So Out Of It

So Out Of It

I’m not sure when I lost my grip on popular culture. It’s gone, long gone, but when and how did I fall off the face of the contemporary world? I’ll admit to having been stuck in Old World conventions for a very long time, sincerely missing vaudeville, watching Fred Astaire and Eddie Bracken, reading P.G. Wodehouse, collecting chinaware produced in the 1930’s, but I wasn’t entirely asleep. Not entirely.

I think the last moment in which I could safely argue that I was fully conversant with best selling books, edgy new movies, trends in the arts, political movements, fashion, television and musical genres was somewhere between the late 1980’s and the mid 1990’s. Converse All Stars, break dancing, Hacky-Sack, Nightmare on Elm Street, Nintendo, Beanie Babies, Elmo, Boy Bands, Weird Al, Spice Girls, Pokemon, Grunge.

The Macarena.

Not lost yet.

Then, I don’t know, I just started to miss cues. P2p file sharing, World Series of Poker, online slang, Cold Play, Kanye, Arctic Monkeys …

All of which is to say that I missed the apparent storm surrounding Lil Nas X and Old Town Road – for those as clueless as I, a contemporary pop culture reference to a spat between country music purists and those who welcome a broader definition of genre in the streaming age. This is the cover story in this week’s edition of Time Magazine and one I was determined to understand, especially as I had recently heard a podcast (thanks to my daughter) in which a writer described being uncomfortable when asked to respond vocally when attending a concert. His inspired fanciful example: I say ‘Quoth the Raven’, you say ‘Nevermore’, to which his partner replied, “You heard Poe rap?”

Faithful readers will remember that I’ve been unearthing landmines in the battleground of genre. So, while I’ve never been rocked by Poe, I did immediately wonder how other less contemporary voices might have crossed genres, immediately moving to Robert Frost, as one does. Thus, “Out, Out-“

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped sticks so hard,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes saw shit
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far, Vermont, you mother
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, like life was battled
And nothing happened: day was almost done
Call it a day, make some fun
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much standing in the shower

His sister stood beside him. She the law
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out the boy’s hand, like payin’ rent
He must have given the hand. However it was
Neither refused the meeting, give up the buzz.
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up half
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then cuz the boy was deep
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a kid with a toy— 
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him bring no groun’ cloth ’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark real steady.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse say death.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and no more part.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, went on to play.

As I look at what I’ve done to Frost, two ideas come quickly and in opposition. The first is that I have taken a chainsaw to a truly subtle poem; the second is that even with my mucking around, some of Frost’s tone remains. Frost would have been nauseated by the use of forced end rhymes; he prefered internal rhyme, midpoint full stops, and iambic pentameter to evoke heightened speech; I tried to leave those conventions in place where possible, but see the franken-foolishness of mixing scraps. What seems clear is that without a driving beat or chorus, this version remains self-consciously literary. There’s no room for other voices, affirmation, emphasis, syncopation, off-beat, back-beat, amplification. What musical bed belongs under this piece? Nothing hops into view.

Is rap poetry? Both use words, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, both are spoken, or can be spoken. If a connection helps poetry appear more hip and rap more edifying, sure. But the difference between coming into being as music and coming into being as typography is enormous. My sensibilities are inevitably stuck somewhere between the last two years of college and the first five years of my working life. I stretch from time to time, and I admire genius when it appears in any context, but there are only so many new tricks this old dog can take on.

Why Stop With Greenland?

Why Stop With Greenland?

Mr. President, your call to the Prime Minister of New Zealand is going through.  The Prime Minister will be on line four.

Good.  Good. Big League conversation.  I have the best words ready for him.

The Prime Minister is a woman, Mr. President.

Is she one of those Mannies?

Sir?

Aborigine?  Native Zealand?

Maori?

One of those?

No, sir.  Not that I know of.

What do I call her?

Uh, Madam Prime Minister

Weak?

Uh, Sir?

Is she weak?  Didn’t they go soft on guns?

The Mosque shootings in Christchurch, Sir.  More than fifty dead. New Zealand is moving toward reform of its gun laws.

Just Muslims?

The Prime Minister is on line four, Sir.

Ms. Prime Minister.  How’s it going down under?  What time is it?

Mr. President …

It’s nine thirty here.

Uh, one thirty here, Mr. President.

In the afternoon?

Yes.  Wednesday afternoon.

No, Tuesday.

Tuesday in the States, Mr. President.  Wednesday here.

I know that.  I’m a very smart guy, you know.  I went to the best college in the country, had the best tv show, then won the presidency on the first try, pretty much genius, really.

Of course.  How can I be of help, Mr. President?

Well, we’re buying Greenland, and I thought, what the hell, let’s’ put out feelers on New Zealand while we’re at it.

I’m sorry.  Feelers?

Just a ballpark, you know.  It’s not a big country. What would it take to put a deal together?

To buy my country?

Renting is bad.  Stupid. I’m not stupid.  We’re not going to rent.

New Zealand is not for sale, Mr. President.

Listen, we have all these people who are over one hundred and six years old on the books , did you know that?  On Social Security and Medicare. Killing us. Killing us.  

One hundred and six …

They aren’t there.  Fakers. Faking it. We’ve got to find them.  That’s the kind of people we have now. Losers.  Takers. Take. Take. Take. Socialists. That’s why I’m draining the swamp.

I’m a social democrat, Mr. President.  A progressive. I was elected …

Waste.  Terrible waste.  We need a place to put people.  And resorts. I know resorts.

In New Zealand?

I have a terrific relationship with Australia, you know.  Asia is out of control, now. Terrible. China cheating. Still trying to get out of Obama’s war in Afghanistan.  We need the little countries to cooperate. My first term has been fantastic. Fabulous. Incredible when you think about it.  It’s all about knowing how to close a deal… Can’t be weak. How old are you? You don’t sound old.

I’m thirty-seven, Mr. President.

You sound attractive.  Not heavy, like … some.  You know the queen … I met the queen … nice lady.  She’s old. Not that heavy. That’s not what I meant.  Some women let themselves go, if you know what I mean…

Mr. President …

Not you.  I’m sure. You sound young.  It’s scary to be out there on your own.  You don’t want to be left out. That’s stupid.  Pathetic, really. Sad. I hate to think of New Zealand out there all by itself.  Japan is going military, you know. North Korea could choke at any moment.

Are you threatening … We have economic cooperation with China and Australia, Mr. President.  We had hoped that the Trans Pacific Partnership would serve us all …

Bad deal.  That was a terrible deal.  For us. We put us first. No more bad deals.  Greenland is a good deal for both sides. Nobody lives there.  Lots of water. We can sell water …

Does that mean that you do admit that the climate is changing?  We are seeing …

Fake news.  Made up by the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.  Fake. Sad, really. Great weather here. Beautiful. I played golf yesterday …

I have to get back to work, Mr. President. Goodbye.

Well, consider the offer.  I think the Danes will cave sooner or later.

Mr. President, your call to Cyprus is waiting.

Gerade Noch Rechtzeitig – Genre # 7 – Time Travel

Gerade Noch Rechtzeitig – Genre # 7 – Time Travel

Ronald Bridges was just about to pop the thick witted fleshy stooge handling reservations for the season’s stakeout.  Twelve spots had already gone; only two remained active, und so ein idiot moved with deliberate attention to smudges of grease on the glass countertop, apparently entranced by the prospect of wiping the counter clean.  “Gotta be careful,” he cautioned himself. The last round of testing had cleared him, but just barely; the evaluator had noted his short fuse and ready flashpoint. “Could be impulsive,” the pencil necked doctor had warned, as if Bridges had actually reached across the desk and squeezed his larynx until it split in the large man’s fingers, as Bridges had imagined doing.  Head down, fingers glued to the keyboard, the doctor had not noticed the balled fists or the vein throbbing in Bridges’ forehead.

Good thing.

The intelligence test had gone well enough, and the results from the firing range were remarkable; Bridges had demonstrated his ability to shoot the ash off  a cigar at a distance of two hundred feet, not that he would have to set up at that distance. No, the outcome of the shot was a certainty. Once again, for the three hundred and thirty fifth time, Hitler would be dead on the floor of the small balcony outside the Reichstag, Tyler, or Cooney, or one of the other guides would drag the corpse back inside, and the history of the world would remain unchanged.

The first trips were sold as sightseeing excursions into the recent past, holiday jaunts to see Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey in the flesh, entirely non-participatory, but it hadn’t been long before clients wanted a bigger bang for their many bucks  The bedroom trips satisfied the voyeurs, but the action minded wanted to get in on the action, and the hunting trips were born. It took more than a decade for agents to map out opportunities for hunters to stalk and kill without changing the past and so contaminating the future/present; nothing was touched in any way until the agents had created a map of events so detailed that the entire trip could be repeated and replicated over-and-over.  

There were adjustments, of course; the Hitler trip to Berchtesgaden had inadvertently revealed that the commonly accepted account of Hitler’s death, the final hours in the fuhrerbunker, Eva Braun’s cyanide capsule, all of it, was pure wienerschnitzel.  A thorough sweep of the bunker produced no Hitler, no Braun. It took more than a dozen subsequent expeditions to the final days of the Reich to determine that a Soviet soldier had polished them both off in Berlin without the slightest knowledge of their actual identity.

One of those wrong place, wrong time mishaps.

Which actually made things much easier for the time sweepers and the clean up crew.  Trying to wedge patrons into and out of the fuhrerbunker would have been a royal pain in the ass, exactly the kind of nasty duty that made it so hard to find time sweepers who would just do the job, keep their mitts to themselves, and accept a crappy wage for the wear and tear of shuttling back and forth.  “Keep It Simple” – First line in bold caps of the Sweeper Manual. “Timing Is Everything” – Chapter I of the instructions page. The rest of the instructions were obvious to anyone with half a brain – “Don’t Touch Anything Except The Shell Casings!” The patrons had an even easier mantra – “One Shot, That’s It!”  To be fair, the Reichstag hit involved two shots, and the timing was a bit trickier than plugging a dinosaur at the moment it was meant to die. Everyone knew to look for the Dino with a big yellow X on its neck; even a poor shot was ok, as long as it hit the beast somewhere a sweeper could get at. It was work to dig out the actual bullet, but the team packed in a projectile the size of a football, so hard to miss.  

Most hunters were willing to take any assignment and to follow the rules without complaint.  Most, but not all. The self-styled expert hunters and assassins often tried to free lance, which was why the Hit Trips demanded a double casting of sweepers:  One to control the scene and the other to control the patron. For obvious reasons, the Hitler Hit was the most sought out, the most expensive, and the most carefully managed.  In its earliest days, descendents of Holocaust victims found the experience overwhelming. They weren’t alone; Feelings ran high on that trip. Now teams of counselors met clients before and after the hit, and, for the most part, the enterprise was almost on automatic.

None of which was of concern to Ronald Bridges.  He’d made his money the old fashioned way: Bullying clients into over-paying for the work his construction company monopolized, and investing the profits in the management of low-income housing, nursing facilities, and prisons, all of which had brought him riches and power.  He hired people to soften his edges, gussy him up enough to pass as a man of wealth and refinement, but he remained, at his core, a brute.

Bridges hated waiting for anything; he had people to wait for him.  Shooting Hitler was an exotic diversion, however, and one for which he was willing to summon a show of patience.  The paperwork finally done, the moron at the desk left behind, Bridges left the Time Compound in order to prepare for the trip.  He had received permission to bring his own rifle, an Alpine Shooter Sako Finnlight, a relatively light rifle with superb accuracy.  He maintained his own weapons; he didn’t trust anyone to keep his rifles ready and predictable. The rifle prepared, Bridges sat down to the meal that had become his accustomed fare on the eve of a grueling hunt, grilled salmon with a blueberry sauce, roasted root vegetables in season, and a fresh green salad.  No coffee, cigar, or sweet for Bridges as he played out the upcoming adventure in his imagination.

The Time Capsule itself was surprisingly roomy; Bridges, a large man, sat on a well upholstered couch.  The guides, Tyler and Cooney, sat at the controls as expected. Bridges had worked with them before and trusted them as much as he trusted anyone.  Extra sweepers were on board as well, as the clean up process had to happen quickly. As it had on previous trips, the capsule shook slightly as it powered up, kept a steady low frequency hum for the ninety seconds needed to return to April 30, 1945, quieting as the panel’s warning lights turned green.  The main hatch slid open revealing the exterior of the Reichstag. Walking gingerly, the guides led Bridges to the balcony on the second floor, all three standing behind a balustrade, protected from view from within. The sweepers remained below, ready to jump into action as they had for more than a hundred outings.  

Adolf Hitler and his bride, Eva Braun, emerged from the double doorway leading to the balcony.  Eva held the sleeve of Hitler’s Alpine jacket; they spoke softly. As expected, a Russian soldier of indeterminate rank burst through the doors, waving his Tokarev TT-33 semi-automatic pistol.  Shouting in Russian, the soldier rushed toward Hitler and Braun. As he lowered his pistol, Bridges released the safety on his rifle and fired one shot.  

A red hole blossomed in the middle of the Russian’s forehead.  Hitler and Braun recoiled, Braun screaming. Tyler and Cooney rushed forward, but there was little to do.  Grabbing Bridges’ collar, they dragged him down the stairway to the capsule while the sweepers did what they could to sanitize the scene.

The capsule doors closed as the sweepers ran in.  Bridges chuckled during the ninety seconds of panicked conversation among the guards and sweepers.  As the door swept open, Bridges was pleased to see a poster on the far wall.

“Achtung!  Gefahrenstelle!  Betreten verboten!”

Mission accomplished.

Changing Plans: Genre # 6 – the blog from the edge of despair

Changing Plans: Genre # 6 – the blog from the edge of despair

Well, we woke to the patter of heavy rain drops this morning, dashing our hopes of getting out to Cabot Cove this morning.  We know that Jessica Fletcher isn’t a real person and that the Cabot Cove we see on television is probably somewhere in Canada, if it exists anywhere at all, but there is a Cabot Cove in Kennebunkport, which would have been worth the trip in any case.  I’m the Murder She Wrote fan, but Ellie and Hope are good sports, and they’ve certainly dragged me to some odd spots.  The shoe store on Rodeo Drive for one, and that cactus showroom in Tucson.  

In any case, here we are in Maine, a long way from Iowa, and once again three hens let loose from the henhouse.  Hope found the beds and breakfasts for this part of the trip, and if The Ivy Cottage is any indicator of what’s to come, we are in for yet another memorable vacation.  She’s fussy, fussier than I am, ok, maybe MUCH fussier than I am, but fussy pays off when it comes to finding holiday accomodations. I would have been happy enough in a standard motel room or cottage, but there is something extra cozy in finding flowers set out on the bureau and the bed nicely turned down.  It’s embarrassing when Hope gets too pushy (she’d say assertive), but our host had promised fresh baked pastries in the on-line description of the breakfast, and the packaged danishes were notably not fresh baked, so she trotted across the way to another B and B to scrape up some lovely ham and egg croissants.  

Harvey understood that I’m just not the assertive type.  He lectured me when we were newly married, but over time he realized that it hurt me to push people or even to correct them.  I was so grateful for his help when a new acquaintance called me Jane rather than Joan; he’d hurry to correct in the gentlest manner.  “Joan is often confused with Jane, but this is my Joan, no plain Jane.” Corny, I know, but sweet, and such a relief. I thought I’d miss the security of having a husband most, and I do, but I think it’s the silly things I miss most of all.  Harvey would have had a comment when Hope started in, not to her, but to me in that sly whisper he could do like a ventriloquist without moving his lips. “Uh, oh, The Empress is displeased.” It took all the control I could muster not to snort when he said things like that, never mean, but observant.   Yes, I do miss that.

I think that’s why I like Jessica Fletcher so much.  She’s not afraid of anyone or anything; she’ll accuse a murderer right to his face.  She’s smart and sees people as they are, beneath the surface. You’d think she’d be conceited but far from it; she’s always surprised and embarrassed when anyone makes a fuss over her.  Jessica is the woman Harvey really deserved. I always knew that deep down. I’m just not very interesting.

Harvey and Jessica, that makes sense.  Harvey and the dental hygenist in Dr. Barlow’s office?  Really? What kind of woman does that, especially after putting her hands in my mouth?  Or before putting her hands in my mouth. I don’t know the details – how it started, when it  started, when Harvey decided to send his pimple faced office boy to pack up his half of the bedroom, his office, and the garage.  It happened over a long time and then suddenly. I knew Harvey was comfortable with me, loved me, the way you love an old blanket, or the dog that doesn’t smell so great at the end.  I thought we’d grow old together. Maybe he wasn’t ready to grow old; maybe I already had.

Anyway, that’s when we started these trips together, Ellie, Hope, and I.  Ellie’s husband had been gone for quite a while. She doesn’t talk about it, but Martha Harris, who was a nurse at Saint Samuel’s at the time, always thought he had been born with some sort of congenital heart defect.  He was only forty-three when he died; the kids were ten and seven. Ellie did a great job as a parent, we all said so. Her boys had both finished college and moved away about the time Harvey went dental (that’s a little joke I make about it), and Hope’s second husband developed an allergy to sex.  She put up with him for a little more than a year then sent him packing. We don’t keep tabs on her, of course, but she’s the one who is most ready to get back home at the end of one of our trips.

We’ll be setting out shortly for the camp in the pine woods that Ellie attended as a girl, and I’ll put away this silly journal.  They run a family camp for one week in the summer, inviting back past campers and their families. We aren’t really family, but Ellie’s kids are busy and wouldn’t want us around.  Hope must need the break; she says she likes “spinster time” for a few weeks a year if only to remind her not to remarry. I’m not sure if I would, even if I somehow bumped into Mr. Perfect at the Farmer’s Market.  What would we talk about, do you suppose? He’d be a Cubs fan, probably, or a Bears fan, and I don’t care a thing about sports. 


Sometimes when I’m watching Murder She Wrote, I wonder if there’s a kind man somewhere who feels a bit out-of-place and untethered and who sits on a couch watching Jessica Fletcher being clever, and wonders if there’s a kind woman somewhere who feels a bit out-of-place and untethered.  I can hear Hope banging around next door. Time to get going.

Was Attila’s Last Name “The Hun” or Was He Like The Only Hun or What?

Was Attila’s Last Name “The Hun” or Was He Like The Only Hun or What?

Day Five of the How Badly Can I Maul A Genre Tour.

I set out to write a Romance, failed miserably, again, and thought, what the heck, how about Historical Fiction (I majored in history for a bit), maybe a spicy Historical Fiction, maybe about a fairly spicy historical character. Maybe saucy rather than spicy. I was very fond of Mary Renault’s fictitious accounts of Classical figures, real and mythical. The King Must Die had lots of steamy interludes as Theseus found his way to Knossos, surviving a short stint as the proto-sacrificial consort of the Queen in a matrilineal society worshiping the Earth Mother, numerous Mycenaean hookups as a bull dancer Knossos Palace, and a terrifying bacchanal on a mountaintop in Naxos during which his then current squeeze, Ariadne, literally tears the heart from a lover’s chest.

Oddly enough, Theseus can’t get beyond Ariadne’s over-enthusiastic lovemaking and so saves himself (again, literally) for Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, who is a tough number but one capable of sustaining a life-long partnership with Theseus.

As I describe Renault’s work, I am reminded why I stay away from some well travelled generic roads; there are giants producing historical fiction that has distinctive literary merit: Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Charles Dickens, Umberto Eco, Georgette Heyer, Neal Stephenson, C. S. Forester, E.L. Doctorow, Hilary Mantel.

So, getting saucy and wanting to veer away from the more routinely visited historical eras, I went for a household name about which most people know relatively little: Attila. “Slightly to the right of Attila the Hun”. I suspect that we use that phrase assuming that conquest of great empire bespeaks a conservative bent, whereas, it strikes me that those who hop on horseback and essentially jog from China to Italy have a fairly well developed spirit of adventure, surely enough to carry out the sorts of randy romping this genre demands. There are no actual portraits of Attila, which leaves lots of room when get to the saucy parts, and there’s not even consensus as to what reltations of the Huns still exist.

My Attila jumps from the pages of the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem written in Middle High German in about 1200, a rollicking tale introducing Siegfried, Brunhild, Gunther, Etzel, and Kriemhild, later retold in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four part opera that makes the Lord of the Rings seem a cheesy short story. The Nibelung in question is a dwarf named Alberich, the tussle over the ring dramatic, but the heavy duty drama arrives with family issues as Kriemhild’s true love, Siegfrid, gets iced in a plot involving her own brother, an icing for which Kriemhild will find vengeance by marrying a visiting war lord, Etzel (a.k.a. Attila), whose Huns go to town on Gunther and the Burgundians. It’s not as great a moment for Kriemhild as she had hoped as she is bisected by a single sweep of a sword, a sword so sharp that Kriemhild believes herself to be uninjured until she bends over to pick up the ring in question and literally falls to pieces. Two pieces.

All of that arrives after Kriemhild and Etzel find love, marry, and have a son (who will be beheaded, but that’s not really part of this conversation, is it?). Here’s the romantic schlock, for your approval.

“Etzel, conqueror of empires, master of legions, scourge of the West, was on this cold evening merely a man, a man trapped in his own legend. He sat at the head of the great table, goblets of gold spraying sheets of wine as the raucous company slammed the heavy table again and again. Most used the butt end of their knives, some the flat end of their war hammers. The room thundered with the songs of victory. The Huns drank deep, hardly pausing to shove great strips of meat into their gullets, singing with tuneless gusto nonetheless. Etzel’s chest and forearms were speckled with blood. Although the heat of battle had left him, he continued to clench his fists, recalling moments in which he had taken the lives of men he had never known.

He saw the men in his command, men who had travelled the width of the world with him, roar stupidly and stumble drunkenly; in that moment he felt a solitary distance from them and from their revels. Hollow victories had grown routine; there was nothing in the world left to conquer. A tall sharply featured woman sat with the Burgundians, a woman who seemed carved of ice, whose gaze held the room in flat contempt. In an unguarded moment, Etzel let his face fall revealing the depth of his isolation, and in that instant, Kriemhild saw him as no other had and loved him as no other would.

Burgundian lords and ladies watched in disgust as Etzel’s warriors wiped greasy mutton across their chest, happily spitting chunks of flesh into the air as they caroused. Gunther and Brunhild sat stony faced as the revelry grew more and more frantic. Glancing at his sister, Kriemhild, Gunther mouthed, “Look at the pigs” while pretending to smile in appreciation of the Huns’ antics. Kriemhild missed Gunther’s disapproving pantomime, however, as she locked eyes with Etzel, her lips parting in a breathless gasp of desire.

In an instant, the there was no sound, no blur of drinken victors toasting each other. For Etzel, there was only Kriemhild, the petal soft folds of her womanhood singing to him across the room as the hard pulse of his arousal drove every other thought from his mind. Without a word, he stood, swept aside the stumbling Huns who attended him, and strode to Kriemhild, now standing tremulously at the far end of the hall. With each step the raging heat of his ardor grew with such intensity that the skin across his face grew taut.

“Etzel”, she croaked and rose to enfold him in her embrace. “Kriemhild, my sweet kugel, a dish I first encountered as I completed the ravaging of a shtetl in Belarus, like mac and cheese baked in maple syrup, the kugel, I mean, not the village.” “Etzel!” Her nostril flared with unhinged desire. “Kriemhild!” Sweat rose along the low hairline a few millimeters above the dense thatched palisade which made up Etzel’s eyebrow. “

Modesty demands putting some distance between the ourselves and the randy couple. I could linger, examining each tortured groan, each exhalation of ecstasy, but as the characters are both fictional and somewhat hastily drawn, let us leave them to whatever disportment the moment allowed and once again bring perspective to the exercise.

I can’t sustain a romance of this intensity for long, and so add the historical romance to the growing list of genres I pretty much need to avoid like an aggravated case of shingles. Next stop of the tour of unlikely projects?

Time Travel! See you then, or saw you then … see what I mean?

Curtain Up

Curtain Up

The most important strategy in keeping readers engaged is not complicated. Put simply, a writer is advised to keep it fresh and keep it coming. The last piece I published, a description of holiday cruises taken by folks who play Santa Claus for a living, appeared a month ago. An important story for our time, to be sure, but the extended silence that followed suggested that author himself had set out on an extended cruise, a band of disgruntled Santas had hired a hit elf, or prolonged exposure to reality television had finally brought cortical meltdown.

What happened, however is this: I’m revising a play I wrote a year ago, a revision made the more daunting by my inclusion in a group reading plays that might appear in the 2021 season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I read two or three plays a week, the majority of which are edgy, innovative, disturbing new plays written by Macarthur geniuses in full expressive frenzy.

Consider Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, for example. Mac starts where Shakespeare left off, imagining the work to be done by the schlimazel stuck with the job of cleaning up the organs and appendages heaped on the stage following an interminable series of bloody battles. Not for the squeamish but powerful, and challenging in suggesting that those who clean up unthinkable carnage are complicit in supporting a system that allows unthinkable carnage.

OK, devastating, and then let’s return to my play, Reunion, a not-entirely-lighthearted-romp presenting four classmates of my generation coming to grips with the course of their lives. No appendages are piled on stage, not much in the way of social commentary, and much of the “action” simply involves people speaking to one another. It’s not without conflict, and the characters have some energy, but as I revise I am reminded of the “stagey” conventions of plays that end up in sad production by community theaters desperate for material available at a discount.

(Lord Fortesque enters the drawing room carrying a riding crop. The phone rings as he seats himself in an overstuffed chair)

LORD FORTESQUE

I say, Chives, get that would you.

(Chives enters stage right.)

CHIVES

Very good, M’Lord.

(PIcks up the phone)

Harrowood Hall, who may I say is calling?

(Listens without speaking for several moments)

LORD FORTESQUE

Who is it, Chives?

CHIVES

Inspector McCloud, M’Lord. They’ve found a body in Lady Fortesque’s sedan and wish to speak with you in connection with the mishap.

LORD FORTESQUE

Good God, Chives! Have they forgotten that I am only recently returned from Borneo where I contracted a nasty case of dysentery, a trip occasioned by Lady Fortesque’s infidelity and the subsequent shock of learning that my oldest friend, Sir Reginald Flangebucket, is not only the father of seven of our children, but the much admired Masked Comedian appearing nightly at that dreadful bistro just off Tottenham Court Road? What’s the name of that place, Chives?

CHIVES

The Rancid Rabbit, M’Lord.

LORD FORTESQUE

Ah, yes, The Rancid Rabbit. Dreadful. Simply dreadful.

CHIVES

Shall I tell the Inspector you are indisposed, M’Lord?

LORD FORTESQUE

Indisposed? I’m bloody ravaged. How eagerly would the Inspector gad about were he in my present condition, do you suppose?

CHIVES

To be sure, M’Lord. He appears, however, to be determined to question you, M’Lord as it seems Lady Fortesque is presently dead, M’Lord.

LORD FORTESQUE

What? Dead, you say?

CHIVES

So it appears, M’Lord

LORD FORTESQUE

Lady Fortesque you say? Are they certain? She does have an identical twin sister as you will recall, a dissolute, licentious …. what’s the word I’m searching for, Chives?

CHIVES

Floozy, M’Lord?

LORD FORTESQUE

Indeed.

That’s quite enough, I am sure. You see what I mean. I’ve got six decades of entirely predictable playwriting to contend with as I try to bring a slight story to the stage. I’m a prisoner of my own fondness for the theater. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Four people sit on couches in an academic’s living room. Our Town? Two young people fall in love at the imagined soda fountain.

My play begins with each of the four protagonists delivering a short reflection as they prepare to return to their college for a fiftieth reunion

“50 years, that’s a good chunk of time, a half-century, and about as much of life’s bumps, bruises, pleasures, and pain as a human can absorb.  Say the half-century begins at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two. That’s almost a quarter of a century already packed away, most of which was, to be honest, hardly consciously considered as it happened at all.  Of the twenty-two years, how many can be considered self-reflective or purposed? For you high achievers out there, the total has to be something more than ten. For me, maybe six or seven months, from graduation from high school to Winter Break in my first year of college.  

But over the course of the subsequent half-century even the most feckless self-deluded slob has to consider aspiration, consequence and shortcomings.  Have dreams been trampled? Have dreams come true? Still in love? Ever in love? Career, marriage, children, or not. World in flux.  

Then, as it must, the present arrives with cold certainty, a present that looks nothing like the present I had been living with these fifty years. This isn’t my present; it belongs to someone graduating from high school or college this year.  All of it – music, humor, relationships, language, sensibility, context, all not mine.Then, as it must, the present arrives with cold certainty, a present that looks nothing like the present I had been living with these fifty years. This isn’t my present; it belongs to someone graduating from high school or college this year.  All of it – music, humor, relationships, language, sensibility, context, all not mine.”

And so on.

In any case, work to be done, but in the meantime, I can certainly find time to keep cogitating.

Santa Baby!

Santa Baby!

A recent piece in the New York Times profiles a Santa Claus retreat on a Royal Princess Cruise to Alaska . The piece, “When Santa Goes On Vacation”, is part of the Times’ series, “Surfacing”, a column that attends to the intersection of art and life, pretty heady stuff one would suppose, but then, recent articles have examined the last two Dance Dance Revolution machines in New York and the positive effect of slime as an antidote to stress caused by overactive involvement with social media.

In any case, a reporter Aaron Reiss, and a photographer, Chris Maggio, tagged along as the Santas convened for both business and pleasure. Workshops (?) included instruction on where to place hands while placing humans on Santa’s lap, a slightly disturbing area of concern in that some of these Santas have been been hands-on for more than thirty years. These are what is known in the trade as “real bearded” Santas, men who essentially play the part throughout the year. They take their profession seriously, referring to themselves as Santa Bob or Santa Bill as one might introduce Dr. Harris or Professor Plum.

Not a bad boondoggle for Reiss and Maggio, but intersection of art and life?

My concern, of course, is that get-away cruising can only begin to contend with the terrible burden these Santas must carry in the aftermath of a long holiday season in which they experience the full range of human longing. Santa is not a mailbox into which one shouts a list of must-have goodies; Santa is the embodiment of all that is good and kind and generous in a world that is rarely good or kind or generous. I don’t know what the statistics show with regard to the emotional intensity of Santa encounters, but I’m going out on a limb (Douglas Fir) in identifying commonly occuring issues for the real bearded, professional Santa

  • Terrified children screaming relentlessly – 50%. This estimate is based on my observation of the Santa enterprises at our local shopping mall. I may be off by a few percentage points as it can happen that a family presents a pair of siblings in full howl, each egging the other on to greater feats of pitch and volume. This, see, this is one of the windows into a non-Polar world that our Santa has to see in full color and up-close. Not only is he responsible for calming (not possible) a child in meltdown, he also has a parent/grandparent/divorced dad/well meaning aunt/harried babysitter at the other end of this spectacle and a never-ending line of impatient customers fidgeting uneasily before him. And, let’s be clear. elves are of no use in this situation. Even the most charming and well trained elf is but a supporting player in this drama, a walk-on, a cameo. No, this is Santa business, inevitable and jarring.
  • Body fluids – 80%. In this case, I am going with the laws of probability and my own experience as a parent. A kid’s gotta go when a kid’s gotta, and noses run, folks, run like the Nile in November and December.
  • Heart-breaking vignettes – 40%. Santa knows all, sees all. Families barely scraping by, not scraping by, children of imploded and dangerous families, children with fresh bruises. He sees active alcohol and drug impairment, psychosis, delusion, entitlement, despair. Oh, my God. A busy therapist sees, what, ten clients a day at most? That’s a half an hour for Santa. They just keep on coming.
  • Rictus, Phlegm, Nasty Stomach Backwash – 50%. Try smiling for eight hours a day. It hurts and starts to resemble a death mask after about twenty minutes. Nasal impairment? Santa inhales disease at a rate approximately 700% greater than Emergency Room physicians; how long can the hardiest immune system hold out against the onslaught? Then, it happens, one too many day-old-oysters, a bad trip to Taco Bell, and whoops! Imagine sitting for hours with volcanic eruption only a heartbeat away.

Enough. Without consideration of whatever might be happening in Santa’s own personal life, the odds are that by December 26th, our man in red is ready for more than a ten-day cruise on a Princess liner.

I have a friend, a hypnotist, who plies his mesmerizing trade on ocean liners. He does two shows a day, feeds at the brimming trough liners present, and sees much of the world. Hypnotists, singers, ventriloquists, impressionists. Why not a therapist? Two-a-day sessions, one Santa at a time, and maybe some of these holiday heroes return restored and ready to place their hands in entirely appropriate fashion as summer melts to fall.

Oh, and I want a pinball machine, and a new sound system, and a DDR Revolution machine, and …