website, blog and vanity nexus of writer R F Brown



My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Author Lynn McElfresh must have had a mean sister, or mean daughter, or herself been a real crab in adolescence, because she is so authentic here in depicting teen-sister characters constantly at the demarkation line between I’d like to love you and I’d love to kill you. The fact that Jade, who is hearing, communicates in sign with her older deaf sister Marla is the most benign part of their tense relationship while living at home and playing on the same softball team all summer. This is a great exemplification for young readers of all physical abilities to see that coping with physical difference is doable, getting along with your bitch or baby sister is almost impossible. The form of the storytelling is distinctive as each sister is the alternating first-person narrator of the same plot flow, both characters expressing their opinion about the other being the cause of their fights in the house. And Marla’s version is interpolated in the form of ASL shorthand. The written sign language is an unconventional, if sometimes tedious, idea, but the book’s novella size is just right for this effort. I would be curious to learn from hearing-impaired readers if they consider the use of ASL a valid voice or a patronizing contrivance. Two short comings for me: the parents, also deaf characters, are depicted in broad strokes. Even when they are in scenes with the daughters they lack presence. Second, the softball field seems to be presented from the beginning as the place where the battle between the sisters will culminate, instead the story near the end takes a rather orthogonal trip into the woods. For my taste, it was a missed opportunity to use the softball as the stage where the girls try to figure out how to communicate emotionally. Neither of these shortcoming will prevent me from recommending Strong Deaf, it is unique and and I liked it.



View all my reviews

my liberal arts degree and expert research skills are paying off for you classic TV nostalgiods b/c Im a guest of the @FullCastAndCrew podcast discussing the classic TV sitcom Taxi. we cover the actors, the characters, the theme music, what about the unique production makes the show timeless, and how much time it takes for Tony Danza to drive across the Queensborough Bridge.

link to the episode https://fullcastandcrew.libsyn.com/116-taxi-1978 or via my website RFBrown.net 

see you on the avenues, Reig-ah! 

And The Winner Isn’t…

RFBROWN ON THE 2021 OSCAR FOR BEST PICTURE

“They’re always giving out awards. Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.” If an award like that really did exist, though, they’d probably end up giving it to Mussolini.” – Woody Allen, Annie Hall

The fake-mixed-up-envelope incident between LA LA Land and Moonlight and the even worse Green Book mockery are just two recent Oscar Best Picture disappointments that made me Woody Allen-level cynical. I suppose Best Picture never really meant nothing before, but it has come to mean less than nothing, even when I like the winner (Parasite, Nomadland). The Oscar TV show itself has stripped away just about anything to do with the craft of filmmaking and replaced it with four hours of Hollywood-insider butt-sniffing. Grammy and Tony awards do not mean anything either, but at least those TV broadcasts retain live performances to keep them worth watching. Enough, this is Oscar-hating season. I like to party by passive aggressively no longer paying attention to the category races, that is, except for one category. Despite those recent embarrassments, I still want to care about Best Picture, to see the Best Picture, even if it isn’t. For a big portion of my life I did enjoy the Oscars even to the point of zealotry. Part of me wants to believe something about the passing film year, so I still make an effort to at least see all the BP nominees.

The nominees are…

CODA – I am not here to prevent you from seeing, liking, or being moved by this movie. CODA is an unusual opportunity to see a sort of edgy story about hearing-impaired people. But the acting is forced, as are the dramatic perils that befall deaf parents of a hearing teenage daughter who discover themselves completely out of touch with her ambitions and teen problems. Is this because deaf people are in some ways resigned to live insular lives, or because the story needs these parents to act like oblivious assholes until they come around to delivering a drippy plot to its manual and lukewarm conclusion? Respect to a movie about marginalized people, it’s not terrible. But for me it’s not in the category among best.

DON’T LOOK UP – It was the playwright George S. Kaufman who said, “Satire is what closes on a Saturday night.” What Kaufman meant was that a truly funny social or political critique is hard to communicate/sell to the dense masses. That is why satire falls victim to dumbing itself down, and as victims of oversimplifying go, Don’t Look Up is barely alive. I do not think the problem is with the actors, DeCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence provide sincerity and I say (although I might be the only one) that Jonah Hill is funny. The problem lays with the grandiose screenplay saying the world is absurdly ignoring catastrophe and that nothing is being done by them over there–politicians, media, corporations, every institution but the institution of individual responsibility. The space comet hurtling toward satire Earth is a metaphor, but the fast fuse on real Earth’s destruction is lit and burning here in our atmosphere and this movie is not doing anything to stop it either. I guess Don’t Look Up is a perfect movie for the Oscar’s, it’s meaningless and fools itself into believing it’s more substantial than it actually is.

DRIVE MY CAR – Recalling the coital conversations of Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, Bergman’s emotionally cold domains viewed though a glass darkly, and Chekov’s talkative stage ensemble characters–whom we are never sure if they are fooling themselves, each other, or the audience–Drive My Car director Hamaguchi takes us for a three-hour drifting drive through the landscapes of the human psyche. We travel with the excellent actors through the deepest valleys of the mortal highway exploring regret, guilt, unexpressed love, hurting the person you strive most to protect, and our instinct to survive personal trauma. Like life, Drive My Car’s journey is alternately bleak and beautiful. My only criticism is that the film’s fine screenplay was not presented in a context true to film, there was not any scene in it’s lengthy exhibition that could not be performed on a stage, including scenes in the car. For being less filmic than other choices, I do not pick Drive My Car for Best Picture, but in terms of its dramatic efficacy, it’s a midsize epic.

DUNE – This visually captivating recreation of masterful literary work provides a universe in layers political, supernatural, and domestic. All of the film’s artistic ambitions are impressive and successful in terms of cast, production, effects, and story. My only caveat is over handing a trophy to a movie that isn’t finished. Dune would have been better if they had found a way to provide a satisfying ending instead of “tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion.” Tune in after they put out part two and I’ll tell you if I give it an Oscar.

KING RICHARD – There are many successes to be honored regarding King Richard. The sports parent as the protagonist is a novel approach to the sports movie sub-genre, and here Richard Williams is shown as both of flawed character and devoted to his family. I admired that the movie depicted the drama of the tennis game authentically (I am a sports movie connoisseur and more frequently than not, sports movie filmmakers know nothing about their sports subjects). The actors Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis flawlessly fuse into the Williams parent characters. We are not doing Oscars for acting here, but I hope they both win. I am willing to look past the problem that two women become among the most important athletes in history and the biopic that gets made is about the man who orchestrated their successes; however, for two and a half hours the Venus and Serena Williams characters are treated as not much more than chorus girls. Did these children not think anything about what their dad was doing for them, to them? As for that two and a half hours, the storytelling is weighed down with a lot of clunky direction and editing. Like Richard Williams himself, the movie is highly imperfect but you have to admire and respect its audacity.

LICORICE PIZZA – For director P.T. Anderson films like There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread, I always feel like I am the only one standing with him and his maverick visions. But if asked to stand similarly for Licorice Pizza I would have to say, “What do you mean we middle-aged white man?” Imagine if this vanity, romcom, nostalgic fantasy, whatever-it-is had been about a twenty-five year old man being romanced by a fifteen year old girl? O, the Tweet-rage. Aside from the gross gender double-standard, and Anderson’s non sequitur othering of Japanese people (which he publicly refuses to own up-to), there are some sequences in this vignette-style movie that work. I love the ’70s Hollywood lore depicting outrageous hyper-masculine idiocy, i.e. the John Peters and William Holden episodes. All the rest of the time the movie is trying to amuse us with the implausible small-business ambitions of its male teen protagonist and that character’s oogie seduction of an older woman, and what goes on the screen is just immature, masturbatory, and boring.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY – Someone asked me to defend the end of Nightmare Alley, [spoiler coming…] the scene where Bradley Cooper’s formerly successful supper-club psychic character returns to the traveling carnival to accept the job of chicken-head-biting caged geek. He utters the last line, “Mister, I was born for it.” I suggest just reading the Wikipedia entry on Freudian Death Drive, the human instinct toward aggression, traumatic repetition, and self-destruction. I was not surprised to discover that the author of the source novel was deeply involved with psychoanalysis, as what seems to motivate each damaged character’s behavior, rich and poor, is self-destruction. The aim of the story, I think, is to explore Freud’s claim that “the aim of all life is death.” Bradley Cooper plays the slow rise and annihilation of his character brilliantly; the whole cast is similarly convincingly neurotic. I am blown away by the art direction, particularly the interiors of the second half’s escape to wealthy “success.” Negatives also arise in the second half. Scenes get weary and some plot turns seem unlikely. On the whole, I was hypnotized in the sadnesses of people teetering on their echelons.

THE POWER OF THE DOG – There is a scene in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s rancher character, Phil, is looking out at a sunlit mountain range. What only Phil sees is the shape of a dog’s head created by a shadow on the hillside. A cowpoke asks Phil if there is something to see out there. Phil says “Not if you can’t see it, there ain’t.” Watching at home I could not see it either, someone had to actively stop the movie and point out the dog image. Power of the Dog is full of challenges to understand what is going on. If you have to see a movie twice to understand what happened does that make the movie good because it did not spoon-feed you the details or bad because it is failing during the first viewing to communicate? Perhaps form is mimicking content. Phil, the central character, is enigmatic, suppressed, and antisocial. I might use the same words to describe the purposely inscrutable way this movie is cut together. The story is rife with complex questions: who is good or bad, who is a hero or victim, is masculinity entirely a social construct? Paying attention to each line of dialogue, each character decision, and the composition of each scene provides rewards to the questioning viewer. However, if I were voting for Best Picture Oscar and I were limited to seeing each movie only once, I would have to judge this movie unsatisfying.  

BELFAST – There is an anti-intellectualism to deciding that all black and white movies made today are pretentious. I am fine with modern b&w auteurism where content provides a time relevant purpose or it is otherwise aesthetically evocative. Belfast is set in the 1960s, and there is neither a Swedish knight playing chess with the grim reader, nor another relevance to the movie’s black and whiteness; the choice only seems to provide a monochrome veneer to mediocre-written material. Is it too cynical to suggest that director Kenneth Branagh and the producers could be cynical enough to make a movie specifically prepared in black & white for partially quality-blind year-end movie award panels? Belfast has everything middle-age white people love: bildungsroman of an adorable blond boy pursuing first romance with an adorable girl of another Christian sect; attractive but clumsy young parents struggling to hold their family together during dire times; an aging couple who bicker-cute until death due them part; and a bitter civil war in which none of our protagonists have an uncomfortable partisan stake. And then all of these war-set tropes are disarmingly connected by a boomerific Van Morrison soundtrack (I thought Van Mo was canceled.). Yes, there is a pointless war of prejudice on, but somehow the family of characters and you the audience feel all will safe and resolved in the warm bosom of nostalgia. A movie that so deliberately appeals to the Oscar voter’s two-dimensional emotions and assures them that their vote will most closely resemble patronage of “art” cannot possibly lose. 

And the winner should have been…

WEST SIDE STORY – This movie is not a remake of the highly theatrical 1961 West Side Story, i.e. the best movie musical ever made. I consider this newer West Side Story an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical, the source of the iconic score, songs, and production numbers. The numbers are spectacular, but there are at least three things that make newer West Side Story a modern classic on its own merits. One, the screenplay specifically re-dramatizes the characters, expanding their backstories and motivations, and provides heartbreaking dimension to the catastrophes of the second act. Two, the direction, art design, and cinematography constellate into a gritty dystopian vision of 1957 New York City in the plain of a wrecking ball, and yet all is perfectly crafted to provide poignant realism of a kind we might find in a timely documentary. Three, people have focused on the weak casting of this version’s Tony, I say he comes off mediocre because the ensemble around him is so damn good. The movie is a rowdy showcase for its brilliant young actors, both in their performing talents and their dramatic renditions. West Side Story is the Best Picture nominee I would vote for and it is my favorite movie of the year (And the second best movie musical ever made.)

Which character was the real star of the ensemble classic sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati? You might find out by tuning in to hear Your’s Truly returning as a guest to the podcast Full Cast and Crew. This episode host Jason Cilo and I cover which Silver Sow Award winning character’s made the show work and which don’t work anymore, i.e. is sexual harassment in the workplace still hilarious? The episode was 50,000 watts of fun to research and record. See you in Cincinnati, bay-bays!

@fullcastandcrew. https://bit.ly/3i77LCI

According to film industry blogs there were about 400 feature films released in the US during 2021. That is about half of what used to come out in the Before-years. They made fewer and I screened less, sixty-six. That is about ten less last year, according to the industry of me. On the one hand there was not much going to movie theaters, on the other hand there were more new releases streaming. On one hand there was more time stuck at home, on another hand I do not maintain a log of all the back number movies I watch. Perhaps all that is to be learned from this dance of many figurative hands is that trying to understand patterns during the wretched times in which we live is pointless. Speaking of pointless, let me remind you of my innovative film rating system. I rate each new film release from zero to 100. Anything above fifty I “recommend” to general audiences. What appears below is a list of the year 2021 movies that I scored ninety or better. Remember RFantix, this list is not intended to imply that I saw everything that I should have for the year. Sixty-six movies is less than 20% of all releases, and I barely watch perfectly worthy foreign language films or documentaries. So, my best list only captures the best of what I happened to watch. Nine movies scored ninety or higher. Congratulations to this illustrious group in doing so well by me:

In The Heights (d. Jon Chu, w. Quiara Alegría Hudes)

It is no secret I love musicals. There were a lot of them this year and a lot of them made this ennealogy. In The Heights is brilliant at creating the fantasy of people making joy of lousy circumstances. The hip-hop music, Latin dancing, and the colors of summer in the city are intoxicating. The plot and characters are as melodramatic as classic MGM movie musicals, and the elaborate musical sequences are a worthy refresh of that form.

John And The Hole (d. Pascual Sisto, w. Nicolás Giacobone)

While suburban life in America is suppose to produce safety, quiet prosperity, and family time, a lot of half-acre yards grow sociopathic monsters. What teenage John does keeping his parents captive in a hole is pretty punk, but their inability to ascertain that affluence is not love is what is actually more bizarre. This movie is menacing, unpredictable, and a deft critique of capitalism’s sympathetic hole.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (d. Destin Daniel Cretton, w. Dave Callaham)

I’m so over comicbook movies. Superheroism has become tedious and existentially draining. I will not claim that Shang-Chi is a radical departure from the current blockbuster formula of  movies I do not want to watch anymore; I will confess to being glad I returned to a movie theater to see it. Shang-Chi’s cast is earnestly funny, its special-effects set pieces are exciting, the mythological Chinese alternate dimension is cool, and I will probably never be able to quit being mesmerized by kung fu. I’m so into this comicbook movie.

Dune (d. Denis Villeneuve, w. Jon Spaihts)

I’m not a Dune completist, too lazy to read the books, but I did the homework of watching both the 1984 David Lynch feature film version and the “Eurofic” 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. I am an unashamed fan of the Lynch, despite its story incoherency, because I get into its mood, effects, and art direction. Dune miniseries, despite its exterior scenes looking chintzy, benefits from having the time to tell every part of a multifaceted story. There’s also a lot of soft-core nudity! What I like about Dune ’21 is that it successfully shrinks the lengthy and complicated plot into a digestible screenplay, served by an excellent cast.  And Villeneuve’s planet Arrakis is an amazing visual world on which both fascinating political schemes and magical systems battle for power. The only big flaw with this Dune is that there is too much build up to a under-satisfying plateau, it is not a film that truly stands on its own without its forthcoming Part 2. I do hope the forthcoming second half includes more soft-core nudity. Does anyone know how I can get in touch with Chalamet?

Lamb (d. Valdimar Jóhannsson, w. Sjón)

Two rules re Iceland’s Lamb. One, do not read this any further, or any review or synopsis, until after you have seen the movie. Two, you have to watch the whole first act. If for a long time at first you wonder why you are watching a painfully-paced farm-couple marriage drama…wait for it. What makes Lamb so bril is how the film anticipates and plays with your expectations in such clever ways––weird surprises, character reversals, imagination versus reality, and metaphor versus myth. All along you feel like you are inside a modern fable with a moral that is both at your finger tips and not completely clear. Lamb is a precious but potent achievement.

Caveat (d., w, Damian McCarthy)

Caveat is about a confused amnesiac who is hired to live chained-up inside an isolated house with his psychologically disturbed niece. It is hard to go into why. It is hard to summarize how much goes on in this small budget, small cast production because the story so dexterously integrates mental illness, abuse, petty crime, family disfunction, murder, intense captures/escapes, and vengeful ghosts. To my appreciation, a good horror movie does not seek to amuse us with high body count and a jargon of over-familiar tropes. What makes Caveat special, daring, and terrifying is its hiring of antihero protagonists who become disturbingly lost in reality, place, and time.

Tick, Tick…Boom! (d. Lin-Manuel Miranda , w. Steven Levenson)

While the Broadway-rock music composed by the late Jonathan Larson that was collected for this off-Broadway musical project is fantastic, I would grade its biographical story in all versions, including this movie, a B+. What makes TTB great is Andrew Garfield’s virtuoso performance. His convincing angst, sincere buoyancy, and surprisingly gifted singing voice lifts the movie to masterful.

West Side Story (d. Steven Spielberg, w. Tony Kushner)

A Broadway reviewer referred to this West Side Story movie as “AN” adaptation of the original stage musical, indicating an opinion that the 2021 West Side movie is not a remake of the of the 1961 West Side movie. Both are differently marshaled adaptations, the reviewer was right, of the unsurpassed work for the stage. Both movies are complete film works with their own strengths and  flaws. I think the first movie succeeds in bringing the experience of dance (West Side Story is a dancing story) and theatrical atmosphere to a screen. WSS ’21 excels in expanding, supposing, and portraying the underlying story. The new movie is a good musical; it is a GREAT, creative, heartbreaking, amazingly cast and acted drama. I might say WSS ’61 is the best musical movie ever made, but Spielberg’s audacious vision and Kushner’s remodeled screenplay might be second for its own accomplishments.

Spencer (d. Pablo Larraín, w. Steven Knight)

I’m not a royals-queer. I find the American fetish with the British royal family just as lowbrow as those housewife reality-TV shows. I came to Spencer via Kristen Stewart because I felt challenged to believe her performance could be all that. It is. In Spencer she is a force of both studied and natural acting. And the movie is no melodramatic cable channel biopic. It is a film of carefully crafted style and atmosphere, brilliantly utilizing location and tempo as metaphors for Lady Diana’s state of psychological torture.

almost made the list: Power Of The Dog,  Candyman,  Old Henry, Swan Song, Nightmare Alley, Cyrano

I would like to announce a personal creative milestone. I finished the draft of Book 2 in my novel, OneDerful World just at the end of the year. There will be three parts, my goal is a finished manuscript by the end of ’22. So the project I have been working on for a month is another pass at Book 1. One of the things you learn about in writing a fiction project that takes place over years is that your voice and your mission are constantly changing. Inspirations and influences of things you read sneak in and change the direction of your book. The result is that the place you thought you were going a long time ago is quite different then where you ended up. There have been a lot of scenes to rewrite in Book 1, a lot of characters to reshape. But I think I’d like to give you RFanatix a taste of what this novel I have been hammering at since 2015 is going to be like. Attached below is a draft copy of the first chapter of OneDerful World…

———-

Volume: 61/1

Respondent: G., Jakob

Re: 25 November 1948 CE

I consent with magnanimous joy to recount the story of Juanita [principally the human entity]. Annuit coeptis!

To my historian [imputed], I issued the following caveat: I have absolute and final editorial control over all content. This writ includes my choice of individual words.

To my consanguineous student readers, I gave two imperatives: 1.) I am not bequeathing a biography of Juanita. Despite whatever attempted commercialization accompanies my storytelling, and whatever people of limited imagination, intellectual depth, bravado, or faith say it is, on whatever sort of wrapper, this is my being’s conceptualization of another being’s being. Each of us is subject to the infinite storytelling of all the others among our college of thought. While I consent with magnanimous joy to tell Juanita’s story, I implore students to try understanding that none of us are what it says on our wrapper. 2.) Be certain to not slide incautiously over a word in this history you do not understand. The only limit of any person’s ability to comprehend a concept is based on one’s proclivity to stroll by a word confounded, determine the concept before them confusing, and then accept misunderstanding as inevitable. Be assured, students, I have selected each word before you with painstaking interest in regard to definition and nuance, and this care includes my placement of every adposition, diacritic, and punctuative. Ignore my guidance at your peril!

Quis erat Juanita? A mere introduction to learning about her contribution to our universe would required I write a factual recount of at least the last sixty trillion years. For the sake of specificity, I select to share from our underlying research, significantly condensed, the most germane components viz. Juanita as teenage coloratura soprano, Hollywood movie queen, extrasensory faith healer, and religious prelate (Her life as whatever evolved personality, phylum, or reincarnation called The Good Friend is beyond my field of interest and I will not discuss it in this history.).

Juanita De Mingo-Gudsang (posterus Good) was born astronomical year 1934 CE near Rancho De Mingo, California, Earth. Of course, born is a relative term. Species of mammalia may gestate between two weeks and two years, magma can crystalize to a pluton of rock in about ninety thousand chronozone (± 40 KA), and a typical grass seedling will emerge from planting in seven calendar days. Human beings (and other creatures of consciousness and universal awareness) are not truly born until the day they initiate self-realization, on this my panel of seven experts in Esoteric Ontologics unanimously agree. Ergo, this history begins with that critical day of Juanita’s human life, in medias res.

Juanita’s parents had observed signs of special abilities throughout her childhood, but until she was fourteen years old they had not yet witnessed her as extraordinary. The day in reference was the morning of the Thanksgiving holiday, 1948, inside Seventh Church of Christ Scientists, a recent construction in the then new and affluent Jefferson Park neighborhood, Los Angeles, California.

Order of Service that morning called for a special vocal performance by the Gudsang Trio, twins monozygotic Zoraida and Pedrosa and elder sister Juanita. The trio had been prepared in rehearsal by their father, Gun Gudsang, to perform Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy’s, “MY SOUL FOR HARVEST”and the Catholic hymn “BEHOLD, THE SOWER WENT FORTH SOWING.” The children’s mother, Consuelo De Mingo-Gudsang, was the service organist. Suelo, fond of sacred music, a vestige from her Catholic upbringing, had also requested Gun have the children perform “RÍU RÍU CHÍU”, a Spanish Christmas carol. This was entirely appropriate for a Christian Scientist service as the words, even in Spanish, articulated the errorless message of Christ without roaming into Romanist idolatry. Within Christian Scientist teachings of The Leader, Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, the religious import of Thanksgiving eclipsed even the meaning of Christmas. The theme of gratitude acknowledged God’s existing blessings, rather than what Suelo characterized as “oraciones for more greedy favors.”

Perhaps because of busy Thanksgiving Day activities, Gun did not have opportunity to run through “RÍU RÍU CHÍU” with his children earlier back home at Rancho De Mingo. Fortunately, Gun and Suelo’s daughters were quick at musical study. Indeed, Juanita could produce unrehearsed the seven diatonic notes of the second soprano part all in perfect pitch. According to eyewitnesses of the day, many of whom were Hollywood notables, one of the church ushers had been beset in an automobile altercation, rendering the regular weekly contingent of eight men to seven. An oral reader completed the Golden Text from Revelations VII which signaled the church ushers to pass only seven brass offering plates among rows, which, in turn, cued Gun to cue The Gudsang Trio (N.B. the series of both purposeful and extrinsic sevens, or, as reiterated in Haftology, hierophanious zeta phenomena).

The Gudsang children had been positioned on the seven altar steps so that Zoraida and Pedrosa were one graduation below Juanita. Their mother, petitioning an overdue favor from Hollywood costumer Karine, had the two younger sisters wardrobed in round, autumn-hued skirts. Juanita’s dress was cinched at her young-miss hips and the print of falling poplar leaves was designed to pattern her cascading golden curls. I believe what was powerful and beckoning about Juanita as a performer was the contrast between the appearance of her immature adolescent body and the sound of her preternaturally mature soprano, i.e. she was a little girl with the big voice of a woman. Seventh Church’s membership was in love with the voice, and Hollywood community chatter attracted the attendance of many, including part time and non-believers. Juanita was always a reliable performer which is why certainly the shock intensified when during the second stanza of “RÍU RÍU CHÍU” she appeared to fall into a fit of psychodynamic glossolalia, and her singing of improvised and unholy words resounded across the audience, up to the church’s radially-split pine roofbeams.

A brief description of Seventh Church’s holy erection is necessary. The building’s exterior did not exhibit the stucco and tile roof of Spanish Mission revival, popular of church constructions in the first half of twentieth century California. Instead Gun Gudsang (transl. God’s Song), principal architect from the Norwegian-American firm Gudsang & Ødegård Arkitekter, had designed a long, rectangular structure, storied on a curved hull. The sides were built with lapstraked long planks from imported old-growth oak, fastened together with copper rivets and roves, then sealed and weatherproofed with tar. Along these long sides there were many small circular windows resembling ancient oar holes. On top the architect had elected the expressions of a tall oak mast and square flags rigged like sails, one with the print of a lantern, the other with a needle, symbolizing respectively the word of The Master and the promise of salvation. Wide mahogany entrance doors, detailed with iron strapwork, opened outwards like hatches, and above them a carved swooping dragon head recalled ornamentation once found on the prow of a Norse langskip. In effect, Gun Gudsang had built a church that on the exterior quite resembled a landlocked Viking warship. 

The interior auditorium of Seventh Church was a long room lit by the many circular clerestory windows and pewed to seat as many as twelve hundred Christian Scientists. Gun Gudsang, being in a sense his own architectural client, seized the opportunity to build an acoustically infallible house for the performance of choral music, which he and his wife revered. Gudsang & Ødegård Arkitekter was an enterprise of international distinction building opera houses and theaters magnificent in their beauty, but by the mid-twentieth century they became most renowned in the United States for modern scientific acoustical engineering in new cosmopolitan concert odea, assembly halls, and restored cathedrals, largely due to the expertise of the firm’s scion. In previous demonstrations of his genius in interior acoustics, it was Gun Gudsang who inserted a wide, sound reflecting marble floor between the audience and orchestra at the Pasadena Philharmonia Hall. It was he who designed the legendary pyramid-shaped band shell at the La Jolla Amphitheater, acoustically far ahead of its time and brought down quickly due to its appearance being too avant-garde for conventionalist in San Diego County.

Expanding the achievements of these remarkable previous projects into the construction of Seventh Church of Los Angeles, Gun used Sabine’s mathematical principle formulas to predict sound reverberation time and the coefficients of sound absorption in his building materials. He logged experiments using organ pipes, tuning forks and the singing voices of his three daughters as sound sources originating from all areas inside. Gun’s original blueprints [archive lot #16] diagramed for sub-contractors his call for a flat planked ceiling, braced with pine beams, to avoid the echoes of concave church domes and vaults, and for sound absorbing carpets, draperies, and thick upholstered pew cushions to reduce distortion and echo. He had the pew rows placed on a raked floor rising at the bottom to form an isacoustic curve, as first proposed by Russell’s study of soliton waves, and the church walls lined with thin plywood paneling which furred out from the masonry on battens to provide a resonating air cavity behind the timber surface. Lightweight bamboo wood on the floor created vibration and stretched long bands of spring steel wire along the ceiling crossbeams absorbed the sound energy being produced below, amplifying it as in the body a wooden-backed string instrument. In effect, the church, resembling a Viking warship on the exterior, was in the interior a vast and Christian-filled violin. 

Was this attempt at turning a building into a musical instrument pure acoustical quackery? My special commission of acousticians concluded Gudsang’s Seventh Church project to have been somewhat naïve in regard to vibrational physics, but concurred that low cubic volume relative to the audience size, and consequent short reverberation time inside the church, would result in clear acoustics allowing ornamentations of human voices to be heard in exceptional effect.

Although Gun may have built the perfect church edifice, it might be said that as an individual he lacked the framework of a complex exterior personality. It was Suelo, his much more gregarious wife, who possessed the exceptional talents to accomplish both the campaign to finance construction of the church and to populate it with the correct people. In the first year of Seventh Church, 1948, on Thanksgiving, she personally invited many wealthy families, politicians and Hollywood luminaries to services. The foyer visitors registration book from that day [archive lot #34] includes signatures of such noted individuals as: Doris Day, Ginger Rogers, King Vidor, Theodore Dreiser, and Baseball Hall of Fame athlete George Sisler.

As with every service in Seventh Church, the Gudsangs directed the musical program. Gun conducted the choir and special vocal performance by the three daughters Gudsang, and Suelo arranged and played all music for the pipe organ. Suelo’s organ was located in the rear loft of the church, a level above the congregation, with Gun’s choir organized around it in pyramidal seating. The audio sensory effect of this orientation being that tonal voice colors of choir and anthemic organ timbres channeled together from rear to front and downward in an evenly flared profile toward their especially-invited congregation. The musical program presented that Thanksgiving morning reproduced the unisonous vocalizations and cantus firmi of Christian liturgies established long before Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy.

Students might be tempted to surmise, as did many members of Seventh Church congregation, that Juanita’s trance-like fit of disequilibrium on the Thanksgiving Day described was the result the adolescent’s bliss-like travel into the pleasantry of her own Christmas-colored performance. Others present in the church that morning expressed conflicting theories that perhaps under-rehearsal, over-rehearsal, or even nonchalance toward the ubiquitous Christmas message could have caused Juanita to wander mentally from the printed vocal score. I have stated conclusively that Juanita did not “lose her place” in the song. My hierological-musicologists believed that the repetitive Spanish villancico choral form encouraged Juanita’s seeming state of trance and produced a primal religious experience during the interpreted incoming contact from the spirit world, much in the way some Afro-Brazilian religions use percussive music to summon their deity Orixás. The particular rhythm and meter of “RÍU RÍU CHÍU”, when phonated in Juanita’s vocal vibrations, may have exacerbated a physical singularity, i.e. a fissure in time. The moment following this divide was that in which she began to sing out the names of persons in attendance followed by their current medical condition in English, Spanish, and Norwegian.

According to certified witnesses, Juanita beautifully vocalized at least some of the following in an improvised melody:

Mr. Arthur Fosbury. Small cell lung carcinoma! Lunge kreft!

Mrs. Ada Bea Gage. Gota! Gout! Gikt!

Mrs. Lilian Galarneau-Graham. Androgenic alopecia! Calvo! Balding! Calvo!

and

Miss Rose Greener. Embarazada! Gravid! Pregnant! A boy on May 25th!

Prior to investigation, Juanita’s exclamations were misunderstood utterances rebounding from the corners of the auditorium. Gun Gudsang, perhaps as alarmed by his eldest daughter’s bizarre behavior as by the failure of his perfect acoustical design to contain an echo, was heard to utter the word, “Uffda.” He motioned a rehearsed hand signal to Suelo at the organ who, in a hasteful manner, and an apparent preemption of the reader’s benediction referenced in the Order of Service, played down the recessional hymn, Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy’s “FEED MY SHEEP.”

Later that Thanksgiving Day in the choir rehearsal room of Seventh Church, Juanita, looking perplexed, sat at the middle of a carpet-topped table while the parents came at her from both ends.

Gun said to Juanita, per transcription of interviews with the Gudsang family, “Hoppeføll [Norwegian nickname], people of the church are quite cross. Miss Greener, and your mother too.” Gun was described as a man who frequently wore short suit jacket sleeves, revealing forearms of white-blond hair. Despite being of downy body, when Gun conducted music from the rail up in the choir gallery, his Norwegian-born paleness made him appear to congregants like a lanky baby in a man’s suit. However, paraphrasing one testimonial, Gun was more dedicated to impressing people with the successes of his architectural and musical projects than with his personal appearance. Although he had come late in life to fatherhood, he was also dedicated to the crafting of his three children.

“It’s an infamante on our family, Mija,” Suelo said. According to photographs in my archive, Suelo was below average female height and an endomorphic body type, but she also appeared to have been gifted with unusually large hands. A discovered audio recording, made a decade after the era of this study, provided evidence that Suelo’s long fingers could improvise a twelfth-span piano hand position like a postulant Rachmaninoff.

The parents had Juanita in tears. “Gosh, I didn’t mean to say all those goofy things, Far,” she explained to her father. “It was in the middle of singing that hymn, Ríu Ríu Chíu? That’s when I saw the blue light. It came through the ceiling, bright as a giant blue glow worm.”

“Light? You mean, the high windows.”

“No, Far. It was a queer light that came through the ceiling above the choir in back. Then it sort of floated like a cloud towards us kids singing in front, and it lingered just over the heads of the congregation. Oh, didn’t you see it? How beautiful and bright it was? I felt like I was being lifted up from the floor, like I was light as a feather.”

What Juanita described, scholars of Hindu worship may recognize as similar to a vision of Darśana, also called auspicious light.

“There was no such light, Mija,” Suelo instructed her daughter.

Gun poured himself a dram of aquavit from a personal flask and Suelo sighed disapproval on behalf of Christian Science, which considered pleasures from alcohol a deadly illusion. Then there was a knock on the doors of the rehearsal room and Suelo stood up from the table. She rolled open the sliding door and ushered into the room a weary-looking female valet [identity unverified] plus noted film-musical actress Rose Greener, one of the people whose name Juanita had sung out along with the word “pregnant.”

Despite a validated measure of mild weather conditions that November afternoon in Southern California, Rose Greener was said to have dressed herself for church in a large coat of golden dyed nutria pelts with ankle-length panels that obscured her iconic willowy figure.

“Is it alright to smoke in here, Suelo, dear?” Rose Greener asked, while in the motion of lighting a cigarette. “I mean, the Lord only bums around the big room, right?”

“The Lord and I prefer you quit smoking, Rose. Por favor.”

“I quit smoking these damn snipes last night, dearie, but I’m a bundle of nerves since this morning in church, no thanks to your little crooning fink.”

“You shouldn’t call her that,” Gun defended his daughter. “She’s only a teenage girl, and she’s just as confused as we all are.”

“What I wanna know is the name of the snitch who told her I’m incubating. Was it one of the two-faced reporters who follow me into Ciro’s? Was it any of those jealous doughnuts from the studio publicity department? I mean, I got a lot of uncles. Not even the real Zagnut knows about his baby yet. So, how did this myna bird find out?”

“Hoppeføll, you have to be honest and tell Miss Greener. Someone must have told you about a baby. Who?”

“Gosh, it wasn’t a thing someone walked up on Melrose Avenue and just told me, Far.” Juanita tried her most earnest to explain. “There was the blue light, and in the middle was a tiny purple egg. It looked just like the embryos I saw in a microscope at school. Then the embryo used the blue light to speak through me.”

“The egg spoke through you?” Rose Greener said. She sat down next to Juanita. “Are you saying it was some kind of ventriloquist bullarky?”

“I swear it was the embryo who said the words…those secret things about you Miss Greener, and all the other church members. The words popped out of my mouth like bubbles in the funny papers, while I was singing. I couldn’t stop it. That’s The Master’s honest truth, you know? You all heard my singing voice, but it was the voice of the man I heard.”

Gun looked back across the table to his wife. “A man?” he asked.

Suelo clarified, “She means, just a fantasma…a stranger…I think.”

“No, the embryo had a man’s voice, Mamá.”

“Alright, I’ll play along with the gag,” Rose Greener said. “Did this man sound like an old fellow or younger?”

Young, I guess,” Lydia said. “Maybe an older boy.”

“Do you think he was wearing little square shaped eyeglasses by chance?” Rose Greener badgered Juanita. “Did he sound like a scrawny itch who always wears plaid bowtie?”

“No, he just sounded like something I can’t describe. Something else. And the else said he came–or is coming, maybe–in answer to my prayer.”

“Uh, huh. Now which kind of prayer is that, dearie?” Rose Greener asked.

“Well, every morning I pray for help. I ask The Master to heal anybody I’ve heard is sick or suffering, and for all sick people in the world I don’t know yet. That’s what The Jesus preached in scripture. ‘He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also.’ The else voice told me, ‘Remain faithful. Be true to yourself, Juanita, and I will lead you to what you want most, to help all the afflicted.’”

“Oh, Jiminy Cricket,” Miss Rose Greener said. “Ain’t she sweet. I tell you I don’t get the joke.”

“There’s another thing, Mamá. I could feel Jameigh in the light, my invisible friend from when I was little.”

Suelo aimed an oath across to her husband, “Santo cielo! The spirit of the twin has returned.”

Gun Gudsang swallowed again from his steal flask and an idea struck him. “Ríu Ríu Chíu.” Play it again, Suelo, with all the girls singing.”

Suelo opened the double doors to the rehearsal room wide to the narthex where the twins Zoraida and Pedrosa had been sitting since the end of the Thanksgiving service with their elderly niñera, Señora Antigua. Suelo brought the children into the choir room and arranged Juanita and her sisters next to the practice piano into their replicate trio positions. Once postured again at the piano bench, Suelo played the hymn material to the family’s concern. Juanita’s singing was reported to be beautiful, if somewhat behind the rhythm and lacking enthusiasm. The sustain pedal on the practice piano apparently squeaked as well. Suelo looked annoyed but nothing unusual happened. Gun, sat at the carpet-topped table and stared at Juanita.

“Do you hear the stranger’s voice, Hoppeføll?” Gun asked her. Juanita shook her head negative and appeared to feel responsible for disappointing her father. Gun asked Rose Greener’s valet to step out to the narthex and bring in Señora Antigua. “Nobody else move from where you are right now,” he said.

A moment later the valet walked back into the choral room with the old woman at her arm. Señora Antigua, had lived at Rancho de Mingo for decades, employed in the assistive upbringing of Suelo and all six of her older sisters, and then Suelo’s own children. On Sundays one of the rancheros from the family house would drive her to Catholic mass, but this Thanksgiving Thursday Suelo had invited her to ride with the family in the Rolls Royce Silver Wraith convertible down to Los Angeles to hear the Gudsang girls sing. Señora Antigua wore an old silk mantilla over her head, a gift once from the belated Don Mingo, Seulo’s father, and likely her most valuable possession. As the valet escorted the woman in through the choir room doors, Gun shouted for the benefit of Señora’s weak hearing, “We thought you would enjoy hearing the entire performance of the girls!”

“Mi propia ópera!” Señora Antigua shouted back at Gun.

Gun stepped in to assist Señora to a large Morris chair in the corner of the chorus room.

The girls still in their staged trio arrangement watched for Suelo’s cue as she played “RÍU RÍU CHÍU” again on the piano. At approximately the sixteenth bar, Juanita began to fall into a state of semi-consciousness. Her eyes rolled up and instead of singing the second soprano part she commenced singing random words in full resonance.

“Pocosordos!” Juanita sung out.

Gun frantically dug into his shirtfront withdrawing a pocket-sized, spiraled sketch pad and an architect’s drafting pencil.

“Catarata!” Juanita sang fortissimo and Gun jotted down the word.

At the end of “RÍU RÍU CHÍU”, Señora Antigua clapped for the girls and Gun directed the twins to escort their niñera back to the narthex [Referencing Gun’s recovered sketchpad, archive lot #7036, his note: Señ Antigua walked w/livelihood. more than she displayed coming into room.]. Then he ushered Juanita to lie on a sofa and she began to rouse to consciousness from her trance.

Gun sat next to Suelo on the piano bench and sounded out loud his own phonetic Spanish scribblings. “Po co sore dose?” Gun asked Suelo.

“Slightly deaf in the ear,” Suelo replied, her long fingers making a pinching gesture near her ear. Gun wrote that down in English next to his notation.

“How about, cat…arada?”

“It means…,” Suelo tried to think of an English word and pointed at her eye, “her eyes are cloudy.”

“Oh…cataracts!” Gun wrote that down in the notebook and seemed to be having an odd fun with the translations. Suelo pointed at the next item on Gun’s list. “Oh, svak ryggrad,” he read. “Now that is Norwegian. Degenerative…spine pain. But I do not know ‘infer may vegee da?’”

            “Spanish again, Far,” Juanita said from the sofa. “Enfermedad vegiga.”

Suelo pointed at Gun’s notations with her pencil-like fingers. “The old vieja’s bladder is falling.”

            Gun’s bushy, pipe-cleaner eyebrows popped up. “No joking?” he asked the notes. “Is falling bladder common? Will Señora Antigua die? ”

            Suelo slapped Gun lightly on his cheek. “That poor old pájaro has been dying of everything for centum years. The important thing is why our Juanita knows all these mysteries about Señora, just like she knew the illnesses of people in church, just like she knew that Rose is…full.”

“Yeah, but how does she know?” Rose Greener asked the Gudsangs. They all turned to Juanita.

Juanita shrugged. “It was the embryo in the blue light talking,” she said.

Gun wagged a finger in the air. “The secrets came to her from The Master during the Christmas song. She went into a trance, and God told her what’s going on inside a person. That is what I figured when she sung out that Miss Greener is…full.”

“Say,” Rose Greener offered, “that’s a pretty neat trick. Maybe your little swami really is patched straight through to Heaven.”

Gun believed he had identified a God-given gift in Juanita, an ability–in a state of mental trance–to empathically perceive another person’s bodily conditions and/or illnesses. My students learned that Gudsang was mistaken in part, that the data declaimed in Juanita’s hypnogogic hallucination was not excogitated from the presence of subjects bodily among their ministry at all. Juanita was, in fact, experiencing anamnestic-inversion, a fore-channeling of medical history information about the subjects residing in the reservoir of records held currently by my Haftological Institute. The questions of with whom was she communicating?, what entity was represented by the purple embryo?, what was the primary source of information? become matters of continuous scholarship. My students know these cosmological quandaries well from their studies in Haftology and the nature of Series Current.

At fourteen years old Juanita had her first encounter with the light representing her leadership of mankind to the theoretical center of origin. Exactly how mankind should prepare and come together was, to this point in the chronicle, unknown, however articulating the way became her life’s mission. I must also stress, adapting from the Zen Buddhist concept of understanding one’s own enlightenment, that Juanita’s true consciousness as a facet of whole consciousness was reborn on the Thanksgiving Day previously discussed, the day she began self-realizing the primary source of her perceptions.

 [end section]

[gravelly action-movie trailer voice] The Warriors, 1979. The Wanderers, 1979. Two rival films. The gangs. The Bronx. Title assonance. It happened here! How? I don’t know. But, I talk a lot about it (in gravely voice) as a guest on the podcast Full Cast and Crew.

link: https://apple.co/34iC7yT

’Tis the time of year again for me to share, beloved followers, my gift for knowing everything there is to know about Christmas music. I’m just glad you have such a super friend like me, someone with powers to identify great seasonal albums, someone who’s done all the listening to all the new releases by the likes of Pentatonix, Miranda Lambert, Nat King Cole (reimagined), Darren Criss, Chenoweth, Eagles of Death Metal, and Steve Perry (?). O, gather ’round the yule log good friends, here are the three outstanding albums I’ve selected for merry holiday streaming with friendly neighbors, or just drinking eggnog alone in a slow-glowing room.

Rob Thomas, Something About Christmas Time. Other years my selections for best holiday albums are biased toward Christmas pop standards, not new songs. But for lousy and precarious times such as now, this album is an apt expression of what the end of ’21 feels like. Thomas’ original songs seek a place that is both desperate and hopeful. His music and lyrics are optimistic, but his grieving vocal delivery sounds less certain. It’s peaceful, it’s longing, it’s Christmas. A note, I am most impressed with the mood Thomas sets on his solo tracks; there are also some celebrity duets I personally can take or leave.

Norah Jones, I Dream Of Christmas. Take it from a person who monitors what gets released every year, most modern holiday music, even by serious artists, falls into the no good categories of too kitsch, too sentimentally embellished, or too indy-over-reinvented. I love Jones’ vocal and jazz interpretations because she balances her originality with respect to the intent of the classics. New holiday-themed compositions as well demonstrate the perfection of Jones’ tone, not too hard, not too soapy.

Brett Young & Friends Sing The Christmas ClassicsIf you told me what would work is bringing together traditional Christmas songs, twangy pedal steel guitar, and slow-tempo trap beats I would have said not even on featuring your Nelly. Y&Friends pull off some surprisingly successful moody and modern country interpretations. These are your favorite songs of the season, with a vibe more about atmosphere than exuberance. And Young’s collab artists (not Nelly, most of them I never heard of, and, TBH, I never heard of Brett Young before either) all seem to be breathing the same dreamy holiday ether. There is a skip song for me which is the one with Darius Rucker. Not that Rucker’s bad, I just find the uptempo bluesy track kind of a buzz kill.

Two honorable mentions: Kelly Clarkson, When Christmas Comes Around. I wanted to like her second holiday album more. Clarkson’s been an astounding belting talent, no less so here, but she also does three original Christmastime songs about her recent divorce that I’m not interested in getting in the middle of. And the traditional Christmas songs she delivers feel a little lazy. I do love her duet with Chris Stapleton, save it, and if you don’t have Miss Clarkson’s 2013 album Wrapped In Red–listening to that recent classic is mandatory if you want to pass Professor RF Brown’s class. Brett Eldridge, Mr. Christmas. What Eldridge lacks in invention he makes up for in sounding like he’s having a really good time. Although the big swing arrangements are a bit high school senior jazz ensemble for my liking, I think some people will really enjoy these fun mostly classics voiced by a more-than-adequate singer.

IMG-2805

Did you RFanatix know that your’s true appeared in a 1992 documentary titled “Under The Glass?” Directed by @TimothyShary , thirty 20-somethings obsess about being defined by others. If you’re a glutton for Gen X self-absorption watch all 102 minutes, or you can scroll to the good parts which are me talking. https://youtu.be/rJxwcAeMKUg

 

fog2

“Figure Straighter”, a hilarious short story by Your’s True, is in the fantastic Foglifter LGBTQ+ literary journal: ‬
‪Two male figure skaters, rivals for a gold medal, get in a competitive tiff over identity politics. Will the straight one put his masc cred at risk attempting a daring gender-expansive athletic stunt? Will anything not piss the gay one off?

copies available for purchase @Foglifterpress https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781732191358/foglifter-vol-5-issue-1.aspx?src=FOG

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NETWORK, US lobbycard, bottom from left clockwise: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch, 1976

The 1975 film Network is a magnificently crafted commentary on the news media and its audience. It’s a disturbing prediction of how society is mediated today. The film was also a seminal part of my personal media literacy. I talk all about this as a guest on the podcast Full Cast And Crew. Don’t worry, it’s funny too.

Download this episode and subscribe to @fullcastandcrew.  podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/74-network-1976/id1438276325?i=1000470977181

baby
Binary gender is like disco: it had one stroke, got uncool fast, and it is never coming back. Today, young millennials and Gen-Zs are genderqueer, third gender, neutrois, gender fluid, and a lot of other delightfully confusing identities. The pink or blue dialectic is boring and hegemonic (I’m talking to you, Cis, with your repressive gender-reveal videos). I do not know what we are calling the cohort after Gen-Z, but if you are about to bring a baby in this non-normative world, you better start accepting that the new way to fit in is to not fit in. Don’t know how demonstrate your awareness? I am here to help with a list of non-gender normative baby names:
Mirror
Starbuck
Rondo
Shawarma
Linen
Waterloo
Sorghum
Fox
Mulder
Pike
Peyote
Manilow
Relish
Loyal
Denim
Maple
Harvest
Kiosk
Placid
Beyond
Phylum
Harare
Tibet
Valise

Here, RFanatix, is my short story published in White Wall Review, the journal of creative writing from Ryerson University in Toronto. https://whitewallreview.com/

A sullen high school hockey player stumbles through a rainstorm of insecurity and sexual confusion. Can Zamboni win the approval of his heartless peers and indifferent parents by turning idle fantasy life into a breakaway play, or is the night just going to end in a flood of applesauce?

Transiting the Lemaire Channel in heavy first year sea ice, Antarctica, Polar Regions

The fellows never let an ankle bender like me play forward. Even if it’s pickup hockey out on the school lake, they consider me a role-player, not a scorer. Well, tonight I’m steering The Rust Bucket down the wet lines of the state route and it feels like a breakaway play, like I’ve got the puck and an open lane with no defenders. I stickhandle the steering wheel with one hand while groping under the driver seat for the Kaopectate bottle. … https://whitewallreview.com/beautiful-flying-zamboni/

cabinet.rfbrown

When you lose your mother but you inherit a headache. My thoughts on grief and “things” in a flash essay appears in Variety Pack, Issue 1: http://www.Varietypack.net

Before my mother died from a long cancer struggle she had many infirm months to reckon the future of family heirlooms. My husband and I traveled across the country to Colorado for the last goodbye, and after Mom’s memorial we had to solve getting our assigned heirlooms home to Rhode Island…. https://varietypack.net/issue-i/

 

 

thai

Thai Phoon, Mai Thai, Thai Tanic–All names of real Thai restaurants. Small town, big town, every town has a Thai place that is open late night and Christmas Day with a corny name on the sign. Recently I had occasion to be in the metropolis of Mattydale, New York (population 315). It was late on a Sunday night and I experienced an adequate meal at the fabulously named Thai Love New York. The place gave me an idea. If you are about to go into the Thai restaurant business, I want to encourage you to focus your energies on a delicious menu. I’ve already helped by coming up with a list of cutesy restaurant names you are free to select from:

Thai A Yellow Ribbon
Thai In My Eye
I’m In Love With A Wonderful Thai
Thai Oh My
Thai, Thai, Love
Thai Me Up
The Good Thai Girl
Live And Let Thai
Thai Sweet Lord
Bolo Thai
Thai Me A River
The Long Good Thai
Catch Her In The Thai
Lord Knows Thai
Thai Heals All Wounds

drag1Awareness of gender identity has become so heightened, even drag shows have begun to look normative. But what if They wants to lipps inc “Born This Way” at Bushwig and still be recognized as third gender? Here are some stage name suggestions for such great bold performers:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Pansexual
Billy Queen King
Dyke Van Dick
Penis De Milo
Ginger Roger
Twercules
Steve Marie Saint
Roosevelt Queer
Va Va Groom
Mx. Goodbar
Mama Casstrato
Duke of Gurl
Blast Femme
GashFag
Verse Vice-a
Guess!
Gal Pachino
Twisted Non-Cister
Cunt Fusion
4Star Gender Roll
Shenormal Twain
Legs Benedick
Weiner Herzhog
Miss Combobulated

I admit it, when I was little boy I went through a phase of trying on my mother’s jewelry and makeup. My mother, despite having a full supply of natural brunette hair, even had a brunette wig for me to play with (Was my mother secretly a Saturday night diva?). Though I never stopped using artificial beauty to lure a man, eventually I did put the high-heeled shoes back on their trees and the wig back on its foam bust. There is a little part of me that still fantasizes what it would be like to live beyond gender in la cage aux folles, and here are some drag queen identities I might never dare to adopt:

Cocoa Vain

Sherry Blossoms

Ebola Gay

Caroline A. Panthurs

Fatty Tissues

Yuletide Carole

Ruffles

Cathy Ole

Sharon D’Night

Madge Ick

Bacon Rouge

Halle Burton

Beefsteak Charlene

Fanny Packed

Ginger Roger

Pasta Prima Vera

Penis De Milo

Dyke Van Dick

Mess K. Lynn

Rosetta Stone

Nasty Queen Cold

 

Today, August 26th, I am celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday. Marilyn Schopfer Brown died about a month ago. She wanted to live long enough to see eighty and to see the Downtown Abbey movie. She didn’t make it to either, but she’s with me in every idea I write, every moral decision I make, and everything I goof up too.

I always wondered who writes the obituary when someone in the family dies. Among my brothers and sisters, the job fell to me. But first I’m also posting the text of the remembrance I gave at my mother’s memorial service. I’m really proud of it, and I hope I captured her view of the world.

Last winter I called my mother on a Saturday morning, she was busy listening to the soundtrack of Johnny Appleseed, that’s a Disney musical movie from 1948. She was alone, tethered to a walker and an oxygen machine, dying of cancer, and she was having a great life. Johnny Appleseed is the story of a 19th Century apple farmer who is sent on a mission by an angel to travel across America planting apple seeds and preaching the Gospel. He wears a tin-pot hat, befriends a skunk, and sings a ceaselessly optimistic song proclaiming: The Lord’s been good to me. There was a lot of Johnny Appleseed in my mother. She believed in a benevolent and nondenominational God, she loved unlovable animals, and would likely have sung showtunes with a tin-pot on her head if someone had asked her too. But I’d like to make another point about Marilyn’s Appleseedian optimism.  It isn’t hard, even for cynics like me, to grasp that some unique people wake up everyday with an optimistic outlook on life and see the positivity they project fulfilled. In her life, my mother came west and planted seeds of optimism among her family and grandchildren, her friends, her co-workers, her students, her church congregations, her clubs–elevating every flagging person and feral cat she met, everywhere she went. I get it–life is grand if you make it that way. What I struggled with on the telephone that Saturday morning was understanding my mother’s ability to translate her harmonious optimism into a joyful noise about dying. My mother told me that her terminal illness was a gift, not because she wanted to die, but because death comes to all and in knowing the end she saw an opportunity a lot of people don’t get. She was glad to have the time to reflect on the happy things about her life, past and present. Besides, my mother was 99% sure that God was waiting for her on the other side. And if she was wrong all this time, she was prepared to pass into oblivion grateful for a life that gave all the things she needed, and that her apple trees would still be there. I still don’t get it, but I like it. I admire it. And today my mother inspires me. In the last scene of Johnny Appleseed, after years of walking barefoot over hundreds of miles while planting seeds all along the way, Johnny rests under an apple tree. His angel appears and says that Johnny’s mission on Earth is at its end. At first Johnny doesn’t want to go to the resting place, believing that the work isn’t done yet. The angel tells Johnny that where they’re headed is low on apple trees and that there’s still a lot of work to do. So Johnny picks up his apple seed bag, his Bible, puts the tin-pot on his head and happily goes. May we all go as optimistically as my mother in the sun and rain of life, and in the looming shadow of death, without complaints, or resentment, or fear, as happy as we’re willing to be.

Published in The Gazette on Jul. 23, 2019. https://www.legacy.com/amp/obituaries/gazette/193457037

Marilyn (Schopfer) BrownBrown MARILYN (SCHOPFER) BROWN 08/26/1939 – 07/21/2019 Marilyn Schopfer Brown died peacefully, after a long illness, in the company of her children and grandchildren in Grand Junction, Colorado on July 21st, 2019. Born August 26th, 1939 in Syracuse New York, her parents were Irving F Schopfer and Marion Schopfer Cabrey. A graduate of North Syracuse High School and SUNY Oneonta, in her professional life she was a teacher of home economics, and worked for the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado for over twenty years before becoming a freelance trainer for the city. In 2000, she retired to life in Tempe, Arizona and Grand Junction, Colorado. In her personal life, Marilyn loved babies and being a mother. She was proud of being the “best grandma ever”-her grandchildren told her so. Blessed with many loyal, caring, and fun-loving friends, she returned those qualities to the world around her in many ways. Marilyn is survived by her siblings Suzanne and Thomas (Carol deceased); her children and their spouses Steven, JoAnn, Christopher and Rachel, Richard and Colin; her grandchildren Christopher, Brennan, Briony, and Braewyn, and by her four feral cats. Marilyn requested no flowers, but asked memorial contributions be made to Campus Ministries at University Lutheran Church of Tempe, Arizona and “She Has A Name” at Heart of Junction Church, Grand Junction, Colorado. A memorial service will be held Saturday, July 27, 11a.m., at Heart of Junction Church, 755 N 4th St., Grand Junction, Colorado, 81501.

Semi-professional musicians, if you’ve recently split from the Thursday-Sunday band you formed with some guys from the office, I’m here to get you started again. You might think the old dudes never found your “sound” but my guess is you never had the right name.

Tits ‘n’ Whiskey

E.R. Nurse

Dog Water

Lucifer’s Cock

The Telephone Bills

Sweat Band

Adam & Evil

Perry and the Winkles

Milk Dudes

Chuck Roast and his Fingerlings

Santa’s Bastards

Bass Ick

Muss+Fuss

Rock Of Lamb

A Bad-minton Racket

Chocolate Funkdae 

Dave & Buttholes

2 Balls and a Strike

Flyy and the Ointments

Gay Panic!

Automatic Tune Machine

Short story published first in the online journal Unlikely Stories Mark V. Link for full text: http://www.unlikelystories.org/content/flagzilla

Muslowski did not vote Clinton for President in 1992.

“Ms. Bullock, if I had U.S.A. citizen papers to show the voting administrator, I would have voted Bush The First. And Reagan The First and Second too.”

Muslowski was, once again, easing his bare elbow over the common chainlink fence. A water hose in his grip spouted like the Navy Memorial Fountain. Bullock was leaning on her garden kneepads and planting heirloom tomato seeds in the musty spring soil. Pacifist that she was, Bullock tolerated Muslowski’s verbal op-eds more than most homeowners on Ganado Street. All told, Muslowski was a good neighbor, just a constant talking one. http://www.unlikelystories.org/content/flagzilla

POETIC AESTHETIC

flash fiction by RF Brown

Poetry reading in a gallery—refined? I didn’t prepare anything, but I dressed well and caught a bus downtown.

In a converted shopfront, tiny canvases barely occupied stark white walls. There was a table on which someone had placed bottle of wine (one) and no corkscrew. A busy woman arranged cookies from a box. Plotting an indirect scheme at the unopened wine, I asked first about the canvases. She pushed her glasses up. “Another group. We’re poetry,” was her tiny prosody.

I loitered in the margins with strangers, all of us shy. When it seemed pertinent, I situated in one of the chairs which were arched in rows facing the front door. A gray-bearded man two chairs parenthetical inclined in my direction. “I’ve never come to one of these thingies,” he said, “but now I’m a poet.”

The woman from the cookies, also the evening’s symposiarch, introduced a young woman from a list. The young woman stood before us. She wore considerable makeup and read free verse from a smartphone she held in front of her face like a mirror. Her poem was about emotional abuse from a despicable man. I was sympathetic to her unhappiness, annoyed she finished each line intoning a question mark. The front door opened behind her, bringing in street noise, cigarette smell, and a man dressed all in denim. He apologized to the room for being a distraction and I missed what befell the scoundrel in the poem.

 Next the bearded man went to the front. From type-written pages he recited a rhyming fable about a wife who forbade guns until the day her house was invaded by immigrants. Many among the audience were incensed. Returning to his chair, he leaned near me again. “That’s the last time I read poetry to a room full of lezzies.”

The symposiarch next asked the be-denimed man to present. He held up a weathered paper pad. In his epic, an order of Buddhists took LSD and fell united into a chasm. Metaphors continued page after scribbled page, but the falling pilgrims never reached the bottom.

I looked to the symposiarch, who looked to her watch, which inspired me look at mine. There would be a bus at the end of the block in minutes. While people continued to fall down a scribbled page, I gravitated to the door. I opened it and felt free. Although behind me l sensed the eyes of every poet analyzing the symbolism of my departure.

This short story was first published in SPITBALL Literary Baseball Magazine, Fall 2018, No. 83. http://www.spitballmag.com/

[Orlando, FL] Marco Firehydrant Flores tells me another story in third person. “There was this movie on in Flores’ Hotel room, Damn Yankees. Kinda gay, Flores watching a musical, ay? But these baseball players dance pretty good around the locker room. And they sing how you gotta have heart to be a hero? Flores calls bullshit. To be a winner in the bigs, you gotta have inmenso guts. Miles and miles of guts! You know what Flores is saying?”

Flores, veteran catcher and player co-captain for the Orlando Rebels, was not known before as one who spends an away evening up in his room. The roster’s notoriety for subpar baseball is preceded by its reputation as a police lineup of brawlers, boozers and skirt chasers. Tall tales from Firehydrant’s bar-vaulting shenanigans over the years would make Babe Ruth say Guy’s a douchebag.

Today Flores, dressed in cargo shorts and a billowing pink-hibiscus print shirt, welcomes me at the front door of his dignified but disheveled Kissimmee, FL townhouse. He invites me into the family kitchen despite having no memory of this interview being prearranged between the Rebels and Athletis.net. I am assigned to shadow him from home, to practice, to game.

By appearance, Flores had an official Rebels post-game night that probably did not end until a couple of hours before my morning arrival. The orange dyed spikes in his fauxhawk are snarled and his eyes look like a pair of carelessly stuffed duffle bags. His dark beard is fresh and his deodorant is sleeping in. But he vaults over the kitchen counter and pulls a toddler’s crayon drawing from a pile of toys. While Flores talks without interruption, Fauxhawk Jr. runs in and out of our interviewing kitchen like a gerbil. In that child’s neo-expressionist drawing, the figure of a man about Firehydrant’s stout body type might be vomiting into a toilet, or pushing a lawn mower that blows clippings back into his face. Flores sets the paper down on the linoleum near the refrigerator dubbing me the pitcher and the crayoned Basquiat as, “Home plate!”

“This is pitch framing, Flores style,” Flores says. He grabs a catcher’s mitt off the kitchen counter and squats low on the balls of his feet behind the drawing, his imposing butt sticking out. The six four, two hundred fifty pound man really does fold himself to the height and likeness of a firehydrant. Between his hulky thighs the leather mitt appears a half-foot from the floor. His left elbow is hinged to his thigh and his arm swings slow in inches left and right, like the smooth graphing needle on a lie detector. “Just be a low target with soft hands, mano,” he says. “Home in Denver, my pee wee coaches never said framing. They called it catching the ball in the right place. Now, all you reporters want to know about the same mierda Flores’s been doing for years.”

I do not argue with Flores¾­­he hardly gives me the chance to squeak a word in¾but frankly I am assigned here to try and figure out why this year he is remarkably not the same. I am here to find out how a thirty-six-year-old journeyman catcher, with his sixth team in thirteen years, almost single handed has pushed the perennial last Rebels up to first in their division during what was prognosticated to be, yet another, building year.

I am told Orlando sports radio jocks have been merciless to Flores since the day he was traded here about both his defensive performance and offensive output. During the first two years with Orlando, Flores’s numbers ranked at or near bottom of the National League among catchers in Extra Strikes. Yet this year, without an admitted change in his training routine, Flores is doing things better than younger and more ambitious league counterparts¾all things better.

Last year Flores’s total extra called strike statistic was -22. April through June of this year he has already turned 195 borderline pitches into stolen strikes. And Flores’s Lefty O’Doulian late bloom is not only flowering in the crouch. His numbers standing up at the plate this season are also paranormal. His batting average last season was .220. This year he is hitting .358! Last year he hit four home runs. Today, a week before the All-Star break, Firehydrant has gone yard thirty-three times. Did I mention he has been voted an All-Star for the first time in fifteen pro seasons?

Back at Athletis.net in New York, our own team on the baseball desk watched Flores catch in slo-mo, and compared video from last season. We wanted to see just how good he suddenly is at making outside pitches look like strikes. Last year we saw a catcher whose mitt flopped around. His body position changed from pitch to pitch, down on one knee, then moving up high. This year, Flores perches with the stillness of a darter bird, low behind the plate, opening up the range of the strike zone in the umpire’s vision. He makes pitches four or five inches below the zone look like they are right down the middle, as if influencing the trajectory of the ball with flicks of telekinesis. We all agreed, Flores is the best anybody remembered at catching borderline pitches and tricking umpires into thinking they have seen a strike. But how in Hell is he doing it? And why is he doing it so well so late in his professional career?

Sitting on a kitchen stool, I ask him direct, “What’s changed, Marco? It’s no secret most catchers’s knees are shot by thirty-six and they’re on the trailer, either to Triple A or the glue factory.”

“Like I told you, ese, my whole career I just tried to set up in the right position and catch the ball. Then there was this night in April, last of our opening series down in Houston. Rebels lost. Still, in the visitor locker room after there was a big ice tub of Bud Light waiting. Bud Light after showers. Bud Light on the bus. Bud Light on the plane to Orlando. Next day we’re supposed to be at our park for BP at, like, pinche noon. Flores woke up with a hangover that felt like I had ten shitty minutes to live. I was sitting on the toilet and looking through the bathroom cupboard for some Suero. All we had in the house was this medicine my wife gives to Little Flores when his stomach gets the chorros. You know?”

Flores reaches his bowling pin forearm across the kitchen counter and picks up a pudgy plastic bottle that could have been designed from a mold of his coiled body demonstrated a minute earlier. The bottle is half full with a dayglow light blue liquid, a bubble-font label reads Baby-Aid.

“That morning when I chugged one of these Baby-Aid bottles my hangover was gone in five minutes. Then I drove out to the park, on time for BP, and starting hitting lightning bolts. It was loco. When I got under the plate to catch that day, ay, I could make pitches go wherever I wanted them to go, just by thinking about it.”

So, here is a grown man and seasoned baseball player confessing to me, in his palooka lisp, that the secret to his sudden professional awakening is not steroids, growth hormones, or amphetamines but an over-the-counter substance¾his toddler’s blue diarrhea medicine. Do not ask me if it is cheating. I am speechless.

“You say I’m shitting you? Ride out to the ballpark with me, cabrón.”

Firehydrant walks me out to the townhouse driveway and his yellow-on-black Camaro with a child booster seat snugged in the back. He brushes a layer of cracker crumbs off the passenger side and drives me the fourteen miles over to Apalachee Energy Park in the peanut butter smelling racecar.

Holding the steering like the pommel of a saddle in one hand, in the other he holds the Baby-Aid bottle, drawing from it like a moonshine jar. I will leave to your imagination the adherence to speed limit laws and common safety rules exhibited by a millionaire athlete on the Florida expressway. Taxi drivers in Mumbai are probably more courteous. However, toward me, inbetween cutting off short buses and flipping off retirees, Flores is an ever-chatty and entertaining coachman. He regales me with scandalous stories of wild parties at afterhours New York nightclubs I never heard of, and shares off-the-record erotica about women baseball groupies from (of course) times before he was married.

This year Flores’s Sabermetrics are ascending and he’s going to make the All-Star team, but folks are saying has also become a sweeter guy. This is an important part of my story, because the players around him have not given up their off-field carousing or on-field bad attitudes. As our expressway odyssey closes in on the ballpark, I am the one breaking the news about an Orlando Rebels press release emailed this morning. Marco Flores does not know yet he is nominated to receive a Musial Award.

“A musical award?” Flores asks me. “Like Damn Yankees?”

“No, Musial as in baseball legend Stan Musial,” I explain. “It’s an award honoring sportsmanship. Last year they gave one to Lebron when he told that referee during the NBA finals to reverse an out of bounds call so that it went against Lebron’s team.”

“Flores never heard of Stan Musial,” he says. His inky eyebrows shoot up. “Ay, shit. Bros on the team are going to bust my cocos.” Indeed, several inspiring game incidents this season have led to the endangerment of Flores’s cocos.

In May, during a game against the Giants, Flores hit a high drive to deep left field that landed just fair close to the foul line, then bounced into the seats. Third-base umpire, Mike Martinez, ruled the ball foul incorrectly and unreviewably. Firehydrant Flores of previous seasons would have gone ballistic. This year, the new less-combative Firehydrant was heard hurrahing to the inaccurate ump, “Es la vida, Martinez. Flores’ll try it again!” BTW, while Rebels teammates were still scratching their knuckleheads, the next pitch came and Flores hit the ball out to the same spot a foot further inside the line. The ball was called a double on an identical bounce out.

A few weeks later, Flores was playing position when an opposing catcher from the Phillies named Nguyen raced against a long throw from center to home and crashed into Flores protecting the plate. Neither player was injured, but it sure looked like Nguyen had perpetrated an aggressive, deliberate collision. Still he was called safe. During the Rebels frame, Flores came to the plate and was heard saying to Nguyen, now at catcher position, “Don’t worry, hermono. Flores, he’s alright. Let’s both be more careful.” Flores even shook the rival catcher’s hand in a show of voluntary forgiveness. The Philadelphia crowd was impressed. In the Rebels dugout, disapproving teammates booed their own guy.

“I guess your fellow Rebels don’t honor sportsmanship?”

“No mames! Most of them Rebels pendejos probably think good sportsmanship means like not pissing in the visitor’s dugout before a game.”

“If you don’t mind me saying, your reputation has never been to be the Christian Gentleman of the diamond. Until this year.”

“Nope. Never ‘til-,” Flores finished his sentence by tapping his Baby-Aid bottle against the steering wheel. “Yo, you’re right though. This year Flores is telling the ball where to go out of the pitcher’s release. And I’m hitting like a vato¾the man. You know? Ever since I started on the blue hechizo every day, I’ve been feeling like I want to be a friendly dude during games. Flores got no other explanation. I think it’s side effects from drinking this diarrhea shit.”

“But isn’t drinking that blue junk like cheating?” I ask.

“How can it be cheating if it makes me a better dude?”

We arrive at the ballpark three hours before the day’s game. Out on the field Flores and teammates are dressed in Orlando Rebels orange practice unis that remind me of prison jumpsuits. Rebels management is allowing Athletis.net unusual imbedded access to the dugout and player meetings. Maybe management is glad they have a positive story to get out about one of their players.

Out in the bullpen I sit watching Flores drill with Rebels pitchers. Revived from his hangover, he is also a resilient target for mockery from teammates over the Musial Award. Particularly vicious is the other Rebels cocaptain, the long-tenured closing pitcher and white southerner Thatch Bossier. He has a wide, rectangular body like a backstop and a disproportionate small head that’s puny like a Skittle.

“Awww, Flores,” Bossier heckles in a to-the-bayou-born drawl, “make sure they save you name on that trophy, yeah, or police’ll think you some wetback gone stole it. Yeah, ol’ Firehydrant’s fixin’ to have us proud eatin’ them Mexican refried beans at that Musial ‘Ward celebration.”

Being an enlightened liberal New Yorker, I am inclined to indict Bossier and others for their lame, racist jokes, but Flores is just as offensive cracking about white-trash stupidity or calling the African-American players lazy. I gather insensitivity is a quaint fixture in Rebels esprit de corps. All the players participate in taunting each other with homophobic innuendos, pulling asinine pranks on the equipment crew, swearing like Tarantino characters at coaches, and whistling at front office women professionals. They will not mind me printing it¾Rebels are a team of All-Star jerks.

During the game that afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds I sit behind the Rebels in the back of their dugout. From the first Rebels pitch, catcher Flores is supernatural in framing the ball for strikes. He sets up lower than a sea cucumber behind home plate flashing finger signs at the dilettante pitcher for corner sinkers or outside changeups. If the pitches are a few inches or a foot off, it does not matter. Flores grabs everything and holds the balls an extra half-second to get (in the umpire’s eye) called strikes. Any pitch within eyeshot of the plate Flores snaps up like a Venus flytrap. Yet, I can barely see his arm move. His mitt appears to have its own gravitational field. Cincinnati’s best hitters, used to stretching at bats with fouls to drive up depreciation on the starting pitcher’s arm, are out on strikes almost before they realize it.

As for his own at bats, Flores is every bit as freakish. He hits 4-for-5 this day: two doubles, two homers, and the fifth they intentional walk him. At one point, after he jogs through another gauntlet of teammate high fives, ass swats, and Great job, Wetback acclamations I ask him, “How is it you’re bringing that bat to almost every pitch?”

“I ain’t,” he explains, “Flores is bringing the pitch to the bat. All I gotta do is think hard enough about how I want the ball to come in and it does.” He winks at me and leans close. “Blue juice, ese.” Yet, Flores’s contributions on both sides of the plate are not even the headline of the day.

It happens between the 8th and 9th innings. Cincy is losing 2-4, up next for their last three outs, when their Pavarotti-sized manager stomps out for a word with the chief umpire. Soon the rest of the umpires come around home plate, and the Rebels hangdog manager is called into the conference as well. Those of us sitting in the dugout struggle to ascertain what is in dispute. Things get more mysterious when the Reds manager leads the entire umpiring crew out to the Rebels bullpen. During an interminable delay, info finally trickles back the Reds are alleging Thatch Bossier has been seen in possession of binoculars. The implication being that Flores, the sole and unbelievable Rebel hitter of the day, is being aided by his team’s relief pitchers stealing signs from the Reds catcher. However, if Rebels relievers have some illegal, long-distance spying device, no evidence is found. The umpires return to their bases and the ninth inning begins. Guilty or not, Bossier does not appreciate the accusation.

Being brought in to close the game, Bossier pitches a couple of pop-up outs, but seems more concerned with throwing brushbacks than strikes, and unnecessarily walks a batter on balls. The Reds are at their last out of the game when a young pinch hitter named Rahim comes to the plate in his first appearance up from the minors. On the first pitch, Bossier wallops him in the helmet, and Rahim goes down to the dirt. Several angry Reds stalking the mound are held back by Pavarotti and the umpires, but I gather Bossier’s beanball does not sit right with Flores behind home plate either. While the Reds trainers help Rahim off the field, Flores trots out to the mound and has a quarrel with his pitcher. The Reds get to put a pinch runner at first, giving their team two men on with a winning run at the plate. Flores returns to his firehydrant-form squat. What happens next requires some speculation.

According to the Rebels third baseman, there is a silent but contentious flutter of catcher signs and pitcher head shrugs. According to a couple Rebels in the dugout, upon the pitch they swear they hear Flores warning the Reds batter, “Fastball. High-outside.” True or not, the batter takes a high swing and pulls a three-run homer over the left field wall, earning the Reds the lead. The Rebels with their lineup (other than Flores) under-delivering all afternoon end up losing 4-5 to a division rival.

That evening after the game the mood in the Rebels clubhouse is quietly tense. Players still dressed in dirty orange uniforms sit by their lockers silent as piglets-at-the-teat as they sip Bud Lights and listen to their manager’s post-game tantrum. He is a bald relic with the weight of lifelong mediocrity on his declining shoulders. Furious with his team, and perhaps not following the recent comment thread, he screams about how without Flores’s offensive effort, the Rebels would not have scored at all. The players seem to bristle at praise of their teammate. I assume they are sore at Flores over the rumor of him giving over the game in a twisted act of fair play. After the manager is done trying to pull the hair out of his bald head, cocaptain Thatch Bossier tells the team to stay put.

“Y’all, come see for a damn minute!” Bossier orders, and the players sustain their bench loafing and their Bud Light-ing. “We havin’ an emergency only players meetin’. Yeah, some of us been talkin’ ‘bout a certain player, yeah. He been a real angel out there, huh, and guys is sick-sick of it. Helpin’ out the other team? Yeah, this good sport shit got to end. We all shamed the way people talkin’ ‘bout our team.” Bossier points his baseball glove at Flores. “We want ole Firehydrant back, him. If you don’t put up whatever you doin’ that turned you into a lil’ masisi, I’m fixin’ to see we got votes to have you down from cocaptain.”

“Cocaptain?” Flores throws back at Bossier. “Think Flores gives a pinche about that, redneck? Flores is gonna do Flores.”

“Awww, well, then Flores is fixin’ to get scratched as far as our after-game fêtes, yeah. No more rodier ‘round the town, huh, no more poker parties, no more fais-dodo back at the hotel with the putain girls. And you be out-out as my roommate on the road, Wetback? Comprend? So, watch it being too good-good boy, yeah, or you can pass up a good time and go drinkin’ by you self.”

I walk out of the ballpark that night next to Flores. He is dressed again in his pink hibiscus print civvies. I think it is the first time all day I have heard him not talking. Tonight an unusual cool breeze is on the Florida summer air, and the stars remind me that all things are possible in the vast universe. He stands near a trash barrel and lights a cigarette.

“Say it ain’t so, Marco. Did you tell the batter what pitch was coming?”

“Does it matter, ese? If he thought we were cheating, and then we put down their new player with a golpe on the head, that batter was going to get the winning homer somehow. The new Firehydrant stands by what’s fair.”

Watching the flatus of cigarette smoke waft up to the high-pressure sodium lights over the parking lot, it finally clicks for me what really happened in the locker room. Flores is not under threat of being blackballed by his teammates because he caused the loss of a winnable game; they are pissed that his drunkenness on decency is ruining the team’s cultivated bad reputation.

“You’ve got a tough choice, Marco.”

“Ay, keep playing like a champion, or give up the blue bottle so I can win back the respect of my hermonos.” He drops a full bottle of Baby-Aid into the barrel. “That song I was telling you about before, from Damn Yankees? The ballplayers sing how it takes miles of heart to be a vato. But to be a proud loser you gotta have guts too. You know what Flores is saying?”

readyoneReady Player One author Ernest Cline probably did not select the 1980s as the nostalgia motif of his novel simply because it happened to be the era of his youth. In current pop culture, Stranger Things, IT, 24K Magic, and plenty of other manifestations keep making the ‘80s the decade that cannot be terminated. Decades foregone, do today’s Gen-Zers ever feel false-nostalgia for Marcus Welby or The Macarena? There is something specifically poignant about the ‘80s that Cline thought would resonate with multi-generational readers.

Teenage Wade spends his days and nights memorizing the dialogue of John Hughes movies, listening to New Wave song files, and, most importantly, mastering classic arcade video games like Pac Man and Tempest. The year is 2044. Teen character obsessions with ’80s pop culture in Ready Player One is more than pacifying entertainment in the age of a catastrophic global energy crisis. Their avatar identities connect to virtual reality through a visor and motion-controlling gloves and hunt for treasure in the vast network called the OASIS, where people can become anybody they want or visit any place in the imaginable universe. Hunters occupationally plunder VR worlds for currency credits, fighting skill points, magic weapons and clues to the location of a trillion dollar prize. Halliday, a genius and recluse who designed the OASIS, has died and willed its ownership to the hunter who first solves a series of puzzles leading to a final figurative Easter Egg hidden in the lore of Halliday’s own ‘80s pop culture obsessions. The contest requires intense familiarity with Halliday’s favorite books, cartoons, and videogames from own teenage years, and has led to a global ‘80s craze fifty years beyond. As Wade, isolated in his personal hideout, describes, “Spiked hair and acid washed jeans are back in style.” He means what is in style amongst his peers inside the idealized and abstract universe of the Oasis.

In the America of 2044, climate change, wars and corporatism have reduced most of the population to depressed scavengers. Teenagers like Wade have been forced to abandon most of what we might consider a normal life of school, friendships, sex, and stepping outside. He lives a lonely existence in a vertical trailer park ghetto. But in the Oasis, Wade’s anonymous avatar, Parzival, is becoming the most famous Gunter [Egg + Hunter] in the world, relying on his mastery of ’80 pop culture to pursue the trail of Halliday’s arcane clues. The bulk of the novel follows Parzival, along with his team of Gunter comrades known popularly as the High Five, solving Halliday’s posthumous challenges left inside elaborate movie and videogame recreations. Their nemesis is IOI, a greedy corporation plotting to control the Oasis with a force of avatar clone armies trained to win the contests through cheating, extortion, and real world murder.

If this plot structure – a gang of troubled but precocious young people combine their expertises to defeat the schemes of an unscrupulous adult enterprise – sounds to you like Goonies, or Whiz Kids or other ‘80s era media artifacts, say Uno!

A recent article in the blog Vulture asked in its title Why Are We Still Obsessed With The ‘80s? Some of their answers were practical, such as what we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is coming from media creatives in their 40s and 50s who have an affinity for the pop culture of their youth. Also the time traveling powers of YouTube and Facebook have mid-lifers introducing children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews to the pop culture that populated their childhoods. So maybe the resiliency of the ‘80s is a phenomenon of shared multi-generational touchstones more available through current technology. As Vulture commented, “When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there’s a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling… The pop culture we grew up on? You couldn’t ignore it if you tried.”

On a more theoretical level, Vulture suggested the tendency of media creatives to delve into the ‘80s as a means to connect the “now” to an era taking first steps into a transformative technological age. Nostalgia mining always offers an escape to idealized memories of youth, but the 1980s is the last full decade before the internet became an avatar for human interaction. In other words, maybe the reason why we keep trying to relive the ‘80s is because our computers have disconnected us from an authentic shared culture.

Ab ovo, Halliday’s Easter egg hunt. The futuristic odyssey specifically revisits a past in which technology was capturing young people’s desire for adventure before the internet supplanted real human interaction. We have to remind ourselves in the midst of Cline’s story that the High Five’s swashbuckling teen teamwork is all an illusion. In real life, the High Five buddies reside in remote parts of the world and do not even know what their comrades or competitors look like. Winning inside the Oasis – just as all commerce, politics, and notoriety of the day – is just a fantasy. There are not really trillions of dollars at stake in finding Halliday’s egg, just trillions of zeros and ones. The youths of ’44 have no actual participative culture of their own. It was Halliday’s dying desire to bequeath them his antique pop culture passions in a way that would stimulate actual interaction, something the inventor of the Oasis felt personally responsibility for ruining. Halliday’s contest is his last chance at real human connection, ironically after his death.

We might also say that Halliday is Ernest Cline’s avatar. Both the Easter Egg Hunt and Cline’s dystopian aesthetic are respective expressions of loss over something the ‘80s represented, a lost era of social engagement. Halliday filled his OASIS with references and facsimiles of the ‘80s culture he loved, then willed a contest which could only be won by someone who cared enough to love his same interests. Likewise, Cline, in writing Ready Player One offers readers a chance to connect or reconnect with his ’80s fondnesses. Of science fiction, another author, William Gibson (credited with reviving the SF genre in 1980s), once said, “It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history.” Cline’s sci-fi depicts a future that still searches for something we are missing out of our modern history. Both Cline, the creator, and his creator avatar, Halliday, seek to reboot real human-to-human communication.

rp13As for the Ready Player One motion picture adaptation, despite excellent special effects, it misses the chance to visualize the vast possibilities of the Oasis so inventively depicted by Cline. Also, the game of our hero Gunters using their intellectual powers to solve Halliday’s cryptic puzzles is given secondary treatment to fighting and action sequences. Not to say the action sequences are not well executed. In particular, a recreation of the movie The Shining as the setting for one of Halliday’s challenges provides something amazing on film that a novel could never do. Still, a disappointing shortcoming is the movie’s inability to capture the literal aspects of the Oasis as simulacrum, to understand the world’s fixation with videogames in this future as a product of desolation. Overtrying to be hopeful, the movie steps around an important theme in the novel, which explores something dark about our modern society and the mass-loneliness advance technology is creating.

Social commentary in the novel is deftly weaved through exciting action challenges. The book also succeeds in making our protagonist (avatar) Wade/Parzival both socially awkward and cool. The last third of the novel avails too much deus ex machina, and an anticipated final encounter feels rushed and superficial after the novel’s earlier insightfulness (Spoiler Alert: Only reality is real). Overall, Ready Player One is an electric read, the experience of a complete future universe both exciting and tragic.

edenDo you believe everything you hear? Joss was a troubled teenager before ever telling his psychiatrist that his bicycle collision with a random car door was “meant to be.” He is the child of upper-middle class professionals who attends a private high school in multidimensional Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he also grew up angry and defiant, and he just got out of two years lock-up in juvie for setting the neighbor’s house on fire. His meeker younger brother killed himself; a tragedy over which the father has fallen into dissociation and the mother has become an irreconcilable bitch who holds Joss responsible. Yet, in the hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered, Joss feels euphoric, spiritually renewed and he has begun to hear the OM.

The OM is the primordial vibration of the universe. It sounds like a cosmic choir chanting and could anciently be heard by all humans, before the mythical fall of creation. To this point Michael Sussman’s novel Crashing Eden is still a fairly phenomenological YA drama. We are not sure yet if this is a journey into myth and the supernatural, or the story of a depressed kid having a psychotic break.

The psychiatrists seem to have a clinical grasp of what’s wrong (or too right) with Joss. They explain that the OM is an auditory hallucination brought on by Joss’s state of manic bliss. Euphoria and delusions of grandiosity are common to mental patients Joss’s age. Joss’s belief that he has developed special powers, coinciding with the anniversary of his brother’s suicide, is likely a function of Joss’s mind protecting itself from sadness and guilt. Is Joss’s life changing experience of the OM going to be real within the context of the novel, or a maddness through which Joss will exercise his grief? The author will make a choice for the reader about what kind of novel this is going to be – a story about mental illness and family discord, or a sci-fi, superpowers fantasy that will suspend all physical rules to deliver readers beyond the universe to the feet of God. Because Joss believes that something universally significant is happening, and his conviction is about to be substantiated by a series of stupefying narrative events:

Event: Earth is hurtling toward intersection with a vast black hole in outer space, portending the end of the world.

Event: Joss encounters a pair of grad school scientists who have built a wearable device that amplifies the OM. They also enlist Joss in distributing the devices to young people everywhere, in the hope of saving the world by re-syncing it with the primordial vibration of the universe.

Event: the human mission to restore honestly and goodness to the world angers God Himself, who irrationally rains down catastrophic blizzards, earthquakes, and plagues.

Final Event: Joss teams up with the grad students, the ghost of his dead brother, and other friends who have developed supernatural abilities. Joss and company fly as spirit bodies through the black hole to confront God and talk-therapy Him through his attachment disorder related to his own mother abandoning him thirteen billion years before.

Anyone who took a high school English class is probably familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of poetic faith, described as the willing suspension of disbelief. This refers to a reader’s willingness to accept a fictional imagining of the world (or world’s) on the author’s terms. Crashing Eden raises a question about the point at which fantasticism in speculative fiction breaks the readers willing suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi and fantasy stories freight a lot willingness before the cover page is ever turned, and, of course, suspension depends entirely on the individual reader’s cooperation.

There are a couple common ways the fantasy in a genre story gets broken. 1.) The RULES of the Impossible World are implausible in the real world, e.g. the wizard about to cast his death curse conveniently has a heart attack and dies. 2.) The RULES of the Impossible World are inconsistent, e.g. only a wizard can do magic until a non-wizard steals the magic wand. Despite other weaknesses, Crashing Eden actually passes both of these tests. After the on the level looking early chapters, Sussman wends a fairytale path, but there are no early conceits, no limits on the contrived reality that prevent the story from traveling beyond the beyond. So why does Cashing Eden not entirely work? In the druthers of your humble reviewer, its gradually elaborate fantasy simply gets too far out.

If the issue is not broken disbelief, perhaps we could call it cognitive estrangement from the breadth of Sussman’s fantasy world. We can still give up on a story if at some intangible juncture its fantasy proposal feels pointless. Too fantastic. Too weird. There are no doubt other readers for whom legends given authenticity, superpowers employed to punch-out God, and the undisputed existence of God at all, is an exhilarating reading experience. And Sussman deserves credit for giving young readers a positive parable about redemption, healthy self-forgiveness, and celebrating ethics of peace while never ennobling a particular religion. The book is also slyly funny and the teen hero is complex. To my taste, I would have liked the novel to continue in the direction of teen-with-a-mental-problem, and the fantastic parts to be something Joss subconsciously invented as a recovery tool. A little more science and not so much fiction, please. In words attributed to sci-fi author Damon Knight: “Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Weird Wonderland, not good.”

 

simonSimon has a millennial age secret. He is gay and he is not ashamed of it. A 17-year-old suburban white kid with close friends and a chummy, functional family, Simon is not so fearful about being socially ostracized. His Gen Z size worry seems to be that people he already trusts to accept homosexuality will make his coming out a “big deal.” What is at stake for gay Simon in a post-acceptance era is that his differentness from the hetero default will eclipse the adult identity he is still in the process of constructing, and that people who would otherwise completely approve of his sexual preference, will appropriate their associations with him for their personal agendas.

As a coming-out novel, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, written with soaring emotional intelligence by Becky Albertalli, approaches the subject rather different than the kind of young adult material of my 1980’s teen years. If there were coming-out stories, I did not read them. What I remember is clunky afterschool TV specials like What If I’m Gay? and The Truth About Alex. In both of those stories, which intended to present an affirming message about homosexuality, a high school jock’s closetedness is exposed through accidental circumstances, unleashing havoc on girlfriends, families, and sympathetic friends. In subtext, coming-out was audacious and reckless. Were teenagers of the era ready for The Truth? Where I grew up the only thing these specials produced were homophobic punchlines in the locker room.

Closeted Simon, growing up in present-day suburban Atlanta, has been engaging in an anonymous online romance with a mysterious boy from the same high school, going by the faceless moniker Blue. Simon is not a jock but a theater kid with a popular personality. A less popular and more awkward classmate, Martin, happens upon a school library computer display of Simon and Blue’s private homosexually revealing emails, which Simon accidentally forgot to close. Martin is not even homophobic, but he is a conniver and he threatens to abuse the secret unless Simon helps Martin get the attention of a female friend who is way out of Martin’s league. When the girlfriend does not show romantic interest, Martin posts a vulgar, fake coming-out confession on behalf of Simon to the high school’s gossip blog, and also hints at outing Blue. Simon might try to deny the gay truth, but instead our Twenty-first Century hero reluctantly accepts it an opportunity to start coming-out publicly. Some taunting and humiliation comes down from the jock clan at school, but mostly what is unleashed on Simon is a series of embarrassing endorsements. A dozen straight kids make a point of saying they support him. His BFF’s pick out guys they think are boyfriend prospects and squabble over who got to be first told. Teachers stand on guard for bullies. A lesbian couple hugs Simon and hands him their phone numbers. One girl reassures him that Jesus still loves him. Simon tolerates the undue attention, but he worries that the hullaballoo will somehow collaterally uncloset Blue. Will he lose Blue after his own carelessness with the library computer has set off a chain of events that might include schoolmate’s being so determined to embrace gay people, they will shortcut Blue coming-out on his own terms?

In Simon’s generally enlightened middle-class suburbs, one coming to terms with one’s identity can be just as scary, or risky, or embarrassing as it ever was. Albertalli has released a version of the coming-out story that updates the order of consequences. Simon is not ashamed of being gay, but he anticipates the unfairness of people coming to know him as that one thing. Before he has even had any real sexual experience, he will be redefined as his sexual preference. As Simon writes to Blue, “Do you ever feel locked into yourself? …Sometimes it feels like everyone knows who I am except me.” If Simon comes out, will his would-be allies receive him as he truly is, or will they impose some new version of himself he does not even know yet? Simon, version 2.gay ?

What is so fresh about the Simon character is that as he experiences typical teen rites of passage, he is also emotionally mature enough to recognize sexual preference as one part of himself. “I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.” Albertalli is suggesting that all teenagers reach a stage at which the adult they are struggling to find within feels like a secret identity. That every teen feels like the person they are perceived to be is a disguise over the person they actually are. That it is a universal experience to come-out as someone other than who family and peers recognize. “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out feeling like Simon. Because if they don’t recognize me, I don’t recognize myself anymore.” Albertalli’s suburbs are progressive, but imperfect.

Progress has another modern consequence, as demonstrated by people in Simon’s orbit who use his sexual identity like an invisible token that can be invested into some other enterprise. As when Simon describes his coming-out to his family on Christmas morning:  “I guess it’s about what I expected. My mom’s asking about my feelings and my dad’s trying to turn it into a joke. Alice is getting political…” What Simon intuitively fears is that his differentness is something other people will treat as an object that may be taken from his hands. And it is. Martin, a kid who cares about his own gay brother and marches in a Pride parade, selfishly outs Simon on the gossip blog thinking that while it might be embarrassing it would be relatively inconsequential. Simon has to chew out Martin: “You don’t get to say it’s not a big thing. This was supposed to be mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it… You took that from me.”

Recalling the good old 80’s again, I am reminded of a friend who was forced out of the closet at age fourteen when his father caught him messing around with another boy in a tent. Not only did the father make the remainder of his teen years a torment, he became a pariah among his classmates and community. No doubt ostracization still happens to gay and genderqueer kids, but the queer stigma in most American places is fortunately becoming relic. Simon is less concerned with people disliking him or being violent towards him, than he is in being defined by his society in a way that is both narrow and manipulable.

My initial reaction to the Simon novel and its adjacent movie adaptation was: Hasn’t the teen coming-out thing been done enough? But, in fact, I am hardpressed to find a story about a teenage protagonist coming-out actually made into a major studio film. Even if the accomplishment is tardy, teenagers will love Love Simon’s thoughtful humor. The screenplay is a loose adaptation of the book, and cleverly executed given that the source material is about 1/3 epistolary (those email exchanges). It successfully regenerates most of the same dramatic beats with excellent young actors. It does not quite arrive at the post-acceptance angle portrayed in the novel. Instead of peers looking out for Simon, the movie’s drama leans on alienation, misconception, and, like the old days, making the gay teen seem responsible for his own victimization. Although, at the end Simon’s classmates rally around him. And Simon’s relationships with his parents are more fully realized. The movie was emotionally touching and I recommend it.

Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a radical coming out novel. Because what is more salient now in our culture is not gay-or-straight, but the lingering requirement of a person to have a static sexual identity at all, or the requirement that one should have to articulate one’s sex life to the whole homo sapien demos. These issues are still confusing at a time when people are, for the most part, accepting of homosexuality, and people who are publicly unaccepting often become social pariahs themselves. Tolerance, fortunately came to sound too patronizing, and today in America acceptance might be said to imply cis-chauvinism, even when the accepting party’s intentions are good. Because knowing what sort of sex partner another person prefers, or knowing whether the person considers them self only male or female, is no longer an acceptable method of knowing the person. As it reads in one of Blue’s emails to Simon, “You can memorize someone’s gestures but you can never know their thoughts… people are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.”

 

 

 

 

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7567On the occasion of a major motion picture adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time 56 years after its publication, I decided to tesser through the fifth dimension back to 1962 to learn about the novel’s apparent durability among middle-grade literati. What I discovered is a mid-generational artifact wedged right between the 60’s feminist movement and McCarthy era preoccupations.

Meg is a twelve-year-old science nerd and bullied weirdo at school. However, at home she is the fulcrum of her weirdo science nerd family, including her unusual five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, who hides his amazing intellectual gifts from other children. After Meg’s father, a physicist, mysteriously vanishes during a top secret experiment, a trio of intergalactic ferry-like women – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit – arrive offering to help find him. They lead Meg, Charles Wallace, and a teenage friend, Calvin, on a dangerous mission to rescue the father, and introduce the children to the Tesseract, a method of space travel that involves folding (or wrinkling) time. From a luminous spot in the cosmos, the children are shown Camazotz, a dark planet shrouded by a malevolent cloud called The Black Thing and inhabited by people whose minds are controlled by IT. The authoritarian IT, is a disfleshed, mechanical brain, imposing total social conformity among Camazotz population. IT also holds Meg’s father prisoner. Meg and the other children are the only beings capable of traveling through The Black Thing to Camazotz, and risk being indoctrinated into ITs ethos of homogeneity. Through Meg’s journey two major themes emerge, the indicated one, appointing a young girl as progressive protagonist and hero of individualism, the other a subtextual bulwark of anti-communist zealotry and prevailing conservative values.

Meg begins the story as a hesitater and social outcast among her peers. Because she does not fit it, she is considered stupid, (a missummation also applied to Charles Wallace). Although, the three missuses celebrate Meg’s differentness and individual gifts, ultimately saving her family and the world from galactic evil is something she accomplishes alone. They provide the vehicle of the Tesseract, the mission, and the encouragement, but Meg’s strongest tool is her inner ability to overcome self-doubt. That is the novel’s timely, broad-minded wrinkle.

Within the same pages a second, less forward-looking theme lurks. The nebulous Black Thing is slowly encompassing planet Earth, as it has to completion the less resistant planet Camazotz, a name which happens to rhyme obliquely with communist. Citizens of Camazotz live in identical suburban houses, where all children play games in unison and parents fearfully obey an average routine. The Black Thing suppresses individuality itself, replacing its importance with the false bliss of social equality. Camazotzians are not starved, or deprived of civil rights. Sameness, civic efficiency and the provision of equal economic resources are depicted as worse deprivations. “[Meg] held on to her moment of revelation. Like and equal are two entirely different things.” Children of Camazotz are bereft because they have been absorbed philosophically by IT. The literal brain IT takes over independent thought making a person not just part of IT but turning them into an IT, and IT takes over Charles Wallace’s mind. Depriving Charles Wallace of self-determination is described as an act hate, so Meg resolves to give Charles Wallace what ITs vacuous equality cannot – love. That is, nonsectarian Christian love, which is moderately referenced throughout novel.

Besides Economic Liberalism and Christianity, there are other quaint ideological convictions touted. Intellectualism is a bogeyman as demonstrated when Charles Wallace, the most erudite of the children, falls into ITs mind control most easily because he has the arrogance to think he can defeat IT with logic alone. Meg’s father admits to irresponsible scientific exploration of the Tesseract – “we’re children playing with dynamite” – a reference to nuclear weapons. Also, L’Engle’s composition has a formal, fairy tale cadence that was perhaps the culture of children’s books in 1962 – a lot of dears and darlings and Faaathers.

This brings me, in brief, to the 2018 movie version. The adaptation is successful in imagining a fantastic special effects vision of the novel, distinguishing the characters, and abandoning some of L’Engle’s passé ideology. The movie seizes on the spirit of Meg learning to take pride in being an individual and turning her anger, stubbornness and impatience into strengths. And the filmmakers grow L’Engle’s feminist seed into an inclusive and multicultural universe. There are some deficiencies. The acting is broadly terrible, and L’Engle’s Christian sentiment has morphed into New Agey child-of-the-universe-summon-your-inner-light platitudes that feel drippy. But the best parts of the movie would not exist without the best parts of the original novel.

On the whole, A Wrinkle In Time is a novel from which young people will still draw relevant positivity. It is a story about a girl possessing the ability to solve problems with interior powers even the immortal, interstellar traveling women do not have. Maybe its 1962 first-world triumphalism does not hold up, but the message of children, particularly female children, learning to respect themselves is enduring.

atswimAt-Swim-Two Birds is simply Flann O’Brien’s novel about an Irish student novelist writing a novel about an unfinished novel. Do you twig? The student’s spare-time literary activity includes spontaneous composition of the story of a lazy novelist who’s misused characters, drawn largely from Irish folk legends, animate and conspire to write their own novel in which their creator is tortured and tried for his abuses. In between the folk legend sections, O’Brien’s young author is browbeaten by his middle-class uncle who criticizes the student for his seeming disinterest in studying.

Metafiction may be a particular taste, as is toiling through O’Brien’s long adaptations of Irish verse and writing styles. I confess I wanted give up on this book early on, it was so bewildering. But sticking with O’Brien’s mythical fantasies and stream-of-conscious writing came to feel rewarding. Once I gave up on my inclination to understand every reference to Irish myth or modern Dublin slang term, I was able to absorb that O’Brien created something of epic imagination and wit, even while abandoning all writerly responsibilities toward character and plot. I’ve never been able to slog through the impenetrable language of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the style of which O’Brien appears to imitate or parody. Maybe At-Swim is Finnegan’s Wake lite. I know I’ve never before successfully read an Irish novel like this, or finished one feeling as edified. O’Brien’s humor is wicked, and his gifts for description and prose are extraordinary.

[short story first published in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, XXXII:1, Fall 2014/Winter 2015]

In my estimation, Oz Feldman, may he rot in Hell, is a tall asshole and an over-ranked yutz. Can I beat him in this match? In my judgment, yes, should I be blessed to survive all three sets. The Lord, may he guard my end of the court, knows I’ve beaten every other boy at Chazak Tennis Camp. So, today it’s Oz versus Benji, the last survivors of the sweaty summer’s end tournament. Also the last day of Chazak for me or Oz, ever. The old men don’t allow you back after summer of 11th grade. Why? I don’t know.

People are watching from benches outside the fence, my father and the other camp coaches, all the camp boys. Even Mama, may God protect her, got the afternoon and is standing along the opposite fence in her TJ Maxx uniform. Under her headcovering she’s smiling at me. I can’t remember the last time I saw her doing that. She’s as far away in the park as she can be from Father, may a tree fall on him.

Oz looms over my opposite baseline, the destroying angel with a black kippah and colorless eyes. He has a one hundred-ten foot arm span and a one hundred-ten mile an hour serve. It’s true, because Father measured. As Oz and I warm up the ball the humidity makes wet mittens of my hands around the racket. I’m remembering what Father, may he choke on his tongue, instructs me on how to play Oz. The ugly giant’s all serve. Don’t allow this dull nephilim Oz to drag me at his advantage into set tiebreakers. Prove to Father I’m not afraid of a big-serving bully.

Some camp boy’s gray-bearded grandfather just climbed up into the seat of the chair-umpire.

“Maysters ready? Play!”

May God murder my enemy.

 

I didn’t wake up this morning with a plan to rely on God to win. I heard it raining and I waited awake with my eyes closed willing the rain to stop. Guess what? It worked. Then I listened for an alarm of rap music from my computer tablet. I had a plan to beat Oz. I repeated the plan in my head.

Estimate the course of his serve at first racket contact. Position myself far behind the baseline. Bounce on my sneakers a little. Shift my weight to the incoming ball side. Don’t try too much on his firsts, just block the ball back. Judge the weight of his over-ranked serve. Attempt a short slice to his backhand, low. Imagine hitting it to the serpents Oz has for shoelaces.

I toggled snooze on my tablet when rap came on and listened for my older sister turning off the shower. I told myself to stop plotting the match because too much would make me meshugah in the head. Instead I thought about Jazmine, the girl on the bus and her big pair of black-girl kishkas. I started to jerk off. For a moment, I thought of how Rabbi back in B’nei Mitzvah class used to say, “Zis iz a zin!” I stopped touching myself when I heard my sister, may she broil from rug burn, close her bedroom door. After I got up from bed I made sure the hallway was clear between my bedroom door and our bathroom for getting there only in my underwear. I skipped shaving because Oz Feldman has a narrow line of a beard that outlines his donkey face. It’s a line that makes him look like he’s passing for twenty. When I went back to my bedroom I put on tallit kattan, which is Hebrew for a Gentile undershirt with tzittzit tassels hanging off the corners. I picked a t-shirt to wear over with a design of Drake. Who is Drake? He’s the black-Jewish rapper and someone I hoped black girls on the bus would think under-ranked. I tied on the coolest sneakers there are from TJ Maxx and I sprayed on Midnight Rooster men’s body spray, which Mama agreed to get me for Hanukkah if I promised don’t wear it on Shabbat.

When I went to the kitchen I discovered that Mama left a skillet of blintzes stuffed with quark. What is quark? It’s kosher type cheese in which we Jews leave out any flavor. In my judgment, Mama should have been in the kitchen on the day of my championship match to make me something better, like she used to. I left all the cold blintzes on a plate for my sister, in case she’s just wicked enough to love the taste of dreck. Only then did I find Mama’s Post-it note left on our kitchen doorpost – May G_d help my boychik hit the yellow ball with all his heart today. Attaboy-chik! Upon review, I ruled I’d been a mean judge toward Mama. Long live Mama! She’s under-ranked.

I knocked on my sister’s bedroom and asked through the door if she could give me money. She said, “Fuck no, Benji,” and I said, “May God be as sweet to you, Bitch!” Back in my bedroom I put a kippah on my head, one with a Red Sox ‘B’ in back, and clipped it to a clump of my curls. In the mirror I judged how much the day’s humidity was making my bristly hair platz out around the kippah. I considered Oz Feldman, may he shake hands with a vise, and how he could probably wrap his long fingers all the way around my skinny neck. Then I wondered if girls think boys who play tennis are sexy, followed by realizing I couldn’t name any famous Jewish tennis stars.

Yesterday, driving me home from tennis camp, Father, may he steer off a cliff, said at seventeen he was horny for Steffi Graf and Chrisy Evert-Lloyd. Being seventeen myself I named Father several girls in pro-tennis I’ve seen on tv who are beautiful. But the girls I named happen to be black girls and Father ignored me like I didn’t say any names at all. I judged right there in the car that Father has chutzpah. In my estimation, only a man with chutzpah would go to the honor of nicknaming himself Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, especially if all he knows about tennis is instructing high school boys to play. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a yellow ball get lodged in his throat, that when two good tennis players are fairly paired, not strength wins, but reflexive instinct. Father said at Benji versus Oz in the Chazak camp championship I should play like a fox versus a bear in a cage. Do you know what he meant? I didn’t. Then he asked me if I thought my instinct for the subtleties of tennis were strong enough. He asked if I thought I had practiced the right things. But he didn’t wait for me to answer either of those questions. Instead Father kept talking. Said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, may a bee sting him on the tonsils, that a true tennis champion is master of reflexes, learning to repeat the correct techniques correctly time after time. I wondered if it’s honest for me to love the advice and hate the advisor. Then Father said what works in tennis is the same as in life with our religious rituals, that repetition itself defeats distractions.

This morning I looked on my dresser at the blue, velvet bag containing my tefillin – tiny handwritten pieces of Torah in two small, black boxes. I’m expected to tie the boxes to my arm and forehead every day. Tefillah were a gift from my parents, both of them, on my Bar Mitzvah. Guess what? I skipped strapping on black boxes and reciting Shema this morning, just like most mornings this summer. I didn’t do tefillin, which is bullshit, just to make parents happy, like I did when Father still lived at home. Instead I ruled that repeating an over-ranked blessing doesn’t do bubkes. God, like a chair-umpire in tennis, takes no side between me and my enemies. I decided instead to keep calling my own shots. When my sister went back into the bathroom, I went into her bedroom. On her bureau was a pink charity box she made when she was little in Hebrew school. I stole change for McDonald’s breakfast and left our apartment.

 

I shoved an empty sausage McGriddle box in my tennis bag. Yes, every Jew already knows that McGriddle is forbidden treyf, but this morning I called it good. I then used the tennis bag to block the aisle side of my bus bench. I pulled out my tablet on which I had an email that the new issue of Black-lete Sports Magazine was up for me to read during the bus ride.

Everyday this summer my bus to Chazak stopped at West Boston Boulevard where a facacta lady named Cynthia got on. All of us on the bus had to wait the rest of our lives while Cynthia paid her bus fare in small change.

“Hello, Benny!” Cynthia said, excited like she hadn’t seen me for ten years instead of a day. Her crazy hand wiggled like her plastic rain bonnet in the wind. Have I made it clear that I had previously ruled there would be no more rain today? I waved back barely in Cynthia’s direction making it clear to her I was concentrating on a post in Black-lete. Cynthia sat her fat tochis in an empty bench across from me and pulled out her leather-bound Bible. “I like that you’ve been riding my bus every day, Benny.” A couple weeks earlier she introduced herself, without me ever asking. That day I felt sorry for her and surrendered Benji, but she heard it wrong. No point in ever trying to fix her. She took off her rain bonnet and wrapped gray hair pigtails around her craggy neck. “A boy at the T-stop stole my bus pass, Benny. He looked Chinese.” As I’ve mentioned, I judged Cynthia to have been facacta and weird. She smelled moldy, like the boiler room of my apartment building. She had a thin nose like a butter knife and she wore big, lepish glasses that made it look like I was seeing her eyes through a microscope. “My daddy gave me a roll of nickels to pay the bus driver, Benny. Last night I prayed to Jesus to forgive the Chinese boy.”

“So, good for you.” Why did I say anything at all? I don’t know.

“You’re a sweet-pea, Benny. In my prayers I told God you stare at big-booby black girls on your computer. My daddy says white boys should only date white girls. I like that smell of perfume you wear everyday, Benny.”

I happened to be studying a picture of black women volleyball athletes in sexy sports-bras. “My parents instruct me only date Jewish girls,” I said.

“Jesus was Jewish,” Cynthia said.

“So, good for Jesus.”

The bus stopped in front of the pawnshop on Washington Avenue. Beautiful Jazmine and her two girlfriends stepped on, all of them black, and making a head-turning racket down the middle of the bus. The three of them wore matching, red, collared-shirt uniforms everyday, some office supply store logo on their left tits. I had never overheard names of the other two, just Jazmine. I judged the girls to be loud, mean and fucking gorgeous. Two of them bounced down in the bench behind Cynthia. In the bench behind me, Jazmine put her sneakers up and lounged against the window. Her red shirt collar stood up to her gold hoop earrings and she held her phone so close to her face she swabbed the surface with her long eyelashes.

“Hey, Skinny Jewish Boy,” one of twosome called out. She could only have been asking me, “Don’t your mother feed you? You look like my toothbrush is wearing a yamaha.”

“What do you know about wearing Drake on your shirt, Boy?” the other girl teased. “Hasn’t nobody told Jewish people yet that Drake is gay? You must be gay!” Her benchmate almost toyted-over it was so hilarious.

“Don’t be mean, girl,” the second one laughed. “Maybe Jewish Boy’s not gay. I mean, everyday he sits in the seat across from his retarded girlfriend.” Cynthia just sat smiling and pressing her gigantic eyeglasses against the words of her Bible.

“Hey, Old White Lady, have you and your Jewish boyfriend done the nasty yet?”

“Girl, I bet these two want to have a threesome with Drake in between!”

Maybe Cynthia was happy being an oblivious, Bible memorizing idiot, but the two sexy anti-Semitic girls pissed me off. I turned around in my bench at them and shouted back, “May you both fall in the ocean and float away on your big, black tits!” This riled those two girls up, but not Jazmine.

Never looking up from her phone, Jazmine said her first indirect words to me, ever. “You three all just shut up, please. Let’s not have a race riot here on the freaking city bus.” Jazmine’s friends followed her orders and made less loud gossip of people. Then Jazmine said to me, “If it matters, I doubt Drake is gay, McGriddle.” She estimated me confused and pointed over the back of my bench at the empty breakfast box, which was poking out of my tennis bag. “Just ignore those two hookers, but be careful what you say about a black girl’s boobs. We take them seriously.”

I judged Jazmine’s advice to be good, but couldn’t think of what to say back. Was it a miracle of God that she kept talking to me?

“I’ve seen you before on the bus with your tennis racket. You play every day?”

“Everyday in summer,” I answered. “Camp Chazak.”

“Oh, boy, I could never learn to play tennis there because I could never learn to pronounce it.”

I laughed a little. “You could never play tennis at Chazak because they only allow boys.”

“Excuse me on your religion, but that’s old fashioned and fucked up.”

May God bless Jazmine. She’s so pretty. “You’re judgment is accurate on that,” I said.

“You any good at tennis?” she asked me, also texting on her phone.

“Playing the summer championship today. I’m best at it.”

“Okay, Boy,” she said, “don’t be too all that, now.”

Don’t misjudge me. I meant to tell Jazmine that tennis is the best thing I can do. It’s the one thing I judge myself to be opposite a klutz. I’m told that back in the good old days my father was a teenage tennis champion as well as the top student in his class at Greater Boston Modern Orthodox Day School. Who did I hear that from? My father, of course, and he doesn’t let people forget. In the worse new days, at the exact same school, I’m not on the top of anything. But, at tennis camp? Almost no one can beat me, and I’m not letting you forget either. Tennis is the thing about which I give a shit that certain people such as my father are impressed.

Jazmine stared out the bus window and I stared at her soft looking neck, perfect as the pumpernickel my Mama used to make.

“So, where do go in your life to meet Jewish girls, McGriddle?”

“Oh, they allow girls in Post B’nei Mitzvah Club. We meet on Kosher Taco Tuesdays.”

“That’s the girls you date?” Jazmine’s huge brown eyes stared straight at me. “Which ever ones show up on Taco Tuesday?”

Was Jazmine making fun of me in a more professional way?

“Come on now, McGriddle.” Her fingers summoned me. “This bus is moving slower than my grandma walks. I need some boring conversation. Talk to me.”

“So far I haven’t been on many dates.” Don’t ask me why I volunteered such an embarrassing fact to Jazmine because I don’t know. Upon review, I suppose she made me feel okay telling her anything, instead of feeling like an asshole. “I’ve never been on a date with an African-American girl.”

“You don’t like black girls?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” I said. “I don’t judge. Like when my Father was backhand drilling me yesterday, he’s also one of our tennis camp coaches, a couple of really pretty African-American girls were walking through the park along the court. My father noticed me noticing them instead of paying attention to his drills. He said his son should forget coming to like svartza girls.”

“Svartsa? That word sounds like I don’t want to hear what it means.”

“My Father said he thinks it’s okay to friends with you, but he’ll never give blessing to marry one.”

“Excuse me. If you want to marry a black girl, how are your parents going to stop you?”

“It’s just not done. Which I rule ridiculous, because my Father’s the most over-ranked role model of halahkah.”

“Okay, beg your pardon?”

“Halahkah means, like, religious way of life,” I explained. “In addition to being all knowing about tennis, my father talks like he’s a professional on the practice of all religious rituals. Meanwhile, last year he moved to a different house and he has his own blonde lady now, who he says is half-Jewish.”

“You got a mom?”

“I got one. She used to stay home. Do you know a guy named TJ Maxx? Now she takes care of him all day. Mama says my father met his blonde half-shiksa when he was still living with us. My father tells me and my sister, no, he didn’t meet her until after he moved out. He says he tried to get my Mama to stay on her medicine and stop being negative all the time. He says sure, a man honors his wife by keeping her happy, but not so much that he has to always be depressed. And, under halahkah, the wife’s not divorced until the husband is nice enough to give her a piece of paper that says You are hereby free of me. Father says he already gives Mama all his his money and she just wants to take away his children, to punish him for wanting to end their marriage in which she refused to be happy. In my judgment, Mama is sadder now. She says my father’s being a bully. She’s taking him to religious court, but in my estimation the odds are against whatever she wants, Jewish law seems like an even bigger bully. I say mazel tov to my father’s new happiness and his over-ranked half-shiksa. May they be buried alive together.

Jazmine nodded her head. “If we’re keeping it real, McGriddle, I’d say the same thing to my mom. Mine used to beat up on me every time she was drinking. Then, when I got big enough to kick her ass back, she started beating up on my little brother. Finally, I was just like, bye, we’re leaving. I took my brother and we went to my grandma’s house for good. The other day my mom text me, ‘You have to come back, Jazmine, because I say.’ I told her, ‘Hell no.’ She can’t make me do anything. You know, last Sunday in my grandma’s church, the pastor was talking about David and Goliath. I heard that story about a million times growing up, but I realized Sunday they’ve been telling it wrong.”

“What’s to get wrong? The kid kills the giant with one smooth rock served out of his sling. Then David cuts Goliath’s head off, and all the Jews learn God will always protect them from their enemies.”

“That’s like what they always taught me in Sunday School too, McGriddle, but I started thinking David and Goliath means something else.”

“The Bible says it right here in First Samuel,” Cynthia chimed in across the aisle. She was already on the exact page. Maybe I was wrong and Cynthia was hearing everything people were saying. She followed the scripture with her pointy witch nose and read it loud enough for the whole busful to hear. “The Lord, who delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine, Goliath.”

“I guess your girlfriend knows her Bible,” Jazmine said.

“Then you should guess again,” I argued, “because she’s not my girlfriend,”

“Come on, McGriddle, I’m just joking with you.” Jazmine’s smile was so sweet, but I untrusted her a little. “Besides, we’re friends now.”

“What do you mean David and Goliath means something else?” This was me defending Jewish tradition. Imagine.

“I’m just saying, when you think about it, why was David so gung-ho to step up and take on Goliath?”

Cynthia read aloud, “I will go and fight with this uncircumcised Philistine, who hath taunted and defied the armies of the living God. Then, Benny, To the man who kills this giant, the king will give his daughter in marriage and make his house free of taxes in Israel. That’s what the white Bible says.”

Jazmine rolled her priceless eyes. “There aint no white Bible and black Bible, Lady.” Then she turned back to me. “Goliath was talking trash about the Israelite’s army, right? He’s all – Come try it David, I’ll tear you up and feed you to chickens. But then it turns out Goliath’s really just slow and stupid. I mean, he stands there while David kills him with one rock. Sitting there, bored, in church I started thinking maybe David was the only one who saw something about Goliath that wasn’t so scary. Same as I saw with my mom. She drinks and beats up my brother, but beating on her children doesn’t make her strong. It’s her weakness. I’m not going to let her hit us anymore. Once you take away her beating people up, she’s got no powers left.”

“I think I know what you mean,” I said, my faith in Jazmine returning, “but say it again, maybe.”

“What I’m saying is maybe David was so freaking brave because he figured out the giant wasn’t really all that. Maybe he figured out Goliath was all talk and David was going to get the girl and the money. Maybe Goliaths are only Goliath because people keep thinking they are.” Then Jazmine’s nose wrinkled up. “Boy, somebody on this bus smells like a lot of rachet perfume.”

Our bus crossed over the three girl’s last intersection with me. On repetitive reflex Jazmine reached up and pulled the overhead cord for the bell. “This is our stop, hookers. See you tomorrow, McGriddle.”

The three girls stood up and tussled off the bus. I wanted to ask Jazmine exactly how she planned to see me tomorrow. There wasn’t time left to tell her I don’t usually ride the bus on Saturdays, on Shabbat. Also, today was last day of tennis camp. Yes, I’d like her to see me again, but couldn’t think so fast of where or when. See her again? I’d like to will that to happen. Maybe then I’d tell her she’s sexy. I also would tell her how I underestimated how many brilliant things she has to say. Long live Jazmine!

Cynthia’s nose ran across her Bible page and she read out loud, “Do not be slothful in zeal, Benny.”

Maybe Cynthia’s was under-ranked too. Jazmine was already gone.

Do you know Brookline Park? That’s where I got off the bus, where Chazak is. Sure, the sun was hot as Hell but the tennis courts were still wet from overnight rain. Father and another coach got there early with battery-powered puddle blowers. We camp boys followed after them with long squeegees. Soon the gray-bearded amateur umpire proclaimed our green, hard surfaces looked dry enough for play. A bunch of bearded father and grandfather types took positions as shot judges on the court lines. Then the gray umpire clambered up behind the stirrups of the tall chair.

 

Oz Feldman, may he be struck by lightning, and I are now hitting the little yellow ball back and forth, the mandatory ten-minute warm up. More people are here today watching me play than ever before. What’s more nervous making than possibly losing is going down the drain while all the world watches, coaches, other boys, parents, my parents. I’d still like to beat this white-eyed creep Oz, but the watchers make me feel suddenly less sure. By all sense Oz is a better tennis player. I can’t hit the ball over him, he’s too tall. I can’t hit the ball past him, he only needs one or two steps to cover the whole court. His giant serve helps him win a lot of free points. Plus he has a better angle and can fire the ball flat over the net, direct past me.

I hate to pray to God for help, and, as much as I hate listening to my father, his damn advice is the best. Don’t be intimidated, Oz is over-ranked. Serve into his body to jam him up. Remember Oz is better at overwhelming opponents with speed on the ball than he is at placing the ball. He lacks precision for the lines. I must use topspin to make the ball dip down to his feet. Wrong-foot him. He’s slower than sour cream. Trap him into changing direction, against momentum. Move him up the court with drop shots. Slice him. Reduce him to what he really is, a big yutz clomping after my sexy, short angles. Sure, I’m not as tall, but I have my own moves.

And, said the Great Jewish Philosopher of Tennis, don’t lose to the watchers. Father’s accurate about that. I estimate fifty percent of these people are praying I flop. Ignore such distractions. Ignore strangers walking dogs through the park, a noisy lawnmower, a helicopter, bugs, little kids roller skating on empty courts, the sun, humidity, shvits dripping into my eyes, hunger, thirst, white lines still slippery after the rain. Still, what Father never taught me is how to turn off the biggest distraction, the voice of a man inside my head always judging, always asking, What if you can’t get to Oz’s serves? What if you choke on every one of your own serves and keep double faulting? Have you ever tried to not think about something? Part of me has to think about what not to think of in order to remember what not to think about. Maybe a true tennis champion knows how, under pressure, to not think at all.

Off the old chair-umpire’s coin toss, Oz gets first service privilege. Of course his first serve is a mortar, and not where anyone else would put it, to my forehand! Plus there’s a crazy inside slice. Probably over a hundred miles per hour. My feet don’t think that fast. I jump left while planting my right sneaker at the same time, and my foot slides on the wet, white line. Then my right knee cocks in and twists as I go down. Where did I land? On the green asphalt, where else, with the inside of my knee.

I roll onto my back and grab my God damn knee. Lying there I cry for the worst pain in the history suffering. For a moment I want to ask God for mercy, but remember how I didn’t tefellin this morning? That’s right, I didn’t say Shema because tefellin is supposed be bullshit. This twisting of my knee is God’s kareth, his penalty for thinking I can do it myself when it was made clear I should reflexively repeat. Today I have underestimated the conditions of God and slippery white lines. When I close my eyes I see nothing but pain. I Shema outloud, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and might! These words I command you today shall be upon your heart!”

Praying with my eyes shut, I sense a shadow between me and the sun, a shadow dark as the ninth plague of Egypt. When I open my eyes I see the shadow is cast by a leaning skyscraper who has a forehead broad as the Wailing Wall, and a gargoyle face with the thin beard of young rabbi. His dangling shirt tzittzits point towards me on ground. Oz Feldman has rushed to my side from the other end of court, his white, devil eyes full of me. He got over here before the alterkocker umpire, may his dry-court proclaiming bones crumble, and before Father or even Mama.

I can’t stand up on my twisted knee, but Oz bends over like a drawbridge, stretching one giant arm under my neck, the other under my knees, and holds them safe together. Then he lifts my whole body in his arms and carries me like the smooth stone in David’s sling. Yes, Oz Feldman, may no shame come to him, carries me from the green asphalt to outside the fence. There he lies me down across the sideline bench, out of harm’s way. Long live Oz! Today it’s God who is my enemy. Oz Feldman is such a big asshole, he’s been easy to underestimate.

faceIn 2017 there were at least 800 feature-length, English-language movies released, of which I screened 63. Having seen only of fraction of what came out, I can hardly claim to know which were the “best” movies of 2017. Making a list of my favorites might be fair to the movies I didn’t see, but the expression lacks specificity. Instead I’ve generated a list of movies exceeding my expectations to which any artistic work should aspire:

Art should seek to edify understanding of the human experience, improve intellectual or moral knowledge, and expand contours of the form.

Thus, in order of release date, my list of the most personally edifying movies I saw in 2017.*  This is followed by a list of nine films I thought in some notable way failed to achieve my precept.

 

TWELVE PERSONALLY EDIFYING MOVIES IN 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

BB2

A live-action musical fairy tale. Belle, a self-reliant young woman taken captive in a castle by a hideous half man-half beast, looks beyond his ugliness and transforms him into a kind prince. I wouldn’t say this film is a feminist revision, but Belle is an enjoyable, smart heroine. The mosaic of live actors, motion capture and CGI is fascinating, and the musical experience is spectacular.

 

IT COMES AT NIGHT

In the aftermath of a near-future apocalyptic plague, a survivalist family hazards on allowing desperate strangers inside their remote cabin. Mistrust and paranoia intrudes, itcomesand heat between the families detonates into barbaric violence. The monsters residing in the human mind are mysterious and terrifying.

 

 

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APESwarapes

Roger Ebert once wrote that sequels are marketing decisions yoked to creative ideas somewhere farther down the food chain. It is evidential that, as the objective of profit precludes substance, the quality of the cinematic experience decreases (For empirical proof, try watching the progressively depreciative first POTA pentology,1968-1973). Somehow the current Planet Of The Apes series defies this rule. Each film has improved over the last in creating compelling stories, intense action, and emotional appeal for the ape heroes.

 

 

ATOMIC BLONDEAtomic Blonde (2017)

A British secret agent assigned to recover stolen documents in Cold War era Berlin, uncovers a cauldron full of double crossing international spies. Charlize Theron playing a bisexual, badass, James Bond is just fucking cool. So are the amazing Kung Fu sequences.

 

SHOT CALLER

shotcaller

A white-collar family man botches his life and earns a prison sentence. Through violent rites of passage, he becomes the leader of a high-stakes criminal gang. The film is adept at presenting the protagonist’s identity transformation, as well as sustaining his long strategy of self-sacrifice, played against other gangsters, in order to protect his family outside of prison. It’s too bad SHOT CALLER was a sleeper in 2017, its business is thrilling and smart.

 

ANNABELLE CREATIONannabelle

Attempting to overcome the undying grief of their daughter’s tragic death, an aging and weird farm couple take five orphan girls into their care. The presence of young girls in the house rouses the resentful ghost of the dead child inhabiting a homemade doll. This sounds like the kind of goofy plot that would inhabit an over-ambitious, under-funded freshman effort, but between the solid children’s acting and the filmmaker’s command of the haunted house space, this mid-budge horror succeeds. It is genuinely freaky and well-crafted.

 

GOOD TIME

Good-Time-585x390

A small-time crook goes to spectacular extremes trying break his handicapped brother out of police custody. What at first seems like a boilerplate heist story, veers into epic Sisyphean failure for the skilled, if unrecognizable, actor Robert Pattinson.

 

BRAD’S STATUSBrads-Status

A middle-aged dad touring New England colleges with his teenage son declines into a distressed state of existential underachievement. While not a particular achievement in filmmaking (I think the subject matter would be better suited to the stage), BRAD’S STATUS is well-acted, funny, and genuine. One of the most profound screenplays of the year.

 

BLADE RUNNER 20492049.jpg

The futuristic story of a policeman assigned to kill renegade, autonomy-seeking androids. It is bigger in universality, special effects, and plot complexity than its 1982 antecedent, although it does not achieve the predecessor’s bleak, emotional allure. BR49 is among the most stunning visual achievements of the film year and deserving of more accolades.

 

BEACH RATS

beachratsFrankie, a Brooklyn teenager, spends his summer getting high with his hooligan friends, meeting girls on the Coney Island boardwalk, and experimenting with clandestine gay sex escapades. Lacking confidence and direction, Frankie’s life is muddled by his attraction to men, his straddling of blue and white collar culture, and the creeping expectations of adulthood versus the lingering indolence of his youth. All of this is presented with a spare and sullen indie cinema vibe. BEACH RATS, with its frequently bare chested male actors, may look like a highly-sexed Abercrombie & Fitch catalog adapted for film, but there is also an interesting, inconspicuous story and a beguiling minimalist aesthetic.

 

THE POSTthe-post-2

Journalism drama drawn from true events and key players surrounding publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers. I’m usually uncomfortable with movies mounted on political bias, even when the bias accords with my own sentiments. However, what the U.S. requires right this second is an elementary refresher on the necessity of an independent press to investigate tyranny, and for reluctant influencers like the late Katherine Graham to be bold. Most impressive in THE POST is Meryl Streep’s ability to employ the shortcomings of her character so genuinely in an otherwise heavy-handed chronicle. THE POST isn’t made with a sense of environment like the great, paranoid ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, but it earns its credentials being both exciting and apropos.

 

THE STRANGE ONESstrange ones.jpg

An adult man and a teenage boy pretending to be brothers on a road vacation, are revealed to be running from a bizarre secret past. Viewers familiar with the dream motifs of Russian fillmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky may discover themselves on a similar metaphysical plane, questioning the certainty of what’s real or imagination. The surrealistic atmosphere, furthered by disturbing subject matter, gets progressively darker as does the performance of James Freedson-Jackson, playing the adrift teenager. He is an overlooked prodigy. THE STRANGE ONES is an overlooked prodigy.

Worth mentioning that the creepy tension is enhanced by an excellent electronic score by same composer of the similarly excellent IT COMES AT NIGHT.

 

Honorable mentions: GET OUT, BEFORE I FALL, CREEP 2, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, SHAPE OF WATER, MOLLY’S GAME

 

 

and now… NINE DISAPPOINTING MOVIES OF 2017

BABY DRIVER

Speeding toward you, BABY DRIVER looks like a stellar cast and a unusual take on heist genre (the getaway driver’s POV). Going away you might realize you raced pass any substance to see a lot of faux-hipsterism, overacting, and improbable robberies.

 

DUNKIRK

Certainly the task of creating an epic experience out of the WWII British evacuation of Dunkirk by land, sea and air looked worthy in writing. The raw elements of any of these three coterminous stories as a stand alone project would have made for a good movie (except for the air one). Unfortunately, what came out the other end of this massive endeavor was a dull, meandering, emotionally dry, muddle.

 

IT

I was told by I had to read the novel to get IT, which I tried and found IT, like the movie, both incomprehensible and lightweight, except protracted over hundreds of tedious pages. So to you ITidots, who love this thing, mazel tov. I’m bored.

 

MOTHER!

I dig surrealism as much as the next avant-gardiste, and I thought act one of Mother was intriguingly weird. What happens in the second act is an absurd abandonment of aesthetics that serves the filmmaker’s desire to shock, not to edify.

 

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

The first KINGSMAN movie was a successful James Bond for millennials. GOLDEN CIRCLE is Kingsman for people who are shallow and easy to amuse.

 

BETTER WATCH OUT

The Home Alone movies of 1990’s, specifically the casual, cartoonish violence appear to be the object of critique in this dark comedy. What they have produced here is something simply trashy, sadistic and unfunny.

 

JEEPERS CREEPERS III

Like other Creeps, I waited fourteen eager years for the next chapter of this literate, idiosyncratic horror series. JCIII is not just a let down – it’s insulting, uncreative junk.

 

I, TONYA

Maybe there is retrospective humor to be found in the imbroglio of the 1993 Nancy/Tonya figure skating incident. I don’t see what’s funny in 2017 about a man smashing a woman’s head into the wall to the beat of a Dire Straits ballad. Such video collages with music from the period seem to fill-in for the filmmaker’s lack of figure skating i.q. Also, I would like to mention that the athlete to whom this movie gives disadvantaged bonafides was sent to the Olympics twice by the elites that were supposed to be discriminating against her, and yet she still conspired to maim Nancy Kerrigan. I TONYA is a skewed, irresponsible, alteration of Harding’s story. It is also not a particularly creative movie.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

The intent of dark comedy is to create humor out of non-humorous subject matter, such as ridiculous and ironic human behavior in the wake of young woman being raped and murdered in fictional Ebbing, MO. It is a big ask for the audience to empathize with these flawed characters, but we are also are expected to give a humor license to policemen’s racism, homophobia, brutality, willful neglect, and incompetence. We are asked to tolerate all these offenses for the final justice of a racist policeman being given a mulligan by the surviving mother and the two together beginning a vigilante roadtrip as if they were Hope and Crosby. THREE BILLBOARDS produces some fine acting and dramatic poignancy, but at a time when America is perhaps starting to listen to the voices from embedded cultural oppressions, this movie is dreadfully tone deaf.

 

 

* Arbitrarily all selections are feature length. Also, 12 and 9 is of no significance. These were movies that stood out to me most positively or negatively.

 

konigsburg

Wonderstruck is a six-hundred plus page juvenile fiction novel that might only take kids an hour an a half to read. That is because much of it is told in picture book form (Although, I found myself revisiting the artwork again and again.). Wonderstruck is two stories. Ben, a ten year old deaf boy runs away to New York City, following a trail of clues to find his abandoner father. Ben’s story is set contemporarily and told via traditional paragraphs. In the companion story, Rose is a ten-year-old deaf girl in 1927, who runs away to New York City to find her distant mother. However, Rose’s adventure is told entirely through the author’s mimetic pencil illustrations. The two journeys lead both characters to explore and hideout in The American Museum of Natural History. Eventually their timelines cross. Ben and old age Rose are united through their mutual interests in the same animal habitat diorama – a means of storytelling weaving art and science, life and imagination. Likewise in the last section of Wonderstruck, words and pictures, become interwoven.

Maurice Sendak once said, ““I don’t write for children. I write–and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Wonderstruck is a fun, intertextual odyssey for the mind and the eye. There are also difficult circumstances of disappointment and death that the characters confront together. It is life illustrated for child and adult.

 

 

Incognolio? It is not a thing. Or it is a thing, originless, that inspired the author, Michael Sussman (whoever that is?). Incognolio is a comic and psychological novel invented by Sussman’s multiple protagonists, or composed half by you, dear reader, if the author has his way. Following no formal dramatic structure, Incognolio, at its least perplexing, is a search for meaning, with meaning having deputized a variety of representatives passing with the nomenclature Incognolio.Incognolio

At occasions in the novel incognolio is: a covert CIA investigation into people losing the ability to think rationally, a terrycloth headband allowing its wearer to rid themself of the myth of free will, the koan of an austerity cult, the quest of a technologically-advanced alien race who lack spiritual fulfillment, the titles of several novels within the novel being written by feuding authors, a psychedelic drug, a password, a lock combination, a cryptophasic language between twins, and the voice of an all-embracing maternal deity. The point being, incognolio not only resides in the realm of imagination, but also is imagination itself.

A review of a more orthodox novel would attempt to summarize the plot. Your obedient reviewer is not certain of the value of that approach. Incognolio starts humorous and metafictive enough with a protagonist writing a novel titled Incognolio. The protagonist struggles with several dead end crime subplots depicted simultaneously as narrative action in which he is engaged and subject matter he is composing in real time. The subplots, frequently hilarious, occasionally violent or morally problematic, are abandoned. Control of the novel is transferred among the protagonist’s villainous ghostwriter, his living or dead twin sister, an uncle from another dimension, the devil, God, and finally, after the protagonist is killed, to the character of a troubled writer named Sussman. Are you still with me? It is at this point Sussman’s stream of conscious writing begins to reach its true destination.

Dimension jumping and incognolio monikered MacGuffins are sufficiently intriguing until we arrive at a denouement stripped of false-start narrators and red herrings. When the author walks us out on a high, windy bridge to describe the forthcoming suicide of Sussman things get real. The reader discovers that all the narrators and abandoned subplots have been a series of screens intended to obscure the dysphoria of a persona – Author? Protagonist? We can’t say. – who is crippled by grief, failure, mental illness, rejection, and existential anomie. Like the book editor character brought in to fix the novel tells Sussman, “Despite its playfulness, your story’s a tragedy.” (Emphasis added.) Perhaps rowing merrily down the stream of conscious, searching for the meaning of a meaningless word, and peering into as many holes as it takes to fill the Albert Hall took the author to a much different creative plane then the one in which he began. Incognolio is a plotless novel, but it has a compelling emotional arc, and the ending transcends the middle.

The last scenes also happen to display the author’s most effective prose. The book editor critiques, “The author seeks union with himself. To achieve this integration, to cross that threshold into the dark and uncharted recesses of his subconscious, the Author would need to be willing to embrace his monsters, including the source of his self-loathing…The tragedy is that he can’t face his monsters, can’t find a strategy for confronting the things he’s most afraid of. Unable to successfully complete the novel, he self-destructs.” So, Incognolio, after many failed tests, is a laboratory inquiry into the emotional tension of the creative process.

The theoretician Andre Breton defined surrealism as, “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Incognolio is both hard to read and hard not to read, because Sussman provides the amusing lies of his surreal dreamworld at a breathless pace, until the reader is exposed to a truth. The truth being that this dream has, in its way, been a controlled nightmare.

 

 

ARRWhen Speth, 15 year old protagonist, chooses a vow of silence over becoming another mouthpiece for her assigned “brands”, she starts receiving “defriend” notifications from the advertisers on her mandatory wrist wearable. This is the outside-in American future of All Rights Reserved, domed cities where individual words of the common people are billable goods for the affluent, and corporations. All forms of expression, including gestures, hugs, even hairstyles are trademarked, copywritten, and commoditized in a vast hyper-corporate, hyper-litigious electronic architecture. And like all science fiction, author Gregory Katsoulis’ novel is as much a reflection of our present as an imagination of the future.

In a creatively described, Huxley-esque metropolis, smart billboards line streets and bridges to scan passersby and subject them to individually targeted ads. Speth’s family keeps their rent affordable by watching a thirty-hour per month quota of ads on a wall screen that adjusts the volume up if it senses they’re not paying attention. The exaggerations aren’t that far off from today’s real advertising-creep.

In our late capitalist society we participate in aggressive and passive promotion of private enterprise all-day every-day. Watch a movie trailer on the internet and you’re, apparently, willing to abide a thirty second advertisement you didn’t anticipate glued to the front end of the advertisement you did ask to watch. You probably also pay $$$ per month for the privilege of cable television channels re-selling your viewership in the form of commercials. You can’t avoid these syndicate traps, even if you want to. Recently I was in an airport men’s room where my pee flowing into a once complimentary trough irradiated a hidden decal for X brand of beer (the ad disappeared in the flush like a urinary Snapchat™). As consumers, we make many compromises to our privacy because of either what we perceive as the intrinsic value received, or the disturbing reality that we have no choice anyway.

In All Rights Reserved, product placement and corporate profit are layered into every strata under the suffocating dome. Ads constantly intrude into private life, and every conversation generates a receipt-for-purchase on one’s government imposed wrist monitor. Even the utterance of a brand name is subject to remunerative rights collection.

Speth’s city feels a lot like the post-apocalyptic urban outposts of familiar YA series like Divergent, The Giver, and The Host. What sets All Rights Reserved apart is the author’s underlying comment regarding a future both hysterically bleak and alarmingly relevant, where leering Dickensian villains hover over children threatening them with lawsuits and lifetimes of financial servitude. The glimmer of hope is that Speth – frustrated by the suicide of her desperate friend and the detention of her indebted parents – determines to become the first in her society to fearlessly keep her mouth shut. Her silent protest agitates the adult authorities confounded by her insolence, and she inspires a wave of zip-lipped revolt among her teen peers, referred to as The Silents. Katsoulis immerses his reader in this intriguing, coercive culture, which his protagonist – against self-preservation, societal scorn, and murdering thugs – seeks to tear down with only her wits for her weapon.

Equally successful is Katsoulis, a first time novelist, demonstrating a skillful author’s ability to keep increasing danger and doubt in Speth’s mission to rescue her family and perhaps her entire country. Unfortunately, this previous effective stakes-raising leads to the catastrophic, and rather glibly dramatized, death of a major character as the novel rounds into a disappointing third act. As much as I enjoyed the book’s sardonic humor, disheartening absurdity, and sometimes hammy characters, the third act devolves into less original genre action, complete with gunfights, car chases, and a master-villain hackneyed enough to make Snidely Whiplash seem complex. Also, by the end, Katsoulis simply disappears several characters in peril – perhaps in reservation for a sequel, but it felt to me like a lot of loose ends in an otherwise well thought book.

Don’t take my explication of these weaknesses for holding back a recommendation. On the whole, All Rights Reserved is a potent success of imagination, humor, compelling characters and, especially, commentary on the vulnerability of free speech and privacy. I could utter more praise, but as I sit writing in a national brand coffee shop, my handheld device keeps notifying me to drop everything and write an uncompensated review that will boost their coffee’s commercial profile. I guess we’re already there, Speth.

 

 

brundage3Consider All Things Cease To Appear a work of literary merit that happens to begin with a murder suspect ruminating on Emerson and an ax in the skull of the protagonist. In other words, author Elizabeth Brundage eludes the general classification of a novel into Genre Fiction or Literary Fiction.

Genre Fiction usually gets divided into romance, horror, mystery, et cetera and then subdivided into cross genres and further complicated taxa. Literary Fiction is both difficult and easy to classify because it resides in the category of books with no category. Literary Fiction is for sale in the section of your book store where the fog never lifts, its shelve hanging unfastened between the land and sky. Is All Things Cease To Appear a mystery/thriller, a romantic/horror, or a literary fictive with genre elements? Here, context serves as an inside-out metaphor for the content, the imaginary hinterland Brundage creates.

The setting is Chosen, New York, an insular working-class town. George and Catherine Clare, intellectuals from the city, have moved to a house on a foreclosed dairy farm, also the site of the previous family’s tragic self-destruction. While George attends his new position as professor of art history at a nearby college, Catherine forgoes her career in art restoration to become restorian of the spooky, decaying property. She hires the teenage Hale brothers, a sad but bighearted trio, to repaint the exteriors, although she is unaware the house was last the Hale’s home until they were orphaned by their father’s violence and mother’s murder?/suicide.

George Clare teaches study in the Hudson River School of landscape painters, specifically George Innes, whose nineteenth century works were intended to be both observably captivating and spiritually experiential. Meanwhile Catherine Clare is experiencing her own metaphysical shift. She relies on the Hale boys and other new local friendships to navigate passage through her collapsing marriage and creeping ennui. George turns out to be a character perpetrating frauds, betrayals, and violent acts with sociopathic artifice, which culminates in his becoming the prime suspect in Catherine’s gruesome murder.

In its breadth, All Things tells the concentric history of two abused mothers who meet similar tragic fate in the same house at different times. Like any good novel, the story is rich in comparative elements, but referring to Brundage’s elements as ordinary pairings and opposites seems inadequate. Counterpoint might be a closer descriptive (Catherine plays Chopin on piano!), in the sense of independent melodies composed into one harmonic texture: Catherine is the abused mistress of the house, but the ghost of her lost predecessor, Ella Hale, continues to traverse the creaky stairs; the Hale boys still consider the house their property, and yet they are dispossessed from it; the Clares and the Hales are two families at different times appearing, concentrating, and disappearing.

These contrapuntals reflect the novel’s central philosophical platform: reality is a place where morals and meaning are uncertain concepts; time is an ebbing and disappearing focal point; life is a composition of light and darkness- like an Innes landscape that balances land and sky into a vague frontier where all things blend until ceasing to appear. Brundage performs context and content in counterpoint as genre motifs are blended with literary themes and superb prose. In this scene Eddy Hale, working outside Catherine’s house, is both a de facto permanent occupant and a frequent voyeur looking in from the outside:

“Maybe she’d come out to hang the wash. He’d watch her back, her arms reaching up, her elbows as knobby as a garden snail’s. Across the fields that had been his grandfather’s and his great grandfather’s before that, the wind spoke to him. Wait, it said… Now Catherine’s daughter was sleeping in his old room. He wouldn’t tell her. He wouldn’t tell her what had gone on in that house, how his father would come after them, turning over chairs and tables, how his mother would cry up in her room or sometimes sit in one place shaking just a little, like somebody who was scared.”

 

I suppose genre readers could find themselves disappointed to be led into a four hundred page murder mystery that neither provides a competent detective nor concludes with certainty about who is guilty. It is a risk for Brundage to write a beautiful novel wherein beauty and love depend on the unseen, and the success of heroes and demise of villains depends entirely on implication. As Brundage writes- in fog certain things, certain colors become important. Like Innes’s intention that observers of his paintings would have their souls see what their eyes could not, Brundage shows readers that the division of genre and literary fiction, like lateral time and universal logic, is mere optical illusion.

Mystery genre is often the product of formula. webRhianna_Davies_final_hi_res_coverThe motivations of suspects are presented first and then the sleuth’s [reader’s] job is to piece together which motivation found a plot. Most mystery characters are a virtual police lineup of hyper-motivated and obvious schemers. What’s intriguing, and refreshing, about Karen Vorbeck Williams“THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is it’s mixture of subtleties. The novel focuses on a protagonist who is rather ordinary and only ever in the proximity of danger. Or is she?

Winna is a middle-aged divorcee returning home to Colorado to clean out her family manor. In doing so she dusts off family secrets about adultery, hidden jewelry, and suspicious deaths. The deeper Winna digs into old trunks, the more it’s apparent that someone, someone inside her small circle of family and friends, may be trying, subtlety, to kill her. But why?

Williams’ story uncannily makes us feel connected to Winna. Like Winna, we are baffled as to how seemingly trustworthy characters could possibly be suspects, could be killers. It’s true everyone’s behavior toward Winna is slightly selfish or odd. The author inserts clues mostly in the authentic dialogue, hinting at underlying greed or resentment that any of us might be guilty of amongst our closest relations. It’s unnerving because we, as Winna, like the suspects and want to trust them. This is an ingenious strategy for crafting suspense. Who does-she/do-we trust?

One complaint with “THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is the ending, which, for me, was a sort of a flat tire. The revelation of the culprit within Winna’s midst comes without any confrontation. There are also some secondary mysteries going on which are either red-herrings, or dropped when the book ends abruptly at what feels like an enforced three hundred pages. However, I don’t want to spoil the mystery or the experience. I think reading the novel is worth the reader’s time, even if the end is too bad. Williams is gifted in her atmospheric descriptions, drawing characters who feel authentic, and cooking suspense on a gradual roast.

Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though some strange thing happened to you. – 1 Peter 4:12

Norma Zimmer was a gifted soprano who performed for decades on television’s ‘LAWRENCE WELK SHOW.’ Welk even gave Zimmer the title of Champagne Lady, the highest honor among other fine women vocalists on the show. Zimmer accepted that appellation graciously in her autobiography,norma although with reservations about sounding like she would be promoting liquor.

She was raised by alcoholic parents in poverty in the Pacific Northwest. Her parents were emotionally abusive, they smoked cigarettes, and they did not yet know God. But Norma grew up to confess Christ on her own. Throughout her story she draws Christian lessons from a life of “tests” and “fiery ordeals.” Her gifted singing, confident will, and the generosity of early supporters enabled Norma to make a great career of radio/recordings, television, and Christian revival concerts. She describes her adult life with financial comforts, devoted family, and spiritual bliss. Yet through bad luck (or influence of her book editor), tests of her and family’s allegiance to God never abate: toxemic pregnancy, auto accident, crooked car salesman, crooked agent, twisted intestines, psoriasis, debilitating arthritis, broken back, brain shunt, family strokes, sister dies of liver disease, father dead in a car two days, family dog burns the house down, near death penicillin reaction, near death choking on beef Stroganoff, stranded on treacherous river rapids, water skiing accident, downhill skiing accident:

“…’one of the [ski-lift] workers climbed up on the tower to repair it and he called for a peen hammer. They threw one up to him but he missed it and it fell and hit your husband.’ I was crying, and praying, O God, help us! Please protect him, Lord!”

A prayer too late, if you ask me. I imagine if Job read Norma’s autobiography he would say, “Wow, this dame can’t catch a break.”

Still, what also never abates is Norma’s optimism about life, people’s good nature, and her faith in God’s long game. Some readers may discover her buoyant attitude and ornamented writing style ironic, others inspirational. If you are a fan of the ‘LAWRENCE WELK SHOW’, like I am, you already have a sensibility for what is over-decorated but enjoyable. If you take your Lawrence Welk more serious, you might also find Zimmer’s book metaphysically uplifting.

Lawrence Welk

Lawrence Welk

However, if you pray to read more detail about what it was really like working under Welk’s baton for twenty years, God’s answer will be No. There is not much behind the scenes here, except some descriptions of how busy Norma was on days driving between the studio and hospitals, and lists acknowledging all the backstage angels who kept Norma looking grand. I hoped for behind the curtain conflict among the performers, rather than hearing more about Norma’s redoubtable faith in Jesus, no matter what terrible shit life threw at her. I wanted to read more shit about Lawrence the hot-headed puritan, or the over-the-hill band member schtuping a teenage Lennon sister, or the on-camera star who had an off-screen champagne problem.

I admit that despite my being atheist, I did find Norma’s take on life encouraging. She was a person who absolutely believed that smiling into the video camera communicated a hopeful message to viewers. At another scene in the book she describes laying awake with her her croup-afflicted toddler Ronnie, worrying if she should take him to the hospital for a tracheotomy:

“He was barely able to breathe… I lay beside Ronnie, watching and praying. ‘God,’ I prayed over and over, ‘please heal our little son.’ Suddenly I noticed a brightness behind me… Standing near the bed was a lovely blonde woman with a white blouse and dark skirt… She just stood there with a radiant smile on her face, looking down at Ron. Then she just faded away. It was a glorious experience. I felt no fear – just awe. I have always believed that I was permitted to see Ron’s guardian angel.”

A blonde in a blouse and skirt? Who was her son’s guardian angel, Donna Reed?

Off screen Norma Zimmer sounds like she was a bit of a kook, but I’m also convinced, beyond a doubt, that she was a wunnerful, wunnerful lady.

ontennis2To appreciate my commentary regarding ‘ON TENNIS: FIVE ESSAYS ‘by David Foster Wallace, you are going to need know two things about DFW and then two about me. Wallace was a regionally ranked junior tennis athlete whose budding potential fizzled among the competition of a broader geographic draw. Fortunately he fell back on being a brilliant writer of long and lauded novels, and many ironic essays on popular culture, including these pieces about tennis. About me, I play tennis almost everyday, despite being a terrible, talentless athlete, and I’m a sometimes silly, but never ironic, fan of the professional game. Second, I write this commentary a week after attending this year’s Cincinnati Open hardcourt tournament, while also preparing to do nothing else for the next fortnight except watch the U.S. Tennis Open in New York City on television.

This summer when I mentioned my Cincinnati excursion to friends mostly the reaction was the what-where? Upon my establishing that the Cincinnati Open is among the premiere annual events in the international tennis season, the inevitable next question was who’s playing? “Everybody!” I invariably said, and began to tick down a list of the some of the greatest current athletes in the world. “Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena, …” Are you losing interest yet reader? Because when I went any further down that list of current greatest athletes my interlocutor typically started to lose interest too.

This brings me back to ‘ON TENNIS’ and the connecting tissue of DFW’s five essays. He writes about his inexplicable attraction to mediocre-written sports biographies, the mercurial tennis career of Tracy Austin (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”), and the shameless commerciality of the US Open (“Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open”). Most conspicuously, DFW devotes an entire piece to his near-religious experience seeing Roger Federer win Wimbledon in 2005 (“Federer Both Flesh And Not”). David Foster Wallace has been dead eight years, but Roger Federer is still among the top three men’s tennis players in the universe (2015 Cincinnati Open Champion!). Everybody knows FED right? My standard of differentiation between athlete and super-athlete is if my seventy-six year old mother has heard of ’em. Jordan? Navratilova? Manning(s)? If Mom knows vaguely what sport they play they have transcended ordinary athletic fame, as far as I can measure. DFW’s obsession with tennis athletes was a common theme as he depicted them in his essays alternately as either under-appreciated Gods or extraordinary humans possessing cartoon superhero-like powers.

The essay that resonated with me personally was DFW’s documentation of shadowing a then, yet to fizzle, young player named Michael Joyce through qualifying matches at the Canadian Open in 1995 (“Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”). Wallace described himself sitting in a stadium court with the capacity for ten-thousand and counting ninety-three people present, most appearing to be family and friends of Joyce’s opponent, a Canadian college star. Watching Joyce practice and play, DFW reflects on the lonely, mostly unmedia-covered reality of the unknown professional tennis player, and their subsumption of all other benefits of human living to achieve enigmatic victory in one heroic pursuit. As DFW invites us, “try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything.” Even the most dedicated tennis fan probably cannot ever appreciate the amount of personal sacrifice their favorite player has made, and how the athlete consents to commit the healthiest years of their life seeking success in a competition that is seriously small compared to sports with broader appeal.

My husband and I take our vacations, traveling thousands of miles to dreamlands like Cincinnati and other cities hosting less esteemed professional tennis tournaments than the U.S. Open. One reason is we get to see great tennis live and experience the game at a higher level of enjoyment. Also, because we both have our favorite players and smaller tournaments give us close access to our version of celebrities.

On one of the days I was wondering around Lindler Family Tennis Center, annual site of the Cincinnati Open, I accidentally found two of my personal favorite men’s players in practice. Full disclosure, I happen to be gay and it is no accident most of the players who’s careers I follow close also happen to be gifted with extreme physical attractiveness. I will not bother to mention the names of these two European men, only tennis fans have heard of them, but, as of this posting, those two are ranked the eighty-sixth and the eighteenth most talented men’s tennis athletes in the world. Even my exotic number eighteen is an unknown name to most sports fans in the U.S, but he was right there practicing on a tiny, vacant court in Cincinnati, and I was agog. There was no fence between me my tennis idols. They were dressed in practice t’s and witz-cracking with each other in German, completely abstracted to the mortal nearness of me. The only other spectators around were two kids standing by the changeover chairs with jumbo, nine-inch tennis autograph balls and marking pens waning dry in the Ohio sun.

Kids can be really dumb. When I was about seven my father took me to an obscure, outdoor vaudeville revival show at a family campground. I remember pestering the no-name regional actors at the beer keg after their big show for their autographs on paper napkins. For all I know, the campground’s summer-stock might have been volunteer performers. I guess anyone could be made into a hero by seven year old me, if they were doing anything that made people sit and watch for over fifteen minutes. Similarly, I doubt the kids waiting around the Cincinnati practice court even knew the names of the two handsome Euro pros. Collection of an autograph was more vital to those two kids than the once in a lifetime opportunity to interact with the autographer. Top one hundred players, sure, but to a kid the player was just someone their parents dragged them out there to appreciate. My enthusiasm set apart, those two amazing athletes are not famous on the other side of the mesh-windscreened privacy fences of Lindler Family Tennis Center. It is the live tournament atmosphere that makes it feel like a rare and lucky occasion to a pathetic fan like me.

A 2015 Harris poll, that ranks the most popular sports among U.S. adults, determined that pro-football is number one. The next sports ranked, in descending order, were pro-baseball, college football, then auto racing. Women’s tennis came in twelfth most popular, followed by Not Sure. Men’s tennis was in the cellar with the remaining sports anyone can think of, like Horseshoe Pitch, Lumberjacking, and the WNBA.

So, it is not unusual to find oneself at the Cincinnati Open sitting in a coveted low row right at the net during exciting matches that are under-attended or booked disproportionately in giant empty spaces. One of the matches I sought out in Cincinnati started at 3 p.m. on Tuesday in a four-thousand seat stadium court attended by, at best, about three dozen people. We went to watch thirty-two year old and ninety-forth ranked Yen-Hsun Lu (Taiwanese, pronounced loo yen-soon) against our boy, a handsome twenty-four year old, fifteenth ranked player named David Goffin (Belgian, pronounced girl-friend). Goffin’s high rank and angelic beauty set apart, I suspected that many of the people who come out to Lindler Family Tennis on first round

David Goffin

David Goffin

days were probably Cincy-metro locals who dropped by with freebie tickets given away on WKRP. Not me. I bought tickets in advance and drove thirteen hours because I love the early rounds of these tournaments. I study the game of my favorite players up close and steal professional-pointers for my own amateur follies. As DFW wrote, “Television doesn’t really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do, how hard they’re actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical imagination and artistry.” All true, but, full disclosure, a big part of me is seriously interested in seeing David Belgian Girlfriend in the flesh because he is so fucking cute!

Although I was there among hundreds of empty chairs to watch Goffin, I would never make a show of it. Tennis is, above all, a game of expected decorum on behalf of both players and spectators. Such expectations had not been made clear at the gate to a father/son pair a few rows in front of me. I do not want to sound elitist, so try to understand if I describe them as neither dressed nor carrying themselves with the reserve one might anticipate at a world-class tennis event. Nothing prevented them from having their version of a good time. They banged their fists on the backs of chairs sending the sound of metallic vibrations down the aisle. And they hooted like transfers from a brawling hockey match, “Loo! Loo! Loo!” and “Fuck ’em up, Rendy!”

It turns out “Rendy” is the nickname recited loud in public venues among devoted fans of Yen-Hsun Lu, the also pretty cute rival that day of David Goffin. I was able to eavesdrop together that the father/son party had driven seven hundred miles from Minneapolis, even though they had no other personal connection to Rendy Lu at all. They were “just fans.” The idea was weird to me that those two would don their fishing

Yen-Hsun

Yen-Hsun “Rendy” Lu

caps, get in the family pickup, and follow the tennis career of a thirty-two year old, ninety fourth ranked Taiwanese player around the country. But who am I to judge? Were my reasons for being there so much more relatable? I have to say the father/son co-fans of “Loo!” were inspiring. They liked tennis for tennis sake, and wanted thousands of empty chairs to know about it. Is that not what I want for tennis, for other people to like it too?

I posted pictures on Instagram of every living, serving tennis star I saw, and checked-in on Facebook from every court in Cincinnati, but my effort last week did not make tennis a more popular sport. Professional Tennis is terrible at promoting itself, and yet the economy of sponsorship and prize money is enormous. Total prize money for the Cincinnati open is over five million dollars; U.S. Open thirty-nine million. Maybe that is not as enormous as the economy of the NFL, but then, on a curve, the level of athleticism involved would register just as astronomically far beyond my grasp. Whether other people ever get into tennis is neither something I can effect nor something that makes a difference. All I really care is that the game is there for fans and that my favorite players succeed. Tennis is not meaningful, but it is the stuff that makes life endurable. Fame is a state of the fan’s mind.

tennisThis Sports Illustrated book on tennis from 1958 has some invaluable tips for you gals allowed to play mixed-doubles with the man. The list is complicated, so I’ll employ some of my masculine leadership and type for you distaff players only what I judge to be the most important advice:

1. Let your partner serve first. It will make him feel that victory depends on him.

4. Wear the most becoming outfit you can find in your wardrobe, but don’t try to be too spectacular looking. The too intriguing costume can be as disconcerting to your partner as your opponent.

6. Compliment your partner generously but uneffusively when he makes a good shot. His ego is the key to his performance.

7. Don’t chat with the other players or bystanders.

8. Play the net uncomplainingly if your partner asks you to. He may have a reason.

9. Always play your best; men prefer to win.

Now, go have fun ladies. I insist.

soundomusicLast week I paid $40 for a ninety minute class called Marketing For Writers. I’ve paid more and less for similar courses before. Despite my contention that the industry of squeezing money from poor writers is bigger than the companion industry of writing and selling actual books, I did come out of class with some “take aways”, as was phrased by the paid facilitator.[1] Here are a few take aways I’ll spoil you with for free:

The world isn’t going to come to you, Unknown Writer. You have to go to them.

You are the best advocate for your work. You understand your work and care more about it than anybody else ever will.

Make a list of what you’re skilled at besides writing, e.g. my inventory – pubic speaking, writing book reviews/op-eds/social commentary, interviewing people, knowledge of theater and music, schmoozing, people organization and event planning.

Now, where are opportunities in my section of the universe to exercise my skills and introduce myself/my name to potential readers. Are there skills in which I require more training or exposure? 

Start small. Identify local opportunities to support your local writer/reader community, e.g. schools, libraries, colleges, book clubs, churches, podcasts, conferences, association. Small efforts add up and payoff over time.

Become confident talking about yourself and your writing. Write a 30 second elevator pitch and memorize it. 

Design your author specific resume and hand out with your business cards, or bookmarks, or pens what whatever collateral.[2] Don’t be afraid to pitch your ideas to local power brokers. 9 times out of 10 the answer will be no, 10 out of 10 if you never ask.

 

Have many irons in the fire. You never know what opportunity will be the one to propel your writing career.

I want to reflect for a moment on this “have many irons in the fire” guidance. It invokes a condition of anxiety I’ve continually struggled with before and after becoming a fulltime writer. For those who don’t know me personally – I am one lucky sonofabitch. Five years ago when my career in green investments dried up, my gay husband, who is a well-paid physician asked me if I wanted to quit earning money and write. At his insistence? Okay. I could advise you, Fellow Writer, to just marry well and don’t get pregnant. The fact is even I wrestle daily with the clock. I have no job, yet I find all the hours I need each day to beat myself severely for time-mismanagement, distractions, procrastination, and undocumented acts of sloth.

If you’re a writer with a regular job, kids, a house to keep together and you still find time to produce without implementing every insidious method of procrastination, share with me your magic formula. I could never get serious about writing when I was working fulltime on trying to stay afloat in different professional ocean. The marketing class guy said he has three kids and he writes every morning from 4 to 6am. Maybe that’s commitment to craft, but fuck that write? Still, how else are you going to make the time to get anything individually creative done? If we want what writing we can pull off to be read by anybody, according to Teach, we’re going to have to find the time to hand our writer’s resume off to every local Rabbi or Rotary Club secretary.

This guy teaching the class had a lot of super advice for building your personal brand and your author platform, but you can’t even pay somebody to give you 26 hours in a day. Here’s my advice, Dear Writer, for you to take away from this blog post: sit your ass in a chair and write.

Work on your novel, your play, your poetry with the conviction of mind that the only person who’s ever going to be lucky enough to read your bullshit is you. Write for writing sake, then revise, revise, revise. Dedicate what time you have to creating perfection without any concern for who will read you. Is anybody reading this fucking blog post, for example? No. But, I am writing something, anything today, and I believe it will come back to me in some positive way I can’t imagine. Once you’ve written something good, you may make a bubble-tea date with your alderman or neighborhood book yenta. Have many irons in the fire, but make sure your work is always in the hottest spot all day long.

-RFBrown

[1] I once took a class with a professional writing coach who called such of paid-for revelations revealed as Ah, hah moments. “Any AH, HAH’s?” she would ask the class at the end of a session.

[2] The instructor said c.v. I’ve titled my writer resume “Scriptor Vitae.”

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/beautiful-dreamer-classical-music-russell-platt

I had dream about being in a Kmart store in the throes of a blue light special. I do not even remember the story of the dream (there’s no story here), I am just carrying around in my head since childhood this image of that blue siren. In case your childhood was not as fortunate as mine, I will elucidate. When I was a child my mother would take me shopping at Kmart. We might be picking out a new pair of Keds sneakers, for example, when an announcement would be tendered over the store’s PA system:

Attention Kmart Shoppers, there’s a Blue Light Special in women’s hosiery going on now. Two for one on Legs Pantyhose… while the supply lasts!

If my mother wanted to take advantage of the impromptu sale, she would not have to know where hosiery was in our K, she could from almost any vantage point in the store, spot a flashing blue siren in the air. I got close to the alarm system a lot in my day. It was a blue, soundless flashing light, mounted on a tall pole. The pole then trunked up from a rolling cart that could be plugged in any at spot on the sales floor where electricity and amazing deals converged. Does Kmart still do this? Was the dollar-saving opportunity finite within a time frame or supply availability? I don’t know. However, the whole thing strikes me as a remnant of another era of shopping, not just from when Kmart was an iconic store, but from a time when people bought what stores told them too. Was there a time when Kmart could set up blue light over something cheap and shoppers would fly to it like dull-minded moths to a blue flame?

‘Merrily He Rolls Along’ by RF Brown is a complete novel in manuscript. Anybody want to publish? Rep? Here is an excerpt from novelette #2:

Musical Comedy 2: THAT GREAT COME AND GET IT DAY

[Performed in two acts. Inspired by the Broadway musicals of E.Y. Harburg from 1937 to 1957]

ACT ONE

The curtain rises on the drop of Times Square, New York City, a daytime scene, summer of 1994. Downstage are interior sets of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment (stage left) and Murray Hill job placement office (stage right).

(music in, ‘THAT GREAT COME AND GET IT DAY’ from Finian’s Rainbow) 

ALL THE CITIZENS OF NEW YORK CITY (singing) ON THAT GREAT COME AND GET IT DAY / I’LL GET MY GAL THAT CALICO GOWN / I’LL GET MY MULE THAT ACRE OF GROUN’ / THE EARTH BENEATH YOUR PLOW IS A-BUDDIN’ GLORY TIME’S COMIN’ FOR TO STAY

The cat up on the Times Square billboard is dressed only in her unmentionables. Dick stares at her in odd reverie. She is bigger than Dick’s mother’s entire house back in Connecticut and he is a grown man only the weight of a schoolgirl. Standing still on the Broadway sidewalk, he crams his hands in the pockets of his suit so to not get clobbered by the army of pedestrians in t-shirts. It is a tropical day in the city and Dick’s black feathers of hair constrict into seaweed. The catlady on the billboard is crawling over a snowdrift in a white, frosted forest. Her brassiere is made from feline pelt, as is the bikini on her jutting hip. A kinky tail spirals from her furry underpants. Maybe the corporate billboarders plotted some exotic fantasy to possess Dick, but their snow job is a flop with him. Under the catlady another smaller billboard reads Bloomer Girl- The Musical Revival.

New York City, New York is a colony of eight million flashing messages, and Times Square is the national gateway for confusion. Dick cannot size a wrench on what has gone wrong with this once wonderful place he has admired, from far away and up close, all of his twenty-four years. He is not ashamed to tell the catlady just what he thinks, “Gee whiz, I think a lady ought to show some class, you know?” The catlady does not answer back or break from her steamy character.

Dick crosses Broadway at 51 Street and guards with his hand the red carnation in his buttonhole against the crush of tourists. The sidewalk looks like the import fair at Bloomingdale’s with a thousand international products. Some faces are nervous, others seem amazed or even mental. The sidewalk parts like a grand drape as pedestrians step aside for an instant performance. Five youngsters costumed as separate mechanical gears organize into one complex, dancing robot. Nearby a hobo lies prostrate on the curb, ignored. Above the body of the hobo is a kingsize display of a fairy-like little boy blowing pixie dust over the hobo and the oblivious robot spectators. The ferry’s blue eyes and gentle black hair curls remind Dick of how he must have to looked to adults in his own magic childhood, not so long ago.

Whenever Dick goes on his dopey detours among the horde in Times Square he sees the human species accelerating. Folks down here are evolving faster than the New Yorkers Dick knows uptown at Knickerbocker College. Down here they are shrewder. Their skin pigments form a rainbow. Dick is a short man no matter where he travels, but in Times Square even little kids are taller.

Dick’s neck sweats in the wide apertures of sunglare between buildings, but it is alternately cold within the sharp shadows from construction overhead. He pulls the sides of his suitjacket together against sudden wind whirling through the canyon of skyscrapers. The wind blows the smells of kabob cart propane, overstuffed garbage cans and Bonwit’s perfume sample. He listens. The underscore is idling truck engines, a chorus of tourists cheering, “Get a snapshot of it!” and an old, buzzed shoeshiner at his antique pedestal trumpeting, “We take credit cards!”

Dick strolls by where the automat was at Broadway and 46. He remembers once the place was called World’s Friendliest Food. On childhood theater excursions into the city his auntie took him there to eat after the shows. He would get a grilled cheese sandwich with hot cocoa. His auntie, who was a librarian back in central Connecticut, would bring a split size bottle of fino sherry in her purse because that is what she read Hart Crane drank all night here while he was sitting in a booth and writing the lyrical poems of White Buildings. Today World’s Friendliest Food has the brand name of a national Mexican cantina. From a certain angle on the sidewalk Dick can still see the handle of the giant metal coffee cup-and-saucer sign that pumped realistic steam from hot looking imaginary java. The steam is turned off now and over the rest of the old sign they have draped a wide plastic canvas that reads: $15 Fiesta Del Tamale!

At 44 Street Dick walks under the famous neon sign of the Hotel Longacre. He just read in a backnumber of Look magazine at the New York Public Library about a once famous actor with a lady-killing mustache who snuck his underage male escort up to a suite. The scene was a career ending scandal for both of them when the boyfriend was found cold on a drug overdose. Mister Longacre must have had a crystal ball view of crummy hotel occupancy years when he leased an entire side of their building to a permanent mural, which declares walnuts the fun subway crunch.

“In my book, New York City is a kingsize walnut!” Dick tells the mural out loud. “I see a hard wrinkled shell on the outside that you need a special tool or thingamajig to crack. Even when you make it to the nut, it’s so chewy you can’t ever swallow it. I know, National Board of Walnut Farmers,” Dick says. “I know because I’m a trained dramaturge trying to squish out a living here in New York City, New York.” There is no reply from the mural or the Walnut Farmers who underwrote the message.

Dick almost did not recognize the façade of the old Pompey Theatre on 41 Street. His auntie brought him here to see his first musical on Broadway when he was ten years old. The Pompey Theatre still stands, six stories of limestone in Corinthian architecture. Back then there were yellow marble columns and bronze capitals holding a sculpture of theatrical masks, flowered wreaths, and ribboned scrolls. Today the theater’s old face is obscured by a wall of spinning electronic signs. Dick sees crazy and looping images of endless energy-happy dancers from whatever new show is running. If his auntie were here she would say it’s like a vodou mambo’s nightmare. The theater’s name has been sold to a bigtime corporation. Now they expect a busy generation to call it the Connecticut Life and Accident Insurance New Pompey Theatre. Now tourists bring their children to the theater to see the Broadway musical version of the movie that was playing last year at Twin Cinemas.

Dick stands near the corner outside the Pompey. He can still see, if only in two dimensions, much of Her original face behind the mask of animated signs. He asks Her outloud, “Tell me something, oh great Pompey Theatre, as man evolves from monkey does theater wink out of existence?” The theater does not answer. Dick raises his hand in a gesture he learned as a kid at summer camp– thumb and two first fingers extended with third and fourth fingers closed– and recites a pledge aloud from the sidewalk. “Oh, Dear Pompey, forgotten gentlelady of Broadway, today I must temporarily mix up the plan for my life, not because I’m trying to deal around my promise to make it as a dramaturge. My roommates tell me I’m a flop so far and I have to go start earning some dough. Still, I pledge my loyalty. I won’t forget all the good, first rate things you symbolize. That’s why I raise my hand and swear my oath to you. Gee, I’m sure you don’t even remember my name, Pompey, but someday soon I know you will. I swear that not in words, or songs will I ever fail you or even come off crosseyed. I will tell the truth and always find my way back to you without a moral pimple on me. Gloriosky, when I make a pledge, Pompey, it’s the same as corked and wrapped. So long for today, Auntie Pompey. Long live the broad way of life!”

When he talks to buildings, Dick knows tourists of Times Square probably think he is a kook, but kooks probably are what a lot of tourists come all the way to see. He remembers something from a class at Knickerbocker College, Theatre and Surrealistic Theory Seminar 3025: logic is a guillotine that chops the head off a guy’s creativity. Just then a lady wearing goony sunglasses made to look like Mickey Mouse ears over her eyes tosses two dollar bills at Dick’s self-polished shoes.

A theatrical dramaturge like Dick could spend a bundle of time, or all his life, studying the sciences of tragedy and comedy. Opportunities to participate in his craft are limited. New York City is the worldwide headquarters of the theater, but some who work behind the curtains say competition to work is fixed by the musical-comedy cartel, the walnut crackers. Even if a theatrical artist’s only wish is to bring joy and wonder to the world, he may as well get busy doing something else. Dick spends most of his energy not playing his instrument, but securing a means of financial support. Recently separated from his wetnurse called Knickerbocker College, he will have to take on some temporary detail to underwrite his theatrical gifts, gigs that are unlikely to stimulate his creative process or employ his artistic talents.

If the truth be known, Dick no longer has the nerve for treading the theater boards himself. Although he came up as one of the new faces of central Connecticut in acting, singing, and dance, he never got square with public adulation. The adult Dick has no desire toward performing before an audience. He both loves applause and fears it. Three months ago he graduated cum duly, class of 1994, earning an undergraduate baccalaureate in Dramaturgy and Theatrical Theory. His post-collegium plan is to finally shine past his reputation as the boy with nectarine cheeks and licorice whip hair, to think out how to get recognized for something important, something. Dick knows they do not hand out Tony Awards for seeing musicals from rush seats or standing in line all night for free Shakespeare in the Park. Yet, certainly someone in this capital city of talent will take notice of Dick’s ear for a dynamite score or keen eye for the next Oklahoma. If the truth be known, he might maybe someday lead an artistic revolution in musical theater.

Lights up, interior set of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment, stage left

“Revolution, my Jew-lessie ass!” Teddi reminds Dick later that day back at their flat. Teddi is one of Dick’s roommates and his closest chum from Knickerbocker College. She is also a force of nature, most wisely from which one should flee. Her tidal wave of frizzy hair is permanent-temporarily compressed in the middle by a men’s black kippah she insisted wearing on her batmitzvah, despite the Conservative broyges of her temple, and has worn every day for years since, even today in the shower.

“You want everybody to think you subscribe to the acting techniques of Stella Adler, Dickie!” Teddi lectures from behind the curtain of the bathtub in their Hell’s Kitchen kitchen. “You’re trapped in Strasberg’s paternalistic method of channeling affected memory. Adler demands we live in the organic moment! Confront it, Dickie, you’re Strasbergian!”

Perhaps Teddi is not just saying. Dick remembers there was a ton of stuff in college about progressing past the male dominance of Strasberg and his group. Today Dick feels like he really knows where old, grumpy Strasberg was coming from. He could probably write a one man show about being forced to act like the father figure in this apartment. The theory of a twenty-four year old fresh undergraduate finding a paid dramaturge gig in New York City theater is beginning to look irresponsible in practice, even to person with childlike optimism such as Dick.

Danny Kaye is reliably irritating in UP IN ARMS, a musical worth one great number. In this case, “Tess’s Torch Song” with Dinah Shore

This guy’s list is unbelievably bad, but it’s list

25 Greatest Film Musicals Of All Time.

NIGHT AND DAY clips

A couple of worthwhile scenes from the 1946 Cole Porter biopic NIGHT AND DAY with Cary Grant.

First, an amazing tap number featuring a specialty named Estelle Sloan. If anybody knows, I’d like to find out if the spinning move is called something other than spinning-around-real-fast:

Then there’s Mary Martin doing her signature song “My Heart Belongs To Daddy.” I think this was what was called “risqué:

Once you’ve seen these, you can probably skip NIGHT AND DAY.

Trivia: Mary Martin was the mother of recently passed actor Larry Hagman, I Dream of Genie and J.R. Ewing

Les Mojis

Cant believe the synchronicity is this number. Fred Astaire w/Vera Ellen in Three Little Words. 1950 movie with vaudeville era dancing

 

 

Vera & Fred in “Where Did You Get That Girl?” – YouTube.

Warner Bros musicals didnt have the celebrity names like MGM, but this is a great number from “The Time The Place And The Girl”, 1946. Very catchy

timeplacegirl

Time, The Place And The Girl, The (1946) — (Movie Clip) I Happened To Walk Down First Street.

I think Gene Nelson was WBs version of MGMs Gene Kelly: dance, voice, looks, atheleticism, not to mentions Genes. This isnt the best production number, but it’s one of a kind

Gene Nelson - "She's Working Her Way Through College"

Gene Nelson – “She’s Working Her Way Through College”

Gene Nelson: Am I In Love – TCM CLASSIC FILM UNION Video.

theguardian 05.07.12

Julian Barnes: my life as a bibliophile

From school prizes to writing his own novels, the author reflects on his lifelong bibliomania and explains why, despite e-readers and Amazon, he believes the physical book and bookshops will survive
second-hand bookshop

I have lived in books, for books, by and with books; in recent years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to live frombooks. And it was through books that I first realised there were other worlds beyond my own; first imagined what it might be like to be another person; first encountered that deeply intimate bond made when a writer’s voice gets inside a reader’s head. I was perhaps lucky that for the first 10 years of my life there was no competition from television; and when one finally arrived in the household, it was under the strict control of my parents. They were both schoolteachers, so respect for the book and what it contained were implicit. We didn’t go to church, but we did go to the library.
My maternal grandparents were also teachers. Grandpa had a mail-order set of Dickens and a Nelson’s Cyclopaedia in about 30 small red volumes. My parents had classier and more varied books, and in later life became members of the Folio Society. I grew up assuming that all homes contained books; that this was normal. It was normal, too, that they were valued for their usefulness: to learn from at school, to dispense and verify information, and to entertain during the holidays. My father had collections of Times Fourth Leaders; my mother might enjoy a Nancy Mitford. Their shelves also contained the leather-bound prizes my father had won at Ilkeston County School between 1921 and 1925, for “General Proficiency” or “General Excellence”: The Pageant of English Prose, Goldsmith’sPoetical Works, Cary’s Dante, Lytton’sLast of the Barons, Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth.
None of these works excited me as a boy. I first started investigating my parents’ shelves (and those of my grandparents, and of my older brother) when awareness of sex dawned. Grandpa’s library contained little lubricity except a scene or two in John Masters’s Bhowani Junction; my parents had William Orpen’s History of Artwith several important black-and-white illustrations; but my brother owned a copy of Petronius’s Satyricon, which was the hottest book by far on the home shelves. The Romans definitely led a more riotous life than the one I witnessed around me in Northwood, Middlesex. Banquets, slave girls, orgies, all sorts of stuff. I wonder if my brother noticed that after a while some of the pages of hisSatyricon were almost falling from the spine. Foolishly, I assumed all his ancient classics must have similar erotic content. I spent many a dull day with his Hesiod before concluding that this wasn’t the case.
The local high street included an establishment we referred to as “the bookshop”. In fact, it was a fancy-goods store plus stationer’s with a downstairs room, about half of which was given over to books. Some of them were quite respectable – Penguin classics, Penguin and Pan fiction. Part of me assumed that these were all the books that there were. I mean, I knew there were different books in the public library, and there were school books, which were again different; but in terms of the wider world of books, I assumed this tiny sample was somehow representative. Occasionally, in another suburb or town, we might visit a “real” bookshop, which usually turned out to be a branch of WH Smith.
The only variant book-source came if you won a school prize (I was at City of London, then on Victoria Embankment next to Blackfriars Bridge). Winners were allowed to choose their own books, usually under parental supervision. But again, this was somehow a narrowing rather than a broadening exercise. You could choose them only from a selection available at a private showroom in an office block on the South Bank: a place both slightly mysterious and utterly functional. It was, I later discovered, yet another part of WH Smith. Here were books of weight and worthiness, the sort to be admired rather than perhaps ever read. Your school prize would have a particular value, you chose a book for up to that amount, whereupon it vanished from your sight, to reappear on Lord Mayor’s prize day, when the Lord Mayor of London, in full regalia, would personally hand it over to you. Now it would contain a pasted-in page on the front end-paper describing your achievement, while the cloth cover bore the gilt-embossed school arms. I can remember little of what I obediently chose when guided by my parents. But in 1963 I won the Mortimer English prize and, being now 17, must have gone by myself to that depository of seriousness, where I found (whose slip-up could it have been?) a copy of Ulysses. I can still see the disapproving face of the Lord Mayor as his protectively gloved hand passed over to me this notoriously filthy novel.
By now, I was beginning to view books as more than just utilitarian, sources of information, instruction, delight or titillation. First there was the excitement and meaning of possession. To own a certain book – one you had chosen yourself – was to define yourself. And that self-definition had to be protected, physically. So I would cover my favourite books (paperbacks, inevitably, out of financial constraint) with transparent Fablon. First, though, I would write my name – in a recently acquired italic hand, in blue ink, underlined with red – on the edge of the inside cover. The Fablon would then be cut and fitted so that it also protected the ownership signature. Some of these books – for instance, David Magarshack’s Penguin translations of the Russian classics – are still on my shelves.
Self-definition was one kind of magic. And then I was slowly introduced to another kind: that of the old, the secondhand, the non-new book. I remember a line of Auden first editions in the glass-fronted bookcase of a neighbour: a man, moreover, who had actually known Auden decades previously, and even played cricket with him. These facts seemed to me astonishing. I had never set eyes on a writer, or known anyone who had known a writer. I might have heard one or two on the wireless, seen one or two on television in a Face to Faceinterview with John Freeman. But our family’s nearest connection to literature was the fact that my father had read modern languages at Nottingham University, where the professor wasErnest Weekley, whose wife had run off with DH Lawrence. Oh, and my mother had once seen RD Smith, husband ofOlivia Manning, on a Birmingham station platform. Yet here were the ownership copies of someone who had known one of the country’s most famous living poets. Further, these books contained Auden’s still-echoing words in the form in which they had first come into the world. I sensed this magic sharply, and wanted part of it. So, from my student years, I became a book-collector as well as a book-user, and discovered that bookshops weren’t all owned by WH Smith.
Over the next decade or so – from the late 1960s to the late 70s – I became a tireless book-hunter, driving to the market towns and cathedral cities of England in my Morris Traveller and loading it with books bought at a rate that far exceeded any possible reading speed. This was a time when most towns of reasonable size had at least one large, long-established secondhand bookshop, often found within the shadow of the cathedral or city church; as I remember, you could usually park right outside for as long as you wanted. Without exception these would be independently owned shops – sometimes with a selection of new books at the front – and I immediately felt at home in them. The atmosphere, for a start, was so different. Here books seemed to be valued, and to form part of a continuing culture.
By now, I probably preferred secondhand books to new ones. In America such items were disparagingly referred to as “previously owned”; but this very continuity of ownership was part of their charm. A book dispensed its explanation of the world to one person, then another, and so on down the generations; different hands held the same book and drew sometimes the same, sometimes a different wisdom from it. Old books showed their age: they had fox marks the way old people had liver spots. They also smelt good – even when they reeked of cigarettes and (occasionally) cigars. And many might disgorge pungent ephemera: ancient publishers’ announcements and old bookmarks – often for insurance companies or Sunlight soap.
So I would drive to Salisbury, Petersfield, Aylesbury, Southport, Cheltenham, Guildford, getting into back rooms and locked warehouses and storesheds whenever I could. I was much less at ease in places that smelt of fine bindings, or that knew all too well the value of each item of stock. I preferred the democratic clutter of a shop whose stock was roughly ordered and where bargains were possible. In those days, even in shops selling new books, there was none of the ferociously fast stock turnaround that modern central management imposes. Nowadays, the average shelf-life of a new hardback novel – assuming it can reach a shelf in the first place – is four months. Then, books would stay on the shelves until someone bought them, or they might be reluctantly put into a special sale, or moved to the secondhand department, where they might rest for years on end. That book you couldn’t afford, or weren’t sure you really wanted, would often still be there on your return trip the following year. Secondhand shops also taught the lesson of the writer who has gone out of fashion. Charles Morgan,Hugh WalpoleDornford YatesLord LyttonMrs Henry Wood – there would be yards and yards of them out there, waiting for fashion to turn again. It rarely did.
I bought with a hunger that I recognise, looking back, was a kind of neediness: well, bibliomania is a known condition. Book-buying certainly consumed more than half of my disposable income. I bought first editions of the writers I most admired: Waugh, Greene, Huxley, Durrell, Betjeman. I bought first editions of Victorian poets such as Tennyson and Browning (neither of whom I had read) because they seemed astonishingly cheap. The dividing line between books I liked, books I thought I would like, books I hoped I would like and books I didn’t like now but thought I might at some future date was rarely distinct.
I collected King PenguinsBatsford books on the countryside, and the Britain in Pictures series produced by Collins in the 1940s and 50s. I bought poetry pamphlets and leather-backed French encyclopaedias published by Larousse; cartoon books and Victorian keepsakes; out-of-date dictionaries and bound copies of magazines from the Cornhill tothe Strand. I bought a copy of Sensation!, the first Belgian edition of Waugh’sScoop. I even made up a category called Odd Books, used to justify eccentric purchases such as Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s Pig-Sticking or Hog-Hunting,Bombadier Billy Wells’s Physical Energy,Cheiro’s Guide to the Hand and Tap-Dancing Made Easy by “Isolde”. All are still on my shelves, if rarely consulted. I also bought books it made no sense to buy, either at the time or in retrospect – like all three volumes (in first edition, with dust-wrappers, and definitely unread by the previous owner) of Sir Anthony Eden’s memoirs. Where was the sense in that?
My case was made worse by the fact that I was, in the jargon of the trade, a completist. So, for instance, because I had admired the few plays of Shaw that I’d seen, I ended up with several feet of his work, even down to obscure pamphlets about vegetarianism. Since Shaw was so popular, and his print-runs accordingly vast, I never paid much for any of this collection. Which also meant that when, 30 years later, having become less keen on Shaw’s didacticism and self-conscious wit, I decided to sell out, a clear minus profit was made.
Occasionally, there were thrilling discoveries. In the back warehouse of F Weatherhead & Son of Aylesbury, I found a copy of the first two cantos of Byron’sDon Juan, published without the author’s name in 1819. This rare first edition, bound in blue cloth, cost me 12/6d (or 62.5p). I would like to pretend (as I occasionally used to) that it was my specialist knowledge of Byronic bibliography that led me to spot it. But this would have been to ignore the full pencil note from the bookseller inside the front cover (“Cantos I and II appeared in London in July 1819 without the name of either author or bookseller in a thin quarto”). The price of 12/6d therefore couldn’t have been an oversight; more likely, it was an indication that the book had been on the shelves for decades.
Just as often, however, I would make serious mistakes. Why, for instance, did I buy, from DM Beach of Salisbury, Oliver Twist in its original monthly parts, as first issued by Bentley’s Miscellany? It was a good idea because they were in perfect condition, with fine plates, covers and advertisements. It was a bad idea because one of the parts (either the first or last) was missing – hence the set’s near-affordability. It was an optimistic idea because I was sure I would be able to track down the missing part at some moment in my collecting life. Needless to say, I never did, and this idiocy rebuked me from my shelves for many years.
Then there were moments when I realised that the world of books and book-collecting was not exactly as I’d imagined it. While I was familiar with famous cases of book forgery, I always assumed that collectors were honest and straightforward folk (I used to think the same about gardeners, too). Then, one day, I found myself at the Lilies in Weedon, Bucks – “by appointment only” – a 35-room Victorian mansion so stuffed with books that a visit occupied most of the day. Among its first edition section I found a book I had been chasing for years: Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. It lacked a dustwrapper (which was normal – few early Waugh-buyers failed to discard the jackets), but was in pristine condition. The price was … astonishingly low. Then I read a little pencilled note which explained why. It was in the handwriting, and with the signature, ofRoger Senhouse, the Bloomsburyite publisher who was Lytton Strachey’s last lover. It read – and I quote from memory – “This second impression was left on my shelves in the place of my own first edition.” I was deeply shocked. Clearly, it had not been a spur-of-the- moment act. The culprit must have arrived chez Senhouse with this copy concealed about him – I assumed it was a he not a she – then managed the switch when no one was in the room. Who could it have been? Might I ever be tempted to such action? (Yes, I subsequently was – tempted, that is.) And might someone do that to me and my collection one day? (Not as far as I know.)
More recently, I heard another version of this story, from a different point of view. A reader sent a rather famous living author a copy of an early novel of his (one whose first print-run was under a thousand copies), asking for a signature and enclosing return postage. After a while, a parcel arrived containing the novel, duly signed by the author – except that he had retained the valuable first edition and sent a second impression instead.
Back then, book-hunting involved high mileage, slow accumulation and frequent frustration; the side-effect was a tendency, when you failed to find what you wanted, to buy a scattershot array of stuff to prove that your journey hadn’t been wasted. This manner of acquisition is no longer possible, or no longer makes sense. All those old, rambling, beautifully-sited shops have gone. Here is Roy Harley Lewis’s The Book-Browser’s Guide to Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops(second edition, 1982) on DM Beach of Salisbury: “There are a number of bookshops on sites so valuable that the proprietors could realise a small fortune by selling up and working from home … While property prices in Wiltshire cannot compare with (say) London, this marvellous corner site in the High Street is an enormous overhead for any bookshop.” Beach’s closed in 1999;Weatherhead’s (which had its own printed paper bag) in 1998; the Lilies – which was full of stray exhibits such as John Cowper Powys’s death-maskand “the clock that belonged to the people who put the engine in the boat that Shelley drowned in” – is no more. The bigger, and the more general, the more vulnerable, seems to have been the rule.
Collecting has also been changed utterly by the internet. It took me perhaps a dozen years to find a first edition of Vile Bodies for about £25. Today, 30 seconds with abebooks.co.uk will turn up two dozen first editions of varied condition and prices (the most expensive, with that rarest of Waugh dustwrappers, run from $15,000 to $28,000). When the great English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald died, I decided as homage to buy first editions (with dustwrappers) of her last four novels – the four that established her greatness. This all took less time than it would to find a parking space nowadays near the spot where Beach’s bookshop used to exist. And while I could go on about the “romance” and “serendipity of discovery” – and yes, there was romance – the old system was neither time- nor cost-effective.
I became a bit less of a book-collector (or, perhaps, book-fetishist) after I published my first novel. Perhaps, at some subconscious level, I decided that since I was now producing my own first editions, I needed other people’s less. I even started to sell books, which once would have seemed inconceivable. Not that this slowed my rate of acquisition: I still buy books faster than I can read them. But again, this feels completely normal: how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life. And I remain deeply attached to the physical book and the physical bookshop.
The current pressures on both are enormous. My last novel would have cost you £12.99 in a bookshop, about half that (plus postage) online, and a mere £4.79 as a Kindle download. The economics seem unanswerable. Yet, fortunately, economics have never entirely controlled either reading or book-buying. John Updike, towards the end of his life, became pessimistic about the future of the printed book:
For who, in that unthinkable future
When I am dead, will read? The printed page
Was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder …
I am more optimistic, both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader. Nor do I think the e-reader will ever completely supplant the physical book – even if it does so numerically. Every book feels and looks different in your hands; every Kindle download feels and looks exactly the same (though perhaps the e-reader will one day contain a “smell” function, which you will click to make your electronic Dickens novel suddenly reek of damp paper, fox marks and nicotine).
Books will have to earn their keep – and so will bookshops. Books will have to become more desirable: not luxury goods, but well-designed, attractive, making us want to pick them up, buy them, give them as presents, keep them, think about rereading them, and remember in later years that this was the edition in which we first encountered what lay inside. I have no luddite prejudice against new technology; it’s just that books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information. My father’s school prizes are nowadays on my shelves, 90 years after he first won them. I’d rather read Goldsmith’s poems in this form than online.
The American writer and dilettanteLogan Pearsall Smith once said: “Some people think that life is the thing; but I prefer reading.” When I first came across this, I thought it witty; now I find it – as I do many aphorisms – a slick untruth. Life and reading are not separate activities. The distinction is false (as it is when Yeats imagines a choice between “perfection of the life, or of the work”). When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.
• A Life with Books (£1.99) is a pamphlet published by Jonathan Cape to celebrate Independent Booksellers Week and is available exclusively in independent bookshops. All proceeds from the sales of the pamphlet go to the charity Freedom from Torture. IBW runs 30 June-7 July. For more details go to:www.independentbooksellersweek.org.uk

Top 10 Richard Rodgers Songs

  1. Overture (Ted Sperling)

    Overture (Ted Sperling)

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  2. Mountain Greenery

    Mountain Greenery

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  3. Oh, What A Beatiful Morning

    Oh, What A Beatiful Morning

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  4. Getting To Know You (Bing Crosby)

    Getting To Know You (Bing Crosby)

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  5. I Have Dreamed [The King and I]

    I Have Dreamed [The King and I]

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  6. You Took Advantage Of Me (Linda Ronstadt)

    You Took Advantage Of Me (Linda Ronstadt)

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  7. My Funny Valentine (Frank Sinatra)

    My Funny Valentine (Frank Sinatra)

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  8. Have You Met Miss Jones?

    Have You Met Miss Jones?

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  9. What's The Use Of Wond'rin'?

    What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’?

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  10. Some Enchanted Evening (Paulo Szot)

    Some Enchanted Evening (Paulo Szot)

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