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Ya Got Trouble My Friends

Posted on 2019.07.19 at 13:10
Current Mood: theatrical
Current Music: Iowa Stubborn
Last night, we saw the Goodman Theatre’s much anticipated production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. If you’re not familiar with the piece… well, I don’t know what to tell you, because you’re clearly some feral child who’s been denied the benefits of human culture… which makes me wonder how you’re even able to read this. But I digress.

The first time I ever set foot on a stage, it was in the role of Mayor Shinn in a high school production of Music Man and a few years after that, I was part of the barber shop quartet in a community theater production. I’ve also attended various other productions, as well as countless viewings of the 1962 movie version, so I guess I qualify as an insufferable expert on the show.

The most important thing to know about the Goodman’s version is that it was directed by Mary Zimmerman. Zimmerman has built quite a reputation over the years as an innovative director. She appears to have a made a career out of radically reimagining established works, which makes her an intriguing choice to direct such a well-worn chestnut as Music Man. She has won fistfuls of awards in the Chicago area and has also extended her talents to directing operas in both Chicago and New York. So Mary Zimmerman qualifies as a heavy hitter in the theater world; someone who has carved out a unique identity on the theatrical landscape.

On to last night’s festivities — I’ll start with what went well, and I’ll move on to my complaints later. The show was handsome to look at from a design standpoint. The architecture had a stripped-down simplicity to it, as if it were inspired by Edward Hopper landscapes, but it was a good, clean look. The chorus was strong and filled with life and character. The choreography was well executed if a tad simple, though this actually became a kind of strength, because it served to reinforce the turn-of-the-century, plain-spoken Iowan character of the townspeople. The chorus should really have been half again larger, as some of the “crowd” scenes weren’t quite crowded enough. Whether this shortage of bodies could be attributed to either budgetary constraints or a directorial choice, I couldn’t say.

The romantic leads in the show are flim-flam man Harold Hill and town librarian Marian Paroo. Much of a production’s success comes down to the abilities of these two as performers and the chemistry between them. Here, the results were mixed (since the performers were all unknown to me, I will speak of them only by their character’s names). To pull off Harold Hill successfully, one must present a silver-tongued con man and – here’s the hard part – manage the transition to falling in love with Marian and giving it all up. So in the earlier scenes, we have to like Harold even as we see him robbing the townspeople blind. We have to see a genuine charisma and a latent humanity in him that finally bursts out at the end. I didn’t see it last night. Oh, he was a slick enough con man, but I never saw much reason to like him. The scenes in which he seemed to dote on Marian’s troubled brother Winthrop came across as either false or incongruous. I’ll grant you that Meredith Willson has constructed a narrow opening through which Harold has to fit his conversion, coming as it does only a few pages before the end of the show, but I expect a production at this level to pull it off, so when it doesn’t work, I’m a little disappointed.

As for Marian, her performance was everything you’d want your Marian to be — she was believable as the most well-read person in River City; her relationships with her mother and brother were sincere and lucid; and she nailed every note that the score asked of her. She made it clear – clearer than most Marians I’ve seen – that her affection for Harold was rooted in seeing how Harold’s presence had helped her emotionally troubled brother. While her actual happy ending romance with Harold didn’t quite add up, I don’t think she gets any of the blame.

Now we get to director Zimmerman. It seems, on the evidence given, that The Music Man may not have been a good fit for her theatrical philosophies. At so many points in the show, big and small, she seems to be straining at the seams to find ways to reinvent how moments work. I’m not dogmatic about this – I don’t insist that things have to be done the way they were in the movie – but there are too many moments when Zimmerman seems to be doing things differently just to be different, and in so doing, she ignores Willson’s text and makes it something less than it was originally. A big example: The romantic scene between Harold and Marian in Act II was not set at the foot bridge in this production; it was set by the town’s water tower. What we see on the stage are two huge metal legs of the tower on a stage that is otherwise bare except for the suggestion of a distant cornfield. As the legs are flown in during the scene change, it seems as if we’ve just switched over to a stage adaptation of The Day the Earth Stood Still. There is nothing at all romantic about the setting. It looks stark and industrial. If Zimmerman was trying to make a comment about the ongoing industrialization of America at that time, it came out as a clanking note from a different score.

There are also many small moments in the show where direct textual cues and clues are missed or mangled out of a seeming intention to find new ways to do them. The “Pick-a-little-talk-a-little” ladies in particular were robbed of what should have been good comedic and character moments. Look, I’m all for experimentation; that’s what rehearsals are for. And during those rehearsals, when we try something and it doesn’t work, we keep trying until we find something that does work. We don’t hang onto a wrong choice solely because it’s new; we look for something that’s both new and successful. And if the new way just won’t work, maybe we go back to an old idea and realize that it was done that way for a good reason. This is where the director’s desire to be innovative needs to be balanced by a consideration for the final product.

But after all of that, I come to praise The Music Man, not to bury it. This production often comes off as a really, really good summer stock production rather than as a cutting-edge professional reimagining, and that’s not a bad thing. Meredith Willson’s story and score – and a fine band playing in the pit – ultimately prevail. I may have my issues with it, but the many folks standing and cheering during curtain call clearly did not share my reservations. I told you at the outset that my history with the show makes me an insufferable expert on it, and I think I’ve lived up to the “insufferable” part. On the balance, River City, Iowa, circa 1912 was a pretty good place to be last night.


Crossword Puzzle Solution!

Posted on 2018.12.31 at 12:42


Crossword Puzzle Solution!

Posted on 2017.12.27 at 18:10
A day earlier than promised, here's the solution for this year's crossword puzzle.


25 Years

Posted on 2017.09.18 at 12:59
Current Mood: cheerfulcheerful
Current Music: Friday I'm In Love - The Cure
[Reposted from Facebook]

Twenty-five years ago this week(!), I moved from Detroit to Chicago. To be specific, I moved from an upper flat in Livonia, Michigan, where I'd been living for all of three months, to the North Kenmore Street living room of my kind friend Karianne, who'd agreed to put me up until I found an apartment. In less than two weeks, I'd found a place walking distance from Karianne's and had ferried most of my belongings over to the new digs. I hadn't moved to Chicago blind – a job awaited me, one that paid far more than the temp work I'd been doing in Detroit. I stayed at that job for over 16 years, until my position was eliminated from the department's org chart. But here I remain today – still collecting a paycheck in the Loop, still doing graphics and related work (and whatever else needs doing) for a consulting firm.

But that's just my day job, so I wanted to get that part of the story out of the way first. I've also managed to do some theater here and there, including a five-year run in Tony n' Tina's Wedding, but I'm not here to focus on theater today. The overview of my life at this point has a curious dichotomy to it, having spent half of my life in one city and half of it in another. Each city has its own set of friends, family, loves, hates, triumphs, tragedies, and lessons. Even if my life is at times filled with uncertainty and dismay, my overriding feeling most days is that I am one lucky S.O.B. I've got a bunch of remarkable people around the country that I get to call my friends. I've gotten to go to some amazing places and do some amazing things. For some of it, I can take a little credit, and for some of it, I've been a fortunate bystander.

This isn't the essay where I bemoan the state of the world. This isn't the essay where I issue a call to action on behalf of common sense or humanity. This is just the essay where I thank every one of you for helping me along on this voyage of discovery. Along the way, I've caught glimpses of the past and present, and maybe even a few clues about the future. Along with them have come moments of pride and humility; moments of ugliness and beauty; and moments when a new perspective has transformed the world into something I'd never before considered. And I've gotten to create things – things that are of me and by me, yet which exist outside of me and become part of the world. Gandhi once said, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever." I don't claim to live my life that way on a consistent basis, but I've found that it's a fine star by which to steer. Long may our ship sail. Thank you to all my friends, near and far. If we don't connect, let's check in with each other 25 years hence and compare notes.


SO Clever!

Posted on 2017.08.08 at 13:57
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: I Got A Name - Jim Croce
My main email account is on AOL. This shameful fact probably brands me as an official old-timer, but… well, so be it. I’ve had the account for over twenty years. I well remember buying my first modem, plugging my home phone line into it, hooking it up to my computer, then connecting to AOL for the first time. I’d installed AOL off of a floppy disk that had come in the mail, which was how they did it back then.

Up to that point, everything had been pretty simple. I just had to follow the step-by-step instructions that came with my modem, then the step-by-step instructions that came with AOL. But now it was time to get creative – it was time for me to select my screen name. My very first email screen name!

Well now, I’ve got a reputation to uphold here. I’d devoted considerable thought to the matter, and I’d come up with a devilishly clever, triple-entendre sort of screen name, which I do not now recall. I typed it in, and AOL immediately informed me that my clever, one-of-a-kind screen name was already in use.

Well phooey! Okay fine, there are other clever people in the world. I pondered the situation for a while and came up with another dazzlingly inventive screen name. I typed it in, and AOL once again informed me that it was already in use.

This scenario proceeded to play out several more times, always ending in the same result. The cream of my linguistic talents turned out to be a step behind the times on every occasion. And each time, AOL would suggest that I might want to use a screen name that consisted of my first initial and last name. Oh please! ME, settle for one of THOSE screen names? Those poor, dumb AOL computers clearly did not know with whom they were dealing.

Let the record show that my AOL screen name for the last twenty plus years continues to be cgreenia. If nothing else, this was a lesson in humility.


Freak Show

Posted on 2017.07.18 at 14:01
Current Mood: freaky
Current Music: Super Freak - Rick James
We didn’t go to the state fair every year, but we went a lot of years. Being from Detroit, and with a dad who worked for Chrysler, we always had to stop at the pavilions of the various auto companies and collect brochures. On several occasions, we were there because my sister and/or brother were playing the guitar at one of the performing venues. On occasion, we got to go on rides, though my one experience riding the Wild Mouse put me off rollercoasters for some years thereafter. And let’s not forget the livestock competitions. Being raised in the east side neighborhood of a big city, our interaction with livestock was essentially nonexistent, so seeing the various sheep, cattle, pigs, et al on display was a thrilling, albeit smelly, experience.

But I’m here today to talk about the Freak Show. Yes, I know that’s a coarse, unfeeling way of referring to some of my fellow humans, and it was certainly not a term that appeared on any signs at the fair, but their term for that area (I believe they called it “The Sideshow”) was too vague and coyly euphemistic for my taste, so I’m going to call it what it was.

The first thing you noticed was the posters. They were huge and colorful, painted in a detailed, fantastical style that was old-fashioned even when I was a kid. They depicted a gallery of bizarrely misshapen, conjoined, scantily clad, and/or inappropriately hairy individuals who looked as if they’d been plucked from the shadowy corner of some netherworld, or perhaps from the pages of some twisted work of fiction that you would not feel good about having read. All in all, the place seemed to be filled with a promise of both titillation and the expanding of one’s mind. I lingered as long as I could whenever I saw those posters, staring at them and letting my imagination run wild.

Another factor that created a great deal of atmosphere was the barker on his loudspeaker. His voice was a low, loud, well-articulated monotone, saying things like, “See the Monkey Boy. Found in the jungles of South America, unable to utter a word of any human language. He’s real, folks. He’s alive…” The slight distortion of the barker’s voice as it came through the speakers only served to heighten the excitement; to seal the promise of a look into a forbidden world.

There was, I should mention, zero chance that I was going to be allowed to go in there and behold these wonders in the flesh. My dad made it crystal clear that he was not going to waste his money on that nonsense. What little else he said about it consisted mostly of assurances that what one might see in those tents bore little resemblance to the posters, and that it was nothing more than a way of cheating suckers out of their money. In retrospect, he spoke as if he’d been victimized by the sideshow somewhere in the dim past, but it never occurred to me at the time to press him on the matter.

There was something else about the atmosphere in that area that set it apart from the rest of the fairgrounds. It was the people as they went in and came out. Even as a child, I noticed that the clientele skewed male compared with the general fairgoer demographic. We can debate the reasons for that another day, though several potential explanations come to mind.

The other thing I looked for was the expression on people’s faces as they exited the tents. Generally, the look on their faces was blank and inscrutable, whereas the look on those entering was more eager and anticipatory. I tried to reason it out. Maybe they looked that way because their senses had been overwhelmed by the sights they’d just seen. Maybe they were still processing these unimaginable wonders. Or maybe my father was right about the whole thing being a scam, and these people weren’t willing to betray the fact that they’d been victimized by their own shameful curiosity. All in all, it made me suspicious because, in my mind, the idea of entering those tents and beholding those sights seemed to hold the promise of a life-transforming event.

I made myself a promise back then. I promised myself that when I was old enough to attend the fair on my own, I would lay down my money and take in the freak show once and for all. My father needn’t ever know, nor need he fret about the money I’d spent or the wisdom I might have gained from the experience. It’s a promise I have not kept.

As it turns out, I’ve never attended the state fair since I was a teenager, nor any other carnival that advertised such attractions. At this point, I’ve released myself from that long-ago promise. By now, I’ve seen plenty in books and on television about birth defects, their causes, their treatments, and the unhappiness some of those defects may cause. I’ve also read and seen plenty about the history of freak shows, so the bloom is off the rose with regard to my interest in seeing such shows in person. Heck, I’ve even seen the 1932 film Freaks. I would recommend a screening of the film to anyone with a taste for the bizarre – or a taste for old movies. Much of the original footage was edited out in the 1930s and is presumably lost forever, but what remains is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Many of the deformities and conditions on display in these shows are treatable and correctable nowadays, so the freak shows of yesteryear only take place on a minuscule scale now. And besides, we now have CGI movies that can easily create wonders and monstrosities far beyond anything you’d ever have found at a humble carnival. But remember: People haven’t changed all that much. They still want to have their minds expanded. They still want to be titillated. And they’re still suckers. Take a spin through your favorite web sites and social media sites and you’ll still find plenty of folks offering links to amazing, fantastical visuals and forbidden knowledge. And they’re real, folks. They’re alive…


My Commencement Address

Posted on 2017.06.20 at 14:30
Current Mood: scholarly
Current Music: My Old School - Steely Dan
Over the years, I’ve read and heard various college commencement speeches. Some of them have been magnificent. Some speakers possess a golden tongue, a dazzling talent for rhetoric, an instinctive knowledge of how to engage an audience. Some of them are able to articulate deep insights into human nature. Some have startlingly original perceptions on the human condition that leave one pondering their words long afterwards. Some are natural-born storytellers on whose knee you could sit for hours, listening to their word paintings.

I won’t name any examples of these fine speakers; it isn’t my point here to dwell upon the particulars of their speeches, but merely to say that this is the high bar to which any commencement speaker must aspire.

This leads me to a most fanciful thought, a wild “what-if” scenario that has an approximately zero percent chance of actually occurring: What if I were asked to speak at a college commencement? What could I conceivably say to a few thousand people, mostly in their twenties, who’ve been grinding away for years in various fields of study, all with the goal of receiving their diplomas and moving on to The Next Thing?

When I think of it that way, part of me has an even greater respect for anyone who undertakes the writing and performing of such a speech. But then another part of me rises up and becomes indignant; wondering how anyone has the gall to tell a diverse bunch of adult strangers how to think about their lives. I replay some of these sage speeches in my head and I think, “Where do you get the nerve to talk that way? How friggin’ big is your ego?”

But then I take a step back and realize that there’s another way to look at this. After all, I believe in organized education. I believe in higher education. Like most things worth doing, it is worth doing well. It can be one of our most powerful tools for fostering growth and protecting against society descending into chaos and mayhem (and yes, now and then people come away from college seemingly determined to cause chaos and mayhem rather than prevent it, but I’m painting with a broad brush here; the general outcome is far, far more positive than negative). On an individual level, education is a powerful tool that can empower us to take fuller control of our fates and expand our potentials. Therefore, I’d like to do everything I can to empower and inspire anyone who has chosen a path of higher education, so maybe this idea of commencement speeches is a worthy one after all.

So we circle back to that persistent question: What would I tell those cap-and-gown-clad folks if it fell to me to make the big speech?

The first issue I would have to deal with is the aforementioned issue of Ego. Ego isn’t a bad thing, you know. There are many fields of endeavor that would be impossible to execute without a healthy dose of it, but ego is a beast and a naughty little boy that must be managed and focused in order to become truly useful. So the most essential step in preparing the speech would be this: Accept and embrace that I have the right to speak my mind to you. I will do such research as becomes necessary, but the words and ideas presented must belong entirely to me. I must speak not as a deity on Mount Olympus but as a fellow traveler; otherwise, my speech is at risk of being nothing more than highbrow entertainment rather than possessing actual significance.

Upon further reflection, I realize that the single most bothersome element that crops up in almost every commencement speech is the notion, either explicitly or implicitly stated, that you new alumni, now armed with your degrees, are about to embark upon your public lives, as if you’ve suddenly become ordained and will now begin your public ministry. Yes, there it is. This is my message to the graduating class:

You have not been shut away from the world all this time. You have not been disconnected from a world that you will now begin to inherit. No. This world has been yours for some time now. You’ve already begun your adult lives. Whether you wish to embrace it or not, you are already creating yourself and remaking the world in your image. Every. Single. Day.

Your life is not something that occurs in the future. You haven’t been living your lives provisionally until now, even if you’d like to think so. That is to say, your college life isn’t something you’ve been doing until your real life begins. This college has not been a hiding place. You’re already in the world. You’re already changing it. You change it every day.

And so do I. I, who am so much older than you, I change the world every day I am in it, even if some believe I have already ceded the world to a younger generation. This is our shared identity as living humans on planet Earth, regardless of our respective ages and socio-economic positions.

The implications of our ownership of the world are considerable. It means that if I have been living my life only for my day-to-day amusement, then those actions (or inactions) are my indelible stamp upon the world. If the main thrust of my life is to work nine to five, collapse on the couch at night, and spend my weekends drunk and smiling – or drunk and frowning – then that is my sculptural tweak to the clay of the Earth. Am I telling you to live the life of a monk? To devote yourself to the betterment of mankind? No, I could not presume to say anything of the sort, nor do I embody that ideal myself. I do not seek or crave your appraisal of my life. What’s more, I don’t think you’re fit to judge me in such matters. I extend the same courtesy to you. I am neither fit to judge you nor fit to prescribe a course of action. My life is in my hands; your life is in yours.

All that I have to offer is a small reminder; an awakening of consciousness to anyone who wishes to hear it, and a question that only you can answer: What do you think of your life? No, don’t tell me the answer; it wouldn’t mean much to me. Answer only to yourself. Maybe you’ll like what you tell yourself. Maybe, very quietly, you won’t like what you hear and you’ll pretend you didn’t hear it, or you’ll have a list of reasons why you must be excused for not meeting your own standards. Those answers are all fine, but I believe you must ask the question, and ask it often, if you have any wish of finding your footing in life. Socrates said it long ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was more to the point, more downright harsh, than I’ve been. I agree with his general sentiment but it is more in my nature to avoid such absolutes. Nevertheless, old Socrates made a pretty fine point. So my notion is not a new one, but it’s a notion that bears repeating to every new generation that comes along.

In closing, my fellow travelers, I urge you all to tip well unless your service has been truly loathsome, to keep your bullshit detectors finely tuned at all times, and to revel in any small true thing you may find along the way. As you exit, I’ll be selling autographs in the lobby.


On the Beach

Posted on 2017.06.14 at 14:16
Current Mood: curiouscurious
Current Music: Hot Hot Hot - Buster Poindexter
I want to tell you about an awful place. A place where masses of humanity are crushed together in sweaty, noisy misery. Think of how a fevered Medieval painter might have depicted Hell, and you’ll be on the right track. I am speaking, of course, of The Beach – or rather, The Beach as it seemed when I was younger. My views on the subject nowadays are more varied and nuanced, though my perceptions from childhood are still a part of the picture.

I grew up on the east side of Detroit. There were no beaches in the neighborhood, so going to one required extensive planning on the part of my parents, particularly as we were a family of ten people. But at some point, we all managed to go to Metropolitan Beach.

As you can see, it really wasn’t so terribly far from our house to Metro Beach. On clear roads, you could have gotten there in about a half hour. But since it was the night of the big Fourth of July fireworks show, it took a while to get there (and far longer to get home).

The event consisted of two very distinctly different experiences. The second part was the fireworks show, which was transcendently beautiful. I’ve always loved fireworks, and this night was no exception. But before that, the experience was unremittingly torturous.

The beach during the daytime was many things:
1. Aching, baking heat
2. Squintingly bright sunshine
3. Hordes of kids I did not know and did not care to know, screaming too loudly, running too fast. I did not identify with them and wished only to be far away from them.
4. People lying in the sun, working on their tans. They often had their heads covered or were reading or sleeping, so there was at least a sense of some inner solitude, but the activity itself seemed painful and nonsensical – Why would anyone CHOOSE to lie out in this awful hot sun, particularly while surrounded by all of this pointless sensory overload?
5. The lack of physical comfort anywhere in sight. Walking on hot sand? Ow, ow, ow. Lying down on hot sand? More ow, plus getting gritty sand all over yourself. When exactly was the fun supposed to start? Oh, I should put down a towel and lie on that? Okay, now what? I’m lying on a towel, surrounded by heat, noise, and mayhem on all sides. Such fun.

In later years, a friend suggested that the reason we should go to the beach was to see the pretty girls in their swimsuits. Well okay, I’ve never been averse to seeing scantily clad pretty girls. But really now, there are myriad places to do that on a hot summer day that are nowhere near as oppressive as this awful beach. It seems a mighty high price to pay for something that isn’t really so hard to come by.

My first positive experience with a beach came in early adulthood, when I spent a weekend with a few friends at a secluded cabin on the shore of Lake Huron. Their stretch of beach was only easily accessible to about half a dozen other cabins, and those were mostly vacant that weekend. Also, it was partly cloudy during the day with temperatures topping out around 80. And you know what? It was nice. We walked along the beach, picking up the odd seashell. At night, when it was cool, we laid out on blankets and saw more stars in the sky than I’d ever seen growing up in the city. The crashing of the waves was restful and ultimately sleep-inducing. Yeah, it was that nice.

But let’s get back to the hell-hole I was describing earlier. A scene like that makes me realize how relatively appealing it would be to walk a mile in a driving rainstorm to get gas for my car. Or how much nicer it would be to shovel out my driveway during a blizzard. It is a genuine mystery to me why so many millions of people seem irresistibly drawn to this sort of thing. What am I missing here? Do people really like this sort of thing? Or is this some kind of Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome, where people like it because they’ve always been told they like it?


Elton & Me

Posted on 2017.05.24 at 17:54
Current Mood: fantastic
Current Music: I'm Gonna Be a Teenage Idol
Tags: , ,
This essay is years overdue. If my blog represents some sort of extended self-portrait, then the absence of this topic is a huge patch of missing canvas. This is all about my relationship with Captain Fantastic, the Rocket Man himself, Elton John.

When I talk about “my relationship” with EJ, no, we don’t know each other personally. Part of the phenomenon of celebrity is that it invites us, the fans, to create a personal bridge to our heroes out of the thin air that carries their sounds and images to us. A fan who isn’t inhaling that air too deeply should remember that any perceived relationship is illusory. Goodness knows, the image makers of the world do a masterful job of presenting the person they wish us to perceive. All that being said, I think it would be wrong to think that we can learn nothing about our celebrities, particularly when they’ve been in the public eye for nearly half a century. In EJ’s case, more of his dirty laundry has been publicly aired than he would probably like, though he seems to have made his peace with it.

But let’s mostly set aside Elton John (born Reginald Kenneth Dwight) the person. The primary relationship to be discussed here is between me and the man’s music, and that relationship is not illusory, because the music is actually here in the room for me to perceive as I will. This will not be a comprehensive overview of EJ’s career or music catalog; plenty of writers before me have done exhaustive jobs of covering those topics. This essay is personal and subjective in nature and as such, I will feel entitled to ignore chapters in EJ’s story that a more objective author might go over in great detail.

In one form or another, I’ve owned 29 different Elton John albums, plus various non-album singles and B-sides. The artist in second place is so far behind that number that I will not name them here out of simple respect.

My Beginning
You might think of “Your Song” at this point, but you’d be wrong. That was EJ’s first U.S. single to get substantial airplay (“Border Song” came out earlier but barely cracked the top 100). “Your Song” made it all the way up to #8 on the charts in late 1970. It was a pleasant enough little ballad, but it didn’t make me snap to attention and say, “Hey! Who is that guy?” It fit right into the singer/songwriter aesthetic that was blooming in the early 70s. A bit more airplay and a minor hit (“Friends”) followed, but it wasn’t until the Madman Across the Water album came out in late 1971 that EJ came into focus for me as someone with a discernible identity.

The Madman album came out just as the angst and manic depressiveness of adolescence were beginning to hit me full-on. The mournful strings on the title cut, as well as on the single “Levon”, reached deep inside me. And not just me – my mother felt it too. Once, when I was playing the album in the living room, my mother remarked from the kitchen that the string section sounded very depressing and that she didn’t care for how it made her feel. Even the lyrical romance on display in “Tiny Dancer” has that depressive string section working in counterpoint, at least when heard in the context of the entire album. Only later did I read that EJ had been dealing with a nervous breakdown while making the album, and it didn’t surprise me one bit. Overall, I’d describe Madman as an album of oddly compelling pleasures.

His next album, Honky Château, was the first album of his that I actually bought, though I bought Madman shortly thereafter. It was miles away from Madman in its sound, being EJ’s first big step away from Paul Buckmaster’s lush orchestrations and towards a more pop sound. Thematically and stylistically, the songs are as diverse as one might hear while playing Russian roulette with the radio dial, from the country-jazzy bounce of “Honky Cat” to the synthesizers of “Rocket Man” to the steamy antebellum feel of “Slave” to the music hall jauntiness of “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” (which features a tap dance solo by one “Legs Larry” Smith). Yet despite all of its technical flourishes (including Jean-Luc Ponty’s virtuoso electric violin work on two cuts), the album as a whole never feels overproduced; it somehow retains that singer/songwriter vibe. But all of that was about to change.

The Early Middle Period
Honky Château was the pivot point in EJ’s development as a pop musician. He was no longer the mopey piano nerd we’d been graced with up to that point, but he wasn’t yet any kind of party band rock n’ roller or power pop music factory. Honky Château gave us a transitional sound we were never to hear again over an entire disc, and it’s one of his few albums that I can listen to straight through without skipping a song to this day.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, I was quickly becoming quite the EJ devotee, and it was time to look back at the albums I’d missed. The first of these was Elton John which was his first U.S. released album, though his second overall. Producer Gus Dudgeon has said that the album was intended as nothing more than a polished collection of demos to hopefully interest established artists into covering, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, it made EJ a little famous in his own right. Beyond the aforementioned “Your Song” and “Border Song” lies a quirky collection of generally pensive though passionate songs, with Paul Buckmaster’s strings leading the way and lending a structure to Elton’s wandering, intriguing melodies. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, often cryptic even in the best of times, are still disarmingly naïve if overwrought and downright pretentious at times on this album, but it works. Even this early on, it was clear that a lyricist and a composer had found one another.

The next early gem lying there for me to find was EJ’s follow-up to Elton JohnTumbleweed Connection. It produced no hit singles but is fondly remembered by a great many of EJ’s fans, me included. As the album’s title suggests, it mostly consists of Bernie Taupin playing out his love affair with Americana and the American West, from “Country Comfort” (later covered by Rod Stewart) to the overtly Civil War-themed “My Father’s Gun.” The production is sometimes barely there, as on the piano-only accompaniment of “Talking Old Soldiers” and the lonely acoustic guitar of “Love Song.” Other times, though, the production achieves a kind of country/jazz gospel/funk that is unique to this album and utterly captivating. The closing cut, “Burn Down the Mission,” pretty much lives up to its title.

I have little to say about the album Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player. Yes, it gave EJ his first #1 single, “Crocodile Rock” and also included the top ten hit “Daniel”, but the album as a whole doesn’t work. EJ and his band jumped headfirst into rock/pop and proved they still had some things to learn. It’s a disjointed collection of mostly mediocre songs that wear out their welcome. One thing about “Crocodile Rock” though – Yes, it’s catchy as hell, but I always feel like it sounds as if EJ is hurting his voice with that incessant falsetto, and that cuts into my enjoyment factor as a listener. Also, a few cuts on the album (e.g., “Texan Love Song”) sound like leftovers from Honky Château and the overall feel of the album is muddled and unfocused rather than eclectic.

And then came Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. EJ had gone from being merely a star to being a big star by this time, but GYBR made him a superstar. This album made it clear that EJ was here and that he was going to be here for a long time. The stylistic ground covered in this album and the high standard of quality maintained throughout elevated EJ into the pop pantheon for all time. If there is a unifying element to the album, I would use the word “cinematic” in light of songs like “Candle in the Wind,” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” “Roy Rogers,” and of course the title cut. For that matter, “Social Disease” sounds as if it’s opening with a cinematic iris shot. So many hits flowed from this album that the record label was forced to pass on a few additional single opportunities because EJ’s next album was ready for release. This moment embodied an embarrassment of riches rarely seen in pop music history.

A list of the hit singles from GYBR reads more like the contents of a greatest hits collection: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (that last one wasn’t released as a single but was for years a staple of FM rock radio). After a magnum opus like GYBR, one was left to wonder how in the world EJ could possibly surpass it. Well, he didn’t, at least not right away.

His next album, Caribou, generated a couple of huge hits in “The Bitch Is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” but as an album, it’s one that I only crack open a few times a year nowadays. It shows the diversity that was by now expected of EJ, but most of its songs appeal more to the teenaged side of me than the grown-up side. One example of this is “Ticking” which is a long, searing, explicitly violent takedown of both repressive parenting and simplistic religious instruction – topics sure to capture the attention of any thoughtful teenaged nerd. Another example is “I’ve Seen the Saucers” a kind of goofy, synthesizer-laden song about alien abduction. All very listenable musically – this was, after all, EJ and Bernie at their hit-making peak – but more passing fancies than long-term commitments.

On the plus side, Caribou features “Stinker,” which has always struck me as Elton trying to channel Van Morrison (though I’m probably wrong about that), “Dixie Lily” a toe-tapping uptempo country number in which Bernie’s love affair with Americana once again spills forth, and “Pinky” which, though a little odd lyrically (duh!), still comes off as one of the most elegantly romantic songs EJ and Bernie have ever put together.

No discussion of Caribou is complete without mentioning “Solar Prestige a Gammon.” It stands alone as the worst song Elton and Bernie ever released – and that’s saying a lot. Its lyrics are, in large part, recognizable English words, possibly arranged in a manner that is grammatically proper but completely nonsensical. For example, here are the words to the refrain:
Solar prestige a gammon
cool kar kyrie kay salmon
Hair ring molassis abounding
Common lap kitch sardin a poor flounding

Well, I warned you. For his part, EJ contributed a vaguely Latin-sounding melody and punctuated his vocal with rolled R’s and a slight accent of some sort. In interviews, EJ has babbled some nonsense about it being inspired by The Beatles’ “Sun King,” but he hasn’t elaborated on the matter to my knowledge. At this point, I have to stop myself from speculating further based on my conviction that the song just isn’t worth the trouble. But if you’ve ever wondered what EJ’s worst song was, I have put forth a nomination.

Somewhere around this time, MCA Records, EJ’s U.S. label, decided to release EJ’s actual first album, Empty Sky from 1969, previously available only in the U.K. Naturally, I rushed out and bought a copy. It is – let me put this delicately – for aficionados only. There are cuts on it that I enjoy to this day, but its shortcomings are evident. It was produced on the cheap. I seem to recall reading that EJ and the band would hang around the studio until it closed for the day and work on their album far into the night. EJ was still figuring out how to write and sing a pop hit, and Bernie… well, Bernie was still sorting through a lot of Gothic imagery, psychedelia, and clumsy poetic notions. When lyrical passages occur that are completely lucid and understandable, it comes as something of a shock, given the impenetrable nature of so much of his work at this time. Okay, I have to give you a sample. This is the refrain of “Hymn 2000”:
And I don’t want to be
The son of any freak
Who for a chocolate center
Can take you off the street
For soon they’ll plough the desert
And God knows where I’ll be
Collecting submarine numbers
On the main street of the sea

…But I guess ya gotta learn how to crawl before you can learn how to write a million selling single. The most well known song on Empty Sky is “Skyline Pigeon,” which memorably features EJ going to town on the harpsichord. He re-recorded it several years later with a more conventional arrangement and used it as the B side for the “Daniel” single, and he’s been known to perform it in concert.

And then… Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy happened. Any of us who thought EJ might never surpass the grandeur of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were proven wrong in a sudden bolt of creative lightning. It is solidly a concept album, the concept being a retrospective of EJ’s career to that point, with particular emphasis on the early days before stardom hit. Though one big hit single came out of it, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” the feeling throughout is that this album was not written with hit singles in mind. It was written with Elton and Bernie trying to be as honest and eloquent as they could be in the format of a pop album. Despite the absence of a long roster of singles, the album debuted at #1 on the album chart in its first week of release – the first pop album ever to do so. This is another one I can still play from beginning to end. And by the way, if I’d have been calling the shots at the record company, I’d have released “Meal Ticket” as a single. I regard it as A Hit That Should Have Been.

The initial album release of Captain Fantastic came with some cool extras: A lyric book and a scrapbook, both filled with news clippings and photos, some going back to Elton and Bernie’s childhoods. The whole thing felt like the culmination of a great arc of stardom. And so it was, in some ways.

As Captain Fantastic was coming out, drummer Nigel Olsson and bass player Dee Murray left EJ’s band. In addition to their respective instruments, Nigel and Dee, along with guitarist Davey Johnstone, were the core of EJ’s harmony section. Nigel and Dee’s departure left a hole in the band that proved impossible to properly fill.

EJ’s next album was Rock of the Westies. Dee and Nigel were gone, new band members were making new sounds, and Elton and Bernie seemed to be looking for new ideas themselves. The result was one big hit – “Island Girl,” one little hit – “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” and a lot of mediocre stuff in between. Maybe “mediocre” isn’t the right word. It was all well produced and performed by a bunch of talented musicians, but it wasn’t pleasing to the ear quite often enough. The opening number, “Medley” seemed ill-conceived and creatively thin from the outset, and no amount of screaming background singers and keyboard pyrotechnics could conceal that fact. The only song that has worn well on my ears is the album closer, “Billy Bones and the White Bird.” Goofy as it is, it gets the blood pumping and the feet moving.

All in all, Rock of the Westies, though possessing a few small charms, was a quietly frightening album. It made me wonder if the glory years were irretrievably gone. After a few other projects – singing “Pinball Wizard” in the movie Tommy and releasing a live album – it was time for a new studio album on a new record label. In my mind, EJ was threatening to become a treasured oldies act and he needed to show me that he still had something wonderful to offer. The album was called Blue Moves.

Alas, Blue Moves turned out to be an album that made me miss Rock of the Westies. It was an almost total whiff. It was a double album that droned on interminably from one unmemorable song to the next. Bernie seemed to have forgotten how to be interesting and Elton seemed to have lost his edge with melodies. More than that, though, the band no longer seemed to have an identity. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but you notice its absence. The album generated one big hit single, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” which is a perfectly decent ballad, I suppose, although the only song from the album that I ever listen to is the minor hit, “Crazy Water,” a song with a legitimately infectious jump to it and a fascinating contrast between Bernie’s seafaring folk song lyrics and Elton’s funky disco music. But man, you had to get through a lot of forgettable junk on the album to get to that one jewel.

The Late Middle Period
I was now at a crossroads with regard to EJ, though I was still listening to his old albums regularly. In truth, I was never someone who bought albums offhandedly. In my first fifteen years of buying records, I bought less than a hundred of them. And EJ now had a lot to prove with regard to his new material. Gone were the days when I could confidently buy his work before hearing it. His next studio album was A Single Man. I heard a bit of it, was not impressed, and left it unpurchased. EJ had stopped writing songs with Bernie Taupin and had dropped Gus Dudgeon as his producer, so there was even more reason to be cautious. I still wanted to love EJ, but he wasn’t cooperating.

Next came The Thom Bell Sessions EP, which didn’t work at all, and which produced possibly the weakest big hit in EJ’s entire catalog, the disposable “Mama Can’t Buy You Love.” That one also went unpurchased, as did the following studio album, Victim of Love. EJ was still out there, selling out concerts and putting out the odd hit, but something was missing.

Signs of life appeared in his next album, 21 at 33. While it didn’t represent a total return to form, it sounded like something was moving in the right direction. It didn’t hurt that he’d surrounded himself with an exceptional collection of helpers on this one, from the Eagles to Bruce Johnston, Toni Tennille, Peter Noone, and – most notably – Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray coming back to play on two tracks, and Bernie Taupin contributing lyrics on three tracks. If it doesn’t hold up as a particularly memorable album, it at least gave me hope and got me paying attention again. But the road back would continue to be bumpy.

Next came the entirely forgettable album, The Fox, which went unpurchased. Then came Jump Up! which showed promise if not brilliance, though it contained EJ’s heartfelt tribute to his friend John Lennon, “Empty Garden.” Then, suddenly, a real comeback took place.

It can be no accident that EJ’s comeback on Too Low for Zero coincided with the return of Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray, and Bernie Taupin as full participants in the process. It pulsed with rhythm, energy, and listenability with tunes such as “I’m Still Standing,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and “Kiss the Bride.” It had been years since EJ had given us the goods and it was awfully nice to have him back.

The trend continued with his next album, Breaking Hearts. Though there were four songs from the album that charted, there’s no utter classic on display. Instead, it’s more a collection of songs that almost all excel. Bernie was back in form as well, and aside from a few odd ones, his lyrics were surprisingly coherent. And I say that with love and respect.

One note about the biggest hit from Breaking Hearts – “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”: There was a clothing company in the 80s called Sasson (not to be confused with Vidal Sassoon). At the time this song was a hit, EJ could be seen in TV commercials singing “Sasson says so much…” Sasson was a sponsor of the tour that followed (during which I saw EJ live for the first time). It all seemed so very convenient, and I’ve always suspected that EJ and Bernie wrote this song from the ground up to be used by Sasson. I have no corroborating evidence to offer; it’s just a suspicion. I’m not knocking the song, but don’t bullshit a bullshitter, guys.

EJ’s next opus, Ice on Fire, is a little trickier to discuss. It is well attested that EJ was at his absolute coke-head worst during production of this album. The cover photo shows him looking puffy and mostly hidden beneath dark glasses and a wide-brimmed hat. Producer Gus Dudgeon was back in the fold at this point, and he has said that he feared for EJ’s life during the process. The album is not generally regarded as a classic by Elton, Bernie, or the general public. And yet…

…I think it’s way underrated. “Nikita” is certainly on the short list of the best songs he and Bernie ever produced. The album’s overall sound is a little cold and detached – more Ice than Fire – but that sound mostly seems to be in the spirit of the material at hand. “Cry to Heaven” is a dramatically brooding piece that is more overtly political than Bernie usually gets. “Too Young” becomes compelling because of/in spite of its weird arrangement, which manages to sound both underproduced and overproduced at the same time. Even the gimmicky disco duet with George Michael, “Wrap Her Up” is pretty irresistible. How does a coked up, half dead man produce this kind of work? It’s a mystery, though it is a testament to EJ’s irrepressible musical abilities. To quote one of Bernie’s early lyrics, “Thank God my music’s still alive.”

Ah, but no one said the road back would be without its potholes. EJ’s next offering was Leather Jackets, which EJ has said is the worst album he’s ever released. You will find no argument here. A couple of years would pass before his next studio album.

That album was 1988’s Reg Strikes Back. The album was not titled casually. If Reg wasn’t yet completely cleaned up, he was at least pointed in the right direction, and he was ready to tear it up again. It’s not a backward-looking album. There’s no ruminating about the bad times. He and Bernie charge straight ahead with a fresh immediacy into songs like “Town of Plenty,” “A Word in Spanish,” “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That,” and my personal favorite from the album, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Part Two,” which knocks a whole lot of dust off of EJ’s shelf.

EJ’s next studio offering was Sleeping With The Past and it continued his and Bernie’s renaissance in fine style. It was supposedly fashioned as a tribute to the R&B sounds of the 60s and 70s that had first inspired them, but it isn’t retro in its sound; that inspiration is merely subtextual through most of the album and it turns out to be a jumping off point for a lot of terrific songs. Nowadays, the song you’re most likely to hear from this album is “Sacrifice,” but for my money, “Club at the End of the Street” is the great keeper from this collection.

Three years after that, with a few greatest hits collections in between, came the album that closed out an era for EJ. That album is 1992’s The One. Depending on when you ask me, it is my favorite of all his albums. To this day, I’ll listen to the whole thing in running order. Side one starts out with the deceptively restrained “Simple Life,” though it carries with it an insistent rhythm that is a harbinger for what’s in store. Through the ensuing four songs, the intensity and the volume keep growing. By the time Eric Clapton joins in for “Runaway Train,” you’re ready to jump up and scream, but there’s still one more song to go on the side. That’s “Whitewash County,” which threatens to make the room explode. When it ends, you’re breathless and numb from the sonic assault of the preceding half hour.

So there you are, broken and spent and wondering what could possibly be in store on side two. The answer is that side two tries to soothe you musically while taking you down some curious darkened roads along the way. It takes a leap of trust and surrender to fully go on the journey, and at the end of it comes “The Last Song,” a heartbreaking tribute to victims of AIDS. EJ has said that he cried all the while he was writing the music, and I believe him. If I were to pick nits, it would be fair to say that Bernie lays down some pretty trite lyrics here and there, but I have to look past that. At this late date, there can be no more bitching about Bernie’s lyrical quirks. One may as well critique his taste in clothes for all the good it would do you. The whole is far, far greater than the sum of its parts on this one. As for Bernie Taupin, he is a lyrical blessing and curse rolled into one, and no one can ever truly say where the blessing ends and the curse begins. All we know for sure is that without Bernie, Elton is much diminished.

The Late Period
What’s that? I’m consigning the past 25 years to “The Late Period”? Yes I am. Like I said, this is a subjective essay on my relationship with EJ’s music, and this is how it shakes down for me. To my ear, to my brain, The One is a kind of last hurrah for EJ. Maybe he even knew it himself. After all, The One has the longest running time of any single disc record he’s ever put out, and the results were epic. His following project was Duets, which was probably a ton of fun for him, but which resulted in something very… I guess the word would be “safe.” After that, he teamed with Tim Rice to do the Lion King soundtrack. It wasn’t until 1995 that he released his next album of original material, Made in England. It’s a fine album with some lovely songs on it, but when you listen to songs like “Room,” “Latitude,” and “Man,” you know you’re listening to someone who has reached middle age and who isn’t going to bust his hump trying to be king of the hill. That isn’t a criticism; the most recent quarter century has brought us a lot of wonderful music from EJ, but it also means that we’ve reached The Late Period, no matter how long it lasts.

Another factor is that the apparent pace of time speeds up as we age. It’s true for me, and I’m sure it’s true for Elton and Bernie. It’s now been 25 years since The One was released. 25 years before that, it was 1967 and Reggie Dwight was a complete unknown who had just met Bernie Taupin. Those first 25 years represent several worlds of evolution, growth, and accomplishment; far more than the last 25 have given us. Yes, I’m presuming to know something about EJ personally here. Sue me.

A few notable moments since then: The Big Picture from 1997. Though it contains the hit single, “Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” which I rather like, Bernie considers it to be the worst album they ever put out. At the very least, it can certainly lay claim to having the ugliest album cover in their entire catalog.

Songs From the West Coast from 2001 has more than a little quality stuff on it. It’s really not bad at all, but it’s more of an album that I listen to two or three selected songs from and skip the rest. The song “Birds” is another fine example of a John/Taupin record that will have you rocking in your seat and tapping your feet even as you’re contemplating some fairly depressing lyrics.

Peachtree Road from 2004 was, as one might infer from the title, recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, and it definitely has a country vibe to it, which I’m sure Bernie was only too happy to embrace. EJ has slipped into a noticeably lower vocal register by this point, and it works. “Answer in the Sky” got some airplay, though the catchiest song in the collection is “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave” which demonstrates that Bernie has not lost the ability to write a strikingly corny lyric.

The Captain & The Kid from 2006 currently stands as the most recent EJ album I’ve purchased. It is a sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy thirty years on. When I heard about the concept, I was enthused, but for all its promise, that album arrived D.O.A. It is flat and unengaging, returning us to the uncomfortable feeling that EJ and Bernie’s candle may be burning out long before their legend ever does.

There have been several new albums since then, but what little I’ve heard from them has failed to engage me. I continue to listen to his work from all over his recording history. In the past 45 years, few weeks have passed without me listening to something of his, so this isn’t a listening habit I’ve picked up as I’ve aged. No no no – it’s a habit I got into at a young age and have continued with. Like any long-term relationship, we have evolved. Along the way, different songs and albums have come and gone as favorites, and some of the songs themselves have changed in their meaning. Because ultimately, I can’t know what these songs meant to them; I can only know what they mean to me.

So where does that leave the duo of Elton & me? I told you at the outset that any perceived personal relationship between the two of us is illusory, and so it remains. I may have known very little about EJ the person twenty years ago, and I know even less today. Having just turned 70, he may, for all I know, be a cantankerous character who cusses out his dog and blames it for every smell of passing gas. He may be a witty raconteur who puts all his friends in stitches. He may be a stamp collecting nerd. I have no idea. And all of those things are okay by me. The EJ I know is the one who could play an arena of 20,000 people like a yo-yo. I’ve seen him in concert three times to date and he has never failed to conduct a master class in the art of performing. The EJ I know is the outrageously gifted composer who can quickly throw together a melody that simultaneously sounds completely original while sounding like something you’ve known your whole life. The EJ I know is a character half made up by me and half made up by the musical DNA that’s been on public display for nearly half a century. In the end, I don’t guess I have any use for Reginald Dwight the person, because I’ve got Captain Fantastic at my disposal, and that makes me the guy with the embarrassment of riches.


Crossword Solutions

Posted on 2016.12.28 at 13:04
Current Mood: puzzled
Current Music: We Can Work It Out - The Beatles
This year, I prepared two separate crossword puzzles; one for coworkers and one for family and friends. Here is the solution for the coworkers’ puzzle:

Here is the solution for the family and friends’ crossword puzzle:

If you tried your hand at either puzzle this year, I hope you had fun!


The Village

Posted on 2016.04.16 at 14:30
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
Current Music: Hey Joe – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
My first show at the Village, Belvedere. That's Joe French, Luke Huber, Irene Schweyer Hublick (a.k.a. The First Lady of Greenfield Village Theatre), and me as the nosy next-door neighbor. For more about this show, keep reading. For more photos, scroll down to the end of this post.

By “The Village” I mean the Greenfield Village Theatre Company. For decades, it was a fixture of the Detroit area professional theater scene, housed within the walls of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s been some years since the company was disbanded. Its founder and Artistic Director Dr. Joseph N. French has moved on to that big dressing room in the sky, where I’m sure he now enjoys observing the angels as they go about their business. I wouldn’t have written this essay while the company existed or while Joe was still alive, but I’m not getting any younger either, and in any case, it’s been over 25 years since most of these events transpired, so there are some things I’d like to set down for the record.

I really hate to begin a post with disclaimers, but I’m afraid they’re called for here. I’m going to say good things, but I’m also going to say bad things about shows that some dear friends were a part of, but for the most part, I’m not going to name names. I have no axe to grind with any of you about the Village, so please look upon this as an opinion piece. It isn’t the last word on the subject; it’s merely my word on the subject.

The GVTC was almost the site of my professional acting debut. In late 1978 (I believe), I auditioned for their production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. The show was cast and I was not called. This hardly surprised me. I’d never set foot in the theater before. I hadn’t known a soul at the auditions and it had seemed clear that nothing I’d read that night had made an impact on anyone. But several weeks later, I got a phone call from someone at the Village telling me that an actor had dropped out of the cast and would I be interested in playing the role of (I think) a butler. As luck would have it, I’d just been cast in a community theater production of Equus, a show I’d long dreamed of being a part of, so I turned down the Village’s offer. A few months later, I was cast in a show at Detroit’s Attic Theatre and began a lengthy and fruitful association with them, so it was a long time before I again crossed the Village’s threshold.

Over the next several years, as I became familiar with Detroit’s theater scene, one fact became clear about the GVTC: It was the object of widespread scorn among much of the acting community. It was not considered “serious”, due perhaps to their propensity for producing old comedic chestnuts that nobody does anymore. Never did one hear of the Village producing shows by edgy modern playwrights like Rabe or Mamet. Even given their taste for older plays, one was far more likely to see a frothy comedy like Nothing But The Truth or a little-seen relic of the past like The Contrast than something by Eugene O’Neill or Samuel Beckett. So, being young and impressionable, and aspiring to the pretentiousness of my more cultured fellow thespians, I avoided the Village for years.

In 1986, I heard that the Village was producing the play Belvedere. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. I later came to realize that it is a remarkably obscure play. Though it was the inspiration for the 1948 movie Sitting Pretty, as well as the 1980s sitcom Mr. Belvedere, the play seems to have fallen completely out of the public record. IMDB only lists the original novel as the inspiration for the movie and TV show; it makes no mention of the play at all. And I’ve never heard of another production of the play, so this is obscure stuff indeed.

So what attracted me to this production? Why was I finally going to set foot in the Greenfield Village theater for the first time since my 1978 audition? Well… my memory fails me, but it’s entirely possible that I was called and asked to audition for it by the play’s director, Mary Bremer. I have enormous respect and affection for Mary, who has long been one of the leading talents in the Michigan theatrical world, so I suspect that’s what got me in the door.

I was cast as the busybody next-door neighbor, Mr. Appleton. Frankly, I performed the role with a nasal campiness that carried me through several of my roles at the Village (see also my performances as the conniving office nerd Warren Gilley in The Solid Gold Cadillac and the conniving Lord Chamberlain in Snow White). But the important thing was that I’d found a new theatrical home unlike anything I’d ever experienced before … And they liked me! They really liked me!…

Over the next six years – until I moved to Chicago in 1992 – I did a bunch of shows at the Village. I even made my debut as a playwright when Dr. French hired me to write an adaptation of the 1903 musical Babes in Toyland. I could write a few thousand words about that process, but I’ll keep moving.

The first thing I noticed about working at the Village was that there was a comfort level to the production process that is virtually unknown among theater companies. At a typical theater, every production has a level of hustle to it – you’re operating on a shoestring or close to it, so you’re constantly concerned with generating sales and publicity, lest a failed show or two should put the company out of business.

At the Village, such concerns seemed to be in the background if they existed at all. The theater company was merely a small part of the Greenfield Village/Henry Ford Museum complex. The theater itself, a spacious old proscenium house, was actually within the walls of the museum . This resulted in an odd arrangement for rehearsing. Rehearsals usually took place at night after the museum had closed for the day, so a security guard with a key had to let everyone in and out of the building. In practice, this meant that if you were needed at all on a given night – even if it was to throw in one line in one scene – you had to arrive with everyone else at, say, 7:00 p.m. and you had to stay until the rehearsal was over and everyone else was leaving. Yes it was strange, but nobody stressed about it because it simply came with the territory.

Being a part of the Village/Museum complex also came with some unique advantages. Commonly, production staff were able to borrow antique furniture and props from the museum’s collection to use in the shows. Even if you’re not a theater person, I think you can see that this is a perk to die for. Season subscribers surely numbered in the thousands and almost every show was well attended. Dr. French once told me that the theater company’s charter stipulated that, in keeping with the museum’s identity as A) American in focus and B) a museum, all of their shows had to be A) American in origin, and B) At least 35 years old.

Part A was the source of an amusing irony. Dr. French had gone to graduate school in England and his PhD was specifically in Shakespeare, but his company could never produce anything written by Shakespeare since the Bard wasn’t an American!

The upside of this arrangement was that the Village frequently produced plays that never got produced anymore. There are a great many shows that were major Broadway hits in the early 20th century that have completely disappeared from sight. A good example is one of the last shows I did at the Village, a very decent production of Sabrina Fair by Samuel A. Taylor. It played on Broadway in 1953-54 and was the basis for the film Sabrina. Who even knew the film was based on a stage play? And who has ever seen a production of the play? So for a certain kind of theatrical scholar, the Village provided something unique and wonderful. And occasionally, the productions did justice to the scripts. Please understand that point – that the GVTC was entirely capable of producing excellent shows. Ah, but now we must journey to the Dark Side of the Village…

It must be said that many productions at the Village exhibited little focused effort at creating a truly excellent product. Good enough was usually good enough. You showed up; you learned your lines; you learned your blocking; and nobody there would push you to engage in any deeper thought about it. The result, all too often, was that you’d end up presenting a pretty little reading of the material without doing any of the work that excellent theater generally requires. Maybe you could blame the built-in audience. Maybe you could blame the scripts. Maybe, as was often alleged, it was Joe French’s fault. Plenty of theories have been tossed about and I’m not sure there’s any one factor that explains it all. But many times, I would see talented directors and actors come to the Village and suddenly do mediocre work; suddenly not do their homework. The excellent work you might see them exhibit at other theaters was curiously absent from their work at the Village. There seemed to be an inexorable pull toward mediocrity.

There were, to be sure, exceptions. There were people who brought their A Game every time out regardless of the venue. But as I said earlier, I’m not naming names because if I praise some people, it implies a criticism of the people I didn’t name, so I’m not going to start down that road. But I will name one name: Me. It took me a few shows there to get my footing; to realize that I had to walk in the door with my own standards, because those standards were probably going to be higher than anything that was going to be asked of me. I’ve come to believe that this is a good discipline to develop for any actor in any theater. Hold yourself to a high standard and make damn sure you’re pleased with your own effort.

Ultimately, my lasting memories of the Village are overwhelmingly positive. After all, I did receive my one and only acting award because of a show I did at the Village! Here it is: I was given the award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for my performance as Sir Dandiprat Bombas in Snow White. I was given this award by the Dearborn Press & Guide and their theater critic, the late Richard Marsh. And now, a little perspective:

Mr. Marsh only considered shows that played in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights. The GVTC was the only professional company in that area, so it meant that my fellow nominees were actors from area community theater and high school productions. I mean no disrespect to anyone working at such a venue; marvelous work is regularly done at such places. Let me put it this way – I would have felt far more honored had I beaten out other professionals, or at least people from a wider theatrical pool. Does that make me a snob? I don’t think so. But this is how much the award meant to me: The night they called my name, I was in Toledo, Ohio watching a Mud Hens baseball game along with my girlfriend and my brother. We had a great time, by the way. I didn’t actually receive the award certificate until about a year later, when a friend passed it along to me courtesy of Mr. Marsh.

As long as I’m dumping on Richard Marsh, who is no longer here to defend himself, let me pass along this nugget: One of the first shows I did at the Village was a thuddingly inert rendition of You Can’t Take It With You. It’s a fine old script that deserved a better fate. After the curtain had dropped on opening night, I was putting props away in the wings when I noticed that an audience member had come up, parted the curtains, and was poking around on the set. I went out and tactfully informed him that this wasn’t appropriate. He merely smiled, thrust out his right hand to shake mine, and breezily said, “Richard Marsh, Press and Guide” – which meant nothing to me; I wasn’t from Dearborn. I decided he was harmless and let him be.

The Rest of the Story came the following week when Marsh’s review appeared. You see, part of our set dressing was an American flag. It wasn’t spread out; it was in a corner upstage standing on an upright pedestal. From the audience, you could only see enough of it to know that it was an American flag. In Marsh’s review, he specifically criticized our set for containing a 50-star flag. Since the play was set in the 1930s, it should have been a 48-star flag. And that’s all very true, but the only reason Richard knew that was because when I approached him on the set, he’d spread out the flag and was counting the stars! So if, a few years later, I was less than dazzled by his award to me, I hope you can understand where I was coming from.

One of my favorite Village memories goes back to the first show I did there, Belvedere. One night right before the show started, one of the children in the cast fell ill. He was throwing up backstage and was sent home. Well… he didn’t have that big of a role, so our remedy was to make an announcement to the audience and have our stage manager come out on stage and read in his lines. Our stage manager was a grown man with a beard and mustache, and it was a little strange at first, but the audience quickly accepted it and the show proceeded smoothly.

Until intermission. Our director had popped into the theater late in Act I and saw what we were doing, and she felt there was room for improvement. She insisted that our stage manager be clean-shaven so as to be more believable as a little boy, so during intermission, off came the beard and mustache. And so, when he made his first entrance in Act II, there he was suddenly clean-shaven. The audience began snickering, realizing what had happened and why it had been done. I suppose you could say that this was, after all, a comedy so we like it when the audience is laughing, but this sort of laughter… wasn’t quite true to the playwright’s intentions. This moment has since become a touchstone between all of us who were there that night.

The worst play I ever saw there? It would have to be the one time I know of when they undertook the work of Arthur Miller. For the sake of discretion, I will omit the name of the play, but it is a well-known and much loved script. Some good actors seemed at a loss to construct a sense of narrative. As for dramatic tension, it was weirdly absent from a play that should squeeze its audience like a vise. The whole thing felt like a cold reading by people who didn’t know the story or what it was about. Whose fault was it? I will not pretend to assign blame. I can only tell you what I saw. Likewise, if I see a dead fish floating in a pond, I may never know whether the cause of death was murder, suicide, disease, boredom, or neglect – but I know a dead fish when I see one.

The best play I ever saw there? It was their production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. I’ve seen a few other renditions of it, including the Steppenwolf’s well-regarded production in the late 1990s, and the Village’s production tops them all. It was one of those productions that reminded me why I go to the theater; why I keep hoping.

If the GVTC suffered from inconsistency, it was plain to see that they were hardly alone in that failing. I doubt there has ever been a theater of any longevity that did not produce both excellent and dreadful shows. And yet, there was something different about the Village. Maybe it’s that the gap between their best work and their worst work seemed so wide. Or maybe my uncertainties were centered around the snobbish crowd to whom I referred earlier, who had years before judged and convicted the GVTC of the crime of insignificance. The fact is, I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to convince them otherwise. I try not to argue over opinions. We often see what we expect to see, and if you’ve already reviewed a play in your head before the curtain goes up, nothing that happens afterward is likely to change your mind.

Finally, I must send out a special thank-you to the aforementioned Mary Bremer. It was she who cast me as John P. Wintergreen in the GVTC production of Of Thee I Sing. It was the one time in my life when everything lined up for me to play the romantic lead in a musical. It took place at a time when I was the thinnest I’ve been in my adult life (people would ask me how I’d done it and I’d tell them the truth: Poor diet and excessive worrying). It was also the right role at the right time in my life – but it still only happened because Mary saw me in the role. Part of me knew that it was fated to be a rare opportunity, so I think I enjoyed it more than someone who spends their career playing such roles.

The one scary aspect of playing that role in Of Thee I Sing was that it meant I would have to dance the spotlight dance in the last scene of the show. Anyone who knows me should know that I am a spectacularly bad dancer. So at the first rehearsal, I took my leading lady aside and asked her to agree to something. As soon as our dance was choreographed, could we agree to always find time to go out into a hallway and run through it at every rehearsal – even if it wasn’t a dance rehearsal? And could we also run it before every show? Luckily, she turned out to be just as insecure about her dancing ability as I was about mine, so she agreed. My final triumph came on the night CC saw the show. She knows my dancing limitations better than most. After the show, she delivered her critique: “Let me put it this way – You managed to get through the entire show without the audience finding out you can’t dance.” I couldn’t have been happier. Mission accomplished.

Nowadays, the GVTC is gone; Joe is gone; and for that matter, I’m gone, having moved to Chicago in 1992. The passage of time has served to underline what a rare and special theater the Village had. Some of the people who had ill feelings towards the place in the 1980s and 90s probably feel the same way today, not only over their aesthetic perceptions of the place, but also over the unsuccessful attempts made by the Actors Equity Association to have a dialogue with the Village about its non-union status. That’s a battle I was at times caught in the middle of, but I won’t launch into an in-depth discussion of it; it was insoluble 25 years ago and it’s definitively insoluble now.

The highest compliment I can pay to the GVTC is that it was a part of my education. I found things and people that I loved, and other things and people that, well, I didn’t love. I learned things about myself and my craft that I might not have learned anywhere else. And I had fun. Please don’t leave fun out of the equation. The GVTC was a gift that turned up smack in the middle of my road through life. Instead of going around it, I went through it and assimilated what it had to offer. Those elements are still a part of my life.
* * *

I worked with these lovely people in You Can’t Take It With You. For this role, I had to learn how to play the xylophone badly, at which I was a natural.

These handsome folks and me comprised the cast of
The Solid Gold Cadillac. My role as a weaselly office toady came to me all too easily.

Playing Tom in
The Time of Your Life was my favorite role that I got to play at the Village. This production was an honorable and heartfelt rendition of the show. As in Belvedere, I was once again accompanied by Irene Schweyer Hublick and Joe French, who wore his best toupee for the occasion.

The cast of
So This Is London, the last show I did at the Village. A few non-cast members may also be seen here, including the late Tom Farrar, David DuChene, our director Harry Wetzel and the invaluable Elaine Kaiser. This show was a fine way to close out my time at the Village.


Crossword Puzzle Solution!

Posted on 2015.12.28 at 15:17
Current Mood: puzzled
Current Music: Word Up! - Cameo
If you haven't given this year's puzzle a fair shot yet, just stop right here! ...
... or don't stop. Heck, it's all up to you. I hope you enjoyed this year's edition and that you were able to work it out. Here ya go:


The Birds of St. Louis – More Than Just Cardinals

Posted on 2015.11.11 at 20:12
Current Mood: flighty
Current Music: Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen

Lone Elk Park? I’d never heard of it. It’s in Valley Park, Missouri, a little west of St. Louis. Here’s how we ended up there: I realized a few weeks back that I had a couple of unused Personal days in the bank at my day job, and the deal with those Personal days is that I have to use 'em or lose 'em by the end of the year. Holiday time wasn’t an option so I picked a Monday and Tuesday in early November to give myself a nice long weekend in which to… do something. It needed to be something modest and unambitious. After some looking around, we agreed on St. Louis, Missouri, less than a day’s drive from Chicago. Our general plan offered the myriad diversions of St. Louis if we opted to pursue them, and our cabin twenty miles west of town offered peace and quiet if we opted not to pursue them.

Our list of goals going in was nearly nonexistent. On our first full day there, the Big Plan for the day was that CC and I would visit a fabric store. Really, that was it, and we were fine with that. But you see, when you leave yourself with that much uncommitted time, you are free to pursue whatever pops up in the road. And so…

We were driving into St. Louis on I-44 when we saw the sign at the top of this post. The photo was shot through the windshield of a moving car, which is why it looks the way it does. World Bird Sanctuary? Well heck, we both love birds! I asked CC if she wanted to go. “Sure!” she replied. Half a mile later, I exited and began to follow the twisting roads that the signs pointed me along. After a few miles, we began to wonder if this wasn’t a wild goose chase (though that would have been appropriate for a bird sanctuary), but we pushed on.

We finally came to the front gate, noted that admission was free, parked the car and began to walk about. The first building we entered contained no other people, but it did contain bulletin boards, handouts, and a few large cages. The first one we looked at contained this:

That’s a live owl; specifically, a Northern Saw-Whet Owl by the name of Olaf. The folks at the sanctuary haven’t yet determined Olaf’s gender since the males and females of this species are nearly identical, but Olaf was good enough to pose for this picture. Our first big surprise, though, came when we walked out the back door of the building and were presented with this sight:

Just in case you’re reading this in the dark and can’t see the photo, that’s a bald eagle. Well damn! I’d never been anywhere near that close to such a creature. And this shot has been cropped a bit but it was not taken with a zoom lens; we really were that close. He is tethered to his perch, and while he can jump on and off of it and move around a bit, he can’t go very far when he’s on exhibit. In case you’re wondering, a great many of the birds there are animals that have been injured to an extent that they could not survive on their own.

We finally found a docent who was able to fill us in on the scope of the place. There are dozens of birds there, mostly kept in screened outdoor enclosures. Seeing the whole place requires walking a mile or two, which we gladly did. Oh gosh – we saw hawks, owls, turkeys, several varieties of chickens, crows, ravens, even an Andean condor with a 12-foot wingspan fer Chrissakes! I didn’t take pictures of any of the ones in enclosures simply because I didn’t think they’d look very good being seen through wire screening, but they were a delight to see and get close to.

The building that housed the gift shop also contained animals, including a rabbit (which we were allowed to pet) whose fur was almost unimaginably soft. It also contained several talking parrots, though they had little to say to us.

There are a couple of additional points I want to make. First of all, this is a modest facility. As I said, admission is free but donations are gladly accepted – and we gladly made one. If you walk in the door expecting something Disney-fied, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you walk in ready to accept it on its own terms, you’re going to be delighted. Great fun for the whole family & kids of all ages.

My other major point is that this experience was the happy result of not having everything planned out ahead of time. I'd looked at various St. Louis tourism guides before leaving Chicago, and none of them mentioned the World Bird Sanctuary, but in fact, I’d make it a point to stop there again the next time I’m in the neighborhood.

One final minor point: This photograph. I don’t have a story about it, but I liked the bird and I like the photo. It’s a peregrine falcon. Enjoy.


How to Suck Without Really Trying

Posted on 2015.11.02 at 17:23
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Brotherhood of Man
It was early 1992, I think. I was happy to be playing the role of Bud Frump in a production of the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. For me, the highlight of the run was the night my brother Frank was in the audience, since he had played the same role several years earlier. But I’m not here to talk about that; the lowlight of the run makes for a much better story…

The show was originally scheduled to open the first weekend in January, which upon reflection is a terribly strange time to open a show. The holidays are over, people are done spending money for a while, and the Michigan weather is liable to be inclement. But I don’t make these decisions; that’s when we were scheduled to open and we prepared accordingly. But then, sometime in late December, we received word that our producer had sold a performance to a group for a presumably nice chunk of change. The show was to take place on New Year’s Eve, several days before our scheduled opening.

If you’ve ever worked on a play at any level of theater, you know that pushing up your opening night is not a trivial matter. Much scrambling was begun by everyone from designers to costumers to actors in order to put up a complete show by December 31st. Pros that we were, it all came together and we were ready to go by the appointed night. But there was one factor no one had considered until the night of the show.

Our performance was scheduled to begin at 11:30 p.m. When we arrived at the theater that night, someone had finally realized the implications of this – that midnight, i.e., the New Year, was going to hit somewhere in the middle of Act I, and our large, well oiled audience would want to celebrate at that moment. So a plan was put in place – wherever we were in the show at midnight, we would come to a halt on a signal from the musical conductor. The entire cast would then enter and we would lead the audience in a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”. We would then go back to the start of whatever scene we’d been doing and start it over.

If the theater people reading this are cringing right now, rest assured that the rest of us were cringing twice as hard. It all struck many of us as an appalling scenario, but really, once the decision had been made to start the show at 11:30 p.m., the rest was inevitable. We could at least tell ourselves that this wasn’t a public performance; it was a private party and as long as they had a good time, we could just chalk it up as a very strange dress rehearsal.

By the way, the protocols for midnight all went off as planned, although starting at about five to midnight, people’s electronic alarms started tinkling all over the theater, announcing the approaching moment, and a murmur built in the theater until the musical conductor took over just before the hour hit. Lovely.

head shot

Being Stupid in Upstate New York

Posted on 2015.09.30 at 17:27
Current Mood: relievedrelieved
Cayuga Lake is one of the Finger Lakes of western New York state. It is almost 40 miles long and, at 435 feet, is one of the deepest lakes in the United States. On the lake’s western shore, a short drive north of Ithaca, one will find Taughannock Falls State Park. The park’s signature feature is its 215-foot falls – 33 feet taller than Niagara Falls and the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. The park does not disappoint when it comes to scenery.

As is often the case when one finds a great waterfall, the surrounding land is extremely hilly and offers myriad opportunities and challenges for the casual hiker. The late summer of 1983 brought three such hikers to western New York – my friend Jim (then a resident of Ithaca), my brother Dan, and myself.

The day was clear and brisk and started out well enough for us. Maybe we should have been listening for the distant strains of “Dueling Banjos”. The key moment was when we decided it was time to stop following the course of the lazy stream that wound its way through the park, so we turned left and began to scale the steep sides of the valley we’d hiked into.

If there was a way up, it was clearly this long upward stretch of broken slate that headed into the trees overlooking the valley. It was a little too steep to actually walk on properly, but it was manageable enough to half-walk and half-climb up the path. It was strenuous but doable.

Jim, being the most fit of the three of us, got up to the trees first. He quickly realized that the apparent path we’d been on disappeared as it hit an impenetrable forest of trees and bushes. He announced that we’d have to go back the way we came, and I’ve never doubted his assessment of the situation or his recommended course of action. But as any good soldier knows, there’s a right way and a wrong way to execute a retreat. I chose poorly.

It turns out that climbing down such a hill is far more difficult than climbing up one. The optimal approach, in retrospect, is probably to reverse the same moves that got you up there; that is, to go down feet first, still facing the ground. I opted to try walking down, facing down the hill. Even though I was doing so in a very crouched position, this approach had the effect of putting my center of gravity far too high and forward over my feet, which impelled me to walk down faster in order to keep up with gravity’s inexorable pull. I should have immediately seen where this was leading, but I did not.

There was no good end game for the approach I had taken; acceleration begat acceleration. Within a matter of seconds, I was dashing down the hill at a furious pace, unable to slow down, my only hope being that I might reach the bottom of the hill before I lost my footing. I didn’t miss it by much; I was only about 20 feet from the bottom when I went pitching forward, landing face-first on a pile of crushed slate.

I never lost consciousness, though it’s possible I sustained a concussion from the impact. I’d felt the stone shards tearing into my face. I’d kept my chin up, which saved me from losing any eyes or teeth, though one of my first thoughts was that my jaw must surely be broken.

Jim and Dan caught up to me and helped me sit up. I don’t know whether they saw me go down or how quickly they realized that I was significantly injured. My jaw wasn’t broken, but there were two substantial wounds; one at the bottom of my chin and that other, the larger one, on the side of my chin. I could feel that a flap of flesh at least a couple inches long was hanging from the larger wound. And there was blood.

I was exceedingly fortunate to be in Jim’s company that day. At the time, he was aiming at a career in medicine and he’d spent a couple summers riding around in ambulances in New York City as a summer job, so he was used to far worse than this. He immediately got me over to the nearby stream and explained that what we had in front of us was very clean fresh water. He washed out my wounds as best he could under the circumstances and bound me up with whatever clean cloth we had on hand. We then had to walk a mile or two back out of the park to get to the car – not an easy walk for me given my stunned condition, but I managed.

As we drove to the hospital, fear began to creep in. At this point in my life, I was a full-time performer. I acted in shows constantly and had a regular job as a messenger for the Eastern Onion Singing Telegram Company. I’m not making this up. The possibility that I might have suffered a permanent disfigurement began to make me quietly frantic. I mean, I never had matinee idol looks to begin with, but this could have limited my castability even more.

At the emergency room, the doctor looked at my wounds, cleaned them up a bit more, and got ready to stitch me up. It was time for me to make my plea. I explained to him that I was a performer for a living, so if there was anything he could do to minimize the potential for disfigurement or scarring, would he please do so. He nodded and promised to do what he could.

By the time the stitches needed to come out, I was back home in Detroit. My sister Bev, lucky for me, was a registered nurse and she volunteered to take out the stitches for me. She expressed admiration for the suturing job the man in New York had done. She declared it the most precise job of its kind she’d ever seen.

As for my poor face – there was some scarring, though hard to see from more than a foot away. If I get into just the right light, I can still see a crescent shaped line curling over the left side of my jaw, but if I’m looking for something to blame for any unsuccessful auditions I may have given, I’ll have to look elsewhere. And anyway, the lasting takeaway from this incident has nothing to do with scarring and everything to do with learning how not to climb down a steep hill covered with crushed slate.


9/11 – Someone Else’s Story

Posted on 2015.09.16 at 12:47
September 11, 2001 happened to all of us who were around then. Each of us processed it, and continues to process it, in our own individual ways. So each of us has our own story about that day and that time. I’m not going to tell you my story, not right now anyway. Instead, I’m going to tell you Jim Warren’s story. Jim can’t tell it himself because he died young – a little over six years ago as of this writing – but I think his story deserves to be heard, for reasons that have nothing to do with the event itself… and everything to do with the event itself.

Jim and I were good friends. We’d met because he’d married my sister, but our friendship somehow survived their subsequent divorce. In fact, when Jim remarried a few years later, I was the best man at the wedding. Yes, you read that right, but that’s quite another story.

Jim was a Steel Guy working in the automotive industry. This meant that he was often sent to far-flung corners of the world to visit steel plants in person. So it was that 9/11/01 found Jim in Beijing, China on business.

It was nighttime in Beijing and Jim was in his hotel room surfing the TV channels. The viewing options were pretty limited. Most of the channels were broadcasting in Chinese, but occasionally, one would come across a Western movie that was subtitled in Chinese, yet the actors were speaking English. And there was one English language news station.

As Jim was flipping through the channels, he came upon a scene of the just-collapsed Twin Towers. At first, he took it to be some sort of disaster movie and he kept on flipping. Soon, though, he came back to that station and realized that this was no movie; it was a live broadcast of the events that were unfolding in New York.

Jim decided that he needed to get out of his room, so he went down to the hotel bar and convinced the bartender to switch the TV over to the news channel. After the bartender did so, a couple of other English speaking patrons came over and began watching with Jim. He told me that it felt good to able to share this event with someone he could actually talk to about it.

As you may recall, air travel was severely restricted in the U.S. for days after 9/11, so Jim was stuck in Beijing for the better part of a week after his business there had concluded. This meant that he had a lot of time to explore the city, and he availed himself of the opportunity. And this leads me to what I think is the most significant part of Jim’s story.

Jim tended to stick out in a crowd. He was a large man with a bald head and a full beard and mustache. In a place like Beijing, he stuck out even more. A little scene played out many times for him over those next few days. A Chinese person on the street would see that Jim was obviously a Westerner. They might ask whether he was an American. Time after time, these strangers would then offer their condolences over what had happened on 9/11 and express their shock and sympathy.

To me, this says a couple of things that we don’t always think about. First, that this was a day felt around the world. Second, and more importantly, it underscores the difference between governments and people and should serve as a reminder not to conflate the two. It might be easy to imagine the government of China taking a dispassionate, cold-blooded view of 9/11. Maybe that’s an accurate view of their government and maybe it’s not, but even if it is accurate, it says nothing about what an ordinary citizen is thinking and feeling.

It should serve as a reminder that we humans should be united by our commonalities more than we should be divided by our differences. Oh, emphasizing those differences can give one a good old adrenaline kick if one enjoys working up a little bloodlust… but I’d much rather see us at peace, embracing our finer emotions and our higher aspirations. As long as so many humans retain their taste for war, this message will never cease to be timely.

I never found out exactly what killed Jim. He’d been recovering from a stroke that had hit him a couple of weeks earlier, but he was in rehab and his prognosis seemed excellent for a full recovery when the fatal event occurred. I never sought to find out any more details because… well, because they don’t matter. What matters is that Jim isn’t here anymore. The rest is just paperwork. If Jim leaves any legacy behind on this earth, I hope stories like this one will be a part of it.


A Few Quick Snapshots — Literally

Posted on 2015.09.12 at 19:12
Current Mood: happyhappy
Notes on Our Late Summer Travels – Part 3
(You'll find Part 1 and Part 2 right below this entry)

That’s a peacock. Of course, you and I already knew that, but there is still an air of mystery about him. We encountered him as we were strolling through the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens. By the way, combining the zoo with the botanical gardens is a great idea. This place has the loveliest landscaping of any zoo I’ve ever visited. I could also say that this place has the most diverse fauna of any botanical garden I’ve ever visited. Anyway, this peacock was strolling about unleashed and unattended. He was perfectly content to let me stoop down right in front of him and take his picture. So given his lack of restrictions, the mystery is this: Does he live there, or was he simply a fellow guest taking in the sights?

This was also on display at the Cincinnati Zoo. Specifically, it was on display inside a stall in one of the men’s rooms. You’ve gotta love creative signage!

This is a portrait of CC relaxing in far eastern North Carolina. I’ve just now taken another look at this photo and realized that there’s something else on prominent display here – that object behind her with the diagonal black & white stripes is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. At 210 feet in height, it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. We arrived there fully intending to climb all the way to the top. OK fine, don’t believe me. Really, we were going to do it. But fate intervened in the form of that ominous sky you see in the background. A few minutes before we arrived, thunder was heard by the people whose job it is to listen for such things, and the Park Service temporarily closed the lighthouse. We hung around for a while and toured the visitor center, but it never reopened while we were there.

This is me having a stare-down with my old buddy Thomas Jefferson. I’m the one on the right. Tom won the stare-down, by the way. Again. We’re standing near his home, a place he called Monticello. I didn’t mention it at the time, but by the look of things, Tom has been spending way too much time outdoors without sufficient sunblock.

There’s quite a story behind this photo. We’d been in Charlottesville, Virginia and we wanted to be in the Detroit area in two days time, so I scanned the map and looked for a city about halfway between the two. I settled on Marietta, Ohio based purely on its geographical location. Since we had some time that morning in Marietta, we decided to check out some of the local history by paying a visit to the Campus Martius Museum. When we got there, we learned that they had a temporary exhibit on the second floor consisting of Civil War memorabilia mostly belonging to an avid collector, one Larry Strayer. What’s more, Mr. Strayer happened to be at the museum that morning. We went up to the second floor, introduced ourselves, and were treated to a personal tour by Mr. Strayer, who was able to fill in a host of details that weren’t printed on the museum display cards. His collection includes uniforms, weapons, photos, and a great many other objects, some quite rare and historically significant. It is one of the best collections of Civil War material I’ve ever seen. If you’re interested, the collection will be there until about mid-November.

That’s it for this year’s trip. It contrasted greatly with last year’s trip, which you can read about if you’re interested – just scroll down in this journal to my entry from July 2014, titled “Swirling Around Nebraska”. Last year’s trip took us west; this year’s trip went southeast. Last year’s trip consisted of a lot more driving; this year, we wanted a bit more time to stop and smell the native flora. Next year, who knows? Maybe it’s time for that long-delayed road trip to Tierra del Fuego.


The Seed of a New Country

Posted on 2015.09.10 at 22:39
Current Mood: accomplished
Notes on Our Late Summer Travels – Part 2
(You'll find Part 1 right below this entry)

Jamestown, Virginia
In many ways, I am a poor student of history, though to quote Monty Python: “I’m getting better.” Honestly, prior to this trip, I wasn’t sure what the significance of Jamestown was or who lived there or when it was that they did whatever they did. I knew it was the site of an early settlement, but that was about it.

You may correctly infer that I never got around to seeing the animated Disney film, Pocahontas. My bad.

Now that I’ve been to Jamestown, I’m pretty gung-ho on the place. Hear me well: If you want to understand how the United States got started, you have to go there. That’s a pretty strong statement considering that Jamestown was founded in 1607, over a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence was sent to the print shop, but it’s no great stretch to say that without Jamestown, this country might very well be speaking Spanish or French as its primary language.

I’m not going to lay out a detailed history of Jamestown here. That’s what Wikipedia and Disney movies are here for… or even, hey how about this: You could visit there yourself! That’s a fine idea! I can’t recommend it highly enough. So let me offer a few tips on how to visit the place.

That may seem like an odd concept – offering tips on how to visit a place like Jamestown. I mean, what’s there to figure out? You drive there, you get out of your car, you walk into the visitor center and away you go. But you see, there are two huge separate facilities at Jamestown and they consider themselves to be in competition for your tourist dollar. Fortunately for you, we visited both places, and while they cover some of the same material, there are considerable differences between the two sites.

Our first stop was Jamestown Settlement. It is located on the mainland, a mile or two from Jamestown Island. It consists primarily of four elements: 1) A full-scale replica of the original fort, complete with a working blacksmith’s shop and various other facilities, all staffed by appropriately costumed docents; 2) A reconstructed Powhatan Indian village (which I confess we mostly skipped due to time constraints); 3) Fully seaworthy replicas of the three ships that brought the colonists over from England in 1607, which we were able to board and tour; and 4) A sizable museum. The museum is quite wonderful. It contains countless artifacts and many well done displays, tracing not just the history of Jamestown, but also the world on both sides of the Atlantic that gave rise to its founding.

Oh that? That’s a chicken that stepped into my path in the blacksmith’s shop as if she owned the place. We’re told that she belongs to an heirloom breed that goes back to Roman times, so of course her mug shot gets a place of honor in my account of our visit.

Considering all of the history and artifacts on display, one might wonder what a competing facility could possibly offer, but there was one vital nugget of information that was unknown when Jamestown Settlement was built: The precise location of the original fort. That information had been lost to history for years; centuries actually. It was generally thought that erosion of the shoreline on Jamestown Island had put the remains of the fort underwater a long time ago.

All of that changed in the mid-1990s, when archaeologists found the fort’s location. It turned out that only a few feet of it had gone underwater. The rest of the fort’s remains, including many fabulous relics and more than a few graves, were all underground waiting to be discovered. That facility is now known as Historic Jamestowne (note the added ‘e’).

Historic Jamestowne is an active archaeological site, and we paused to watch real archaeologists as they gingerly troweled at a dig site. Thousands of the objects they’ve uncovered over the past twenty years are on display in an adjoining museum. Included there are a couple of skeletons, representative of the many graves on site. Some of the bones bear the clear indications of cannibalism, dating from the winter of 1609-10, known as the Starving Time, when most of the settlers died. The human price of establishing Jamestowne was brutally high.

That’s a statue of Captain John Smith. Though his name sounds suspiciously like an alias, I have no doubt that it was his real name, as he was far too egotistical to have ever hidden his true identity. I say that with all due respect; he was a truly remarkable fellow and well deserves his prominence as a key figure in the survival of Jamestown.

Queen Elizabeth II and her consort Prince Phillip have visited Jamestown on two occasions (I’m assuming they weren’t around for the Starving Time, but I can’t swear to it). Their first visit was in 1957 to mark the 350th anniversary of its establishment (by a group of Englishmen, in case you’d forgotten). Their second visit was in 2007, when the couple returned to mark the 400th anniversary. I can’t help but wonder whether Liz & Phil thought they still owned the place.

I’ve never been too keen on having people tell me what to do, and I try to practice the Golden Rule in that regard, but I’m going to make an exception today for which I hope I will be forgiven: You really ought to visit Jamestown. Or Jamestowne. Ideally both. I will close with a little moment from our vacation that has no larger narrative. This is the Grandy, North Carolina Art Gallery. The car was moving and we had places to be, so we did not pull over and experience the artistic wonders of Grandy, nor did we get to pet the goats that were jumping about next to the gallery. We will save that for a future Art Galleries with Farm Animals vacation.


On Some Forgotten Highway

Posted on 2015.09.07 at 16:02
Current Mood: relaxedrelaxed
Notes on Our Late Summer Travels – Part 1

CC and I were on vacation. We’d driven countless miles on twisting, hilly country roads to reach this place. We pulled up to a booth not unlike those on toll roads, paid our fee, and continued on into the park. A few more miles down, we came to the parking lot, which was bustling with traffic. The attendees were of every sort – the young and the old, large groups and solitary tourists, even whole families with babies in tow. We parked, got out of the car, and made our way towards the focal point of the location.

At first glance, it looked like a huge billboard, but it would properly have been called a mural. It faced a narrow road that was closed to traffic. Hundreds of people were milling about, many seemingly oblivious to the mural; some staring intently at it. A clue to its theme could be heard in the air – a recording of the Beatles singing “Hey Jude” played on an endless loop, though the recording had been remixed to add heavily distorted bass notes and other electronic effects.

The mural was said to have been a collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. A simple sign nearby identified it as “A Visualization of the Song ‘Hey Jude’” It seemed to my eye to be some sort of collage, containing separate, unrelated elements. I could not see any sense to it either as a whole or in its individual parts. As an aid to the artistically naïve, a thick piece of Plexiglas was overlaid on the mural, calling out particular elements and explaining them in detail, thus obscuring parts of the mural.

In short order, I had parted company with CC and moved to the balcony of a building across the road from the mural, from which one’s view was unimpeded by the heads and hats of other tourists. As I stood there, trying to make out the text on the mural, a set of double doors opened behind me and a group of people exited the building. A woman’s voice on a loudspeaker then calmly announced, in an English accent, “Miss Nancy Simmons of Cambridge University will now give a lecture on her analysis of the mural. Your six dollar admission fee to the park includes this lecture.” After no more than a few seconds of internal debate, I decided to skip the lecture.

I made my way down to the ground level, where I met up with CC. We agreed that we’d seen quite enough of this attraction and that it was time to move on.

And I woke up. This is what all that driving can do to your brain. Let’s be clear on this point: The mural does not exist, though God knows, the remix of “Hey Jude” could be real.

That dream occurred this morning, less than 48 hours after I’d returned home from two weeks on the road with CC. In no way does it represent my feelings about our vacation, except as a reminder that one must be selective about which attractions one visits in this great land. There are wonderful, stunning sights worth seeing and thoughts worth thinking… but there’s a lot of the other stuff too. Happily, we’d done our homework and only took in sights that were commensurate with our interests and intellects. I say that not to brag, but to encourage others to do the same sort of prep work.

Our time away took us through eight states of the Union. In order, they were Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan. I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive description of our travels in a single article. Instead, I’m going to focus on a single day that struck me as significant. In the weeks to come, I may add additional essays, but we’ll start with one of the best days we experienced:

Richmond, Virginia
Richmond has a population of a little over 200,000, so it is merely the fourth most populous city in Virginia. Still, there are few cities in the U.S. that can claim such a wealth of historical significance. CC and I quickly came to feel that we could have spent our entire vacation there without exhausting its ability to fascinate us. Rather than offering you an overview of Richmond’s many charms, I will talk about the two historical sites we visited in the course of a memorable day.

Our first stop was the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. It may not be the first place, or even the tenth place, you would think of visiting in Richmond, but it quickly became apparent that it richly deserves its National Historic Site status.

The house itself is on a block of Victorian homes. If you were driving along 2nd Street, you might not take much notice of them other than the fact that one home seems more decked out than the others with its brightly painted brickwork and well maintained awning. But once you enter the house, a remarkable story is brought to light.

Maggie L. Walker was born in 1864. Her mother was a former slave and her father was a white Irish immigrant. Virginia law at the time prohibited interracial marriage. Maggie was raised in a meager, hard-working environment, but she leapt far beyond the difficult circumstances of her upbringing and ultimately became the first female bank president of any race to charter a bank in the United States. She was a successful business person and a community leader in an era when this was a seemingly unimaginable aspiration. In her time, she was one of the most well known African Americans in the country, though she is apparently far less well known today. Her home, which we toured extensively, is a 28 room mansion, still outfitted and decorated much as it was when she lived there. Her story can be an inspiration to anyone of any race or background.

Here is where I get to talk about one of our great strategies in planning this vacation. We traveled out of season, i.e., we went after school had gone back into session. When we arrived at the Walker House in the late morning, we were informed that we were their first visitors of the day. Our tour guide, an elderly ex-Army man named George, had only the two of us to show around the house, so there were plenty of opportunities for questions and answers, in addition to which we could move at our own pace and focus on the objects and stories that particularly interested us. Take it from me – travel out of season to maximize your experience.

After leaving the Walker House, we drove for about ten minutes and covered about a million miles, for our next stop was the White House of the Confederacy (which I will refer to as the WHC), the executive mansion where Jefferson Davis and his family lived for most of the Civil War.

Old photographs tell me that the mansion was once surrounded by a generous amount of open land, but nowadays, it sits rather incongruously surrounded by hospitals and medical school buildings. Unlike the Maggie L. Walker house, which is operated by the National Park Service, the WHC is privately owned and operated. It is next door to the Museum of the Confederacy, which time constraints prevented us from visiting, but we had nearly two hours in which to tour the WHC.

It is a remarkable storehouse of historical artifacts. Room after room has been maintained in a Civil War era state of preservation, with furniture, fixtures, paintings, clothing, and all manner of other items on display. It is easy to imagine President Davis and his family living their lives there amidst all of the finery and gentility, albeit while fighting a losing war and coping with all of the uncertainties that accompany such a life.

Still, it was impossible not to be struck by the contrast between the Davis family’s lifestyle, attended as they were by various servants and slaves, and the harsh realities of Maggie L. Walker’s early life; remembering that for all of Walker’s later success, she was born into Richmond as a poor black child in 1864 while across town, Jefferson Davis was leading a government that was fighting for the right to keep people like her enslaved, among other goals.

Ah, but let me end on a lighter note. As an individual visitor, you are not obliged to consider the heavier implications of these places. If you entered as nothing more than an aficionado of antiques and Americana, you would find more eye candy in these places than you would in a dozen episodes of Antiques Roadshow. And if, during your visit, you happened to learn something about the people who lived there and their life stories, it would only enrich your experience.

Stay tuned; there’s still plenty to come, including our visit to the home of a man central to defining what it means to be an American, a man whose writings about individual freedoms have inspired millions around the globe, yet who owned slaves. Or maybe I’ll write about the people who came here over four centuries ago who laid the groundwork for what was to become the United States. Or maybe I’ll write about CC getting her feet wet in a large body of salt water. I’ll get back to you.


Strangers on a Train

Posted on 2015.06.24 at 16:32
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: 500 Miles - Peter, Paul & Mary
I boarded the L train at Belmont Avenue this morning and sat down next to a chunky young man wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey. One stop later, at Wellington, a woman boarded. She was a little out of breath, probably because there is no escalator at the Wellington station and she’d probably just climbed the stairs. Still, she seemed nimble and energetic. She immediately made eye contact with the young man next to me and pointed sharply to the side, indicating that he should get up. In case that wasn’t clear, she followed it up by saying, “I should be sitting there because of both age and disability.” Her age seemed indisputably to be approaching 70 or so, so there’s no arguing against her age qualifications. As for any disability, we will have to take her word for it. To his credit, the young man did not hesitate to rise, and he smilingly surrendered his seat to her.

The next character in this scene is Bicycle Man. We’d all had to step around him and his bike to get to and from our seats. He was a fortyish fellow who looked as if he could have been Lewis Black’s kid brother, though he seemed to have a sunnier disposition than Mr. Black’s dyspeptic stage persona. Bicycle Man tried to engage the woman next to me in a conversation about giving up one’s seat to older people. He couldn’t say enough good things about his own upbringing; how he’d been raised “the right way” to defer to the elderly. The woman seemed pleased by this exchange. She then motioned towards his bike and said, “Back home, I ride my bike all the time, but you can’t go more than 12 miles an hour around here.” I wanted to congratulate her on overcoming her disability to ride her bike so enthusiastically, but it didn’t seem like the right moment. She then said, “We don’t have public transportation where I come from.” It seemed painfully obvious that she wanted someone to ask her where exactly she came from, but no one took the bait. After a moment, she sighed and stated that she came from Vermont, though she failed to explain how she’d ended up in Chicago. I suspect it may have been the result of a weekend bicycling trip that got out of hand, but that’s pure speculation.

Just then, we pulled into the Armitage station. Another woman, apparently somewhat older than the woman next to me, began to exit. As she passed by Bicycle Man, he wished her a good day. He reached out towards her and it looked as if one of his fingers may have brushed against her arm. She turned sharply and said, “Don’t you touch me! You keep your hands to yourself!” And then she was gone.

That little glitch had the effect of discouraging further conversation on everyone’s part. The only exception was the deaf man across the aisle to my left. He was speaking in sign language with the woman next to him, periodically making an odd sound that I took to be laughter. Before long, Bicycle Man decided to try inserting himself into their conversation, thought it seemed clear that he knew no sign language. This did not stop him from earnestly making big hand motions in an effort to tell a story about his bicycle. He seemed blissfully unaware that he’d just interrupted someone else’s conversation, but the couple took it all in stride as if they’d encountered his type before.

At the Washington/Wells station, all of the aforementioned folks exited together. For all I know, they may still be standing on the platform chatting away, though I doubt it. No moral here. No proper denouement for that matter. Just an odd confluence of characters who briefly met in the Twilight Zone.

Plane Stamp

F Is Not a Noun

Posted on 2015.04.23 at 16:28
Current Mood: okayokay
Current Music: FM - Steely Dan
We all start out ignorant. Some of us stay that way, but most of us move forward from the womb and amass such knowledge as we can. So it was with me.

Initially, I knew nothing of dirty words. All words were perfectly fine, except that there were some whose meaning I knew and some whose meaning I did not know. At some point, I became aware that some words were “dirty”, which is to say that my parents did not approve of me uttering them in any context, and other people might find them highly offensive. An important clue was that some of these words were never (in my childhood anyway) heard on TV, radio, or records.

These early dirty words fell into two general groups: The first group was words such as “stupid” or “idiot”, which described negative, though completely real, human traits that one would not wish to possess. And of course, these words were frequently uttered on TV, radio, and records, so while they were insulting, they weren’t too bad. The second group – the truly dirty words – was words such as “crap”, “shit”, or “asshole”, which utilized excrement or its related orifices, often as metaphors for people or their personal traits. Due to their emotionally charged, transformational nature, this second group was a far more interesting collection of words.

It quickly became clear that the King of Dirty Words was a four-letter ditty we all know, which I will refer to as F#¢*. I would hear older kids use F#¢* in a variety of forms and conjugations and it was clearly the heavy war club among swear words. The trouble was, I didn’t know what it meant.

Well, I prided myself on being a resourceful urchin, so I reasoned it out. It seemed clear that this had to be some kind of super-duper ultra gross synonym for the nastiest thing I knew of – human excrement. So I not only had gotten the essential meaning wrong; I had also mis-identified it as a noun rather than a verb.

So it was that one day soon after making this connection, I was bickering with my older brother and told him, quite pointedly, to “Eat my F#¢*.” When he responded by falling down, laughing hysterically, I immediately realized that I had made a terrible mistake. To his credit, he quickly explained that F#¢* was, in fact, a verb, and he gave me some garbled explanation of what it meant. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but it was enough to permit me to move forward and use the word properly thereafter, even if I didn’t yet appreciate its nuances.

Postscript — A few years later, when I had acquired a more comprehensive and anatomically detailed understanding of the word F#¢*, I walked into the house one day and announced that there was nothing dirty about the word – that it described a completely natural and common process; that there was a word for every such process and this was simply the word which described that process. Included in this announcement was my casual and frequent uttering of the formerly taboo word. My mother took quick exception to this new-found linguistic philosophy. She quickly and effectively discouraged me from any further articulation of this line of reasoning. And though she offered no alternative terminology, I saw that it was not in my best interest to pursue the matter further.


Work is Play and Play is Work

Posted on 2015.02.25 at 20:13
Current Mood: amusedamused
There are various people in my life with whom I communicate primarily through this journal. As you can see by the date on my last entry, this is the first thing I’ve posted here this year. As the song goes, “…I been one poor correspondent, and I been too, too hard to find, but it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind…”

Rest assured, I have been writing. A lot of it has been on Facebook, on which I post just about every day, often multiple times per day, plus the comments I leave on other people’s posts. If you and I aren’t Facebook friends, well, that’s a shame. To a lesser extent, I have a presence on Twitter, though my tweets mostly take one of two forms: either I’m commenting about hockey or I’m posting entries in hashtag contests. If you don’t know what a hashtag is, please note: It is NOT a lawn game played with recreational drugs. A hashtag, you see, is a text-based means of tagging content for sorting purposes… oh never mind. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but if you don’t know what they are, you probably don’t want to know. Moving on…

The role this journal serves in my life is very different from the role served by Facebook or Twitter. Those sites are for shorter, more topical, spur-of-the-moment thoughts and ramblings. I’ve tried to reserve LiveJournal for longer, more composed pieces or photo dumps. I haven’t been here much lately because one big thing has been taking up my writing time: I’ve been working on a play. Let me back up a bit and give you a brief history of myself as a playwright:

At various points in my (presumably) adult life, I have taken up my pen and/or keyboard and begun to write a play. When attempting to write an original work, the result was always the same for many years: After several pages, my mind would run dry or I’d hit a dead end that I lacked the inspiration, discipline, or technique to work my way out of.

The one exception to this was the adaptation I wrote in 1989 of the musical Babes in Toyland. That, however, was a special case for several reasons. First of all, it wasn’t an original work; it was an adaptation, which was a great deal easier than wholly inventing something on my own. I was working directly from two sources: The original 1903 script and a much later adaptation written by the late Dr. Joseph French. In fact, it was Dr. French who’d hired me to write the adaptation. We were keeping Victor Herbert’s original score (though I managed to omit the dreadful “Our Castle in Spain”), so I just needed to fashion a new telling of the tale around the existing songs, plus fix a few story problems that cropped up along the way. The other factor that greatly focused my efforts was that I was contracted to make a couple thousand dollars when I was done, plus a couple thousand more in royalties once the production opened. I must admit that money has a wondrous way of focusing my attention and energy.

So Babes was an outlier. The experience of writing it seemed to have no effect on my ability to actually write a play of my own. And so things stood until the middle of the last decade.

One day, my ambitious and talented friend Francesca called. She was putting together a festival of new one-act play readings and was short by two plays. I called her “ambitious” a moment ago and I should clarify – she’s not merely ambitious for herself; she’s ambitious for her friends. She had a pitch for me that day – that I should write two one-act plays for her festival, which was about two months away. Sounds crazy, right? She’s calling someone who’s never written anything of this sort and plopping this opportunity – and responsibility – right into his lap. But the fact is, her outrageous faith in my abilities made me resolve to make this happen.

After admitting to myself that my established writing approach hadn’t been working, I decided to take a leap of faith and change the rules. Primarily, this meant that the goal was not going to be writing a wonderful play; the goal was going to be writing a complete play. If I could work in anything wonderful along the way, so much the better, but the bottom line was that these plays had to be completed.

And it worked… with a few caveats, the main one being that my plays sucked. Now, now, don’t try to put a happy face on this. Those two plays were atrocious. They received their one and only public reading in The Theatre Building on Belmont Avenue and were thereafter consigned to the trash heap of history. And I feel good about that.

You see, I recognized going in that this was my chance to take a class in play writing. I learned a lot by writing those two lousy plays. I thus resolved to move on to better mistakes the next time around.

The next time around happened last year, when I took part in a project called Play For Keeps. It’s a play writing workshop run by Stockyards Theatre Project, one of whose guiding lights is, once again, our friend Francesca. At each session, a group of writers gets together and shares whatever they’ve been working on. The roles are assigned among those present and we read their material aloud. We then talk about what we’ve seen. It’s a simple concept but an effective one. At the end of the process, there is a public reading of selected scenes from the various pieces, each one being cast and directed by local theater folk.

My piece in Play For Keeps was a full-length, two-act science fiction play I’d spent quite a bit of time working on. Though I’d received a lot of encouragement from the group, I ultimately abandoned any thought of finishing it. I reached a point where I no longer believed in its merit. It had some good ideas and a few good scenes, but it wasn’t going to work as a play, so I shelved it.

Once again, I feel good about that. I made much more accomplished and sophisticated mistakes on that piece than I had on my two one-acts, so I’m calling it a Win.

All of which brings me to my latest play. Just like last time, this one involves science fiction and time travel, though in a vastly different manner than before. This time around, I’m feeling as if I’ve cast aside some of the encumbrances and phobias that have slowed me down in the past. Mainly, I’m clearer than ever on the notion of writing to make myself happy. If I were hired to write something, I might not feel so carefree, but the fact is that I’m writing something with almost no chance of ever turning a dime of profit or playing at a theater near you, and I’m not reporting to anyone but myself, so I’d darn well better make myself happy with it.

There is an interesting duality that comes over me when I’m writing this play. One part of me is immersed in the creative process, while another part of me is sitting in the audience watching it – laughing, frowning, being intrigued, being bored, being entertained. It’s that side of my psyche that I’m trying to please.

This philosophy is absolutely bearing fruit. This one has the potential to be a full-length play that I will actually finish writing and be happy with. That would be a wonderful thing. If I can do that, I will then begin to consider whether anyone might possibly wish to produce it, but until then, such thoughts are of no concern to me.

I’ve mentioned some of this to friends who are utterly non-theater people, and their reactions have been amusing. A common response is along the lines of, “Shouldn’t you try to write what the public wants?” I love that response because it neatly delineates the eternal quandary of the professional artist.

The first problem with that question is that it tacitly assumes that anything new and original is a bad thing, that your proper role is to give people more of what they already have. Now that is a perfectly reasonable way to pursue a career, and one may become an accomplished craftsperson by doing so. I’m not dissing that approach. There’s just one distinction that must be made – it’s a career as a skilled craftsperson, not a career as an artist.

Consider that phrase for a moment – “professional artist”. Give each word equal weight. It’s almost a contradiction in terms. If each of those words is to be fully honored, then the task at hand is not to create what the public wants; the task is to create your art and expose it to your potential audience (or the other way around). Maybe some people will like it. Maybe enough people will like it to make you a living. Or maybe your goal isn’t to be liked – hey, you never know with these artistic types.

As for me, I am still in the early stages of development as a playwright. As such, there are a great deal of “professional” considerations that I needn’t trouble myself with anytime soon. For now, the play’s the thing. I’ll keep you posted.


Crossword Solutions!

Posted on 2014.12.29 at 15:26
Current Mood: puzzled
Current Music: We Can Work It Out - The Beatles
What's this about a crossword? Well, I sent out my annual crossword puzzle the other day (give it till New Year's Eve). Truth be told, I sent them out a little late, so yours may not have arrived yet. But it's also possible that my disorganized file keeping has caused me to mislay or overlook your address, so please don't feel slighted if you haven't received yours. Instead, do something about it — send me your address so I can mail one out to you! That hyperlink below will show you the solutions to both of my puzzles. By "both" I mean the one I prepared for coworkers at my day job and the one I prepared for friends & family. If you're not a coworker of mine, there's little chance you'd know some of the longer answers in my coworkers puzzle. Likewise, if you are a coworker, some of the answers in the friends & family puzzle might be exceptionally difficult. In any case, don't click on that link unless you're ready to see the solutions.
Click here to see!Collapse )


There’s a terrible joke…

Posted on 2014.12.19 at 12:41
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: I Started a Joke - The Bee Gees
Yes, too terrible for even me to relate in its entirety. Ponder THAT for a moment!

It isn’t that the joke is scandalous, highly sexualized, or derogatory to a specific ethnic group; it’s just that it’s the most painfully contrived joke I’ve ever heard, all in the pursuit of a most unworthy payoff.

I heard it from my older brother, who picked it up God knows where. I do not say that in order to pin any undue blame upon him because the truth is that both he and I laughed ourselves sick over the joke when we first heard it. I’m guessing I was about 10 or 11 years old at the time, so this memory actually cheers me up — it makes me realize how far I’ve come in my appreciation of the funnier things in life.

I stated at the outset that I wouldn’t tell you the joke, and I’m sticking to that pledge. I will, however, give you part of the setup, which should convince you that I needn’t complete the task. Here you go:

A woman inherits a large estate. The name of the place is Hairy Butt. She also has a dog that she names Crack…

That’s as far as I’m going. To be clear – that’s just the setup; it’s not the funny part (feel free to make air quotes when reading the last two words of that sentence). It’s one of those jokes, i.e., one that requires an excruciatingly forced group of key words that will show up as part of the punch line; insisting that the listener suspend all impulses to question the joke’s logic or complete the joke ahead of time. It’s the kind of joke made up by someone who likes to laugh but who has failed to ponder any of the nuances of joke construction. Either that or it was made up by someone whose aesthetic growth stalled when they were about five years old and whose threshold for laughter is extremely low.

There is no grand summation to this story, except that it offers a glimpse into how we once thought and offers an opportunity to compare it to our present-day sensibilities.


The Shot Glass Thief

Posted on 2014.11.15 at 13:43
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: I'm on Fire - Bruce Springsteen
ShotglassI’ve always liked this piece – an elegant hunk of antique glass, molded in a more refined era. It has sat on my dresser for over 20 years. Every time I look at it, I think of Fritz, who is the shot glass’ rightful owner.

If Fritz is still alive, I’m sure he has no idea that I have this, or that the glass itself still exists. If he has any memory of it, he probably assumes that it was destroyed in the gigantic inferno that destroyed most of his belongings. Let’s sift through the ashes and uncover the reasons why I am the custodian of this artifact.

In the early 1980s, I was working at Detroit’s Attic Theatre. In addition to acting in quite a few of their productions, I was the bookkeeper for the company. It is a small miracle that the theater survived my tenure as bookkeeper, but that’s a story for another time and a few refillings of this glass.

In 1983, the Attic produced John Guare’s play Lydie Breeze. I played the small but vital role of a suitor who makes his one and only entrance three pages before the end of the play. I am proud to report that more than one published review singled out my performance for praise. More importantly, at least with regard to this essay’s topic, I was in charge of collecting props for the show.

[Sidebar — Since 1983, John Guare has substantially rewritten Lydie Breeze, so any remarks I make about the play’s structure or characters may not apply to the script as it presently stands.]

Among the items I needed to come up with as Prop Master were an antique Ouija board and a glass that the characters in the play would use to move over its surface. I employed my sister Helene to make the Ouija board. She had a flair for calligraphy and, for a modest fee, she carefully painted all of the requisite characters onto an old board pulled from my father’s stock of lumber.

The shot glass was another matter entirely. I tried out quite a few different items without success. It needed to have a smooth rim (since it would be used upside-down) and it needed to have some heft in order for it to be pushed evenly over the varnished surface of the Ouija board. This was where Fritz came in.

Fritz ran an unusual business. He was a lifelong collector of stuff, which is a polite word for junk. He owned more junk than anyone I have ever met – and that is no small boast given some of the collections I have seen. Ah, but organized junk can become something else entirely. In Fritz’ case, it became a props and interior design company. His warehouse contained several model rooms showcasing different historical eras. For example, one room was completely outfitted as a 1940s business office. Everything was there – desks, chairs, lamps, wall sconces, telephones, wallpaper, hat racks, doors, windows, right on down to pens, pencils and stationery. Other rooms targeted specific eras of the early 20th century in similar fashion. It was stunning to realize that everything one was looking at was genuine from the era and was completely functional.

Beyond the showrooms was the dimly lit floor of an old warehouse that had begun life as a manufacturing facility. Fritz’ floor space was equivalent to that of a large supermarket and was crammed with everything imaginable and unimaginable, even including an antique operating table and an electric chair used for executions.

Fritz had an established relationship with the Attic Theatre and with various production companies around town as a source for incomparable prop rental. Full disclosure – I recorded my first radio commercial for Fritz’ gallery. In it, I imitated the voices of Humphrey Bogart, Boris Karloff, and Sydney Greenstreet. It was, in all honesty, an abomination, and I’m eternally thankful that Fritz couldn’t afford to air it very much. If I am fortunate, no copies of this recording still exist.

When I went to Fritz’ place and told him what I needed, he literally pointed me towards the warehouse floor and sent me off on my own while he attended to other matters. It was grand fun, never knowing what the next drawer or the next cabinet might hold. I could have happily spent the entire day there, and it was a tribute to my self-control that I was able to walk out of there a half hour later with this shot glass in hand. I must note this in all fairness: Lydie Breeze is set on Nantucket in the 1890s. This shot glass is of a style several decades after that. So shoot me. It was the right size, the right weight, and it slid perfectly over our Ouija board. If anyone in the audience was that focused on our shot glass, then the actors weren’t doing their jobs.

After Lydie Breeze ended its run, props and sets were disassembled, stored, thrown away, or returned to the people from whom we’d borrowed or rented them… except for this shot glass. It somehow fell through the cracks. I’m sure Fritz didn’t miss it; he had thousands of other items to keep track of; he wasn’t going to lose sleep over this bauble.

And then… maybe a year or so later, disaster struck in the form of a fire. There were other businesses that rented space on other floors of the warehouse. At least one floor contained a large collection of priceless antique cars. I’m told that the wooden beams that held the building together had soaked up a lot of grease over the years, so once the fire got going, the whole place went up. In the newspaper the next day, a veteran firefighter called it the biggest fire he’d seen in his whole career. When I was able to get close to the site a couple weeks later, it looked as if the sidewalk in front of the rubble had melted. I don’t even know if that’s possible, but that’s what it looked like. Fritz had apparently been in the building when the fire began on a lower floor, and it was spreading so quickly that he had to run for his life and had no chance of saving any of his stuff.

I am probably not doing justice to the level of devastation caused by that fire. It was the one time in my life when I felt a tiny twinge of insight into what a war zone might feel like. Things that you assumed would always be there – big monolithic structures that seemed impervious to the vagaries of nature or the follies of mankind – are suddenly gone, utterly gone, taking with them a chunk of cultural heritage that cannot be rebuilt. And that’s just coming from me – someone who’d only been inside the place maybe three times. I cannot imagine how Fritz felt about it.

I’ve heard that Fritz got back into the business sometime after that. I don’t know whether he had stuff stored elsewhere to get him started, or whether his collecting acumen simply kept chugging away. I never saw him again after the fire. If he’s still alive, he must be getting up there in years, but if you’re reading this, Fritz, drop me a line if you’d like your shot glass back. I mean, I’d be happy to keep it right where it is, but I’d understand completely if you wanted it.


Letter to Havana

Posted on 2014.10.02 at 11:00
Current Mood: happyhappy
Current Music: Come On-a My House - Rosemary Clooney
In honor of Throw-Back Thursday, we’re going to go all the way back to March 13th, 1950. That’s the date on a letter my late mother wrote to her sister Betty. A bit of background: I never knew my aunt Betty. She died young from MS. I know that she spent some time in Havana. According to this letter, she was working there, but I really don’t know the details. My mother was 17 when she wrote this and still living with her parents on Parker Ave. in Detroit. Mom was always an avid and excellent letter-writer, and it’s clear that this talent came to her early in life. Her penmanship in this letter is precise, stylish, completely readable, and utterly recognizable; the style changed very little in the course of her life. Here is the complete text of the letter:

Dear Betty,
Just received your letter and am eager for graduation so that I may join you in Cuba. It surely is wonderful of you to present me with an “all expenses paid” trip as a gift; but, when I acquire a steady position I’ll be able to repay your many kindnesses a hundredfold.

Mom is having a hectic time with that nephew of ours. Either she’s feeding him or rocking him to sleep.

His mother is recuperating but still unable to sit for a length of time.

Daddy is working now, and we’re all making a sacrifice to endure the baby’s bawling until his father is able to leave the hospital.

Sleep must be a marvelous thing. I’ve already forgotten how eight solid hours of it feels. But, one glance at the sweet countenance banishes all sorrow and rids one of that “tired” sensation.

I’m delighted to hear of your successful secretarial position there in Havana. I can just picture your daily routine: Rise at six o’clock; get to work by seven; slave until three, and then, rush to the beach where you can swim and endure the sunshine until the time approaches for the preparation of your many beaux.

I don’t envy you as far as weather is concerned. Cuba has quite a bit of warm sunshine; but Detroit, at the present, is blanketed with snow and possesses a slightly cool temperature. Spring is just around the corner, and that means housecleaning.

Mom and I will miss your elbow grease when it comes to washing walls and floors. Remember how you spent your summer vacation of ‘forty-eight? I was rummaging through my photo album and came across the enclosed snapshot. Let it remind you of those “good old summer vacation days”. Boy! You really put forth energy in scrubbing that dining room floor.

There goes that baby crying again. It’s his feeding time.

All of us martyrs send our love.

Write me of your newly discovered romances. Save some for me.

Respectfully yours,
Mary Anne Zabor

Among other things, this letter serves as a reminder that letter writing is a dying art, having been mostly replaced by text messages and comments on social media. I’m pretty sure mom never made that trip to Havana, though I couldn’t tell you why, and all of the people who could have filled in the details have passed on. But that’s really not an issue. I don’t need the details; just a quick whiff of mom’s spirit is all I require.


Bristol '14

Posted on 2014.08.31 at 23:54
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: The Minstrel Boy (Trad. Irish)
We made it up to Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday for the penultimate day of this year’s Bristol Renaissance Faire. It was a scorcher and we had to work at staying hydrated, but as always, a good time was had by all. The one bit of bad news was finding out that one of our favorite shops – the bookstore – is gone, as the long-time proprietor has decided to retire. Before departing the faire today, I filled out a comment card with one simple request: “Bring back the bookstore!” Only time will tell what kind of influence I have at Bristol. On to a few select photos:
In spite of the syntax of their banner, these two are, left to right, Guido and Dirk. I’ve seen their show on various occasions and they’re always a treat. A special flourish, bow, and tip of the cap goes to them on the occasion of their 25th anniversary as an act. Long may they wave their swords!
This oddly proportioned child was making quite an amusing racket crying out at passers-by. Now let’s back off and see what’s really going on here:
Yes, those are stilts. So now you know. It was still pretty darned funny.
This exotic woman was just about the loveliest sight I saw all day. She did not speak, so I cannot tell you anything more about her, but she happily posed for the photo and smiled coquettishly when I remarked on her beauty.
There are many diversions for children at Bristol and this is one of the most striking. The youngsters seen here have been strapped to bungee cords and are bouncing high into the air off trampolines. If I weighed around 75% less, I would be all over this.
Our final shot is a panorama of the crowd. That impressively tall fellow on the right side of the picture is a member of the acrobatic comedy team Barely Balanced, and yes, he is walking on stilts. If you ever get the chance, this is a crowd you should be a part of.


Called Out by the Empire

Posted on 2014.08.31 at 00:24
Current Mood: spacey
Current Music: Space Oddity - David Bowie
On Friday last, we thought we were going to US Cellular Field in Chicago to cheer on the visiting Detroit Tigers as they took on the White Sox. As it turned out, the baseball game was a mere backdrop to the main point of the evening: It was Star Wars Night! Hundreds of Imperial subjects, as well as an undisclosed number of rebel sympathizers, converged upon the stadium and claimed it as their own. I can’t say much more than that, as I live in a galaxy far, far away from theirs and have limited knowledge of their customs and political dynamics, but I have a couple of intriguing photos to share.
Here, it appears Princess Leia has been captured by Imperial forces and is being escorted to an undisclosed location for purposes of interrogation. Most intriguingly, they appear to be acting under the direction of Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, whose Imperial allegiance had been heretofore unknown to me.
But then, much to our surprise, a second Princess Leia appeared. We are left with many questions but no answers – Has an imposter princess been put in place by the Empire to deceive her subjects? Should we call her Princess Liar? Is one of them a stunt double? Or maybe – I may as well say it – a clone?


The Woman Who Liked Men

Posted on 2014.08.25 at 20:15
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Come Go With Me - The Del-Vikings
Many years ago, in a land far, far away, I was cast in a show. Even though I’d been in a lot of shows at that point in time, it happened that I knew none of my fellow cast members. While it is fun to do a show with old friends, it can also be really cool to come in as a complete stranger to everyone. It’s a chance to check one’s professionalism and renew one’s commitment to giving an honest effort.

This new group of acquaintances was an enthusiastic, hard-working bunch, so things went along very well. I quickly hit it off with two people in particular – we’ll call them Dorothy and Eileen. In fact, I began to feel particularly attracted to Eileen. While Eileen may not have picked up on this, it seemed that Dorothy did, and she decided to give me some advice.

Dorothy and Eileen had gone to school together, and while they were certainly friends, they were also very different people. Dorothy took me aside one day and said, “Look, I know you’re attracted to Eileen, but there’s something you should know about her… She likes men.” Dorothy said this haltingly, as if she hadn’t quite put her thoughts into words before blurting them out.

Dorothy’s declaration confused me, and I responded, “Well, that’s the kind of woman I was hoping for – the kind that likes men.”

Dorothy sighed. “No, I mean she likes… LOTS of men.” I began to catch on. I thanked Dorothy for the advice and began paying closer attention to Eileen’s behavior. As I got to know her better, the truth of Dorothy’s statement became apparent.

Now let me be clear about this: I imposed no moral judgment onto Eileen or onto anyone else in this matter. She was of course free to date whomever she wished, and as many people as she wished, and it wouldn’t affect how I felt about her. But it would affect my decisions and actions. The simple fact was that I’ve never had any desire to view dating as a group competition, or even a group activity. I want my dating life to be about a relationship between two people. In my view, it’s hard enough to sort out a solid relationship between two people; the prospect of being part of a dating tree held no appeal for me. Clearly, many people take a much more open view to dating scenarios than I do, and that’s fine – vive la différence! I’m not prescribing this for anyone else – you’ve got to find the approach that works for you. Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, I think my main reason for telling this story was simply to pass along the moment when Dorothy and I had the exchange about Eileen liking men. It belongs in a script somewhere, and if anyone would like to appropriate the line, you have my permission.


I Was a Teenage Leper

Posted on 2014.08.20 at 17:05
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: 3500 (from "Hair")
I was 18, didn’t have a care. Working for peanuts, not a dime to spare… and we’ll stop right there, because the comparisons with Bob Seger begin to break down pretty quickly after that. It was the summer right after my high school graduation and I was working on my first community theater production. The show was called Impressions. Act I consisted of music and dancing highlights from Hair, Tommy, and Godspell. Act II consisted of highlights from Jesus Christ Superstar and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. It was, at least in my rosy recollections, a grand entertainment. Certainly, the cast included a bunch of folks who would go on to do a lot more wonderful work in the ensuing years. Let me put it this way: It was one of those shows – the kind you never forget; the kind that makes you smile a hundred different ways at the thought of the people and the moments that played out over the course of the summer. It was the right show at the right time in my life.

Okay, let’s ditch that soft-focus lens and talk about some of the real stuff that happened. Like many dozens of others, I was there to be a singer, not an actor. Specifically, I was there to be a chorus singer. My one solo line in the entire show came during the Hair segment. This was the line: “Black uniforms, bare feet, carbines.” Didja sneeze? Then ya missed me. But that’s okay. No complaints here. I was surrounded by a lot of talented people and it felt good to be considered as their peer, even if I didn’t quite believe it myself.

One of my few moments actually standing on the stage came during the Jesus Christ Superstar segment, in which I played one of a group of lepers, and this is where our story takes a strange turn…

As a leper, I was tasked with developing my own costume. We were given a tight range of colors to shoot for and a few general guidelines. When I brought the matter to my mother’s attention, she had a moment of inspiration – I could use a monk’s shroud that she had lying around.

Yes, you heard me, a monk’s shroud. It’s a long story. Look, I come from a very Catholic family, okay? And no, it had never been used. The shroud was made of a thick, rough fabric and was dark brown in color. My leper costume needed to be a much lighter shade, so mom put it into a vat with a bunch of bleach and we hoped for the best. The result was a light brown color that was pretty much spot-on for our purposes.

Next came the “distressing” (theater term) of the garment. This meant ripping random holes in it and smearing it with dirt and grease. All good. Ah, but then, it became apparent that you could see quite a bit of me through the holes in the garment, and seeing my tighty-whities on stage would not have been in keeping with our 1st century A.D. theme. And while wearing nothing at all under the garment might have met our historical criteria, it would have created an entirely different set of potential issues that I needn’t detail here.

What to do? What to do? Well, it was immediately apparent to me that I needed to find some flesh-colored briefs, so off I went to a large area shopping mall. I searched… and I searched… but found nothing even close… UNTIL – in a fit of desperation, I began looking in the children’s department. On the swimsuit racks, I found a pair of briefs that were the perfect shade of beige – in a girl’s size 6. With opening only days away, I clenched my jaw and made the purchase. The fit was, well, ultra-snug, but it wasn’t as if I had to wear them for the entire second act; it was really only about ten minutes a night. Surely I could grin and bear it.

I may as well admit that I felt more than a little sheepish to be wearing a little girl’s bikini bottom, so I was careful to never let my fellow cast members see me getting in and out of it. It was just my little secret. In retrospect, I probably should have been a little less secretive.

Weeks after the show had closed, cast members began to meet up and share photos their families had taken during the performances. These were the pre-Internet days, so photo sharing was done by meeting people face-to-face and actually putting photos into their hands. If they wanted copies, you had to make arrangements to take the negatives to the drugstore and order additional copies. Yes, these were primitive times, but we somehow managed.

Anyway, it soon became apparent that a legend had sprung up in certain circles. According to the legend, photographs demonstrated conclusively that I was wearing no underwear during the leper scene. One cast member possessed a particularly graphic photo which purportedly showed my bare butt through a hole in the costume. No denials on my part were deemed as credible; the photographic evidence trumped my pathetic explanation. As for the beige briefs, I had consigned them to the trash on closing night, so a key piece of forensic evidence was now irretrievably lost.

And that’s how things have stood from that day to this. I never personally received a copy of any of the incriminating photos, nor would I be inclined to display them in this journal if I possessed said photos. But if any of my fellow Impressions cast members or show patrons are reading this, you have my solemn word that these are the true facts of the case.



Posted on 2014.08.10 at 15:41
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: Turn the Page - Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
That spelling, though a little unusual, comes directly from her neatly pinned nametag. Johanna was a waitress at a Sanders location in Detroit in the 1970s. She may well have waitressed there in the 60s, and even the 50s and 40s for that matter. I can only tell you about my interaction with her, as we never had a proper conversation outside of our waitress/customer relationship. In particular, I want to talk about a particularly memorable exchange that occurred between us on a sunny weekday in 1978.

For you non-Detroiters, what was Sanders? — I’m using the past tense here – “…what was Sanders?” – even though a handful of Sanders locations still exist, but in the 1970s, there were dozens of them. Sanders was chiefly a chocolate and ice cream shop. It was founded by one Fred Sanders in the 1870s and it was a Detroit institution for generations. My dear late mother had worked at one of their downtown stores in her teen years, and Sanders cakes and chocolates were often found in our home, as most supermarkets around there carried their products.

One Sanders was located on Detroit’s far east side, on Houston-Whittier near Kelly. It sat only a couple blocks from a store called Merchandise Mart, which sold automotive, hardware, gardening, and other household supplies. I worked there as a stockboy/auto counter worker when I was in my late teens.

Merchandise Mart was my first “real” job other than my years as a paper boy. I was earning only a hair above minimum wage, so lunch tended to be a modest affair. Further up Kelly, there was an independent burger joint that many of my coworkers swore by. This should tell you all you need to know about the place: On the glass of their front window, they had crudely painted the slogan, “Buy 'Em By the Sack!” I quickly learned that their products did not agree with my digestive system, so I sought out nearby alternatives.

Now Sanders, despite its close proximity to my place of employment, was not an obvious choice as a lunch spot. Most people, even teenagers like myself, did not want to have, say, an ice cream sundae for lunch. But in fact, Sanders had a short menu of regular food. My standard order was an American cheese sandwich on white bread with lettuce and mayonnaise. And a Coke, served in one of those large conical paper cups that the server would crisply snap up with a metal holder that served as the cup’s base. Kind of a meager lunch, I’ll grant you, but it was inexpensive and it got me through my shift.

There’s something that’s very clear now that wasn’t obvious to me at the time – Sanders had already peaked and was in decline. People my age weren’t going there in great numbers. Their clientele was mostly older folks who’d grown up going to Sanders, along with the occasional family group, but the demographic and business shift that would end up nearly killing the company had already begun. The result was that I was usually an outlier in the group. The gang sitting on the stools at the counter would be a bunch of old folks – and me, a pimple-faced, 6’2” teenager with an enormous bush of hair on top of his head. And I mustn’t forget to mention that I would invariably be wearing my white short-sleeved shirt and black bowtie, since I was coming there straight from work.

Johanna was usually behind the counter. Her uniform was always neatly pressed and she never seemed to have a hair out of place, though that hair was done up in a style that seemed as if it had not changed since the end of World War II, and it was colored a most implausible shade of blonde. She was one of those people who was impossible to dislike, smiling and friendly to everyone she waited on, though one sensed that outside of work, she was probably rather quiet and shy. If I may presume to say so, she seemed to have a particularly maternal regard for me. I always tried to put a smile on her face and she invariably did the same for me.

One afternoon, I came in pressed for time. There were only a few vacant seats at the counter. I sat down at one and gave Johanna my usual order. I added, somewhat sheepishly, that I was in a bit of a hurry. “Don’t you worry,” she assured me, “I’m fast.”

Before my filters could kick in, I breezily replied, “So I’ve heard!” Well, the place fell out. The oldsters at the counter all began to snicker and guffaw in spite of their assuredly proper upbringings. Johanna flushed utterly crimson at this sudden hubbub and covered her face with her hands. She said, “Oh my” and nearly collapsed in tears, all the while enduring the continued tittering of the regular customers.

I was of two minds at that moment. On the one hand, I’d just made a whole long counter of people laugh. On the other hand, I’d done so at the expense of someone I had no wish in the world to offend. On the balance, I felt pretty bad. When Johanna had recovered and was able to stand and speak again, I offered my most heartfelt apologies. The next day, I had lunch there again and apologized again. It took a few more visits before things were the same between the two of us.

I suppose this might seem like a silly little moment. As I’ve described it, you might very well wonder what all the fuss was about. Some might suggest that Johanna was being far too sensitive and that she needed to get in touch with the real world. I can’t place that kind of judgment upon her. I can only deal with the facts as they occurred.

Calling a woman “fast” was an antiquated expression by the time I was growing up. I don’t recall ever hearing someone my own age use it to describe a woman who could readily be cajoled into having sex, but that’s what the term meant to people of an earlier generation. That may have been a part of the power of that moment – that a rather impolite term was being referenced by a youngster like myself. And of course, the thought that anyone would project such an implication upon the seemingly simple, sweet, matronly Johanna – that is, I’m sure, where much of the audience’s reaction came from. But it was in reality a bad misstep on my part, a failure to sense Johanna’s possible mindset. I can, of course, fairly blame it on my youth and ignorance, but the truth is that on some level, I knew I was playing out on the edge of some risky material. There’s gold to be mined out there on the edge, but mourn not for those who fall into the chasm.

Ultimately, I took it as an important lesson in reading one’s audience. Oh, there have been many more such lessons in the years since then. I’ve offended more than a few people with ill-considered wit. I’ve also made countless thousands laugh. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to not hurt people – and how to help them. Humor has always been, and remains, a central part of my life’s art. For that, I offer no apologies.


Lombardi Needs a Timeout

Posted on 2014.08.04 at 18:06
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
Current Music: Back on the Chain Gang - The Pretenders
A lot of people I know have posted recently about the concept of “Lombardi time”. It isn’t a new idea but it seems to be in vogue lately. It is usually posted in the form of a quote reportedly uttered by the late football coach Vince Lombardi, and it usually goes something like this:

“If you’re early, you’re on time.
If you’re on time, you’re late.
If you’re late, don’t bother showing up.”

People usually post this to indicate their enthusiastic agreement with the philosophy. My feelings on the subject are more nuanced. To begin with, there’s an important distinction that needs to be made – is this simply being declared as one’s personal approach and philosophy to one’s own work, or is it being dictated as The Way People Will Conduct Themselves When They Work With/For Me? As stated above, it is the latter – this is Lombardi telling people that this is how they will conduct themselves when they work with him. And as such, it is perfectly unprofessional.

Yes, I know its defenders will disagree with me right there; they would probably say that it is the very essence of professionalism. But hear me out. If you want to adopt this as your personal code of conduct and it works for you, that’s fine. As a personal code, it may be a fine pathway to professional conduct for an individual. Just don’t kid yourself that it’s the One True Way for all people. When you make this the rule for people who work under you in all situations, you have become unprofessional in your conduct as a manager. You have stated that you do not trust the people who work for you, so you feel it necessary to play little head games with them and insist that they play along. You have demoted yourself from manager to babysitter.

From what I’ve read about The Green Bay Packers when Lombardi became their head coach, this may have been a valid approach at the time. It sounds like it was a team full of disorganized, unprofessional individuals who had to be whipped into shape in a strict manner. Championships ensued. So yay, Coach Lombardi. Maybe he was the right man in the right place. But when you project this into every work situation and every profession as a basic rule, you only make yourself into a dictator who may be feared and obeyed, but who can never be respected as a fellow professional. In fact, if this management approach is brought to bear upon a group of true professionals, it stands an excellent chance of only destroying morale and loyalty. And folks, I speak from experience, having been on the receiving end of management quite comparable to this approach and having seen the damage it can do to a working team – damage that the manager can never, ever accept as being traceable to their own policies.

So how about this approach to treating me like a professional: Tell me what time you need me to be there, and by God, I’ll be there and I’ll be ready to go. I will figure out what time I need to arrive in order for that to happen. Why? Because I’m a professional. If your approach is, “I’m telling you that you need to be here at 9:00 a.m., but the SECRET time you need to be here is 8:30 or you will have violated my secret rule,” then you’ve just made yourself look like a fool in the eyes of anyone with a sense of dignity and personal accountability. Oh, you actually want me there at 8:30? Fine. Tell me that’s my starting time and we won’t have any problems. Do you see how that works?

In the end, Lombardi’s dictate to his workers may fairly be translated as this: “I assume that the people who work for me are unprincipled and cannot be trusted to give their full effort unless I treat them like mental weaklings. I can out-think them and I can bully them, so I shall. Anyone walking through my door who says they are already an evolved professional with high standards of dependability is assumed to be a liar. There is no place for such people here. Competence, professionalism, and results are not the primary goals here; adherence to an arbitrary code of conduct takes precedence.”

That’s actually a charitable translation in that it gives the manager credit for trying to get some sort of performance out of their workers. The harsher translation would be, “Because I’m in charge, I will abuse my power by making the schedule revolve around my needs. Because there might be traffic delays or acts of God that will make you late one out of a hundred times, I want you to always be here unnecessarily early. My free time is important but yours is not. As your manager, I can dictate to you; I can even punish you for failing to read my mind and you just have to take it. It’s good to be the king.”

Finally, the least charitable translation would be something like, “I don’t actually know much about managing people, so I’ve settled on a few basic rules that cover my ass and keep me in power, while allowing me to tell myself that I’m building character and running a tight ship.”

In closing, let me offer this as the closest thing I can muster to an olive branch for those of you who crave being managed in this manner – If that’s how you as a worker need to be managed in order to function in a professional environment, then I hope you find such a manager.

Plane Stamp

Swirling Around Nebraska

Posted on 2014.07.27 at 21:56
Current Mood: accomplished
Current Music: Ride Like the Wind - Christopher Cross
No, CC and I never entered Nebraska on our recently concluded week-and-a-half trip. We decided before leaving Chicago that there was nothing we wanted to see in the Cornhusker state (no offense to the fine upstanding huskers of corn who populate the place), so we decided to broadly circumnavigate the state’s borders. We took a southerly route on the way west, through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Utah, and we took a northerly route on the way back, through Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

My initial approach to documenting our trip was to do it in traditional chronological order. But as I considered the many and varied moments we experienced, I realized that we will not remember the trip chronologically, so it would be inappropriate to record it that way. An old friend of mine was fond of saying, “Life is a collection of moments,” so I will present this trip as a collection of moments grouped into individual narratives and broad categories.

This isn’t by any means a complete record of the places we visited. For example, we spent an enjoyable hour or so visiting the Cottonwood County Historical Society in Windom, Minnesota, but there’s neither a story to tell nor cool photos to show, so I won’t go into any further detail. I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and photos I’ve chosen to share here.

This Doesn’t Look Like Tatooine

CC and I both enjoy visiting old houses and museums, and we did a lot of that on this trip. When we saw that the Hamill House Museum in Georgetown, Colorado was right along our path, we decided to pop in (Note: There is also an old building called Hamill House in New Jersey. It has nothing to do with the place we visited. We didn’t go through New Jersey, okay? Maybe another time).

Anyway, Hamill House Museum is a gorgeous Victorian mansion built in 1879 by silver baron William Arthur Hamill. It is still lavishly furnished and decorated with a great deal of original material. As we approached the house, we joked that it could be the home of actor Mark Hamill. Well, it isn’t. HOWEVER, we discovered that William, the old silver baron, was actually the great-great grandfather of Mark “Skywalker” Hamill! For the record, the Hamill family still occasionally comes back to Georgetown for family reunions at the mansion, but we were told that Mark has not been in attendance as of yet. Bottom line: We will now begin telling people that we were in Mark Hamill’s house. And to those of you who would say “That’s not true!” I have only this to say: Picky, picky, picky.

St. Joan of Wichita

Well of course we went through Wichita! You don’t drive all that way just to skirt its borders and glimpse the city walls through the mountain mist! And besides, there were museums we planned to visit there. They were all closed, by the way, so our tour of downtown was very brief. But on our way back to the car, we passed the Wichita Public Library. Why is there a statue of St. Joan outside the place?… Anyone?… That’s what I thought. So I had to take a picture of it. After my return to Chicago, I learned that the original statue was a gift to Wichita from the city of Orleans, France in 1970. The original was carved from stone and is now in storage somewhere in Wichita, but this bronze copy now classes up the library. Still unanswered is the question of why Orleans felt so enamored of/indebted to Wichita. Perhaps an emergency airlift from Wichita had quelled the Great Orleans Corn Riots, but I’m just guessing here.

They Sure Are Fond of the Letter K in These Parts

You may be reading this sign as “Kabing”. That was certainly my first instinct. Ah, but you see – we were staying in a Kamping Kabin at a KOA Kampground in Springfield, Missouri. The sign actually reads “Kabin 6”. I may drop them a note of quick tips on the subject of letter spacing. I will omit any critique of their spelling, as I try not to take on lost causes. Here’s a proper view of the Kamping Kabin we stayed at in the Alma Center, Wisconsin KOA:
Aside from two nights in hotels, we stayed at KOAs all along the way. I want to take just a moment to recommend them to a certain kind of traveler. I have never in my life slept in a tent or a sleeping bag, but I can totally dig the KOA Kabin experience. They go for an average price of around $65 a night. What you get is a cabin with one large bed and a set of bunk beds (bring your own linens), a front porch with a swinging chair, electricity, wi-fi, and usually a heater and/or air conditioner. There is no running water, so you have to walk a short distance for lavatories and showers. There is some variation in specific amenities since they are franchises. Many of them have laundry facilities, TV and game rooms, and pancake breakfast deals. Most of them are quieter than you might think and offer a good night’s sleep. For my money, they’re preferable to most $65 a night motels. Just to be clear, most of the campground consists of parking areas for conventional campers, but they all have at least a handful of cabins, usually at the edge of the property. So not only were the KOAs enjoyable, but for a long trip like ours, they represented a substantial savings compared to booking hotels every night.

While I’m on the subject, the absolutely nicest KOA we stayed at was in Alma Center, Wisconsin. It was exceptionally beautiful and well run. Since there’s a photo of it just above, I should mention that it was slightly larger than the usual one bedroom cabin. We were upgraded to a two bedroom that night at no additional charge. By chance, a large patch of wild raspberries and blackberries was growing right behind our cabin. We were told that we were welcome to pick all the berries we wanted. While we did pick and eat a few right off the vine (they were delicious), inclement weather denied us the chance to do any serious berry picking. But we’d go back to that one in a heartbeat.

Not Just Any Old Tree

No, indeed not. That, my friends, is an American Elm. Once common, it has become a rare sight in most of the U.S. since Dutch elm disease wiped out most of them in the mid-20th century. This one is also exceptional because it is the largest and oldest elm I can recall ever seeing. I wish I could have taken a wider angle shot to show the true extent and majesty of this tree, but I couldn’t get to the proper vantage point to make the shot possible.

This tree dates to the 1830s. It is located right in front of the Historic Indian Agency House at Fort Winnebago in Portage, Wisconsin. It was planted by the family of the man for whom the house was built – John Kinzie. Kinzie Street in Chicago was named in his honor. John and his wife Juliette were remarkable people and I commend them to your attention for further study. We toured the home in Portage and had a great time. If you’re ever in the area – about 40 miles north of Madison – and you want to see some cool history, it’s well worth the drive.

Dinosaurs in the Desert

This sign is in far western Colorado. It is presumably tens of millions of years old and provides a rare glimpse into the spiritual lives of dinosaurs.

Not far from there, just into Utah, we visited Dinosaur National Monument. If you’re an aficionado of that kind of thing, you must go there. You must. Your counter-arguments are invalid. Go.

Dinosaur National Monument is in a dry rocky desert, but millions of years ago, the area was green and swampy and teeming with – you guessed it – dinosaurs. Countless thousands of them died and sunk to the bottom of a river bed, where they became fossilized when the river dried up. This photo shows me, your intrepid explorer, belt askew after cheating death in the wilderness yet again, standing in front of the actual river bed next to actual dinosaur fossils that have been left in situ:
For a better perspective, here is CC standing next to the exposed river bed. If this photo were larger and had higher resolution, you would be able to see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fossils here. Many important fossils and nearly complete skeletons have been pulled from this area in the past century, and they have been displayed in museums all over the world. If you’re still not convinced that you have to go there, I give up.
While we were poking around in the gift shop, attempting to unearth new contributions to paleontology, we learned that there were ancient petroglyphs etched onto nearby cliffs and rock walls. Well golly – as long as we were in the neighborhood, how could we pass up the chance to see them? It turned out that the petroglyphs were on National Park Service land and we got directions from a gift shop employee.

In retrospect, I don’t think that employee had ever visited the site herself, as finding the location turned out to be about a 30 mile drive, mostly on rugged, unpaved, one-lane desert roads, to a non-obvious location. Still, we persevered and ultimately found it. This first shot was taken using an extreme zoom lens, as the location was high up and not apparently accessible without climbing equipment:
A little further along, there was a zig-zagging path up the rocky hill that only required a little bit of climbing in order to scale. It led right up to the etching you see here, though I did need to climb up onto a four-foot boulder in order to get this angle.
I should note that there was a sign nearby placed by the National Park Service asking visitors to please refrain from touching or defacing the petroglyphs, though there were no rangers guarding the place. It doesn’t look as if anyone has done much damage to them, probably because this isn’t the kind of place one wanders into on a drunken joyride, and the walls are far too massive to simply haul away.

How old are the petroglyphs? Archaeologists aren’t sure. They were put there by a group we call the Fremont Culture, though it is unlikely that’s what they called themselves. I mean, c’mon – what rival tribe would be afraid of the “Fremonts”? Then again, this inability to intimidate anyone could explain their disappearance. But there I go speculating again. They lived there from about 200 A.D. to 1200 A.D., so they certainly predate Columbus and his successors, but there’s a lot we don’t know about them. The only other thing I’ll say is that it is really awesome to stand directly in front of something that was etched on that very spot probably over a thousand years ago. It imparts a kind of understanding that cannot be put entirely into words.

A footnote to our journey through dinosaur country: Later that day, we bought gas at a Sinclair station. Considering their traditional logo, it could not have been a more appropriate place for us to replenish our fossil fuel. Also note the presumably yummy elk and bison jerky for sale there. We had just eaten dinner or we’d have been all over that.

You Make Me Feel Like Branson

We only spent a few hours in Branson. We’d stayed an hour away from there the night before, and we were a few hundred miles away by the end of the day. Staying in Branson at the height of tourist season is a bad idea for reasons too numerous to list here. We made a surgically precise break-in and break-out with only one Branson location on our agenda: The Titanic Museum. Within the parameters of this trip, we were not interested in attending the Baldknobbers Jubilee or visiting The Dick Clark Theater, the Andy Williams Theater, or any of the other sites traditionally associated with Bransonian culture.

It is downright bewildering that the largest collection of Titanic artifacts anywhere in the world (other than the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean) should be found in Branson, Missouri, but hey, I don’t make these decisions. The fact remains that it is a well designed and fascinating place to visit if you’re into Titanic-related stuff, and it isn’t nearly as cheesy as the Branson connection might lead you to expect. Shown here is an archival photo of CC’s great grandmother as she prepared to board the R.M.S Titanic in Dusseldorf.

Deadwood is Alive and Well

We would go back to Deadwood, South Dakota anytime. It looked like an attractive and fun town, full of diversions and edifying experiences. A lot of people probably go there for the casinos or the shopping – and those would be fun to do another time – but we rolled into town having researched only one local attraction – the Adams House:
It was built in 1892 by a well-to-do Deadwoodian and is chock full of furnishings that date back either to its original construction or to its 1930s state of décor. As historic homes go, it’s an exceptionally fine example and a treat to tour. As with most such historic homes, photography was not permitted, but I pulled this photo off their website:
What’s So Bad About the Badlands?

One of the highlights of our trip was our visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. One of its secrets is how it sneaks up on you. You’re driving along through fairly flat grasslands. Even as you’re approaching the main gate of the park, you wonder what’s so bad about this benign if somewhat arid plain. Then suddenly, you realize that you’ve been approaching it on the high ground. The terrain suddenly shifts and you find yourself looking into jagged canyons and beautiful, albeit harsh, vistas of rock walls displaying a chronology of millions of years of changing climates and topography, followed by millions more years of erosion and tectonic upheaval.
Here is an example of what one may see there, though with a couple of notes: We were there when the sun was high in the sky, so the colors are not as vivid as they would be in the morning or evening. Also, it’s difficult to discern the scale of this photo since it contains no human or animal figures as points of comparison. The drop-off shown here is probably at least a couple hundred feet, though parts of the park are considerably higher.

As we stood admiring the view, a large animal suddenly appeared, trotting along almost straight at us. It was a pronghorn antelope! I quickly snapped this photo, and I was very fortunate to have it come out as well as it did.
Here’s an enlarged close-up of our antelope friend:

Baseball with a Side of Sausage

Near the end of our trip, we stopped in Milwaukee to attend a baseball game between the hometown Brewers and the New York Mets. Though the Mets won that night on a late home run, we had a great time. Before the game, we encountered a group of local celebrities: the sausages from the world-renowned sausage race that takes place at every Brewers home game. CC had the rare honor of meeting the Chorizo and putting her arm around his sausage:

Alas, the Chorizo came in last at that night’s sausage race. I’m not sure how this was CC’s fault, but she was surely culpable in some way.

That’s a quick overview of some of our trip’s highlights. We did a variety of fun things and drove and drove and drove. I’m home right now and I didn’t get into the car even once today, and I’m very happy about that. But I’ve got to tell you – I had so much fun. I saw things I’d never seen before. Some were things I’d heard about and had always wanted to see; some were things I had seen before, yet I had completely new interactions with them; some were utter surprises that I didn’t expect on any level until they appeared before my eyes. I think travel is an important thing. I think it teaches us things that can’t be put into words; things that can’t be written down in a textbook – or in a blog. So this post is ultimately only a set of hints and clues to what we experienced. To learn more, you need to do it yourself.


A Pebble Was Cast

Posted on 2014.07.09 at 19:52
I’m not going to list the names of the people shown here. I figure that after 35 years, they deserve the option of anonymity if they so desire. But that’s me with the glasses and the wristwatch, in the company of a bunch of awfully talented people.
It was the spring of 1979. I was an earnest but inexperienced actor. My complete resumé at the time was this: Two high school shows, two college shows, four community theater shows, and a lifetime of trying to entertain people. And then… a moment occurred; a moment when everything changed and the rest of my life began. I didn’t realize any of that at the time, but that’s what it turned out to be.

While I was busy being a 20-year-old ne’er-do-well, neither employed nor a student, my friend Ed was studying with the theater department at the University of Detroit. He had been scheduled to play a supporting role in a production of A Night Out by Harold Pinter, but he’d had to drop out of it for some reason or other. At the time, Ed and I were similar types as actors, by which I mean we were both larger than average, louder than average young character actors. “Aha!” I thought, “Maybe they’re desperate to recast this role and I can just slide into it even though I’m not a student.”

What made this role more attractive than the usual college theater fare was that it was being produced as part of a theater festival to take place at Detroit’s Attic Theatre, which was very prominent and highly regarded at the time. The notion that I might have a shortcut to performing a role at the Attic was all the motivation I needed. I looked up the Attic’s phone number and called to inquire as to the casting situation for A Night Out.

I want you to notice something right away about my choice – it was fundamentally flawed. The Attic was not producing this show; the University of Detroit Theater Department was. There was no chance I was going to get hooked up with A Night Out by making this call. But as the saying goes, fortune favors the bold.

The person who answered the phone at the Attic was, I later determined, Harlan Moyer, who was one of the theater’s founders and who was at the time married to the Attic’s Artistic Director, Lavinia Moyer. Trying to sound cordial but professional, I asked whether they would be holding auditions to recast the role in the Pinter play for the upcoming festival. Harlan paused a moment to figure out what I was talking about, but he quickly caught up.

“We’re not producing that,” he began, “You would have to call the theater office at U of D to find out about that.”

“Oh, I see,” I replied, suddenly feeling as if I’d been unmasked as a rube.

“But we’re having auditions here on Saturday for our next show, Steambath. Would you like to schedule an audition time for that?”

“Yeah, that would be fine,” I said, trying to sound calm. And so my audition time was set.

Here’s how ignorant I was about the theater world in Detroit: I’d never imagined that you could simply call up a place like the Attic and schedule an audition. Surely one had to have connections, or maybe even an agent, just to walk in the door. Yes, I was that clueless. And not just clueless, but also… unempowered.

The audition day arrived. I walked in not expecting to know a soul there. It was therefore a welcome delight when I ran into Kim Carney in the lobby. I’d worked with her the previous year in Candide at Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theater, and it was gratifying to see, and be recognized by, someone whom I held in such high esteem.

There are different ways to run an audition. Sometimes, we all wait in the lobby while they call us in one at a time. Fortunately for me, this was not one of those times. We all sat in the theater together and watched each other perform. You’ll see in a minute why this was so fortunate for me.

In the course of the afternoon, I’d had my name called two or three times, tossing in lines as a part of group scenes. I could tell with utter certainty that I had not been noticed. At all. If that had been the end of my day, I’d have walked out of there and no one would have remembered me. I was getting a little depressed around the edges. But then the director, Jim Moran, threw out a lifeline. After the scheduled readings were finished, Jim had an announcement: “Is there anyone here who didn’t get a chance to read, or who had something specific they wanted to read?”

This was my chance. With nothing to lose, it was time to be bold again. In leafing through the script, I’d noticed that nobody had done anything at all with the supporting character of Bieberman, and I thought I’d figured out a way to make it memorable. I raised my hand and said, “Yes, I wanted to read the scene where Bieberman is disguised as an old man.” I had a particular funny voice I’d been doing for years that usually got a laugh, so I used it for that scene.

And what happened when I did that? Everybody laughed, especially Jim. What more could I have wished for? I’d been noticed! Whether they cast me or not, doggone it, I’d been noticed.

A few days later, the phone call came. I’d been cast as Bieberman. I was going to be a professional actor! All sorts of other things happened after that.

The show opened in July 1979 on Friday the 13th, but this proved to be no omen of disaster whatsoever. Steambath was the hit of the summer in Detroit theater, selling out most of its performances. Oh, and the laughter! This was one funny show. This considerably softened the blow of my first professional review in The Detroit News: “Charles Greenia seems to not get the joke…” Ah well. Reviews are, after all, an occupational hazard.

As with all shows, no matter how successful, Steambath finally closed in early September. A few weeks after that, our director, Mr. Moran, who was also the theater’s business manager, asked me to join the Attic’s Artistic Company and serve as bookkeeper. Even if you have a low opinion of my acting, take this to heart: I’m a far better actor than I am a bookkeeper. It’s a wonder the theater survived my two year tenure in that capacity.

By the end of those two years, my life had changed completely. As bookkeeper, one of my duties was to sign all of the actors’ paychecks. Mind you, I had no power at all to decide what we spent money on, but one tends to remember the name that signs one’s paychecks, so after two years of that, just about everyone in Detroit’s theater world knew who I was. More importantly, I’d gotten to do a lot of quality theater with people who were much more artistically evolved than I was at that point. That’s when I learned how crucially important it is to work with people who are better than I am. It can be humbling, but it’s a damn fine way to get an education.

After I left the Attic, I came back to do several shows there through the 1980s, most notably the monster hit Piaf in 1985, but that’s quite another story…

Addendum — On the day of the Steambath auditions, there was a cute, diminutive young woman dashing about, delivering resumés to Mr. Moran and generally coordinating things. I took her to be Mr. Moran’s assistant; perhaps an intern of some sort. The following week, I was introduced to her and found that she was in fact Lavinia Moyer, the theater’s Artistic Director. I hoped she hadn’t seen my double-take when we were introduced and I decided to leave my first impression of her unspoken. Still, it set a good precedent for the kind of collaborative environment that the Attic embodied at that time.

One final bit of business — I own half a dozen or so pictures from the Steambath photo shoot, but this one stands out. It’s me again. I’m not going to give you any context for it. Suffice it to say that my character was not a master of the martial arts, and this was the only scene in which I was not attired in boxer shorts and a towel.


High School Confidential & The Statute of Limitations

Posted on 2014.05.27 at 16:22
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: Detroit, Rock City - Kiss
This goes back to the mid-1970s, so I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that the statute of limitations has run out. Otherwise, I may have to surrender my high school diploma…

It was a mid-term biology exam. A big-ass multi-layered set of quizzes and tasks. A major portion of the exam was particularly devilish. A week or so earlier, we had been given a list of about a half dozen different topics that we might have to write about in great detail. On the day of the exam, we would each open our personalized exam and see which two topics we must then write about. So we were forced to prepare a half dozen different sets of knowledge, but only two of them would actually be written about on that day.

So I gambled. I didn’t prepare all of them. I prepared, I think, four of them and trusted my luck that neither of the other two would be chosen for me. Well, Lady Luck was not on my side that day. One of the topics was indeed one that I had not researched at all. The description was something like this:

Choose and discuss a particular drug with regard to its development, uses, abuses, addictive properties, consequences of overdose, and remedies.

Well… there seemed no point to just throwing in the towel, so I decided to go for it. Nothing wishy-washy here; you can’t let them see you sweat; just a complete mountain of B.S. I decided to pull an enormous, detailed essay completely out of my butt. I chose an unexpected drug that the teacher would be unlikely to already know much about – I chose Novocain. I figured the teacher might already know a lot about such obvious targets as aspirin, heroin, or amphetamines, so this was my way of trying to sneak around his knowledge while still choosing something utterly commonplace.

With great apparent confidence, I described in loving detail the advancing paralysis, negative effect on heart, lung, and other organ functions, and even death, that would supposedly characterize an overdose. Every word of it was a fabrication. Conveniently, I stated that Novocain had no known addictive properties, thus relieving me of the burden of dealing with that point. I decided that heavy intake of fluids and transfusions would constitute the standard treatment for an overdose and stated my case with the clinical sobriety of a small-town hospital chaplain.

When our grades came back, I found that I had received a B on the exam as a whole, as well as a B minus for my essay on Novocain. I had been marked down slightly for being hazy about the history and development of the drug, but my other assertions had sailed through unchallenged.

As with everything we do in our scholastic careers, this episode was a learning opportunity. It was a lesson I’d been taught before, but this served as a cogent reminder. The lesson: Just because someone is older, or more educated, or holds a position of authority over us, does not mean that they cannot be outsmarted. Ultimately, it is also a lesson in humility, because we, in turn, may one day find ourselves outsmarted by those who are theoretically “beneath” us.

Okay, maybe that’s not the lesson everyone would take away from this story, but everyone processes these things in their own way.

All of which demonstrates yet again that the most important lessons our elders teach us are the ones they don’t realize they’re teaching us.


Click Whores of the 21st Century

Posted on 2014.05.13 at 15:54
Current Mood: working
Current Music: Real Real - Nina Simone
“These Are the Most Beautiful Photos Ever Taken”

“20 Movies You Must See Before You Die”

“Taylor Swift’s Worst Wardrobe Malfunction EVER”

“The 25 Funniest Commercials Ever Made. #14 Had Me on the Floor!”

You must surely have noticed that we are living in an age of unprecedented hyperbole. If you aren’t familiar with the word “hyperbole”, look it up right now. I’ll wait.
Ah, you’re back! You might have noticed that some definitions of “hyperbole” say that it is “not meant to be taken literally” which demonstrates that it’s really the wrong word to use in this application, because the types of claims shown above are meant to be taken literally. So maybe a better term for this sort of headline would be… oh, let’s say… “bullshit”. Yes, that seems about right. And why? Why would they so shamelessly hype their little articles? Because there’s one thing they want from you; just one minor, insignificant thing:

Your click.

Yes, your click. A small thing, really. You’ll hardly miss it. Just a flick of your finger, after which you may move on to other pursuits. Read the article or don’t; it’s all the same to them, for they have received your click. It is their Precious. It is the thing they spend their waking hours craving and dreaming about receiving. The articles themselves are merely a necessary evil; not something to fuss over. While the articles may frequently indulge our presumed fetishes, the most lurid thing on display is actually the click fetish of the site’s owners.

For you see, the moment you click upon that link, the beast has been fed. The counter on that web page notches up by one. And when the counter grows large, advertisers are happy. Their money purses loosen up a little more with each click. I’m oversimplifying a more complex marketing process, but that’s the gist of it. Yes, of course – it’s about the money.

Unfortunately, this approach to online communication is contagious. Now, it’s beginning to creep into non-monetized websites. Even humble bloggers with no reward other than the pleasure of putting their words out and seeing that their words have been read are beginning to adopt the Click Whore style of titles and lead-ins. It’s becoming the common language of article titling.

Maybe, at some point, we’ll collectively figure out that we’re being duped into looking at photos and articles that don’t match the hype. But I doubt it. Too many web surfers truly do not care whether the words and images put before them contain any truth, so long as they are stimulated, diverted, and can feel that their convictions are being validated. But truth? You want truth? Sorry, we’ve stopped carrying it; truth tends to be more expensive to obtain than fantasy; demand for it was too low anyway; and besides, it alienated some of our most prized customers.

I may go back and change the title of this post. How about: “You Must Read This – The Most Important Blog Post of the Year”. Too much? Hmmm…


Bad Behavior

Posted on 2014.03.11 at 14:58
Current Mood: chipperchipper
Current Music: Bad Businessman - Squirrel Nut Zippers
I want to tell you about the worst coworker I’ve ever endured. I want to be fair here; well, as fair as I can be. I’m going to try real hard not to claim knowledge of what she was thinking. I may speculate, but I won’t claim to actually know. And to be even more fair, I’m also going to tell you about the good she unwittingly accomplished.

Let’s call her Josette. She had seniority over most of us and had no reason to feel insecure in her position, yet she apparently did. Anyone who came in with a skill set comparable to hers was automatically her enemy. She would actively work to undermine such people, slandering them to coworkers and even actively sabotaging their work. I know; I watched her do it. People who had worked there longer than I had told me that she had even gotten some of her imagined enemies fired by telling management lies about them. After seeing how she operated, I tended to believe those stories. And when she realized I was friends with some of her enemies, she began to treat me differently as well. At best, I was completely ignored. At worst, my efforts were similarly undermined. And this was not a passive activity on her part; undermining her enemies was an energetic undertaking for her.

Please forgive me for not being more specific in my descriptions of her activities. As vindictive as she proved to be, I’m going to be vague about when and where this all took place. Perhaps some of my former coworkers will happen across this post. If they do, they will surely recognize the situation I’m describing.

So why didn’t I report my findings to management? Why didn’t those even more directly harmed by Josette lodge formal complaints? Well you see, they did. And they got nowhere with it. Management would typically respond to such complaints by either ignoring the situation completely or making a token show of response before allowing things to go back to normal.

It became plain that management liked Josette. Or if they didn’t precisely like her, they liked having her there. She performed a couple of valuable functions for the bosses. First and foremost, they valued having someone of her age there who was never going to leave, as this was a difficult commodity to find. I know that doesn’t exactly make sense, but you’re going to have to trust me on that one.

The other invaluable role Josette played was the role of management’s little snitch. Any discussions or meetings involving employees were fair game for Josette to report back to management. We watched her do it, walking directly from an employee meeting into the boss’ office. It seemed that she either didn’t care if we knew, or perhaps she wanted us to know that she was helping management keep an eye on us. Not that we employees were up to anything illicit; it was apparently just a way of trying to make us fearful and compliant.

So what do I think was actually going on in Josette’s mind? All right, let’s speculate. I think she was a fearful, insecure person who felt she was guarding one of the most precious things in her life. I think she viewed her little evil acts as a small matter in light of what she was receiving in return. I think she convinced herself that we were small, silly folks receiving nothing less than justice at her hands. But at the top of her mind, I think she regarded herself as a kindly woman who was fair and loving to those who mattered. But I think she put all of us who were her coworkers into a little alternative universe box; she was not obliged to grant us the courtesies granted to the “real” people in her life.

I mentioned at the outset that she had unwittingly accomplished some good through all of this. It came in the form of how the rest of us related to one another socially. It is common in human society for people to rally around a common enemy, and I think that’s what happened here. Almost any time a group of us would get together far away from the job and Josette, the conversation would turn to sharing stories of her evil acts and stunning pettiness. People from very different backgrounds, who might otherwise have had trouble finding a common frame of reference, could all relate to stories of Josette’s deeds. You could call it a bunker mentality if you like, but it definitely contributed to our camaraderie. It has been some years since I left that job, yet it is still common to share these stories when meeting former coworkers. Some of them still break out into impressive strings of obscenities when referring to her, but it somehow feels therapeutic.

Some might bemoan the fact that we continue to dwell upon such a negative energy as Josette and our powerfully negative feelings about her, but I can’t look at it that way. The fact is, we’ve shared many a laugh over all of it. With the passing of years, it is only occasionally that we get genuinely pissed off about it. The stories of her evil have largely been transmuted into something like a collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that we tell to scare others while giving ourselves a little shiver and a laugh. As for Josette, I’ve heard that she’s moved to another state far away, where she now walks among an unsuspecting populace like a newly freed Hannibal Lecter.


Never Try to Blackmail a Singing Telegram Messenger

Posted on 2014.03.04 at 14:03
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Baby Face
When I was in my twenties, I spent two and a half years working for the Eastern Onion Singing Telegram Company. I delivered well over a thousand singing telegrams during that time. It was a strange, semi-nomadic existence, particularly on Saturday nights. That was the night when one would usually do most of one’s telegrams for the week, driving from one end of town to the other, out to far-flung suburbs and back again, with the night’s work often ending at midnight or later. Frankly, it was an awfully fun way to spend an evening – going from one party to another, always being the center of attention when I walked in the door, making hundreds of people laugh, maybe even getting a tip for my trouble, and going on my way before I had a chance to wear out my welcome.

[SIDEBAR: I would love to have illustrated this post with a photograph of me in one of my messenger tuxes, but I do not own a single picture of myself in costume. That’s kind of funny in light of the fact that untold thousands of photos were taken of me in costume, but they were all taken by friends of the telegram recipients. So while my face probably graces countless photo albums to this day, it does not grace my own albums.]

You should understand that I played a variety of characters in this work, each with its own corresponding costume. An incomplete list includes Eastern Onion Man (red leotard, tights, and cape), Mr. Wonderful (all white tux, white top hat, white cane, white shoes, long-stemmed rose in my teeth), and the one and only Chuckie Chicken (red & pink fun fur, big red chicken feet, and giant chicken mask headpiece). These costumes were typically strewn about the back seat of my car along with various standard accoutrements, including my big red tambourine, a battery-powered monkey that clanged his cymbals together, and several obnoxious whistles. This was in addition to a generous supply of party hats and noisemakers and boxes full of hot pink Eastern Onion business cards.

There was usually no time to go home between telegrams on a busy night. This meant that I was often obliged to completely change outfits while scrunching my 6’2” frame around the passenger compartment of my Plymouth Valiant. That’s day or night; rain or shine; frigid winter through sticky summer. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the day I was changing costumes at the side of a rural highway and a police car came rolling up. They said they’d gotten a call that someone was having a seizure in their car. I explained that it was just me changing clothes, and because I was at that moment wearing a top hat, a pink ruffled shirt and a bright red cummerbund, they believed me and drove on without further interrogation.

There are many stories of triumph and tragedy I could tell, though the better ones will probably never appear in print form. Not with my name on them anyway. So let me jump to the end of the story.

After two and a half years, I’d gotten all I could get out of the singing telegram business in terms of training and experience. And that’s a big thing, by the way. To this day, I consider that time to have been the best training as a performer that I’ve ever received. One had to learn how to work a crowd; how to perform when it’s just you and the audience; no director, no critics, no supporting cast. One learned how to play any conceivable (and inconceivable) sort of venue, from bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys to fancy reception halls and swanky nightclubs; from business offices to hospital rooms; from supermarket parking lots to the pitcher’s mound at a softball diamond in the middle of a game.

But at a certain point, I hit the wall. I began to dread doing even a single, brief telegram. It was time to go. I decided to give myself a Christmas present. Sometime in October, I advised management that December 22nd was to be my last day. They thanked me heartily for giving them such generous advance notice.

It seemed I realized something at that moment that management did not – that they would not be happy losing me right before Christmas. Christmas through New Year’s was a busy time in the singing telegram business, and scheduling was made all the more difficult by the many messengers who took time off during that period.

I was therefore not in the least surprised when I received a phone call from the boss in early December, asking me if I could stay on through the end of the year. Well, no. I was already insanely looking forward to being done with the job and enjoying my holidays, so there was no way. The boss was dismayed with my intransigence in the matter; with my utter refusal to negotiate on that point. He then tried blackmail: “Wellll… if you’re not going to be available then, we need to give work for the next few weeks to the messengers who are going to be here for us.”

I replied in a chipper, cooperative tone: “I understand completely. If that’s what you need to do, then that makes perfect sense.” And so we concluded our phone call.

Well of COURSE there was no drop-off in my bookings for those last few weeks. They were already short-staffed and were in no position to be petty just to punish someone on their way out the door, so even if I was eager for the job to end, I could at least go out the door with a decent paycheck in my hand. On December 23rd, I paid another visit to the office to drop off my costumes and other company property. The phones were ringing off the hook with holiday bookings so there was no time for management to wish me well with great ceremony. I set my stuff down in the supply closet, waved goodbye to the staff, and stepped out into the brisk air of freedom. And anyway, I wasn’t there to rub their noses in it; it was simply time for me to go.

The next time I write about my time with Eastern Onion, we may discuss the darker side of the business, replete with criminal activity, news reporters, threats, lawyers, and depositions.


Local History

Posted on 2014.02.09 at 20:08
Current Mood: accomplished
Current Music: The Night Chicago Died - Paper Lace
It occurs to me that many of this journal’s regular readers are not from Chicago and do not live nearby. I want to share some local history about the design of the Chicago flag. These facts are well known to anyone who grew up here, so will apologize in advance to my Chicago readers. For the rest of you, though, I think this is cool stuff.

The flag’s two blue bars are a memorial to two men instrumental in the development of Chicago blues: Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Though neither was born in or near Chicago, their impact on Chicago blues is such that they have been memorialized in Chicago for all time.

Each of the four stars across the middle of the flag represents a pivotal moment or factor in the city’s growth and identity. The first star commemorates the opening of Wrigley Field (originally called Weeghman Park) in 1914. The second star recalls the invention of Chicago deep-dish style pizza at Pizzeria Uno in 1943. The red color is often thought to represent either tomato sauce or pepperoni, but these are probably urban legends.

The third of the four stars is, oddly enough, the most recently added star. It was added to the flag in 1985 so that we might never forget the Bears’ Super Bowl victory that year. A clue to the significance of the fourth and final star lies in the fact that it is a six-pointed star. It is a snowflake, and its shape represents the hexagonal crystal structure of snow, so the entire array of stars collectively represents the omnipresent risk of excessive snowfall, and the red color is meant to emphasize the seriousness of that risk.

Bonus Trivia — The name “Chicago” is derived from a French rendering of the Native American word shikaakwa, translated as “village of many restaurants”. The first written reference to the city by that name comes from the memoirs of explorer Robert de LaSalle in 1679: “…We stopped for the night on the north side of Cheecawgo [sic], where we enjoyed the antics of a small tribe of Indians, whose ability to turn a phrase and improvisational antics were most amusing, though the price of their liquor was such that our imbibing was kept to a minimum…”


I Think We Saw Two Movies – Or Was It Just One?

Posted on 2014.01.21 at 17:27
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: Slave - Elton John
It was certainly our intention to see two movies. CC and I went to the movieplex in Evanston last night intending to see both Saving Mr. Banks and 12 Years a Slave. A day later, I’m not certain whether that actually happened…

I know we saw a lot of the actor Paul Giamatti, but I’m not sure whether he was a chauffeur for Walt Disney or a Louisiana slave trader. As I recall, the plot concerned a powerful white master and his living property, which consisted primarily of a black mouse and a group of penguins.
* * *

All right – yes, we saw both Saving Mr. Banks and 12 Years a Slave, and Paul Giamatti actually appears in supporting roles in both movies. As usual in this journal, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS in the ensuing discussion, so take that under advisement if you’re planning to see either film anytime soon.

First up, Saving Mr. Banks. I’m glad we saw it first, because our perspectives might have been a bit curdled and cynical if we’d have viewed it in the wake of 12 Years a Slave. If you somehow didn’t know it already, Banks is the story of Walt Disney’s 1961 negotiations with author P.L. Travers over the rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Disney and Travers are played, respectively, by Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, though I have enough respect for both of them that I’m sure they could have traded roles with no ill effect.

Hanks is an interesting and canny casting choice here. On the one hand, casting such a well-known actor as such a well-known character offers a great potential for failure due to our possible inability to forget who we’re watching (see John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror for an extreme example of such a failure). In this case, though, that potential liability is turned into an asset. The fact is that we know Tom Hanks and we like Tom Hanks. He therefore buys a bit of character credit for portraying Walt Disney and allows the movie to let some of the character’s flaws be put on display while enabling us to keep liking him. Walt is a wheeler-dealer and a bit of a humbug. At a few points, it looks as if Emma Thompson might actually be playing Dorothy Gale journeying to the Emerald City to confront the Wizard of Oz, but the movie pushes through on the strength of how much we enjoy these actors and their characters.

On the other side of the table from Hanks, Emma Thompson is pitch-perfect as Travers. One gets the feeling that Thompson has found her own inner world-weariness and her own insecurities and has channeled them into the character of Travers. For her performance, Thompson has been nominated for Best Actress in the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, and several others, and the recognition is well deserved.

When I arrived home after seeing Banks, I was moved to research more about the real-life P.L. Travers. What I learned was most illuminating. There are some fascinating details that were either completely absent or barely hinted at in the movie. For example, as a young woman, Travers was an actress who worked with a traveling Shakespearean company. Her Wikipedia bio includes a photo of her in the role of Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The film offers almost nothing about Travers’ personal life beyond its many flashbacks to her childhood in Australia and her close relationship with her father. He is portrayed as an alcoholic who dies when Travers is still a little girl. While he is shown as having coughed up blood, the precise cause of his death is not revealed. Travers’ bio reveals that her father died of influenza when Travers was eight years old.

One personal detail that remains a bit of a mystery to me is why she insisted upon being called Mrs. Travers. Her real last name was Goff and she adopted her father’s first name of Travers – that information is disclosed in the movie – but it’s specifically the “Mrs.” part I find intriguing. Travers never married, though it seems clear from what I’ve read that she was bisexual. There is also another curious fact from her personal life, for which I will quote directly from Wikipedia:

…At the age of 40, Travers adopted a baby boy from Ireland named Camillus Hone. He was the grandchild of Joseph Hone, who was W. B. Yeats’ first biographer. Hone and his wife were raising their seven grandchildren. Camillus was one of twins, but Travers did not adopt his twin brother, Anthony, or any of their other siblings. She selected Camillus based on advice from her astrologer. Anthony remained with his grandparents. Camillus was unaware of his true parentage until the age of 17, when Anthony met Camillus unexpectedly at a bar in London…

There is another great quote I’m going to include, because it illustrates another area where the film has massaged the historical facts into a more pleasing form. I quote once again from Wikipedia:

…At the film’s star-studded première (to which she was not invited, but had to ask Walt Disney for permission to attend), she reportedly approached Disney and told him that the animated sequence had to go. Disney responded by walking away, saying as he did, “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” Enraged at what she considered shabby treatment at Disney’s hands, Travers would never again agree to another Poppins/Disney adaptation…

Please understand – I am not suggesting that these details should have been in the movie in any way. They may very well have muddied up the narrative to no good effect. Rather, I offer them to illustrate a strength of the movie, that it was able to distill a simple, understandable, and intelligent story from the messy details that make up a real life.

To those who might complain that the studio is rewriting history to suit their corporate goals, I would say this: Of course they are. I expected some of that and so should you. Let it serve as a reminder that every film is a fiction. At the same time, remember that this is not a history lesson; it’s an entertainment. You may as well ask a Twinkie to be a soufflé. The soufflé may be tastier, but it’s a lot harder to find and it won’t last nearly as long on the shelf. And I’ve bought a lot of Twinkies in my time. Moving on…

Twenty minutes after the screen went dark, we settled into our seats in another part of the multiplex to watch 12 Years a Slave. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot because the title kind of tells you what you’re in for.

I have to give Slave an oddly mixed review. Overall, it gets very high marks for its craftsmanship on every level – from the writing to the acting to the direction to the cinematography to the production design. Where it falls a little short is in the area of viewer experience.

There are some built-in problems with a movie of this nature. First of all, though I’d read nothing about the film in the way of plot details, nothing surprising happened for a very long time. It seemed clear that Solomon Northup was going to be kidnapped into slavery early on. It logically followed that he was going to experience horrible, dehumanizing treatment and be forced to witness even more. It also seemed certain from the outset that he would somehow be freed later on and make his way back to his family. So while individual moments of the film sometimes held a great deal of drama, the overall arc of the story was so transparent that it had the effect of keeping me on the outside, waiting for the gears of the plot to mesh.

Now of course, some might respond by saying, “But that’s the story. It needs to be told.” And I would agree with that. But as a dramatic experience, these factors impact the viewer’s engagement. It also gives the film a sense of being that bad-tasting medicine you must take for your own good.

Still, as a white man from a long line of white stock, I thought it would behoove me to seek out another opinion, so I asked L, an African-American friend of mine, how she’d felt about the movie. She replied, “I didn’t care for it at all. Couldn’t wait for it to be over.” While she acknowledged the movie’s historical accuracy and realism, she said she’d only gone because a friend had taken her there and that she wouldn’t have chosen to see it otherwise. “That kind of thing” is not her cup of tea.

All of which proves nothing, I suppose, except that reactions to movies are completely individual and don’t necessarily have anything to do with ethnic background, and I guess I already knew that, so let’s keep going.

CC, who only days before had read the book upon which the film is based, had some interesting comments regarding differences between the two. For one thing, she said there are lengthy passages in the book where nothing at all happens except for intricate descriptions of technical processes and procedures. This appears to be typical of pre-20th century novels and isn’t exactly a criticism of the book; merely a description of its non-cinematic characteristics. So kudos to the filmmakers for leaving that stuff out! There are also various characters from the book that are left out and scene details that have been changed.

Just as in my discussion of Saving Mr. Banks, I must point out that these changes are not necessarily a bad thing. Art may sometimes be defined as a lie that tells the truth. So it is with all great movies. So is 12 Years a Slave a great movie? I’m not ready to throw that garland around its neck just yet. I want to let it marinate a while. Yes, I’m mixing my metaphors and I’m liking it. Let me say instead that it is an unforgettable cinematic experience that shows a lot of extreme, yet believable, human behavior. It is as much a cautionary tale as it is a history lesson. It is a film that possesses harsh artistic virtues. You might walk out not having precisely “enjoyed” the experience, but you might find that a deeper satisfaction has been imparted to you and you might be awfully glad you went.

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