A Shot In The Arm

A Shot In The Arm

Well, we have been cursed with interesting times, so interesting that there have been moments of true desperation.  The low point of that last five years, what is now known as “the insurrection” on many but not all media outlets, seemed both inevitable and terminal.  The worst elements of reactionary, nativist, supremicist, militant sedition had occupied the Capitol; a cretenic gang of yahoos promised an end to civilization as we knew it.  The former president’s relentless self-serving disregard for the nation and his craven bullying of any who threatened his meglomanical fantasies had virtually destroyed the capacity of what remained of government to do the nation’s business.  Bad enough, but it was the sustained toxicity of lies manufactured by Trumpist enablers and the Trumpist media that had broken my spirit.  I understand opportunism, understand systemic racism, understand cult of personality, but baseless fiction served up to promote sedition?  

When, finally, the transition of power was carried out, and the newly elected 46th president and his vice president took the oath of office, I realized that I had been holding my breath for four years. Yes, I felt better. Things were better, but the threat of violence remained; few attitudes had changed. Even as the possibility of healing a divided nation became conceivable, I remained on vigilently on guard.

I live in Southern Oregon in Jackson County between Ashland, a cheerfully progressive small city in which social justice, education and the arts are championed, and Medford, a blue collar city not entirely charmed by the attitudes and enthusisms expressed in Ashland. The other folks in our district have an active allergy to few elements of progressivism emerging in Medford. That Congressional District includes roughly two thirds of the state of Oregon; it is the second largest district in the U.S. that doesn’t include an entire state.  The population of the district is about 800,000; the population of Ashland is about 22,000.  

A drive through the district from Ashland, on the border with California, to Pendleton, near Washington and Idaho, would not present many Biden/Harris signs, which is to say, none.

Whether I call it paranoia, heightened awareness, or reasonable caution, the truth is that I started to assume that most of the folks I see on a daily basis might agree with the former President who called me and my friends evil people who hate America.  I have been on guard since October.

The insurrection was hardly two weeks in the past when I arrived at the local fairgrounds to line up with more than two thousand people waiting to be vaccinated yesterday.  National Guardspeople in cammo casual and local volunteers cheerfully waved the thousands of cars through the labyrintine corridors, moving us in good order and in reasonably little time to the final station.  At each check point, a kind masked volunteer approached the passenger side of the car and offered information and reassurance.  In those moments in which we sat for a bit, I asked each person why they had shown up on a cold January afternoon.  Three local hospitals and clinics had teamed up; nurses were taking extra shifts.  A young woman in the National Guard said she was excited to see so many of eager to be vaccinated.  “This is the best! ” She blurted. “I’m so glad to be here.”  Images of the guard sleeping on the floor in the Capitol were still in my mind as I heard her giggle.  “I hate shots, bt everyone seems so excited.”  

It’s confusing.

Who Are we? 

Who are we when the noise dies down?  Who are we if we all hear the same story?  Who are we when we actually see each other?

No, the madness hasn’t ended. I’m still aware of divison all around us, but I’m slightly more hopeful that people of good will may find a way to bring us back from the brink.

I met many of them yesterday.

What Mouseketeers Can Teach The Biden Team

What Mouseketeers Can Teach The Biden Team

The new administration has been at work for less than two days, moving immediately to contend with critical issues too long ignored.  I can tell they are serious because they have set aside one day this week and next for each of the nation shaking crisises, jumping in on immigration reform and reconnection with the world on Wednesday, taking on Covid 19 on Thursday.  Friday is economic relief day, and the start of the next week is already assigned to criminal justice reform and climate change.

It is likely to take more than a week to restore a once-great nation to first world status, but at least the calendar is in place, and it was in seeing the day-by-day plan that I was immediately pulled back to memory of the first truly organized pattern I experienced, my home life best characterized as an ad hoc experiment in laissez faire family survival.  

There was, however, an organization that operated with breathless efficiency every afternoon, not only delivering A List entertainment, but organizing the afternoon’s diversions by day.  It’s a different sort of enterprise these day, slick and contrived, green-screened and computer animated, the music now digitized, predictable and featureless, but in 1956, when I walked up the road from the school bus stop, I began humming show’s throbbing introductory refrain:

Mickey Mouse Club, Mickey Mouse Club … 

(now the energy explodes) … Who’s the leader of the Club that’s made for you and me?  (Ready for the spell-out?)  M-I-C K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.  

(Snappy patter to complete the rhyme):  Hey There, Hi There, Ho There, you’re as welcome as can be!

(Spell it as you yell it!!) M-I-C K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.  

Now the lilting call and response featuring the garbled attempt of another Disney creature trying to horn in on the celebration:

(Shouting) Mickey Mouse.  (Quacking) donld duck. (Shouting) Mickey Mouse. (Resigned quacking) donald duck.

(All together now except defeated, disgruntled, despondent Donald Duck) Forever Let Us Hold His Banner High! (Tear It Up Mousketeers!) High, High, High, High!

(The invitation now, not simply to the club, and there weren’t many clubs at which I would be welcome, but to the jamboree!) Come along, and sing our song, and join the jamboree.

(At the end of the show, heartwarmingly affirming.  Slowed down now, for emphasis)  M-I-C (See ‘ya real soon) … K-E-Y (Why?  Because we LIKE you)… M-O-U-S-E.

Much of the music was written by Jimmy Dodd, affable Head Mouseketeer, genial emcee and choreographer, comfortably shepherding the Mouseketeers through their paces throughout the week.  He was often assisted by Roy Williams, knowns as “Big Roy” to Mousketeers and fans, a Disney artist whose large frame allowed him to offer softly corrective moralities the smiling Dodd was not prepared to share.  Roy Williams was a pretty savvy guy in real life, but in the clubhouse appears to have devolved into a  mouskaversion of  genial Lennie in Of Mice and Men

Predictable as shingles after chicken pox, the days of the Mouseweek reeled on, propelled into action by one of Dodd’s catchy tunes.

Monday was MUSIC DAY, allowing the hyper talented Mousketeers to shame the likes of me, still trying to learn how to whistle, also learning to spit; the two attainments were often confused. In any case, Music Day began with a Busby Berkley cascade of mousketeers shifting front and back, impressive and appreciated but far too complicated for me to follow.  On the other hand, it did allow me to gauge the relative size and age of the cast, Bobby and Doreen towering over tiny Karen and Cubby. In a seamless cut, Jimmy took us to the more intimate performance, any one of which today would cause any culturally sensitive viewer to collapse in shame and regret.

The first two were seven year old girls so disguised by costume and wigs that I never quite knew which mouseketeers they were, performed a can-can number in front of a backdrop of Paris, ending with a vigorous jutting of their can-cans.  Not to be outdone, and emphasising the wide world of music (It’s actually kind of a small world when you think about it).  We saw a flamenco couple sing with labored Spanish accent, Karen and Cubby doing a pretty Irish jig, a pair from China, eyes taped to slits, wobbling in “humorous” wind-up doll fashion, precocious Annette performing a solo hula, virtually adult Bobby (a pretty nifty dancer!) portraying a Hindu while dressed as a Balinese dancer.

Tuesday was Guest Star Day, my least favorite day, featuring a remarkably flaccid and repetitive song and dance, essentially cleaning the “clubhouse”, a task only made bearable by seeing Jimmy dust off Roy’s bald head as the ears were momentarily lifted.  

That said, how did  not appreciate the guest talent dragged in under duress, maybe coerced by Walt himself?  I found the performances unbearable; today I’d love to see some of the recycled former luminaries, “celebrities” who could stroll the streets by the time they did the Mouse gig without any fear of being approached by autograph seekers.   I’m suggesting a slice of the entertainment pie less tasty than appearances at State Fairs or Elks Club galas. But, on Tuesday kids such as I saw Jerry Colonna and Judy Canova, familiar to me then only as caricatures tossed into Warner Brothers Cartoons among other folks I also didn’t care about, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney, Greta Garbo, and a comedian who had a very short half-life, Joe Penner, whose catch phrase, “Wanna Buy A Dick” confused me.  There were musical performances I’d enjoy now including: The Sons of the Pioneers, The Mellomen, The Rolling Robinsons, the in-house Disney septet, The Firehouse Five Plus Two, The Birk Twins whose talent was in being identical, The Bell Sisters who were one-hit-wonders from the Bing Crosby Show, and one of the most bizarre showman ever to appear in Mouseland, “Candy” Candido, a performer in big bands, his solo act consisted of hiding under a piano, then springing out to sing a ballad alternating his falsetto and raspy bass.

Wednesday was Anything Can Happen Day which must have been the producers what-the-hell-day as they tossed in insane costuming and mannered performances during the “roll call” and brought in whatever happened to be lying on the floor of a Disney set somewhere. There were clips from various dated nature films and odd travel films, including boys in South Africa performing a Leopard dance, yet another moment of confusion for me in the universe of childhood confusions.

 The roll call numbers do reveal the lengths to which the show would go to indovidualize the cast.  Jimmy kicked it off as usual with another song past remembering, then the line-up danced through the curtains.  Smallest first: Karen, a tiny Chinese courtesan, Cubby, a cowboy, Lonnie, unrecognizable in a crocodile costume from Peter Pan, Johnny, sidling out as he played the bass drum in which he was trapped, Mike as a prancing leopard, Nancy as a donkey dancing the Charleston, Darlene tumbling as a clown in full makeup, Maurene as a ballerina, Sharon encased in a bear suit, Annette in a lion’s costume, Donny as a jet and its pilot, Bobby as a captain and his ship, and Roy riding a tricycle.

That’s pretty much it, as the rest of the show was likely a recycled cartoon and a messy musical number, Jimmy and the cast creating a junk band by using, well, junk.

Thursday was Circus Day.  Enough said?  One could note that the harem, also the dancing girls, were probably delighted to be prancing, although they were often placed in questionable roles by the Disney team.  Annette went on to become a teen star, of course, Doreen sang and danced in USO shows in Viet Nam, and Darlene ended up doing time for shoplifting, check kiting, and fraudulent scamming.  Darlene is the only surviving Harem Girl.  

The Mouse week ended on Friday, and with a bang.  Talent Round Up Day!  Best song by far.  Let’s remember that these Mouskaprodigies were the cream of the kid star crop.  Cubby was the most pyrotechnical with a blazing drum solo, but they could all sing and dance.  Just to set the stage, as it were, neither Paul Williams nor Candace Bergen made the cut.  Paul Peterson and Don Grady, both of whom would go on to tv stardom (Donna Reed Show and My Three Sons) were on the third team, appearing only occasionally.

Five days a week they cavorted in costume, alway perky and seemingly delighted to be cavorting – a pretty impressive legacy.  Finally, however, the most enduring of all the rites and rituals carried out by the Mouskatalents was the incantation by which Cubby and Karen enticed the cartoon gods to throw open the double-doored vault and release an ancient Disney cartoon.  Karen and Cubby, terminally cute, strode to the door and began:

Time to twist our Mouskadial

to the right and the left with a great big smile

This is the way we get to see

A Mouse cartoon for you and me

Then in solemn tones:  

Meeska, Mooska, Mouseketeer,

Mouse Cartoon time now is here

Well, enough mouskemoments, except that, in an odd confluence of events, we moved to a small scandal and celelbrity free town in Oregon, where Dennis Day, one of the original Mousketeers, was murdered and left to decompose only a few months after we had unpacked. 

Nothing lasts forever, as the sages remind us, even Mouskemagic, but there was a shining moment when I knew each day of the week would bring  jollity and reassuring kindness, buoyant, talented kids and generous, gentle adults.  The newly inaugurated president is carrying out his own generous talent round up as I write, and I’m hoping these generous, competent adults can work some magic of their own in their first week of significant days.

2020 – The Last Gasp: We’re Ready To Move On/ Part II

2020 – The Last Gasp:  We’re Ready To Move On/ Part II

January 11, 2021

It’s hard to believe that the worst was yet to come, but madness and mayhem still lay ahead.

July –

Lots of nifty stuff in July, 2020, beginning with Vladimir Putin’s successful referendum to allow longer presidential terms, the seizure of 14 TONS of amphetamines in Italy, America’s officially withdrawing from the World Health Organization, and the announcement that the condor, the world’s heaviest bird, can fly for up to five hours without flapping its wings.

Civil Rights leader, John Lewis died in July, becoming the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, and the United Arab Emirates launched Hope, an uncrewed expeditionary mission to Mars.

Here on Earth, the pandemic continued to create havoc in virtually every aspect of what was once called ordinary life.  Deaths in the US surged to 154,000 leading the prognosticators to predict that we’d hit 230,000 death by November.  Reality and alternate realities continued to separate, and those who did not think the pandemic was not a hoax tried to mask up, keep a safe distance, and shelter at home if possible.  

Binging of all sorts continued apace, and at the start of the month, the mega-conglomerate casually known as Disney bundled up the Disney Plus portal with ESPN and Hulu, bringing a literal universe of content to eager viewers including the Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, National Geographic library , ESPN Films, 30 for 30, Lost, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Devious Maids, and the truly exceptional animated series, Gravity Falls.

On July 3, Disney released a filmed version of Hamilton, edited together from three live performances at the Richard Rogers Theater in June 2016, with the original Broadway cast, and produced, written, and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Reams of insightful observation have been written about Miranda and the play, in many ways a revolution in its own right, a hip hop musical presenting  “…previously marginalized people taking on the responsibility and burden of American History”.  I was among the plurality of people who had not seen the play in any of its (very expensive) iterations and sensed the excitement from a distance.  I’ve seen it several times since it arrived in July and find myself almost overwhelmed by what I can only describe as fierce joy, razor sharp caricature, the revised estimation of Aexander Hamilton, an often demonized historical figure, and the peculiar collision of events that are crystalized in this unlikely Broadway smash.

I love theater and musical theater in particular.  I’ve never seen a show on Broadway, but I began collecting original cast albums at the age of ten and scrambling to get to any performances within reach.  Without having given it much thought, I was aware of the correspondence between some productions and some distinctive periodsin the American story.  South Pacific curiously predated both Vietnam and emerging sensitivity to racial issues.  West Side Story, Camelot, How to Suceed in Business Without Really Trying, Hair, A Chorus Line, Rent, Dream Girls, Miss Saigon, Dear Evan Hansen, Fun Home, all have their place in a cultural history, reflecting contemporary issues and desires.

Hamilton is profoundly odd.  It arrives in the Obama era with an unapologetic hip hop score, an extended rap on the significance of not-very-familiar founding realist, Aexander Hamilton, pulling the very familiar and mythologized American story into an upside down provocation.  A nation once entertained by White mistrels in blackface finds itself meeting its own history emphatically claimed by actors of color.  This Alexander Hamilton is not a rapacious capitalist at odds with a Jeffersonian dream of democracy.  Today we have awakened to the reality that Jefferson dreamt from a plantation, owned humans, and espoused doctrines that sound, well, more than slightly libertarian these days, whereas Hamilton, for all his brash oportunism, was a champion of government and the Constitution.

Yes, Miranda’s Hamilton is transparently human, but also visionary, inspired, and ultimately heroic.  I can’t imagine a more necessary antidote to the cynical hypocrisy of the last five years, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet it now, when despair is barely kept at arm’s length.

Oh, also?  The show rocks!

August –

The temptation, as always, is to turn to Elon Musk whose contributions to this month’s conversation included his contention that aliens built the pyramids, an argument Egypt did not accept, and his introduction of Gertrude, the pig fitted out by Neuralink with a tiny computer in her brain, a Beta Test of symbiosis of brain with artificial intelligence.  Neuralink was founded by Musk in order to examine the possibility of creating “neural lace”, a brain – computer interface described in Ian. M. Banks’ space operas.  To be clear, Elon Musk is the richest person on the planet, and I am definitely not, so my snark has no bearing on the future of the world, and Musk’s various pipe dreams probably will.

There was some great news in an otherwise bleak month. It was reported that polio had been eradicated in Africa and that BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, took K-pop global, hitting the top of the charts internationally and adding a reported 4.56 billion dollars to South Korea’s economy.  The catnip I have to resist, however, is the arrest of Steve Bannon, evil prankster and source of much of the most deplorable aspects of the Trump years. This is meant to tread more lightly through the year, so I’ll refer the reader to “American Dharma”, Errol Morris’ documentary on Bannon, enlightening and terrifying. Moving into restoration of soul and sensibility, however,l August saw the release of Bill and Ted Face The Music, which is now available for streaming for about six bucks, a paltry sum when anticipating the most time jangled, multi-generational, disturbing Bill and Ted yet.

There’s nothing amusing about the pandemic, and yet, there have been some notably wrong-headed responses to a world-wide deadly contagion that continue to appear beyond belief, all of them promoted by the 45th President of the United States. The Witchdoctor-In-Chief has often boasted of the range and power of his intellect, rarely admitting any limit to his perspicacity, but he did tentatively admit some lack of credential in suggesting that injecting disinfectant might be one way to combat Covid:

“I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? As you see, it gets in the lungs, it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”

“I’m not a doctor,” he added but went on to say, “I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” 

I’m not sure that I do know what.

This after responding to the Homeland Security spokesperson advice that the virus does less well in full sunlight.

“So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just a very powerful light — and I think you said that hasn’t been checked because of the testing.  And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that, too.”

Like hydroxychloroquin, disinfectant and sunlight have magical power little understood by conventional medicine.  Without spending a second more on drinking bleach or infusing sunlight, it’s worth noting that these statement were made as medical advisors sat or stood at his right hand.  Yes, pretty funny (funny odd), but hardly reassuring.

Speaking of purported medical advice, the short-lived prominance of Dr. Stella Immanuel, described in detail in an earlier posting entitled, “Side Effects May Include Astral Sex”, demonstrates the degree to which the conversation slipped past the boundaries of medical disagreement into the netherworld of untethered minds.  “A fearless warrior for the truth” according to the president, Immanuel (also founder of the Fire Power Ministries which operates out of the same strip mall location as the doctor’s clinic) has established a practice almost edxclusively concerned with human sexuality, contending that many of the most debilitating conditions, such as infertility and sexually transmitted diseases, are the result of the implanting of demon sperm from spirit spouses – carried out by means of astral sex.  

BUT WAIT! There’s more.  An equally significant conviction is that the highest offices in government have been subverted by reptilian aliens, and, in a final leap of imagination, that the Illuminati are using witches to destroy the world, making use of children’s toys, gay marriage, and Hannah Montana.  Anticipating the anti-vaxxers, Immanuel also warned that scientists have developed a vaccination that stops people from being religious.

I’m not sure about Hannah Montana, but the rest seems unlikely.

September –

Not the best month for Southern Oregon.  900,000 acres of the state burned to the ground, including much of our home town.  A Red Flag warning advised us to be prepared for high winds to create damage; hours later, two small towns between Ashland and Medford had been virtually vaporized.  California lost 2 million acres that month as well.

There was other news that month, of course.  Novak Dokovic was tossed out of the US Open Tennis Tournament after hitting an umpire with a ball struck in anger.  In a rare show of spirit, Barbados removed Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, declaring itself a republic.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died and became the first woman to lie in state in the US Capitol.  Donald Trump’s tax record was opened, revealing that he had paid $750.00 in taxes in the past year.

This month’s rhapsody has to do with the series, Schitt’s Creek.  

The Tiger King phenomenon has already entered my annals of the year from hell, perhaps uniquely showcased as we sheltered in place.  A show with a longer lineage and rabid followers, however, finally broke through the Emmy lockout, winning nine awards in September.  Schitt’s Creek crept into the pantheon of smart, deftly characterized comedy series at the start of its third season, gradually attracting a wider and wider viewing audience until in its sixth and final season it finally received the acclaim it had long deserved.  Unlike Arrested Development which found its audience almost immediately, the Schitts languished until picked up by Netflix.  The series, developed and filmed in Canada, bumped up to 330,000 viewers in its second season, jumping to more than 3,330,000 in September of 2020.  

Look, it is not easy to get a handle on humor.  It isn’t even easy to discriminate among the various sorts of humor that are presented in what have come to be called situation comedies, a television series in which, “the same set of characters are involved in amusing situations”.  It’s tough because the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, for example, were characters involved in amusing situations, if being crushed by a piano or whacked with a hammer can be considered humor.  I’d argue that the defining element is in the creation of the situation as a result of the character’s particular inclinations or foibles.  Lucille Ball created a Lucy whose judgment was flawed, impulsive, occasionally deranged, and who went to grotesque efforts to keep knowledge of her follies from her husband.  That was pretty much the situation.  Most contemporary situation comedies stick to a central setting (30 Rock, The Ofice, Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, Community, Night Court, Scrubs, MASH, Taxi , Cheers) or an abiding situation (Boy Meets World, Pushing Daisies, Freaks and Geeks, I Zombie, Friends, Santa Clarita Diet, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Aadams Family, The Munsters).  A few are entirely animated by character, (Arrested Development, Seinfeld, Golden Girls, Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frazier, All In The Family, Sex In The City)

Schitt’s Ceek began with a heavy (maybe even heavy-handed) emphasis on situation – the sudden loss of great wealth (Dan Levy was taken by imagining who/what the Kardashians would be without money) and relocation to a one-dog provincial town in which the formerly grotesquely affluent Rose family bump up against the locals.  Over the course of six seasons, the defining situation became less significant than the development of character. The leads – Daniel Levy, Annie Murphy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levey, and Noah Reid – became more fully realized season-by-season.  

The series is filmed in Canada and was first broadcast on CBC.  Without falling into a breathless admission of my fondness for the particular humor found on the Canadian series, SCTV, both Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara come from a curiously challenging improvisational background, first with Toronto’s Second City, then with SCTV, doing sketch comedy within the framework of a bizarre tv network, and then in a series of quasi improvised films written by Levy and The Right Honorable Lord Hayden -Guest, better known to fans as Christopher Guest.  Those films – Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration – like SCTV escape the confines of situational sketch comedy by dropping actors such as Levy and O’Hara into improvised reality; they inhabit the characters so fully that the lines they improvise could only be spoken by the person they have become.

Schitt’s Creek is fairly conventional employing a single camera, conventional setting, and conventional pacing.  That said, attachment to characters as they revealed themselves to us and as they grew from nettled and self-absorbed spoiled brats to real humanity added dimension to the project, bringing some of us to a very difficult leave taking as the quirky, lovely, and loving Rose family move to the next chapter in their individual stories.  

Without revealing the most significant plot twists, any discussion of the show has to include an appreciation of Daniel Levy, Eugene Levey’s son and co-creator of the series.  The series hauled away nine Emmy Awards in its final season, four of which went to Dan Levey, actor, writer, producer, and director.  Earlier in his career, Levy had been eoundly citicized as a host on The Great Canadian Baking Show, accused of flamboyant “feyness”.  Finding exactly the right role, his character’s sexual ambiguity on Schitt’s Creek was intriguing but perhaps less notable than his capacity for offended disapproval of events happening around him; Dan does “arch” more effectively than any actor since Alan Rickman.  As David Rose falls in love, however, the series’ emphasis is on the slow growth of the relationship between David and his partner, Patrick.  I’m not aware of another series that is more concerned with connection and affection rather than self-conscious congratulation in presenting a gay couple. It was no surprise that the series also won the GLAAD Media award for its portrayal of LGBTQ+ people. 

Were there an award for Actress Almost Completely Overlooked Throughout a Remarkabe Career, it should be presented in perpetuity to Catherine O’Hara, not only willing to play as she put it,  “…a woman of a certain age – my age – who gets to fully be her ridiculous self”, but a universe of roles in which she owns her character, however small the part, with goofy professionalism.  Her dingbat woman on the verge portrait of Moira Rose, faded soap opera actress, is revelatory, poignant, and a delicious evocation of Moira’s fully ridiculous self.  Eugene Levy is an equally talented actor with a career largely given to supporting roles in repertory settings.  His work as Johnny Rose may be the most self-possessed role he has played, but his fans are legion, many of them captivated by his work with John Candy on SCTV, perhaps most memorably as Bruno, the hunchbacked assistant to Candy’s Dr. Tongue in a string of productions appearing on Monster Chiller Horror Theater, SCTV’s late night chiller hosted by Joe Flaherty’s Count Floyd.  

This piece is an appreciation of Schitt’’s Creek, of course, but I would be guilty of oversight if I did not offer a tip of the hat to the rich comic ore to be mined in digging up in the SCTV treasure troive:  Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Wax, Dr. Tongue’s House of Stewardesses, Dr. Tongue’s House of Cats, Dr. Tongue’s House of Beef, The 3D House of Slavechicks, or Blood Sucking Monkeys

October –

Real news was almost overwhelming as the pandemic raged.  The president was hospitalized before assuring the nation that Covid was not that bad, Amy Coney Barrett was appointed to the Supreme Court, Pope Francis supported same-sex marriages, the Justice Dept. sued Google, the City of Chicago once again was found to have the greatest number of rats, keeping its title as “rattiest city”, LeBron won an NBA Championship in LA, and the Dodgers finally won a World Series.

Meanwhile, back to the binge.

 Nxivm cult leader Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for fraud, racketeering and sex trafficking.  This year seemed to bring cults to the fore again in political, animal, and self-realization arenas.  The culting of America appears to be in full swing, for reasons that escape me, although we are notably more religious than the other wealthy nations, if that distinction offers any connection with our fondness for culting.

A cult is a cult is a cult, except that they all seem to have their own particular flavor. Those who examine the netherside of cults  identify sub-categories, each of which has had a notable place in recent history.   

We’re familiar with the cultish admiration of Eastern religious thought which provides union with the Godhead in the person of an enlightened leader.  That would describe the curious case of the Bhagwan Shree Rashneesh, occasionally known as the sex guru,  who established the rashneespuram in Wasco County, Oregon, an adventure described in some detail in the documentary, Wild, Wild Country.

It’s hard to discriminate among varieties of religious enthusiasms, some of which can be termed religious cults, such as Heaven’s Gate, the UFO apocalyptic cult which committed mass suicide when the mother ship did not arriven to carry them home, or David Koresh’s Branch Davidian which was famously under siege in Waco, Texas.  The Davidians considered themselves a family as did the followers of Jim Jones who died in Jonestown.  Some cults are limited to a small group or biological family.  The book Unfollow is a recently published memoir of Meghan Phelps-Roper who left the notoriously extremist Westboro Church almost entirely made up of members of her family  The Manson Family is an example of the satanic version of a  family cult; 

We are bracing for atacks by political, racist, and terrorist cults as I write.  The KKK and other groups can be seen as perverted iterations of religious as well as racist cults, but the primary threat this week appears to come from a cult of personality energized by Donald Trump, one which has confused millions of people and attracted white supremacists, far right extremist groups, and conspiracy networks such as QAnon.  Obviously, these categories can’t even begin to describe the range of affiliation in this upended culture.  

Today’s cult of choice, however, partially belongs in the category of psychotheraputic, self-realization, human potential, mass transformation cult and partially in the commercial or mass-marketing cult, and here’s where the description of a cult gets tricky.  Are overly enthusiastic advocates for essential oils attached to a spiritual cult, or a multi-level marketing cohort that can appear almost cultish in its devotion to the healing properties of their products?  Are Amway or Mary Kay simply part-time jobs or something more significant?  How does a Ponzi scheme become a belief system?

Keith Raniere was the founder of a constellation of enterprises known as Nxivm.  Many of us first learned of Nxivm in watching HBO’s oddly frustrating/compelling hazy documentary, The Vow.  The nine episodes chronicle the accounts of prominent spokespeople for Nxivm’s multi-layered workshops, seminars, and intensive self-actualization coaching sessions who haltingly came o the realization that their allegiance to Keith Raniere has caused thousands of people to be sucked into his web, and that they themselves have been weaponized, coerced into keeping silent and making sure that others stay silent.

One of the central characters, Mark Vincente, a South African film director, spent twelve years as a group leader and publicist.  Vincente, one of the most highly placed in Raniere’s empire, was challenged as defectors came forward. He came to understand the degree to which he too had been seduced into dependency on Raniere.  

“We’re not [expletive], strange monsters that made bad choices our whole life. We didn’t join a cult. Nobody joins a cult! Nobody. They join a good thing — and then they realize they were [expletive].”

Vincente, like most of the former cultists interviewed, sought personal transformation as they worked with and for Raniere, transfixed in some instances by his willingness to push them to harsh estimations of the self they brought to the compound.

The Vow was one of several investigatory documentaries that surfaced as the full extent of the cult’s machinations became public.  A central point of investigation in the HBO series had to do with a vow taken by women deemed worthy of inclusion in a small group known as DOS (Dominus Obsequious Soroium), a secret society comprised of women branded with a cauterizing iron, Raniere’s initials were placed on the lower abdomen of slaves who took a vow of absolute obedience to their “masters”, a pyramid directed by Raniere for his own pleasure and protected by threats and secrets (photographs and documents) held by Raniere.  One chart displayed at Raniere’s trial displays Raniere at the center of a circle of eight women, know as the “first line slaves”.

In the end, Keith Raniere was convicted of sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, identity theft, forced labor, racketeering, and wire fraud.  The FBI was not able to conclusively attach Raniere to the mysterious “disappearances” or deaths of Gina Hutchinson, Kristen Snyder, Barbara Jeske, and Pam Cafritz, but there is little doubt that Raniere did not take defection lightly.

There’s little to be gained in re-telling the story the documentaries present; my interest is in the process that Raniere perfected, a process that allowed this personality to become the leader of a cult, a personality most people would find unexceptional, annoying perhaps, but in terms of ability or charisma, unexceptional.

One of the oddities of the documentaries is that those drawn to Nxivm became obsessed with having time in Raniere’s company, angling for the privilege of meeting with him or accompanying him on his daily walks. Much is made of Raniere’s proclamation of his intelligence, his experience in multi-level marketing,and his fascination with Scientology and neuro-linguistic programming, suggesting that his control of others combined narcissism and hypnosis.  Not included in most accounts, however, is the evidence of intuitive seduction appearing as early as his twelfth of thirteenth year.  One element to be considered is his drive to combine sexual mastery with his victim’s vulnerabilities, alternately eroding their sense of self-worth then promising to restore them as they devoted themselves to him.  It has been reported that in his early teens he had relationships with dozens of girls, telling each one, “I love you.  You are the special one.  You are important.”

Raniere’s anger at those who opposed him was vicious, perhaps murderous, and the accounts of his attempts to destroy those in his way are terrifying.  The greater terror, however, might have been in witnessing the genius with which Raniere found the weakness in his female victims.  Unlike the more commonly observed bullies and strongmen, Raniere promised love and redemption, then essentially created a trauma bond with the women he possessed.

Hmmmm … It occurs to me that this entry may less flowing with lighthearted whimsy than others.  Let’s just agree that 2020 offered relatively little to chuckle about and hop on to November with the new year almost in sight.

November –

Well. the big news, of course, was that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the presidential election and then 61 more times in various courts across the nation.  He beat Trump so many times in Michigan, battered fans of the University of Michigan suggested he should change his name to “Ohio State”.  The first effective vaccines began to clear accelerated testing, although the Collins English Dictionary declared “Lockdown” the word of the year.  Other pandemic phrases were also popular, “pandemic” being one, as were “covidiot”, “Zoom fatigue”, “doomscrolling”, “shelter in place”, “superspreader”, “fomites”, and the phrase not commonly heard in news reporting until this season, “shitshow”.

Michael B. Jordan was People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, joining recent honorees John Legend and Idris Elba.  A look back does reveal some shifting in the magazine’s focus.  Brad Pitt won twice, as had Richard Gere and George Clooney, but still holding the record as the oldest Sexiest Man, the now formerly alive, Sean Connery.

Not the Sexiest Man Alive, Rudy Giuliani claimed headlines of a different sort in this season.

Once “America’s Mayor” after 9/11, Time Magazine’s Person Of The Year in 2001, Giuliani walked out of history and into notoriety, operating as counsel and go-between in a number of shady efforts on behalf of Donald Trump.  Messing with Ukraine was unseemly, and his grotesque appearance in more than 70 courtrooms in the attempt to delegitimize the presidential election was increasingly off-putting.  It was his master stroke in scheduling a major press conference in the driveway of the Four Seasons Landscape Company, however, that most clearly identified the distance between his role in 2001 and his stint as “court jester” in Trump’s dangerous campaign to undermine the election.

To be clear, the assembling of the press on that morning had a specific purpose – Giuliani had ostensibly found evidence of many Philadelphians, such as Will Smith’s father and Joe Frazier, voting from beyond the grave.  The allegation was disproved, but it was in failing to confirm a reservation for said press conference at the upscale Four Seasons Hotel, a venue five blocks from the Convention Center where ballots were being counted that the scrambling Giuliani had to find an alternative and less deluxe setting. That he accomplished by booking the parking lot of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping Company. Of course, he then had to allege that the Trump team had intended all along to invite the press to a Philadelphia location generally referred to as “unsavory”.

In the name of equity, one might have hoped that the enterprises surrounding the Four Seasons Landscaping Company might have shared in the promotional boost Giuliani provided that morning.  The landscapers saw an increase in business, but did equally well in their t shirt division, as they could not keep up with orders for “Lawn and Order” merchandise.  Petitions have surfaced, requesting that Four Seasons Total Landscaping be named to the National Register of Historic Places.  It has also been nominated as the site of the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library.

Bernie D’Angelo, however, owner of the adjacent Fantasy Island Adult Book Store was caught unprepared for the publicity coming his way:

“Oh yeah. It’s helped me out. Matter of fact, if I knew this was coming, I would have definitely got in touch with a web designer, and also [gotten] some silkscreen-type things, to just put on a shirt because my Fantasy Island Facebook page has been blown up. I’m past 7,000 people commenting on everything that’s been going on. I had to order some more stuff and ask the companies if they could physically pick up some stuff at my distributors or actually ask UPS if we could fast-track some of it. People in the neighborhood forget about us because we haven’t done any major, major advertising. We could never afford advertising like this. This is worldwide. I don’t know if I’ll ever trend like this ever again.”

Fast tracking lube and vibrators is never easy, and Mr. D’Angelo’s enterprise remains essentially unchanged by the events in Noivember.  There are currently no efforts in place to add the Fantsy Island to the Register of Historic Places.

The other adjacent buildings house the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and the Delaware Valley Cremation Center.  Nothing much has changed for the prisons, and the Cremation Center still offers its “easy, affordable, and convenient for you in this difficult time” Special $1095 Direct Cremation. 

Caveat Emptor, that price gets you the “Minimum Urn”; the “Purchased Urn” comes at various levels of distinction.

December –

Finally!  The end is in sight!

Lost in the hubbub following the disputed election and the emerging possibility of effective vaccination, other noteworthy events got short changed in December.  China joined the Emorates in sending a robot ship to Mars.  Breaking, the competitive form of breakdancing, joined the sports to be included in the Paris Olympic Games.  Argentina legalized abortion, and LA ran out of hospital beds.

The start of the new year was welcomed with cautious optimism, soon to be steamrollered into hope paste.  The future looked grim, but two developments ALMOST happened in December, each of which allows the mind to drift to something other than the end of Democracy and tribal war breaking out in my hometown.  

Amazon ALMOST began sending parcels by drone aircraft.  I’m still waiting for the future the Jetsons promised so long ago, and the notion of drones stopping by with my latest Amazon isolation-fueled impulse purchase (a four pack of scalp massagers) landing on my front lawn is intoxicating.

Nike, on the other hand, added to its seven billion dollar income by issuing the “Mamba Moment” line of shoes to commemorate the loss of superstar Kobe Bryant and among its several hundred patent registrations, finally gave golfers hope of soon seeing the Thermo-Plastic Multi Layer Golf Ball, ALMOST made available a ball described as having a larger diameter with lower density, allowing a larger target for middling golfers.

Great Minds at Work.

There is no newly coined word or phrase to describe the spider web fragmentation of time we experienced in the last year.  Days of the week, months of the year, years themselves, are all a moist muddle.  I suspect that we, like the fortunate survivors of a nasty car wreck, will emerge at some point, semi-functional, but with memories so confused that even “I Love The 20’s” won’t be able to pull events back into focus.  As the first weeks of 2021 continue to bring even greater confusion amd hazard, let’s hope that the worst is behind us, or is shortly about to be.

Happy New Year!

Of Some Concern

Of Some Concern

“Be afraid.  Be VERY afraid.”

I’m quoting Geena Davis in David Cronenberg’s 1986 fim, The Fly, but the phrase has come to express humorous pandering to aficionados of tales of horror and suspense in film.  Like the ubiquitous, “In a World …”, the phrase used in trailers by basso voice actor Don La Fontaine, a few words summon the delicious anticipation of fear and relief.  

Why do we pay good money to be frightened?  Who waits in line to ride the “Ferris Wheel of Misfortune” or the “Tehran Neck Cracker”  The Chinese and Irananians apparently.  But here at home, at California’s Magic Mountain, the “X2”, the world’s first four dimension roller coaster, built at a cost of 45 million dollars, if not for the pandemic would be sending merrily screaming patrons into the fourth dimension, beginning with the slow ascent to the ride’s starting point 20 stories above ground.  Then, 3,610 feet later, reunited with Earth, the survivors would likely line up to do it again.  In this case, terror does not come cheap; admission to the Six Flags Park runs about $92.00.

Delicious terror it seems serves some deeply ingrained need in the human psyche.  I’m pretty sure none of my dogs would have paid a biscuit to be hauled 200 feet in the air, then dropped like a rock.  We’re animals too, I know, but something in our highly evolved state appears to need an adrenaline infusion from time to time.

Today’s sermon, however, has to do with the unique circumstance of life that meets me this morning.  In the U.S., we are living the two of the most popular tropes in film history: The Disaster Film, which includes the Dystopian Disease genre, and The Very Scary Crazy Government Film, including the Evil President genre.

Hollywood, usually way out in front in depicting nasty events about to land in our backyard, completely missed the Access Hollywood bus on this one.  I’m not aware of a pandemic dystopia coupled with a rogue despot, but there’s one right outside my door.  

Actually, just to press the point a bit more forcefully, we are living in three separate and equally horrifying proto-disasters:

The Covid-19 virus has just done what viruses do – come up with a mutant strain that is more contagious  That’s the sort of wrinkle even the impressive array of viral outbreak films avoid.  Rabid, 12 Monkeys, Outbreak, 28 Days Later, and Plague brought bad news, especially as it is now clear that both vampires and zombies are the result of viral infection, but none of the zombies, for example, mutated so that a shotgun blast to the brain no longer put them away.

Incredibly, the pandemic has numbed us to the now brutally obvious current climatelogical and meteorological disasters already in motion.  I live in the Pacific Northwest where climate has changed, drought is an issue, and fire is a constant threat.  So, when I step back from the other immediately outrageous crises hitting the headlines, I do think about climate change.  As I step into a meadow and hear no bird song, yes, I remember that biodiversity as already been mangled.  Deforestation?  All around me.  Polluted water isn’t an immediate issue for me, yet, but there’s no reason to believe that it’s not around the corner.

Just to tie all of this together, epidemiologosts and climatologists both point to poor governance as the most pressing danger right now.

When President Trump was elected, John Mulaney suggested that the proper analogy was that of a horse in a hospital.  That was then, when many of us expected an impulsive self-obsessed celebrity to do considerable damage to the agencies of government, and from the start, the horse blundered its way through the safeguards designed to keep a nation on course.  Hollywood loves the bumbling president trope; it used to seem amusing.  The president-might-be-crazy-evil trope is less common and pretty scary, as the nasty career of President Francis Underwood revealed in House of Cards.

Ok, let’s amp things up just a bit more.  Let’s say the rogue president cannot be controlled, and in his self-promotion attracts a constellation of followers, some of whom are armed to the teeth and more than ready to resort to violence in order to reclaim a nation the president has assured them has been stolen.  Let’s say the promise of inclusion, progress, and democracy actually had a foundation of sand, and that race and religion coalesce in righteous anger.  Let’s say a nation devolves into a battle of competing realities. Let’s say that blood may well be spilled as the new president is inaugurated.

In this world, it is entirely appropriate to be afraid, very afraid.

2020 We’re Ready To Move On – Part I

2020 We’re Ready To Move On – Part I

… be forgot and never brought to mind?

It’s not over yet.  The pandemic is surging, half the nation believes an election has been stolen, and the Gaslighter General is still rousing his troops to combat.

My hope is to noodle through an amusing retrospective of a year that will surely go down in infamy. Could it have been worse?  Of course, because the capacity for human folly appears to have undergone a growth spurt geometric in its expansion. That said, there is still time for reflection before the next wave of ignomony breaks on the icy shores. What the hell; might as well attempt a jolly wrap up. I don’t have many arrows in my quiver; pretty much only outrage and whimsy at this point, poor bedfellows, but that’s what’s in the tank, so leaving outrage for another day (and there will no doubt be other days clamoring for outrage), let’s hopscotch through the past with a whimsical salute to the year that every dystopian novel in the last decade had promised us.

January – 

Let’s skip the enormously significant and regrettable events of the first month of the year (Wuhan, Impeachment, Justin Beiber and Lyme Disease) to concentrate on some good news.

Books published in 1924 entered the public domain in January of 2020.  There’s lots of reasons to celebrate the arrival of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, My Further Dissilusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman, and A Passage to India  by E.M. Forester.  Forster’s novel is included in the top 100 novels in English, and Forster himself was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature twelve times without a win, a fairly useless distinction to mention as Gaston Ramon was nominated 155 times for the prize in physiology or medicine without a nod from the committee. In this year of slap-dash political tomfoolery and name-calling, Emma Goldman deserves a shout-out as an actual anarchist, so, way to go, Emma!

The big news for those of us in the know, however, is that Edgar Rice Burrough’s most riveting novel, Tarzan and the Ant Men is now in the public domain, an adventure which if properly filmed could move Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson to the highest level of cinematic royalty, and restore Tarzan to his proper ascendency in the cinematic stratosphere. Time does not permit a detailed exposition of the plot, but be assured the King of the Jungle does experience some shrinkage. I may be among the very few who lament the gradual decline in production of Tarzanic epics, but a quick review of the most gripping titles should amp up interest in bringing the Ant Men to the screen.  Here’s a small array of films lingering somewhere in the memorysphere:

1927 – Tarzan and the Golden Lion, in which the Tarzan and the lion team up

1929 – Tarzan the Tiger, in which Arabs destroy Tarzan’s estate and Jane is sold into slavery

1934 – Tarzan and his Mate, in which Jane is captured by ivory hunters

1939 – Tarzan Finds a Son, the first of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzans finds a child in a plane crash whom he raises with Jane, played by Maureen O’Sullivan. In a moment of inspiration, they name the child, Boy.

1942 – Tarzan’s New York Adventure, in which Tarzan hits the Big Apple to rescue Boy who has been kidnapped

1945 – Tarzan and the Amazons, in which Boy is tricked into revealing the hidden valley in which dwell the Amazon women

1946 – Tarzan and the Leopard Women, in which Tarzan meets the fiendish high priestess of the cult of Leopard worshippers

1948 – Tarzan and the Mermaids, in which Tarzan catches a mermaid in his fishing net and saves her from the pagan gods of Aquatania

1953 – Tarzan and the She-Devil, by this time Lex Barker had assumed the Jungle King’s loincloth in three earlier epics and now finds himself rescuing Jane again

1962 – Tarzan Goes to India, in which Tarzan, now played by Jock Mahoney, is summoned to India by a dying maharajah. The less said about Jock Mahoney the better.

1970 – Tarzan’s Deadly Silence, in which Tarzan loses his hearing. Get it? Silence?

1984 – Greystoke, with Christopher Lambert (Highlander) and Andie McDowell, in which Tarzan discovers that life as a lord is different from life as the King of the Jungle

1999 – Tarzan, the Disney version, made for about 120 million dollars, essentially the basic Tarzan story with music by Phil Collins (Acacdemy Award for “You’ll Be In My Heart”), and source of several adaptations, including a Broadway show and animated sequel, Tarzan II: The Legend Begins (2005), in which toddler Tarzan discovers the meaning of family

The Ant Men await, people.  Let’s get ON this!

February –

Lots to remember here: Covid 19’s casualties swept past those caused by Sars-covid-2, Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape, Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison for witness tampering (since pardoned).  The Senate voted to acquit the President of abuse of power and obstruction of justice.  Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders both won the Iowa Caucus. Oh, and the Boy Scouts also declared Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.  From 2015 -2018 the Scouts had paid out more than 12 million dollars in legal fees and faced hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits in civil litigation, all of which were suspended with the filing of bankruptcy.  

So, what claims top spot in this idiosyncratic romp through February, 2020?  

Obviously, MEGXIT, the decision made by the Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, to remove themselves from the duties, obligations, and perquisites of royalty.  

There are so many chunky bits to this story that the chronicler may have to play fast and loose with fact and conjecture.  Let’s begin with recognizing that there was no Duke of Sussex until Harry married Meghan.  The title was created in 1801 to toss a little sunshine on the various marriages of Prince Augustus Frederick who twice contravened the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.  When A.G. died in 1842, the title was vacated.

We who live without a royal family can hardly imagine the complexities of royal succession, although Netflix’s quasi-historical account of the reign of Elizabeth II, The Crown, has helped put a human face on the inner circle in Buckingham Palace.  Successionary flaps were grim enough in 1772 to force George III (of Hamilton fame) to ask Parliament to help him deal with family issues that had gone haywire.  There is some conjecture that George was monumentally honked off because he had not been allowed to marry the women after whom he had hankered, Lady Sarah Lennox and Princess Sophie Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel.  One has to wonder what acronym might meet the challenge of the Wolfenbuttel exit.

George III met his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on their wedding day.  The marriage turned out to be a hit; George was devoted to Charlotte, had fifteen children with her, and built Buckingham Palace as a cosy home for her near the Court of St. James.  His younger brothers, however, followed their hearts/loins and married women beneath their station and with pasts that were slightly checkered.  Succession became iffish with each iffy marriage, so Parliament essentially decreed that one’s place in the line of succession depends on having permission to marry the person you marry.  Oh, no surprise, one was also bumped out of line if marrying a Roman Catholic.

To bring things up to date, the Royal Marriages Act was repealed in the 2011 Perth Agreement, and the rules of succession established by the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, which essentially decreed that the first six in line had to get permission to marry in order to stay in the queue.  Charles, Prince of Wales, and first in line, eventually married Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, with permission from the Queen, Tony Blair, and the Bishop of Canterbury despite a firestorm of controversy, and so he remains first in line should the Queen resign or die.  Harry was sixth in line until …

Harry and Meghan.  Holy Cow!  

We went nuts as a nation when Grace Kelly, daughter of an Olympic rower and millionaire czar of a bricklaying and construction empire, married Prince Ranier of Monaco.  Let’s be honest, we had no idea where Monaco was; it sounded like Fredonia, one of the nations the Marx Brothers invaded.  But still, a Prince!  There were others who married royals, some more royal than others, including Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Caroline Lee Bouvier, Princess Caroline Lee Radziwill of Poland, Hope Cook, Queen of Sikkim, and Lisa Halaby who played ice hockey at Princeton before becoming Queen Noor of Jordan.  Fun fact: all three attended Chapin School in New York City at some point in their educational careers.  Olivia Wilde (Andover) was married in a schoolbus to Prince Tao Ruspoli a family so notably aristocratic that even though the Papacy absorbed its authority, every Ruspoli male child has been a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire since the 13thy Century.

Yeah, but, Meghan Markle, television celebrity and beauty, feminist, considered too “racially ambivalent” to play major roles until cast in Suits!  And Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor!  The anticipation of royal apoplexy was delicious, but, and here conjecture runs wild, the garish and complicated melt-down surrounding Diana Princess of Wales, the end of her marriage, and her death made the ordinary stiffness of upper lips give way to somewhat softened lips, or whatever.

Fairy Tale princesses live happily ever after in castles.  It’s likely the Mountbatten-Windsors, however, will shack up in Santa Barbara, no longer feeding at the royal trough, but carving out a day-to-day existence on whatever they are able to earn as just common, everyday, working folks.


Not even going to mention pandemic, plague, death, and world-wide tragedy.

In March, Netflix released Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, identified as an  LGBTQ Documentary, a cultural phenomenon attracting more than 30 MILLION viewers in the first ten days.  There is so much to say about Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin, about the tiger trade, about large cats in captivity, about sleazy animal parks and sleazy animal park owners, about the loyalty of a transgendered veteran who bore no ill will toward the tiger that took off his arm, about Doc Antle’s teen interns, but in the end, the experience of watching the doc from beginning to end was like eating a six pound bag of Chex Mix Muddy Buddy peanut butter, chocolate chip, marshmallow, M&Ms, powdered sugar, and butter with of a quart of buffalo chicken dip and Fritos – intriguing, compelling, inescapable, and more, much more, than a human should ingest without permanent injury.

30 million of us jumped right into what could be called a shared nightmare, one in which the central character who describes himself as “a gay gun carrying redneck with a mullet” plays himself in part and himself decompensating before our eyes.  Joseph Allen Maldonando- Passage (Schreibvogel) is reputed to have had as many as 176 tigers, cubs and adults, in the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park along with assorted other exotics, lions, bears, alligators, snakes, and tiligers. This captor of wild things is also a former chief of police, and candidate for Governor of Oklahoma as well as Libertarian candidate for the Presidency, an aspiration that may not seem quite so unlikely in these troubled times.  Joe is also a curious blend of entertainer/charlatan, author of a number of music videos that are simultaneously plagiarized delirium and retrospective pop masterworks, featuring Joe “performing” music he has lifted without attribution from other artists.  

Several episodes feature Joe’s misogynous feud with Carol Baskin, a self-proclaimed animal rights activist and CEO of Big Cats Rescue near Tampa, Florida.  Joe’s animus toward Baskin features prominently in the deterioration of his mental state, sliding from contempt to the conviction that she fed her second husband to tigers, to the single-minded determination to have her killed.  There was more than enough backstory to Baskin’s cat kingdom without the purported murder and midnight feeding.  This a woman who moved from the breeding of show cats to rescuing bobcats, a woman whose landscaping business made use of llamas in trimming grass.  Baskin’s signature fashion choices involving animal prints (my fave? The leopard print top and tiger striped socks) would in any other season have brought thousands of trick and treaters decked out in cheetah print mumus and floral crown to the streets on Halloween.  Those whose fascination with Carol was unabated quoted her endlessly (“Hey, all you cool cats and kittens”) as she danced her way to a third episode flameout on Dancing With The Stars.

Would Tiger King have arrived with such a clatter had we not been in lockdown and only starting to realize that life as we knew it might never return?  We’ll never know, but the sticky guilt of my immersion in Joe Exotic’s fall from notoriety to madness still haunts me every time I open Netflix and see him kneeling next to a magnificent tiger.

April –

Not a lot of giggles in April as the pandemic picked up momentum.  Lenox Hill, the extraordinary Netflix series documenting the impact of Covid -19 on a hard-pressed New York City hospital would appear at the end of May, but the scale of the surge in April and of the challenge in meeting the crisis is a sobering reminder of the grim reality of death in New York at start of the month..

On a lighter note, and there really is no lighter note, the bunker months brought socially isolated viewers into streaming application nirvana.  Binging brought a number of films and programs into the national conversation.  Netflix, which claims 31% of streaming time, 6% of all televiosed viewing, reckons that based on an average of about 71 minutes of viewing , the global tally is 150 million hours per day, the equivalent of 18,812 years.  What did we watch?  A quick look at the top ten shows for 2020 reveals something of the range of programing available during the 150 million hours each day.  

From my small corner of the netscape, it seemed the most obvious big winners would be Tiger King and Queen’s Gambit, and they are in the top five, but the most watched show on Netflix (and on Youtube) is Cocomelon, the 3D animation of kids’ music.  I can’t think of another phenomenon to match Cocomelon’s growth from a million subscribers in May of 2016 to a hundred million by the end of the year.  In the plague years, any relief given parents at home with small children is genuinely necessary, so a tip of the fin to Baby Shark and the Yes, Yes Vegetables song.

April –

Vegetables aside, what diversion remained for those not charmed by a chess playing savant?  Well, sports pretty much disappeared to resurface, kind of,  in the fall.  What’s an aficionado of heavy impact, full frontal violence to do in these grim days?

No deadly plague could stop the WWE from presenting Wrestlemania XXXVI – “TOO BIG FOR JUST ONE NIGHT!”

Nobody asked, but the emergence of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) as the provider of top dollar pay-per-view wrestling is a tangled tale, perhaps of little interest to the casual wrestling enthusiast, but then, there are no casual wrestling enthusiasts.  Those of us who came of age in the golden age of professional wrestling, Boomers who saw Argentina Rocca mix it up with Buddy Rogers for the World Wide Wrestling Federation Championship in Madison Square Garden, look back with slightly bruised affection at the theater in the ring we thought was absolutely legit.  Professional wrestling had sprung from grappling sideshow exhibitions during the time that Jack Dempsey was knocking opponents out in the second round and Babe Ruth was swatting homeruns.  Very few spectators wanted to watch grunting sweating men roll around on top of each other for eight or ten rounds ending in a draw, and so, the promoters and wrestlers began scripting and choreographing matches.  Until fairly recently, however, those who ended up in the ring had actually trained as wrestlers.  

Lou Thesz, Vern Gagne, Fred Blassie, the Graham brothers, Walden “Killer” Kowalski, Dick The Bruiser, Rocca, and Sammartino, even preening flamboyant Gorgeous George were all actually wrestlers, a legacy that for the most part continued into the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, with a few notable exceptions.  Wahoo McDaniels played professional football, Haystacks Calhoun was 601 pounds of untrained performer.  Andre the Giant, however, who tipped the Toledos at 540 pounds in the 1980’s and lumbered into the ring at 7’4”, had been wrestling since the age of 18.

Televised wrestling was largely promoted by Vince McMahon, Sr, whose Capital Wrestling Corporation became the WWWF and then the WWF, the corporation directed by Vince McMahon, Jr. in the explosive era of expansion known as Wrestlemania, snatching Hulk Hogan from rival promoters in the American Wrestling Association and beginning the monopolization of professional wrestling culminating in the establishment of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).  The change of name signaled McMahon’s recognition that his performers were actors, some of whom, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, had successful  careers outside the ring, but it also arrived as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) successfully sued McMahon for violation of that trademark.

 Whereas Boxing only intermittently draws huge numbers in the pay-per-view arena, the WWE churns out star-studded extravaganzas that regularly draw loyal audiences.  The 36th iteration of Wrestlemania, filmed without spectators, was sold as two separate shows, coupled as a package deal.  On the first night in the boneyard, The Undertaker defeated AJ Styles in the main event; on the second, Drew McIntyre knocked off Brock Lesnar, but the real fireworks arrived as Bray “The Fiend” Wyatt defeated popular film star and former body builder, John Cena.  The Fiend, whose 285 pounds of unchiseled flesh sags notably in comparison to Cena’s sleek physique, was born Windham Lawrence Rotunda, one of several Rotundas in the ring.

Former New England Patriot and part-time wrestler Rob Gronkowski hosted the event which was pre-recorded in several venues.  Wrestlemania 35 generated more than 165 million dollars and generated about 50,000 hotel bookings.  Covid-19 Wrestlemania pulled in about 25 million from pay-per-view, merchandising, and income from other shows, and did not bring the anticipated hotel bookings to Tampa.

May –

Too grim not to remember: George Floyd was killed by police responding to a “forgery in process” call.  Derek Cahuvan knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and fifteen seconds; Floyd stopped moving after four minutes.  Protests across the nation demonstrate wide support for the Black Lives Matter movement and growing reaction from the right, referring to protesters as Antifa anarchists. 

Scrambling to identify any lightness of tone is increasingly challenging, but there were two notable personalities who kicked up some dust in May, raising the sorts of questions that used to matter greatly before we started dying by the hundreds of thousands. Celebrity allows no relief from public scrutiny, but in these cases, the celebrities themselves tripped the alarm. 

Before introducing the celebrities, I will again indulge whimsical conjecture.  If those who are celebrated are celebrities and those who are nominated are nominees, what words then apply to those who are venerated, or castigated, or  mutilated, or generated.  The Italian terms castrati apply to those castrated to maintain a soprano or contralto voice, but would we use the term placati for those who are placated? Is Elvis, who according to legend died at the stool, a constipato? 

OK, moving on.

May was some month for Elon Musk, whose monthly output of controversy is impressive.  From his bully pulpit, he tweeted his intention to move Tesla production from California as the state passed measures to restrict the operation of his factories in response to the spreading of Covid-19 across the state.  Musk sued the state and moved to Texas.  The larger story, however, had to do with California’s reluctance to accept A AE A-12 as the name appearing on Musk and the musician Grimes’ newborn child.  Pronounced EX ASH A Twelve,  the name represents “Unknown variable, Artificial Intelligence/love and the couple’s favorite aircraft.”

OK, nobody’s business but theirs, sort of.  Stretching here to find anything to deflect the growing conviction that the next months will likely bring more pain. The obvious next step is to remember the many “inventive” names other celebrities have foisted on their children, beginning of course with the Zappa clan: Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Diva Thin Muffin.  Ed Sheerean’s daughter lucked out with Lyra Antarctica; Gwen Stefani’s kid – Zuma Nesta Rock perhaps less well.  Alicia Silverstone?  Bear Blu.  Kate Winsklet?  Bear Blaze.  Zooey Desschanel tucks in Elsie Otter.  There are a host of other unusual names – Gravity, Pilot Inspektor, Raddix, Exton, Buddy Bear.  Nick Cannon and Mariah Carey named a child Moroccan, but unexpectedly it’s calm and grounded Nicholas Cage who dubbed his kid Kal-El, summoning the persona of Krypton’s favorite ex-pat, the infant who would become Superbaby, Clark Kent, Superboy, and Superman.

And the madness comes full circle as Cage is tapped to play Joe Exotic, the Tiger King.

June –

June was not bustin’ out all over because Covid-19 was still doing the bustin’.  Generally and specifically damage continued apace in a nation on the verge of implosion.  No way I catalog the thousands of tweets from the edge of the Phantom World, each of which has been cauterized on my soul but in desperation, I can mildly comment on one diversion that debuted in June, 2020.

The Bachelor: Greatest Season Ever! 

One hardly knows where to begin.  Let’s start with Mike Fliess, from whose fecund imagination a number of noteworthy enterprises have sprung, including The Bachelor, all three versions of Hostel and two Chainsaw Massacre remakes.  

Fliess first hit it big with Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?, essentially a beauty pageant ending in a marriage, enormously popular and all set to become part of the Fox lineup until it was discovered that the multimillionaire wasn’t all that millionairish (the toilet in his backyard may have given a clue) and that a charge of domestic violence had brought him a restraining order rather than a million bucks.  Marriage annulled.  Former bride posing in Playboy.  Series cancelled, Fliess bounced back with his pitch for The Bachelor, essentially the same basic premise, substituting hot tubs for the swimsuit competition.  

The second iteration in 2003 was a home run, of course, spawning the near-neighbors: The Bachelorette, The Bachelor Canada, Bachelor In Paradise, Bachelor Pad, Bachelor in Paradise:  After Paradise, The Bachelor Winter Games, The Bachelor Presents: Listen To Your Heart. 

What Hath Fliess Wrought?  Well, a number of imitators, his own restraining orders after being charged with harrassing the stars of Baywatch and threatening his own wife if she failed to get an abortion. He’s got more than a hundred million bucks stacked up, however, so i9f you want to marry a multimillionaire … I’m just saying.

Bachelor offspring and wannabe spawn: Love is Blind, The Circle, Dating Around, Love Island, 90 Day Fiancee (OK, this one is worth its own article – coming soon!), Married at First Sight, Siesta Key, Temptation Island, Ex On The Beach, and my holiday favorite, The Twelve Dates of Christmas.  

Those of us whom have wandered into the lovescape and have wondered at the odd precision with which drama erupts on a weekly basis have only one other less guilty, fairly brilliant place to land – Unreal, the scripted and often remarkably true to form “drama”: series presenting the underside of a reality series entitled Everlasting.  Inspired by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short film, Sequin Raze, the pilot was write by Shapiro, who had broken into the field with High School Reunion before becoming a producer of The Bachelor, and Marti Noxon, who wrote some of the most interesting episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was a consulting producer on Mad Men, and creator of HBO’s Sharp Objects.  

Reality itself has become a Mobius striptease as we languish in social distance, as all the “real” housewives demonstrate.  I’m not lingering in the check out lines of grocery stores these days, so I have no idea what sorts of Reality/reality crossover is screaming from the tabloids next to the gum and candy.  

That’s more than enough to contend with in one shot, so Part II of the Year that God Forgot will be appearing soon on a Cogitator near you!

Behind the scenes …

Behind the scenes …

Looking back is always a bit dicey, and having come through the year we’ve just endured, the first instinct is not to open the treasure trove of memory.  In my case. However, I do have a string of indelible experiences that I’m pretty sure fall outside the range of the ordinary.

For a number of years I was entrusted with the task of bringing a wide range of intellectual, cultural, artistic, and spiritually uplifting speakers and performers to a weekly convocation of faculty and students at a small but highly esteemed boarding school nestled atop a mesa near Santa Barbara, California, its back to a national forest, its gaze down and out at some of the most highly prized surfing spots on the Pacific coastline.  It’s a splendid location and one that speakers, performers and spiritual pilgrims find edifying; it’s also within twenty minutes of a major university and ninety minutes from Los Angeles.  Who couldn’t book the best in a situation such as that?

Who couldn’t?  

The range of successful performances ran from gospel choirs to neuro surgeons, from film stars to recovered gang bangers.  Leonard Cohen’s backing singer? Hallelujah!  David Crosby?  Sure.  Russian jugglers?  Da.  Nationally celebrated storytellers?  By the dozen. 

Irish harpist?  Paralyzed hockey player? Canadian folk musicians?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Major triumph?  No doubt – The Regurgitator!  If you have never seen Stevie Starr swallow a pool ball, razor blades, sets of keys, padlocks, and virtually anything else you toss at him, check out any of the several videos posted on Youtube. The following is but one short snippet  of Starr’s extraordinary “talent”.

I booked him before he hit the big time, when he was just startingt out, so he and his manager cut me a break so that I could afford to bring him back once every three or four years.  Students who might otherwise have regretted my quirky convocation choices now share the privilege of watching The Regurgitator up close, and occasionally all too personal.  I alone had the greater  privilege of dining with Stevie.  I had to book a table at IHOP in order to allow him to enjoy his favorite/only meal- sausages and bacon.  I did get to see him pull one of his prize stunts on a waitress, however, as he threw back an entire shaker of sugar, drank a glass of water, and brought the sugar up -dry – in the waitress’ hand.

I’ve written elsewhere of some unfortunate convocations, one of which involved a faculty member’s taking the stage when a performer had not arrived, delivering twenty minutes of inappropriate and ill-conceived comedy before being dragged off the stage still barking at the audience. “WHO WANTS TO HEAR A DIRTY GHOST JOKE?  THAT’S THE (BLEEP) SPIRIT”.  Another excruciating half hour was spent held hostage by a formerly talented performer who abandoned his craft in order to assume the persona of The Standup Chameleon. One might think there would be some wit and whimsy in this transformation, but one would be painfully mistaken.  The Chameleon turned out to be a fiftyish fella with a thick New Hampshire accent, dressed in a unitard festooned with hand-drawn portraits of domestic and exotic animals, who decided to teach a resolutely unwilling audience to perform a mind-numbing song while using American Sign Language to punctuate the important messages. 

I’m fine, really.  Breathing.  Breathing.  No Chameleon any more.  Find my happy place.

Those unfortunate incidents aside, my annual trial by fire took place as I welcomed a stage hypnotist to the school, opened up ninety minutes in the evening, and allowed him to unleash whatever mind monkeys he might be able to coax from formerly self-contained and highly effective students.  Stage hypnotists belong to a cohort of entertainers who travel widely presenting essentially the same show, year in, year out.  Most have taped some portions of their act, and all have references and reviews.  

Foolproof, right?

Three significant points to make about stage hypnosis:

  1.  It is absolutely the real deal – not fake.  When they’re out, they’re out!  A good hypnotist is able to do astonishing things.  
  2. You’ll learn astonishing things about people you thought you knew
  3. The mind is a complex landscape, and hypnosis is MUCH trickier than I had imagined.

I watched the tapes, read the reviews, and picked a hypnotist known as Ronny Romm, not the flashiest, kind of corny, but obviously skilled, and he worked with high school kids without getting smutty, as some of the flashier pros did.  I am a huge Ronny Romm fan, not only because he was an absolute hit every time I booked him, but because he was an absolute hit despite having a fairly serious speech impediment.  

There hadn’t been evidence of his stammering on the tapes, so I was on the edge of my seat as he began the act.  When inducing the hypnotic state, his pitch was, “Listen to my voice.  Only the sound of my voice”.  What came out, of course, was, “L-L-L-L-Listen t-t-to ma-ma-ma-ma- my vuh-vuh-vuh-voice.”  It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and the kids went under and stayed under for more than an hour.  

Huge success.

After his third appearance, I fiugured I had better offer a little variety, so  hired a hypnotist that performed at Disneyland.  Great tapes!  Disneyland!

Back to the three points.  There’s not much real agreement about what hypnotism actually is.  The range runs from “heightened suggestibility” to “hypnotic coma”.  I was in the suggestibility camp until I saw evidence of amnesia, then moved into coma territory when my Disney version of a hypnotist failed to notice a kid hit the deck hard.  When I pushed my way to the stage, the pro assured me that he’d have the young man back on his feet in no time.  Two hours later, the student was mildly responsive.  He spent the night in the infirmary and the next few weeks working back to fully comfortable in this universe.

So, the next time?

Here’s R-r-r-r-r-ronny R-r-r-r-r-r-omm!

Now, if you’d like to examine the entire line-up over the decade-and-a-half, I’d love to tell you about the Brazilian mime who convincingly transforms himself into a deer, or the Russian balalaika band, or the guy who juggles twenty balls at a time.