couch and fill her apartment with my stuff until I could find my own apartment. Her only stipulation: That instead of paying her in any way for the favor, I had to agree to pass it on to the next friend who came to Chicago looking for a place to stay. Class act, KA. The move-in was done by me solo, and I made countless trips up the back alley stairs carrying stuff up to her 3rd floor apartment. At one point, I came down to the alley to find that a large rat was lingering near my car. We wanted nothing to do with each other, but we repeatedly moved in the same direction as we tried to get around one another. This led to an extended slow dance between the two of us until we finally traded places and the rat took off. If anyone saw us out of their back windows, it probably looked like an outtake from a movie called Dances with Rats. So welcome to Chicago, Chuck. It was certainly not the last rat I’ve had to dance around.
- I live alone for two years… then I have a roommate for a year and a half… then I live alone for six months… then I have a roommate for 15 years… then I have a new roommate.
- I have no cat… then I have 1 cat… then I have 3 cats… then 2… then 1… then 2… then 3… and occasionally, I have 5 when CC visits with her 2 cats. I love them all, even the ungrateful pests. Oh right… that describes all of them. Somewhere, Donovan is singing, “First there is a kitty, then there is no kitty, then there is…”
- My presence in the theater world has been spotty since moving to Chicago, though at times intense. Early on, I appeared in two shows at the Circle Theater in Forest Park: Mill Fire and No Exit. Gratifyingly, both were surprise hits for Circle Theatre. This was particularly satisfying in the case of No Exit, since there were people who worked at the theater who were convinced that it was going to be a bomb. When word of mouth caused us to start selling out, those negative voices were sweetly silenced.
- Other memorable theatrical moments for me include my month in Greece in 2000 with the University of Detroit-Mercy Theater group headed by Dr. Arthur Beer. That just might have been the best month of my life to date. In the area of writing, I actually managed to write two complete one act plays and got to attend readings of them at the Theatre Building as part of a new play festival. And after a lifetime of writing song parodies and silly verse, I actually got paid to write a song for a show. It was a patter song about the history of time, and you’ll have to corner me sometime to hear the whole story – but deepest thanks go to FP for hiring me to write it!
- By far my biggest theatrical commitment since moving to Chicago was the 5+ years I spent in the Chicago company of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Long-time readers of this journal have seen many essays and photographs posted here about that remarkable time. It was a unique experience in myriad ways, from the extreme personalities involved in producing and directing the show, to the equally extreme personalities who were often cast in the show, to the nightly sizzle of performing a high-energy, partially improvised, audience-interactive show as many as six times a week. As a training vehicle, the impact of all this cannot be underestimated. TnT has also proven to be the gift that keeps on giving in another way: Even though I left the show five years ago, many of the people I met there continue to be a vibrant part of my life. TnT the show is long gone now, having closed after a 16 year run, but for hundreds of us, it’s the show that will never truly close.
Chicago is the city in which I have reached middle age. An inescapable fact about reaching middle age is that many of the people you’ve known in your life don’t make it this far. A couple of very close friends have passed away in recent years, as well as a much longer list of acquaintances and members of my extended family. Most notably, both of my parents are now gone. My mother died in 2005 and my father died in March of this year. While neither death could be called unexpected – we had months if not years of warning in both cases – such events drive a spike into the timeline of one’s life. We are now in the period called After The Parents Are Gone.
In entering this period, my place in the world has been redefined. Part of it is that I no longer have those familiar sounding boards with whom I might share the progress of my life. Even if you are of a religious nature and believe that they still hear you, you must allow that the nature of your relationship with them has been fundamentally altered. The advice they may now offer to you is more in the form of remembered conversations plus your own memories of the examples they set. For me, the two greatest comforts of this new order are: 1) Knowing that my parents, for the most part, lived the life they chose and had the life they wanted; and 2) The knowledge that outliving one’s parents is the outcome one should wish for. There is hardly anything sadder to contemplate that the notion of burying one’s child. My parents, despite having eight children, were spared this sorrow.
Another vital change in my life since moving to Chicago is the journal you’re reading now. For most of my life, there’s been a writer inside of me beating against those inner walls looking for a way out. While I’d written countless song parodies and brief comedic bits, trying to write anything requiring more than a two-minute attention span remained a frustrating and fruitless proposition, with only a few special-case exceptions.
In August 2005, my friend Cheryl L., a prolific and polished writer in many assorted fields of interest, casually suggested that I might be interested in starting my own blog through this site called LiveJournal. I took her advice and I’ve never looked back. If I were to take into account everything I’ve ever recreationally written in my life, I have no doubt that over 95% of it would be right here on this website. In fact, if you click on the word “Archive” near the top left corner of this screen, you can navigate to anything I’ve ever posted here. Proceed at your own risk.
The key, I think, to my ability to write here is that I’m writing for myself yet I’m writing publicly. Anyone with an internet connection could potentially wander over here. In fact, I’ve made a few online friends through precisely that process. Another important aid to my creative process is that there are no deadlines here. I often go weeks between posts – or I might post several essays in a week’s time.
The combination of my intermittent blog posting and my intermittent theater work has taught me something about myself – that I need to be engaged in a creative process in order to feel balanced and fulfilled. OK, I guess I already knew it, but now I’ve had that knowledge underlined, italicized and bolded!
I referred earlier to the pep talk I gave myself on the eve of my move to Chicago. All of those things I vaguely thought I foresaw have come to pass, only they’re no longer vague. Those theoretical friends and influences are names and personalities. Some of those influences aren’t people at all, but streets, restaurants, highways, islands, museums, neighborhoods, and office buildings. My life isn’t theoretical; it’s specific, and it’s populated by real people.* * * *
A very special thank you goes out to CC, who is the one person I regularly speak to who has hung around through all of this. We met in 1985, and a great deal of what has transpired in the past 20+ years couldn’t have occurred without her friendship and inspiration.
My best case scenario? That 20 years from now, I’ll be telling all of you about my first 40 years in Chicago. It will be a story filled with triumphs, tears, and no shortage of adventure. Until then, thank you for being a part of my journey, and I hope I may continue to be a part of yours.
Posted on 2012.08.18 at 20:59
Current Mood: amused
Current Music: Bad Sneakers - Steely Dan
Theater is occasionally performed by fools and produced by scoundrels. Maybe “occasionally” should be replaced by “often”; maybe even “usually”. I won’t debate the matter here and now. I will say only that on one particular occasion, I was one of the fools while our producer was assuredly one of the scoundrels.
The year was 1979. I was 20 years old, a few months away from my professional acting debut. I was living in my parents’ home in Detroit and had immersed myself in theater. That immersion had begun in the fall of 1978, when I had consciously decided to try packing as much theater into my life as I possibly could.
I don’t remember how I heard about the auditions. Someone had acquired the Alger Theater, a shuttered former movie palace on Detroit’s far east side, with the intention of producing community theater. Word was that the place had a usable stage, that it had hosted live performances back in the day. Their first production was to be the musical Damn Yankees.
Well say no more! That’s what I thought at the time. The role of the Devil, originated by the late great Ray Walston, was one of my dream roles. I showed up at the auditions, which I believe were on a Sunday afternoon, ready to act the Hell out of the role.
Several dozen auditioners were spread about the spacious Alger Theater when I arrived. They came in all ages and sizes, including a few hopeful moms shepherding groups of children. The director – I’ll call him Ronald – began by jumping up on the stage to make an announcement. It went something like this: “I’m happy to see so many of you here today for our Damn Yankees auditions. There’s just one problem – we’re not doing Damn Yankees; we’re doing The Music Man. I’m sure that’s disappointing to some of you, but I hope you’ll stay for the auditions.”
There followed a general murmuring, and various people, including moms with groups of children, clambered out of their seats and left. In retrospect, this was rather mystifying, since Music Man has a far greater need for child performers than does Damn Yankees.
I too was disappointed that I would not have a chance that day to pursue one of my dream roles, but in fact, this played right into my hand. You see, Music Man was the first show I’d ever performed in. We’d done it in my junior year of high school and I knew just about the whole show by heart, including the tricky cadences of the song “Trouble.”
So when my time came to go up onstage and audition, I sang “Trouble.” It contrasted nicely with the many songs from Damn Yankees being sung that day. I was purely delighted to receive a rousing ovation from my fellow auditioners at the conclusion of my song.
Ronald immediately waved me over towards him. “That was great!” he gushed. “I don’t know whether you’re going to be Harold Hill or barber shop quartet or something, but welcome aboard!” Well gosh… make a fellow feel welcome!
There was a practical reason for Ronald to try casting people who already knew the show. It was this: Opening night took place less than three weeks after auditions. If you’re not a theater person, take it from me – that’s a crazy short time to put any full-length show together, much less a big musical with choreography, chorus numbers, and the like. Even under a best-base scenario, this figured to be an insane three weeks we were about to embark upon.
I was cast as Ewart Dunlop, second tenor in the barber shop quartet. Not being cast as leading man Harold Hill was not the crushing blow to me that you might have expected. Frankly, the prospect had terrified me at the time, so I was fine with being in the quartet.
Ah, now we come to the casting of Harold Hill. This was the first sign that we were engaged in something other than an innocent shoestring community theater adventure. On the day of auditions, there was one actor who was clearly The Worst Person Who Auditioned for the Part. He was too old for the role. He had no apparent sense of rhythm and became utterly lost trying to perform “Trouble.” He projected the persona of somebody’s perpetually befuddled uncle, not the persona of a traveling flim-flam man. And (you probably hear this coming)… he was cast as Harold Hill.
To which I thought: What. The. Hill.
A few days into rehearsals, the casting strategy became clear, when Mr. Befuddled was suddenly let go and replaced by… Ronald, our director. Other disturbing indicators were to follow. For example, the show, set in small town Iowa circa the 1920s, had no costumer. Ronald pitched it to us as a “creative opportunity” – that each of us would have the exciting opportunity to design our own costume. As I recall, I performed wearing the one and only suit I owned at the time, made of brown polyester with a slightly flared pants cuff.
Soon, we met our producer, the new owner of the stately Alger Theater. He was a corrupt Wayne County commissioner (pardon me if that’s redundant), an obese old man who looked as if he should be sitting in the lounge at a bowling alley somewhere, complaining about Today’s Young People. He spoke in a low, cracked voice that generally carried a note of superficial indulgence combined with a presumption of wisdom. I will omit any mention of his name as a general courtesy to the living.
My favorite memory of our producer came when he was addressing the cast after our final dress rehearsal. He had watched the show from the back corner of the theater, accompanied by several people whom we did not know, who had left immediately after curtain call. “I was watching the show tonight with some friends from NEW YORK,” he began – with particular emphasis and lingering over the words New York – “and they told me that what you kids are doing on this stage is every bit as good as anything they’re doing on Broadway.”
Okay, time out. Look, I’m not here to defend Broadway. You can find plenty of crappy theater there. Really, you can. It’s not hard to find. And oh, by the way, you can also find some fabulous stuff on Broadway featuring some of the most gifted actors, directors, designers, and technicians you’re going to find anywhere in the theater world. I don’t think I’m taking a controversial stance in saying this. Then take our show. Everyone who auditioned was cast, just so you understand where the talent bar was set. We were brutally under-rehearsed. We had no costumer. We barely had a director, barely had a set, barely had anything of depth, sensitivity, or intelligibility going on out there. So please, Mr. Producer at the Alger Theater, spare me this shameless mountain of bullshit. But the more I heard him speak and the more I learned about him, the more I realized that bullshit was all he knew. His only other option would have been silence, and Lord knows he wasn’t capable of that.
And don’t get me started on his lingering over the words New York as if they automatically carried some magical power. Please. The Emperor has no clothes.
Now back to our humble production. I have to admit that we four who made up the barber shop quartet were a pretty shameless lot in our own right. Reasoning that we were in a show in desperate need of entertainment value, and having a weak director who was preoccupied with playing the lead, we proceeded to devise any additional bits of stage business we could come up with that might enable us to chew the scenery. Pratfalls, double-takes, ad libs – all were fair game in our little world. In a normal production, this sort of activity would have been reined in by the director, but no such restraints were ever enforced upon us, so the bits just kept piling up.
And wonder of wonders (sorry, I know that’s from Fiddler), we got away with it! In fact, it was clear from opening night that we were getting more applause at curtain call than anyone else in the show. The result of this was that every night of the run, the curtain call was restaged to have the quartet bow later and later. On closing night, Harold & Marian were the only two that bowed after us. This led to an unfortunate incident.
On closing night, the bass in our quartet had the entire front row filled with his friends. When the quartet came out to bow, they all leapt to their feet, clapping and cheering. When Harold & Marian came out, they stopped clapping and sat down. It was a somewhat humiliating moment for our leads. If it had been just our director, our Harold Hill, who was suffering, few would have cared. But our leading lady didn’t deserve this. Given the quartet’s established reputation for scene stealing, we found ourselves accused of staging the whole thing. A few cast members were pretty steamed and were not inclined to give our denials the benefit of the doubt. Thank God it didn’t happen until closing night!
Music Man ended up being the only show I did at the Alger. Well, complete disclosure – later that year, I was cast in their production of Inherit the Wind, but I bailed after two rehearsals when half the leads abruptly quit the show. I had another acting offer in hand and suspected that the show wasn’t going to happen at all, so I joined the mass exodus. The show did happen, but the horror stories I heard from friends who stayed in it convinced me that I’d made the right call.
As for Ronald, our ambitious director, the next show at the Alger after Music Man was Fiddler on the Roof. I was told he tried to pull the same stunt in that show – casting someone dreadful as Tevye and then replacing the lousy actor with himself. But that time, I’m told, the producer stepped in and told him he had to cast someone else.
So do I have any regrets about my involvement with that production? Not at all. I’m not big on regrets in general, and in this case, there truly was more good than bad for me personally. I met some good people, a few of whom are friends of mine to this day. I got to be in a show at a time when I needed to be on stage as much as possible. And I got to share the stage with my younger brother F, who was in the chorus. And to top it off, I got a heck of a story to share with you today!
Posted on 2012.08.02 at 16:43
Current Mood: chipper
Current Music: American Woman - The Guess Who
If you’re not familiar with the term – Answer Song – it’s a song written as a response to another song. They’ve been around for a long time. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is said to have been an answer to “God Bless America.” The Elton John/Bernie Taupin song “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” is, at least in part, an answer to “Spanish Harlem.” Perhaps the most famous example of an answer song in rock & roll is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which is not merely an answer, but a retort, to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” There are many other examples of answer songs, right up to the present day, but I think you get the idea.
I bring this up because there’s an answer song that needs to be written, or perhaps I should say, that should have been written a long time ago. The song in question is “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by the Manhattans. It hit #1 on the pop charts in 1976 and still turns up on oldies stations from time to time. In case you can’t bring it to mind on such short notice, the lyrics, in part, go like this – and as you go through them, remember that this is someone dumping their lover, and ask yourself how you might respond if you were the one being dumped:[Spoken] This has got to be the saddest day of my life
I called you here today for a bit of bad news
I won’t be able to see you anymore
Because of my obligations and the ties that you have
We’ve been meeting here every day
And since this is our last day together
I wanna hold you just one more time
When you turn and walk away, don’t look back
I wanna remember you just like this
Let’s just kiss and say goodbye.
[Sung] I had to meet you here today
There’s just so many things to say
Please don’t stop me ‘till I’m through
This is somethin’ I hate to do
We’ve been meeting here so long
I guess what we done, oh was wrong
Please darlin’, don’t you cry
Let’s just kiss and say goodbye…
Let me start here: This guy is some piece of work. He’s dumping her, and he tosses out “…Because of my obligations and the ties that you have…” Yeah, he’s giving her equal blame for this breakup, apparently without discussion or debate. I wonder – would she agree that the “ties” she “has” are reason enough for breaking up? I’m skeptical. Oh and then, he tries to rise above it all with “I guess what we done, oh was wrong…” – implicitly lecturing her on her morals; quite a stunt in light of the fact that “We’ve been meeting here so long…” The subtext I’m reading into this story is that the guy got caught by his wife after carrying on a lengthy affair, and he’s opted to stay with the wife and lose the girlfriend. But instead of just dumping her and moving on, he has to make this big speech and cast himself as some kind of tragic romantic. Seriously, this lady is better off without him, but that still doesn’t excuse his behavior. One more thing – later in the song, he offers that “Maybe you’ll meet another guy.” Is he really dumb enough to think that these words are consoling when you’re hearing them from someone who’s just dumped you? Or is he just looking for an exit line to get himself the hell out of there? Considering that those words come right near the end of the song, I think the question answers itself.
One more question: Does this approach to breaking up work, ladies? I ask this only as an academic inquiry, as a student of the human condition.
Posted on 2012.07.28 at 22:56
Current Mood: accomplished
Current Music: Back Home Again - John Denver
This is a follow-up to my post about CC’s job at the John Deere Historic Site (see my post of 5/31/12).
Last week, we spent a few days in Michigan. Our trip included a visit to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. It was a bit of a homecoming for us, since we’d both worked for the theater company that once called the museum home.
Let me take a moment to say this: Very few people knew in advance that I was coming to town. There are so very many friends and family members that I’d love to spend time with, and I knew it wasn’t going to be possible within the confines of this trip. If I’d made a general announcement that I was coming to town, it would have made my unavailability all the more frustrating for me.
CC and I had long discussed a trip to the Henry Ford Museum, but her John Deere job added a reason to do it sooner than later. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the HFM is home to one of the two known surviving early John Deere plows. So while we enjoyed many of the wonders that the HFM has to offer, our primary target was that historic plow. It turned out we could get pretty darn close to it. Here it is:
Next time we’re in town, CC and I have resolved to visit Greenfield Village, which adjoins the HFM and is a wondrous place in its own right. Plus which, we know at least a couple of people who work in the Village!
Posted on 2012.07.20 at 15:06
Current Mood: pleased
Current Music: Coconut Woman - Harry Belafonte
We’re going on four months since the passing of my father; enough time that a considerable well of thoughts on the subject has been filling in my brain’s reservoirs.* * *
Like any of you, I know a lot of people who have lost one or both parents, or who have lost a long-time spouse or partner. Over the years, it has oft times been my task as a friend to hold a hand, listen, and maybe try to find something worth saying to a grieving friend. That last part is the tough one. It’s usually pointless to say anything at all, but it is occasionally necessary to vocalize something, anything, to remind us that we are still engaged in the process of living, along with the partner processes of mourning, missing, loving, and caring. It doesn’t need to be anything profound. Maybe all you can muster at a given moment is “I’m so sorry,” or “I’m here for you.” It’s okay. In the moment, those words can mean more than you might imagine.
But just as all deaths are not the same, all mourning is not the same. Mourning the loss of your father is your own personal sculpture. You may fashion it as literal or as figurative. You may mourn quickly or slowly, outwardly or inwardly, with great sadness… or with little sadness at all.
In my own case, sadness isn’t quite the right word. I would describe it more as a silent earthquake followed by a long series of aftershocks. Those aftershocks continue to this day. Example: If you scroll down several posts in this journal, you can read about my recent trip to the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Illinois. There are moments when I want nothing more than to call my dad and drive him over there. He’d enjoy the heck out of it, and with his considerable knowledge of technological history, he’d have his own unique set of insights with which to illuminate our tour.
But approximately a tenth of a second later, I remember that he’s gone, that any chance I might have ever had to take him there – or anywhere else – is irretrievably gone, caught on the wrong rotation in the cycle of birth, aging, and death.
Then we come to verb conjugation. Now, as never before, I must often say that “My dad was…” That can be a hard one to remember. Still, it brings up another curious property of how I think about my dad’s life.
When he was alive and I would think of him, I always pictured him as he looked at that time. That is, when I was a teenager and dad was in his 40s, I pictured him as he looked in his 40s. In recent years, as time and health caused his face to sag, along with other physical changes, that was how I pictured him.
But since his death, something unexpected has occurred. Now that we are here in July of 2012, outside the term of his life span, it’s as if all of his 80 years have collapsed into a single identity. Now, when I picture him, I am as likely to picture him as a man in his 20s, 40s, or 70s. Maybe it’s because there is no more present for him as a physical entity, so any moment of his life is as real as any other moment of his life. As a friend once said to me, life is a collection of moments. Ralph Greenia’s set of moments is complete.
I’m not aware that my dad ever said this in so many words, but I think he very much wanted to leave his stamp on the world, to feel as if his life had mattered to the world. His way of expressing that need was to make things that would long outlive him. All sorts of things – tables, lamps, church fixtures, chairs, toys, and babies. And anything else that came along. Speaking as someone who started out as one of those babies, I think he did fine work. His gifts to this world will clearly outlive me as well.
As a non-religious person, I’m pretty dubious about assertions that eternal judgment will be made upon our souls. But who knows? I don’t possess the hubris to claim certain knowledge of such things. Still, if my dad is subjected to any such eternally binding judgment, I can’t see much cause for concern. He actually did leave this world better than he found it. His generosity and wisdom benefitted more lives than any one person can ever know. When my own time on earth is done, I’ll gladly file a deposition on his behalf if called upon.
It’s probable that I will continue to file periodic essays on my father. His impact on my life cannot be overstated. When I see some of the lousy (or nonexistent) fathering in the world, I feel like one distinctly lucky S.O.B. to have had the father I did.
Posted on 2012.07.14 at 21:07
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: Go West - The Village People
It’s been a while since I’ve talked about movies in this journal. Today I’m going to reach back a few years and talk about the 1976 film The Outlaw Josey Wales,
directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint in the title role. In a sense, I’m not reaching back all that far, since I didn’t see it when it first came out. In fact, I first saw it about two years ago. I saw it again today and I think it’s a very noteworthy film.
Roger Ebert has a pet saying about movies. It may seem a little odd, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it. It goes like this: “A movie isn’t about what it’s about; it’s about how
it’s about what it’s about.”Josey Wales
is a perfect example of this saying. On the surface, and on first viewing, it’s about Clint Eastwood’s character, Mr. Wales, whose family is murdered by a group of Union soldiers in the late days of the Civil War. This sets Wales on a path of vengeance against those soldiers, which makes him an outlaw with a price on his head. Along the way, he does a lot of traveling and meets a lot of people; some good, some evil, and some too desperate or damaged to care about such distinctions as “good” and “evil”. Not to give anything away, but by movie’s end, some good people have prevailed, some evil people have been punished, and many, many people have been killed.
But Josey Wales
isn’t really about
all of that. It’s about many other things – the meaning and price of honor, the capriciousness of fate, the harshness of frontier life, the destruction of this land’s natural beauty, the compromises enforced by human society, and the transformation of that society over the generations. But for all of that, it’s a gripping adventure story.
A few additional notes are in order. First of all, a great many action films aspire to this sort of poignancy. The films of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal offer innumerable examples of men who have everyone and everything they love ripped from them, transforming them into superhuman killing machines who exact a stunning toll of vengeance upon the evil ones and their minions. Josey Wales,
by contrast, is a rare example of a movie that actually succeeds on both fronts – as both a macho action movie and as something more thoughtful.
I need to take a slight detour here and talk about the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Yes, you heard me right. I love Next Gen. It’s my favorite Star Trek series. I therefore possess a special dispensation that permits me to discuss topics such as the limited acting abilities of Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner, and Marina Sirtis. I am also free to discuss preposterous plot points and lazy screenwriting, all without compromising my utter love of the series.
In the same way, I can and must discuss the shortcomings of The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Most of the casting follows what I long ago dubbed the Clint Eastwood Rule: that no one may be cast in a Clint Eastwood movie who is a better actor than Clint Eastwood. That rule holds mostly true here, the notable exception being John Vernon (best known as Dean Wormer in Animal House
), who is just wonderful as a somewhat ambivalent pursuer of Wales. At the other end of the acting spectrum, we have Sondra Locke (seen in the above photo), reliably hopeless as always here. Chief Dan George, God love him, doesn’t have much going on either, though he, like Eastwood, seems to understand what he can and can’t do as an actor and maintains his dignity throughout. I won’t go through the whole cast one at a time; suffice it to say that it’s mostly a grab bag of uneven styles, perhaps a sign that Eastwood hadn’t yet matured into the director who would go on to create Unforgiven
16 years later.
The screenplay was written by Philip Kaufman, who a few years later wrote and directed The Right Stuff,
an all-time classic in my book. His screenplay here is very strong, though it is unfortunate that he included romantic scenes between Eastwood’s and Locke’s characters. In fairness though, that’s not a knock on Kaufman; it’s just that Eastwood and Locke, though a couple in real life, should never have tried putting it on screen. Now that I think of it, the real culprit may be Eastwood the director, who should perhaps have downplayed those scenes just a tad.
But despite all this carping on my part, I think the film rises above it with barely a shrug. A true appreciation lies in looking beyond its flaws and experiencing the film that lives untainted beneath the surface. Within the Western genre, it is a film of uncommon intelligence and sensitivity. That last word – sensitivity – may seem an odd one to use when discussing a film with so much grotesque violence and human ugliness, but it’s what I feel. Also, viewing it here in 2012 serves to remind us how fast movies have gotten. Someone familiar only with contemporary Hollywood entertainments might find the pacing intolerably slow. All I can say to that is, take a deep breath, relax, and accept it on its own terms.
Posted on 2012.07.12 at 15:35
Current Mood: pensive
Current Music: Honesty - Billy Joel
You probably know what I mean by the “Penn State Situation.” I am referring, of course, to the Jerry Sandusky molestation cover-up. If you’ve missed the latest revelations, I will summarize:* * *
It has become evident (by which I mean there is tangible, readable evidence) that several higher-ups at Penn State University knew there was a problem with Sandusky at least as early as 1998, but they chose political expediency over responsible citizenship and buried their heads in the sand, leaving Sandusky free to continue molesting young people for over a decade after they first learned there was a problem. These higher-ups demonstrated a considerable degree of concern for their own professional fortunes, but no concern at all for Sandusky’s victims. As it turns out, these higher-ups left a considerable paper trail of damning admissions that will probably result in at least a couple of them going to prison when all of the legal wrangling is said and done.
It is not my purpose today to belabor the Penn State situation specifically. Rather, I want to discuss how it illuminates a set of common human failings that help to perpetuate this sort of tragedy.
There has been a consistent pattern throughout the months of revelations in this case: Many people have wanted to admit the truth about only what was completely apparent at a given moment in time. Many of them have publicly implored that we go no further; that we already knew what needed to be known. For example, when Sandusky was first publicly accused, they were quick to denounce the accusers and declare the accusations as bogus, an attempt to smear the name of a man who had done so much good. When evidence against Sandusky began to pile up, they were quick to demand that head coach Joe Paterno be left alone, that there was no evidence he had any culpability in this matter and that any further inquiries along those lines were merely sensationalistic and disrespectful to a man deserving of our veneration.
Once Joe Paterno was clearly implicated as part of the cover-up, many of these same people renewed their demands that further investigation be stopped “now that we know the truth.” The thought that this corruption might go even further in the chain of command at Penn State was either rejected as impossible or rationalized as a witch hunt that would surely do more harm than good with regard to the welfare and reputation of the university.
All of this had led us to the latest revelations, demonstrating that coach Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley, university vice president Gary Schultz, and university president Graham Spanier were all knowing participants in enabling Jerry Sandusky to operate freely for many more years than decency should have dictated. And I have no doubt that some familiar voices are now saying, “Well fine… now let’s punish the wrong-doers and close this sordid chapter as quickly as possible.” Except, of course, that the investigation is only just beginning. We don’t know who else is guilty of what, or what other crimes may have been committed.
So let’s leave those willfully blind apologists alone for a minute and talk about reasonable people like you and me. We knew a long time ago that there was complicity higher up than coach Sandusky. We didn’t have the evidence; heck, I’m just an office worker living in Chicago. But I have a brain, and with even a moderate stretch, that brain could connect enough dots to see a clear conspiracy. Thankfully, the evidence turned out to be there to connect those dots legally.
Let’s keep those brains turned on a little longer and talk about a few more things that we can’t prove, but which are certainly occurring today. For starters, pedophiles aren’t all that rare. It’s not as if we can say “Whew! They caught Jerry Sandusky; our campuses are safe again!” No. There are other pedophiles out there, working with children, working in athletic departments, abusing the trust that has been placed in them. Of course, most people in such positions are trustworthy, honorable people. But not all. Please, folks, heads out of the sand!
Also, corruption in high places isn’t rare either. It requires no flight of fancy to realize that cover-ups along the lines of the Penn State situation have happened before, are happening right now somewhere. The pedophiles themselves will probably not change their behavior based on Jerry Sandusky being caught; history tells us that much. And the people in charge, the enablers, the people who know all about it but have been covering it up – ah, there we may see a change in their behavior. They will look at the Penn State case and say “Hmmm… how can I avoid making the same mistakes; that is, how can I avoid being caught in this cover-up? Well… the first thing I need to do is destroy any old emails or other correspondence that might incriminate me. Next, I have to make damn sure that I am verifiably ignorant of any of this. Ignorance could merely get me fired, but covering up for a pedophile could send me to prison. Pretty easy choice there. No, I’ve got to make sure that there’s a fall guy squarely between me and the perpetrator…”
Rest assured that these people, like the honchos at Penn State, will also depend on the goodwill of longtime boosters and apologists – the sort of folks I discussed earlier, who will refuse to listen to, much less believe, any scurrilous accusations. People like that can be an effective roadblock to uncovering the sordid truth.
Now go ahead – tell me I’m just engaging in a creative writing exercise, that I have no way of knowing that such people are doing and thinking such things today. And I’ll tell you this in response: Yes, I do have a way of knowing that such things are occurring. It’s called a brain. But it requires no imagination whatsoever to envision such people. It requires nothing more than open eyes.
You might wonder why I would take this approach to writing about the Penn State scandal. It could be argued that our focus should be on either the plight of the victims or the direct deeds of the perpetrators. I look at it this way: The mainstream media is focusing on those very aspects of the story, so I see no point in focusing upon them myself. The only way I can contribute something significant to the discussion is by examining a facet that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere. So this is my humble contribution. I appreciate your reading it through to the end!