For want of One Great Phrase

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We hear a lot about what writers need, about their obsessive, soul-shaking compulsion to empty their brains of neatly arranged consonants and vowels in as many media as possible, in pursuit of the phenomenon of connection.  Author Layla Messner has a nice, simple, resonant line about it in her Twitter bio:  “Words have been known to come out of my fingers” – they pour, unfiltered from the tap, emptying onto the page in sometimes messy, sometimes poetic splashes.  If we couldn’t type our stories, we’d talk them, if we couldn’t talk them, we’d resort to mime, gesticulating wildly until someone got the idea.  Every moment spent not writing only aggravates the junkie’s craving and fills one with the sense of precious, elusive time misspent.  Family night?  Stuff that, I’ve got eighteen pages to edit and the problems of a fictional unemployed karaoke-obsessed spot welder from Scranton, Pennsylvania to wrestle with.  Few outside “the profession” can comprehend it; those of us on the inside share our compounding frustrations with secret winks and nods and commiserations offered in the digital cafe.  And when we find ourselves without anything substantial to say, we write about what’s wrong with the plumbing, trying to dislodge the creative clog, to rediscover the reassurance of free flowing literary neurosis.

With so much energy expended on exploring writers’ need, what then of what the writer wants?  Not a subject that gets discussed with nearly as much fervor.  Perhaps no one can articulate it in a way that doesn’t sound like the selfish, capitalistic, materialistic desires for fame and fortune and universal acclaim – the seven-figure book deal, the gushing reviews and self-indulgent television interviews, the gala premiere of the movie adaptation, the legions of followers begging to be sated by the next volume in your ongoing saga.  And all that is outside the art itself; fleeting external validation that does little to advance the craft, sharpen your skills or contribute to a legacy that will outlive your just as fleeting mortal shell.  What then, is the want, stripped of the external trappings, boiled down to its essence?  What aspiration keeps the writer awake late at night when the world has gone to sleep, the caffeine has metabolized into ether and the glow of the laptop saturates his face with a cold blue veneer?

Greatness.  Not, I think, the notion of being a great person, but of creating something that takes figurative flight and soars far beyond your little fragment of the world.  Something that becomes.

There’s no such thing as the perfect novel, or even the perfect sentence, hyperbolic critics to the contrary.  There is, however, the ineffable quality of a phrase well-turned – the witty line, the fragment of repartee, the utterance of a slice of wisdom that lasts through generations.  We all harbor memory banks of quotations we can rely upon to spice our own work with a fragment of someone else’s literary manna – the ubiquitous sayings of Shakespeare, Wilde, Twain, Parker, Churchill, Hemingway, Fry, Hitchens, Sorkin (naturally), even Marx (Groucho) and Lennon (John), to name but the merest few.  One need not even be exceptionally well-read to draw on one’s betters – websites like BrainyQuote are an ample buffet, whatever’s on the verbal menu.  How too, do we long to be included in that pantheon.  To one day have high schoolers begin essays with, “As Milne once wrote…”  There’s a reason they call these immortal phrases.  The heart yearns to birth one of its own.

It’s amusing, as a contributor of the occasional column to The Huffington Post, to see which sentence is plucked from the piece by the blog editors to characterize its tone and message on the sidebar.  Which they feel is most likely to draw the maximum amount of click-interest.  I don’t get a say.  Sometimes it turns out to be one that was labored on intensely; others were tossed off in fractions of seconds and result in embarrassed cringes.  When Tony Bennett shared the review I wrote of his performance on his Facebook page, he included this extract as a teaser:

From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it…

Is that the greatest thing that I’ve ever written?  It’s probably not even the greatest sentence in the whole piece.  And did I spend a lot of time and thought and energy creating it or did it just kind of tumble out of me onto the ground to be bypassed like a rusty mile marker on the journey to a more scintillating conclusion?  Regardless, Tony Bennett liked it.  And because he shared it, a great number of people saw it.  But it still fell short of that maddening goal of crossing into the zeitgeist, of tearing itself away from my humble custody to bequeath itself into the care of the ages.  Truthfully, it was never worthy of that honor.  It was of a singular moment and nothing more.  We shall have to try again.

Speaking of attempts, Twitter has become a terrific venue for the creation of quirky, real time bon mots.  Inspiration strikes – we think up something amusing, either on our own or in reaction to somebody else’s comment, we send it out, we eye our Mentions tab for retweets and favorites (and pretend that we don’t, because who wants to admit that we crave the attention).  And it becomes a popularity contest, a battle of digits, with champions determined less by intrinsic and lasting value and more by whose thumbs typed it.  The most I’ve ever had anything retweeted – 19 times – was a snarky castigation of Mitt and Ann Romney during the 2012 presidential election campaign, and hardly something I’d want to be remembered for, nor will anyone else remember it.  Indeed, the tearing down of others has never been the path to the light of universal inspiration.

I’ve written things that I’ve thought were pretty good, I’ve written things that I’ve despised with unbridled bile that rivals the contempt in which I hold certain members of certain political parties in certain parts of the world.  I have yet to write what I consider to be my One Great Phrase, my lasting entry for the Big Book of Quotations.  As usual, what my audience thinks of my work never matches what I think of it.  And I could point to the work of acquaintances of superior skill for examples of what I might consider to be their One Great Phrase which they would scoff at and then ask me for a helping of whatever I might be smoking.  The object of the pursuit remains then an ever-rising mountaintop, the Holy Grail teetering on the edge of the precipice, the Ark you daren’t open lest your face melt off (and any other Indiana Jones metaphors you can think of.)  I suppose it’s just as well – the day you’re satisfied is the day you stop.

Say, that’s not a bad line.  Use it if you like.  But don’t call it great.  We’re not there yet.

Slán, mo chara beag

sleeptight

When I was single, friends and family would often suggest that I should get a cat.  My answer was always no.  Not enough room in my one-bedroom apartment, I was in and out too often, there was no place to put the litter box and I had no interest in cleaning up furry messes every day.  The truth beneath those pat excuses was rather more revealing:  I didn’t want the responsibility.  I fancied myself a free-wheeler (even if most nights were spent at home on the couch or on the computer) and couldn’t abide the idea of having a feline anchor demanding constant attention and care.  The other, more appealing half of the equation never entered into my mind.  Truly, until you’ve had a pet, it doesn’t compute, and I grew up in a house without animals.  I’m not exactly sure why we never had a pet – I can’t even recall discussing the idea of one.  It seemed to be tacitly understood that animals weren’t an option, and that was that.

We flash forward then, to the time I met the woman who would become my wife.  And her cat, Muffins.

Muffins was a gray tortoiseshell born in 1992 who had belonged to another family for the first ten years of her life.  For whatever reason those people gave her up to the local humane society – abandoned her, as it were, to fifteen months hard time in a cage before her fateful encounter with my lady-to-be.  As the story goes, my wife was merely accompanying my sister-in-law who was interested in volunteering there, and while waiting for her to fill in the forms, wandered into the cat room.  It was replete with amiable felines in need of families, some of whom hopped about eagerly for attention while others curled up in resigned croissants and paid no heed to the human visitor.  Muffins, however, made her way to the front of her cage, sat back on her haunches and reached her little paws out through the bars to grasp my wife’s cheek – like an old soul recognizing its long-absent mate from a life lived in another time and place.  Their bond was sealed.  My wife adopted her on the spot.  A few hours later, Muffins took only a few moments to examine her new surroundings for the first time before curling up and going to sleep in my wife’s lap, purring, content, at ease.  She had come home, to her true forever home, at long last.

My own bond with Muffins wasn’t the touching moment related above, it was more of a gradual acceptance on her part that this tall, loud thing that spent an awful lot of time in her territory wasn’t going anywhere.  I was house-sitting for my wife shortly after we were first dating, dropping in for a few hours every night to ensure Muffins was fed and had some company.  So I was lying on the couch, channel-surfing, when I noticed this furry, adorable face on the floor looking up at me.  We stared at each other for a few moments, sizing each other up.  I patted my thigh in what seems to be the universal signal for hey cat, come up here and make yourself comfortable.  And up she leaped, to my shock and awe.  She stood there, pawing at the unfamiliar terrain, trying to figure out how best to position herself for maximum relaxation potential.  Of course I wasn’t used to how to deal with cats, so I was petting her relentlessly, probably a bit too hard, and she responded with an angry hiss and a swift departure, flicking her tail in my face as she went.  It would be a couple of months before she’d dare try again, this time when my wife was on a girls’ weekend away.  That time, I knew enough to keep my hands to myself – and she settled in for a cozy nap.

Game on.

It would take an entirely separate blog, I would think, to chronicle all of Muffins’ most endearing traits and quirks, but a few stand out more than most.  When we were first living together, Muffins used to tuck my wife and I in for bed at the end of the night.  She’d stay while we sat up and talked, read or did a crossword puzzle, but when she knew we were getting close to turning out the light, she’d leave – as if she was a nanny sending her charges off to sleep and retiring for the evening, her job done, until the morning when she heard us talking and would hop up on the bed to say hello again, it’s a new day, get your rears in gear.  As the years wore on and we relocated dwellings a few times, she began staying through the night, particularly in some bitter winters, where my legs became the bed of choice, and I’d have to find ever more contorting ways to slide myself down so I could go to sleep without waking her up.  We would joke, too, that whenever you put something soft like a blanket or a cushion down for more than a few minutes, it would become a cat bed – Muffins’ predatory instinct when it came to sleeping spots was unparalleled.  Even the little pink igloo we purchased for her went rarely used, her preference wherever a sunbeam fell through the windows.  It was not uncommon either to find a stuffed animal knocked over if it was in the way of a designated snooze spot; her usual targets were an Eeyore we kept on our spare bed or the snowmen in our annual “stuffy Christmas” display.  Of course, a few summers ago she abandoned her old habit of letting us sleep through the night and began announcing her arrival loudly at one or two a.m., repeating that inimitable wail until we awoke and attended to her whims.  For a short time I kept a plastic water gun on my bedside table to shoo her away.

Though meant to be an indoor cat, she loved roaming our various backyards, rolling around on and eating the grass, investigating nooks and crannies for potential mouse habitats and avenues of escape, defending with stubborn honor against the intrusion of other wayward cats, sleeping under this hideous tree in the back corner for hours at a time – yet never failing to return and wait patiently at the door for us to let her back inside.  On a particularly memorable occasion we had chosen to leave the back door open a crack to let her come and go as she pleased – that policy lasted a whole two days as on the second afternoon I looked up to see her trotting in merrily with a dead mouse in her mouth.  By the book you’re supposed to thank the cat and dispose of the corpse quietly (it’s their way of thanking you for feeding them by “getting the groceries” themselves) but my behavior was a little more along the lines of bellowing some unprintable oaths and smacking her on the nose to make her let go of the vile thing.  Then of course was this last summer when we forgot she was out back until well after the sun went down and we suddenly noticed a pungent smell wafting in through the windows.  We raced to the door and Muffins stumbled in, sneezing, drooling and dripping snot, having just been sprayed by a passing skunk.  One emergency run to the 24-hour grocery store for hydrogen peroxide and a few baths later, this shriveled, wet, ratty-looking thing wandered shaken through our contaminated house, trying to regain her composure.  We wanted to laugh but felt so bad for her.  She looked so embarrassed.

I’ve met a lot of other people’s cats who have fit the stereotype of the aloof, uncaring feline who treats you as staff instead of family.  Muffins, by contrast, never failed to be friendly even with complete strangers walking through the door for the first time.  She was a well-mannered hostess, dropping by to greet newcomers and offering little kitty kisses to let them know they were welcome, instead of fleeing from caresses, hiding in the closet and waiting for the interlopers to leave.  Of course she was getting something out of the deal, namely, the affection she vacuumed up like an overclocked Hoover, but she seemed to understand the importance of treating guests like family, letting them know that our home was a warm and safe and happy place.  In her own way, Muffins was a reminder even in the darkest moments of how truly wondrous this world can be.  The melancholy of the worst of days at the office, or the inevitable clashes between stressed spouses, was soothed instantly by an unjudging look from her enormous eyes, a touch of her gentle paws, the incomparable purr, the sight of her fast asleep on your lap or tucked behind a stuffed animal knocked askew.  Even the meow from some distant room elsewhere in the house, assuring you she was around.  It’s okay, mommy & daddy, I’m here.  What she asked in return was merely a scratch behind her ears and the occasional (okay, daily, truth be told) slice of deli honey maple turkey.

She infused herself into our vernacular as well – my wife’s original nickname for her was “boo boo,” hence shorthand references to Muffins became “the boo,” and boo became a prefix for anything related to her.  Dry food was boo bits, wet food was boo-goo, the litter pan was the boo box, the occasional coughed-up hairball was boo barf, even the aforementioned ignored cat bed became the boo-gloo.  Additional nicknames for Miss Boo herself became too numerous to count, as did silly songs we’d make up for her.  To the tune of Mary Poppins’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”:

Let’s take Boo to bed,

She is a sleepyhead,

Let’s take Boo to bed and hear her purring

Up to the second floor

Then through the bedroom door

Oh, let’s take Boo to bed!

One might think such devotion the exclusive bailiwick of the crazy cat lady, but she was our only baby for years, through failed attempts to conceive a child of our own, when it seemed parenthood was a path we would never walk.  Interestingly enough, when we met the boy who would become our adopted son, the first question he asked us was about Muffins (as I recall, he was disappointed that she was fixed and couldn’t have kittens.)  Of course, she came to accept him, though he was even louder than the last male to intrude upon her pleasant solitude.  We were in the kitchen, I think, and my wife whispered for me to look over into the family room where she was nestled on top of him for the first time.  Giving us her blessing, I suppose, that this kid was a keeper, regardless of his inability to sit still for longer than a minute at a time.

There is no interest, I suspect, nor any desire on my part to chronicle her decline in great detail, suffice it to say that age excepts none.  Over the past year her weight had begun to dwindle and visits to the vet became more frequent and more expensive.  To our credit, I suppose, we never questioned the need to give her the best care regardless of cost.  If it had been one of us who’d been suffering, we would not hesitate to pay whatever was required; so too would it be with our boo.  It was the responsibility part.  Oddly enough, maintaining her dignity was foremost on Muffins’ mind these last few months – much like a golden-aged human being fighting to hold onto what slips ever further from their grasp with each passing year, what it seemed would always be there.  The vet had suggested moving her litter from our basement to the main floor to ease the strain on her legs.  Well, didn’t the impossibly stubborn little lady simply refuse to go for two days until we put it back where she was used to having it.  I’ll just say there’s a reason why female cats are called queens.  Her Majesty Muffins was determined to remain so.  Yet despite her brave, ever-purring face, sober realization crept into our minds that her remaining days were dwindling – and at some point, a decision would have to be made.  A terrible, horrible, no good, awful and goddamned necessary decision.

Two Thursdays ago, Muffins wasn’t eating or drinking.  She was lying listless on her side, struggling to be comfortable.  We’d received the results of a recent blood test letting us know her kidneys were failing.  There were treatment options available, but no cure – it would be putting her through frightening medical procedures to extend her life only for a couple of weeks.  That Thursday night we said good night to her in the family room, afraid she wouldn’t make it through the night.  Friday morning we found that she had struggled her way up the stairs to crawl into a box in our bedroom – she didn’t want to be alone.  I went off to work allowing myself to hope that “Lady Bounce-Back” – our diminutive for her habit of recovering nicely from seemingly mortal ailments – would rule the day once more.  When my wife contacted me in tears later that morning, I realized that wouldn’t be the case this time.

The vet gave us a few moments alone to consider our options.  I made myself verbalize what we were both feeling.  If we put her through the ordeal of hospitalization, who were we doing it for – her, or ourselves?  So I said it.  We needed to put selfish concerns aside.  We needed to let her go.  My wife said she thought I was right.  Clenching at a rising lump in my throat I said I didn’t want to be right.

We both took a turn holding Muffins one last time.  She was angry – she didn’t like the vet’s office, never had.  Defiant to the last, the queen holding court and meowing and hissing her displeasure.  But we both knew that she was tired, and she was ready to go.  She was almost 22 years old – in human terms, nearing 140 – and she’d made the most of her time here.  The vet told us that it was a testament to how well she was looked after that she lived as long as she did.

I thought back to what my wife had told me about when she and Muffins found each other.  She went to sleep now just as she first had, in my wife’s lap – comfortable and content, surrounded by love and leaving now for that place without pain, to run and chase mice in an endless meadow beneath eternal sunshine.

We all want to deny the responsibility that goes with love.  We want no part of it.  We want the ice cream and not the brussel sprouts.  When we’re admiring the curve of a young woman’s perfect breasts or the sinew of her tanned legs, or losing ourselves in the depth of her soulful eyes, we don’t want to consider the idea that someday we’ll be changing her adult diaper or cringing at her inability to remember our name, or worse, watching her waste away in a hospital bed, hooked up to fluids and monitors and catheters as some microscopic, malevolent clump of cells eats her from the inside out.  Commitment terrifies us because like all sumptuous meals, eventually we know we’ll be handed the bill and asked to leave the restaurant.  Better to just walk on by that four-star place and purchase the Happy Meal instead, right?  Easier.  Quicker.  More seductive.

Hardly the most nutritious option.  To extend the food metaphor past its limit, it’s a recipe for loneliness.  To shy from that responsibility is to deny the greatest thing you can ever ask for.  If you can open your heart, you may find a gentle little being curling up inside it and starting to purr.

George Carlin once said that adopting a pet is essentially purchasing a small tragedy, unless you’re 80 and you get a turtle.  What he didn’t say was how despite that, adopting a pet is accepting unconditional love.  Muffins ended the question for me of whether or not animals have souls.  They are proof of the essential goodness of life, of its capacity to embrace and give and forgive, of life’s evolution towards a utopia dancing just ever so slightly out of reach.  Cruelty and malevolence are artificial constructs forced upon us by our unwillingness to share and to accept the responsibility of love, to treat living things as more valuable than things.  Muffins did not earn a salary or spend money:  her only currency was love, in which she was a billionaire many times over, and she lavished it upon us at every opportunity, without thought of reward.  She understood her responsibility.  She had it figured out, better than any of us.  The impatient meows were like tiny admonishments that we didn’t grasp the obvious.  Silly humans.

I thank whatever guides this universe for winding our paths towards one another, and even an atheist can dream about a far future day when he gets to cradle his beloved pet in his arms again, in some unfathomable form.

Until then, I miss her very much, and I thank her, and I say goodbye, my little friend.  I love you always.

See you on Rainbow Bridge, little lion

goodbye

My heart’s a bit raw right now.  So I’ll let this anonymous author say it for me.

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. Her bright eyes are intent; Her eager body quivers. Suddenly she begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, her legs carrying her faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….

You can’t handle the tooth

cj

Going to the dentist is one of those necessary life rituals that causes an irrational explosion of anxiety in otherwise sane, stable people.  The ear-slicing whine of the tiny drill as it scrapes at enamel inspires more revulsion than that of a vegan served a slab of porterhouse, more terror than the prospect of a Rob Ford sex tape.  Finding out today that I need a root canal, my mind is cast to the image of C.J. Cregg on The West Wing episode “Celestial Navigation,” wailing “I had woot canaww!!” and advising that the pwesident needs to be bwiefed immediatewy.  Yet my dentist assures me that I can go straight back to work, it’s not like the days I needed off from school when I had my wisdom teeth out so many moons ago.  They numb you up, drill inside the tooth, extract the pulp – which you don’t need anyway once the tooth is fully formed – and cap it with a sealant.  Easy peasy, really.  But that won’t stop dental work from being a reliable source of dread on TV shows and the like until the medium itself expires.

There are hundreds of things that the entertainment industry has convinced us to wet our pants at the mere thought of that are in reality quite benign.  Sharks and air travel are the two that spring to mind right away.  Up until 1975, shark attacks were the rarest of the rare, with beachgoers more likely to suffer a nibble from a petulant sea turtle.  Then Jaws drops and nobody wants to go in the water, and the fear of the shark is so indelibly etched into our collective consciousness (accompanied by John Williams’ foreboding theme music) that almost forty years later we’re still using them as stock monsters for our schlockiest of movies, only now they’re flying out of tornadoes.  They’re reduced to mindless predators driven into a frenzy for human flesh by the slightest whiff of blood, the standard pet of every supervillain, sometimes even with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.  The documentary Sharkwater had to be produced to try to restore the reputation of these fatally misunderstood creatures – murdered by the thousands every year – and yet, the Mayor’s cautionary words from Jaws still ring in everyone’s ears:  “you yell ‘shark,’ and you’ve got a panic on the Fourth of July.”  Whether you realize it or not, you too scan the horizon for the telltale fin when you go swimming at a tropical beach.  The primal fear is that entrenched.

And then there’s the terrors in the sky.  Airplanes, and indeed air travel, are almost never shown in movies or TV unless something bad is going to happen mid-flight.  The plane is going to be hijacked, or run out of fuel, or hit a deadly storm, or the crew will be incapacitated, resulting in the massive jet needing to be landed by the plucky kid who loves flight simulation games on his XBox.  Look at Lost, the show whose entire premise revolved around the aftermath of a plane crash on a deserted island.  The first episode began with an unnamed survivor opening his eyes and staggering around the plane’s debris field, and witnessing some poor schmuck get sucked into the still-firing engine – an airliner so lethal it was still killing people after having gone down.  The media doesn’t help, shunting real-life crashes to the front of any broadcast.  I’ll never forget the day in 2005 when that Air France flight skidded off the runway after landing at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer sounded crestfallen that there were no fatalities to report.  How often do planes crash in real life, though?  Once every six months or so?  Sounds like a lot until you consider that in entire world, there are on average 7,000 flights daily.  That’s every single day of the year.  So yeah, your odds of ending up dodging the black smoke monster on that time-traveling island are pretty much on par with having a sharknado drop on top of your house before you finish reading this sentence.

I feel for dentists, I really do.  Just as airlines and sharks never get a positive portrayal in the movies, neither do dentists.  (For a double whammy, check out Cast Away where Tom Hanks’ plane crashes before he can make a dentist appointment for an abscessed tooth.)  They’re all drawn from the Little Shop of Horrors or Marathon Man mold, depicted as sadistic, domineering and utterly inconsiderate of the sheer agony they’re about to inflict on their squirming patient.  All the better for us to laugh at, I suppose.  And yet their real-life counterparts have to overcome this stereotype each time a new victim – er, client walks through the door, to say nothing of the years of training and certification required to be able to do the job in the first place.  A job that requires them to stick their fingers into some pretty disgusting, halitosis-wracked mouths every day.  I suppose the message in all of this is that we shouldn’t rely on the movies to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be afraid of – and that we need to remember to floss.

Talking about My Next Generation

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Lately, I’ve been watching Star Trek again.  Or more to the point, I’ve been watching The Next Generation on Netflix, that is, when I’m not working, writing, taking media courses or running copious errands.  Ever since I became a father, television has dropped several ranks on the priority list.  My wife and I were joking the other night about how we used to lie on opposite couches on a Sunday afternoon and mumble to each other, “What do you want to do?”  “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”  That boredom was so frustrating at the time; now it’s looked back upon with reverence and longing.  We’d murder for a boring day like that.

When our son came to us his taste in TV was a bit, shall we say, delayed.  Cartoons well below his age level were the go-to.  Trying to encourage him to take a step ahead we suggested he give TNG a go, figuring he’d grok the whiz-bang of the space battles while subliminally processing the messages.  And of course we’d be happy to watch it with him.  So what began as an exercise in maturity for our lad has turned into a nostalgic trip for myself.

Some of these episodes I haven’t seen in a decade or more, and it’s sometimes sad to realize that what enthralled you as a teenager can come off to a more seasoned palate as cheap, juvenile or otherwise lacking.  That first season in particular was really rough going, in terms of the writing, the acting (with the sole exception of the masterful Patrick Stewart, probably the only reason anything worked in the first year) and the show’s overall ambition, or lack thereof.  Airing in first-run syndication rather than on a network saved it from becoming a swiftly forgotten, ill-advised follow-up to a 60’s classic, along with the devotion of fans so grateful for new Trek on TV that they stayed with it throughout its growing pains.  (One wonders if the struggling Agents of SHIELD will likewise endure.)  But I remember sitting on my mom’s bed glued to her television (the main one in our basement didn’t work most of the time) being thrilled by the sight of the Enterprise-D blasting through the warp barrier to travel beyond the boundaries of the universe to a place where thought and reality intertwined in “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and wondering how they could possibly make it back unharmed.  I recall thinking how awesome it was to see the Klingons back causing trouble in “Heart of Glory.”  I remember the nightmares I got when a guy’s head exploded under Picard and Riker’s phasers in “Conspiracy.”  I remember the massive crush I had on Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher and how stunning she looked made up as a 40’s moll in “The Big Goodbye.”  And I remember obsessively checking Starweek to see when the next new episode was going to air – in fact, I believe I may have insisted that my mom purchase the Saturday paper strictly for that reason – and being crestfallen at the long wait between seasons one and two (thanks a lot, Writers Guild strike of ’88).

As wobbly as some of the earlier episodes of the show were, what endeared it to me and I suspect the majority of the fans, was the ever-present nobility of the characters, effortlessly upstanding in their morals and always trying to do right by the universe even when challenged at their very cores.  Was it a realistic portrayal of human beings?  Probably not.  But we could aspire to be like them.  The Next Generation provided that model for me as I grew through my teenage years and evolved from being embarrassed to admit I liked it lest the girls think I was weird, to going merrily to conventions and “talking Trek” with comrades at every opportunity – often to the chagrin of my best friend who’s indifferent to it to this day.  As the show went on and I got older, I found my response to it evolving as well.  My tastes were growing more sophisticated the more I learned about literature and history, and I found myself less than enamored with the show’s switch in its golden years to out-there-for-the-sake-of-being-out-there sci-fi premises and plots resolved through mindless technobabble.  Maybe another time I’ll get into a detailed analysis of where I think things started to go wrong (it all began when they changed the style of the music late in Season Four), but by the end I was ready to vomit if I saw one more episode about reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit tetryon or verteron particles.  And yet this too was a formative moment for me.  Because it was when I began to think, “you know what?  I could do better.”  I understood there was no drama in pulling an imaginary subatomic particle out of the proverbial arse to deus ex the machina.  That wasn’t how you told stories.  Not well, anyhow.  Not how I wanted to tell them, or how I wanted to see them being told.

As the number of episodes remaining in Season Seven dwindled, I was still watching, but with a sense of sadness at lost opportunities – “all the stories in the galaxy to tell and they did another broken holodeck episode?  And why is the music so bad?”  There were gems here and there but the entire enterprise (sorry) felt a bit like it was slumping to the finish line, with the creative energy diverted to getting Deep Space Nine up and running, but oh yeah, we’ve got this other one that I guess we have to pay some meager level of attention to.  Stewart and the gang were giving it their all, but it was obviously time to go, just as the teenager inevitably turns twenty and braces for a new set of challenges.  The finale, “All Good Things…,” was a great sendoff; not perfect, as it too relied on technobabble to solve the central dilemma, but it did top the gift with a beautiful bow in Captain Picard sitting down for the senior staff poker game for the first time and announcing that “the sky’s the limit.”  It was a touching parting sentiment for myself as well, reminding me that I didn’t have to be satisfied with stories that didn’t give me what I wanted from them.  Instead, I could create my own.  The end of their journey was the beginning of my own.

And now I’m seeing it again, with my boy, and wondering how he’ll look back on it in future years – if it will ever mean as much to him as it does to me.  If watching The Next Generation does nothing else for him, I hope it will at least inspire him, when he’s out on a clear night, to look up – and imagine what might lie out there in the stars.

All the Mayor’s Men

atpm

The Rob Fordpocalypse unfolding this week is a vindication for the forces of investigative journalism, a welcome throwback to the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, when the news was granted unwavering trust.  In the modern age of political polarization, Rupert Murdoch and Fox, every story is treated first with skepticism, with immediate questions about the legitimacy and bias of the source.  Such questions aside, the problem is that it’s often the media’s job to say things about people that those people are not necessarily going to like, and those people are going to fight back with every resource they can muster.  But before the Internet, if you disagreed with a reporter’s take on you, you had to attempt to return fire on their turf, and few could dent the veneer of infallibility possessed by Murrow and Cronkite et al.  The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy tumbled from grace largely due to Murrow’s relentless attacks on him.  When instead those traditional media outlets find themselves on an equal playing field with every wag with a laptop and a WordPress account (not unaware of the irony am I), the old adage about refraining from picking a fight with folk who buy ink by the barrel no longer applies.  A breaking news story is no longer the last word, it’s the start of an extended argument of attrition, as confirmation bias leads people to avoid reading what doesn’t reinforce their worldview and doubting with venom anything that challenges them.  Rob Ford’s supporters don’t care that he has a drug problem or that he associates with characters under criminal investigation.  He’s keeping taxes low!  He’s fighting the gravy train!  Na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you!  They repeat the meme ad nauseum and haul reporters in front of the Press Council for being mean to their standard bearer.  Hammered relentlessly, the press soldiers on, the truth their dim light in the fog, wondering if they’d be happier filing fluff about quilting bees.

Hmm.  Where have we seen this movie before?

All the President’s Men (1976) is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of the kind of crack (pun intended) investigative journalism that led to this past week’s revelations – a gritty, non-glamorous depiction of the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they worked to piece together the scandal that began with the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  It is a thriller that eschews thriller conventions but remains gripping from start to finish simply because it is all true.  The movie begins, appropriately, with the tremendously overamplified sound of typewriter keys striking blank paper – a metaphor for the rifle-like ability of a big news story to upend the world.  And what follows would be unlikely to make it out of the scripting stages today – extended scenes of Woodward and Bernstein working the phones, probing reluctant sources with skilled questions, cracking under the pressure of editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) to bring him something he can publish.  (One can imagine a modern studio executive demanding more car chases and perhaps inserting a plucky office assistant character with big boobs for the duo to leer at.)  The dialogue is ripe with lasting tropes like “follow the money” and “non-denial denials,” terms that remain as applicable in 2013 as they did nearly 40 years ago.  Indeed, the image of Toronto Star reporters sitting in a car with drug dealers to view the famous Ford video evokes Woodward in his parking garage waiting to meet up with Deep Throat.

After Gawker and the Star broke the Ford video story back in May, “Ford Nation,” like Nixon’s silent majority before it, went to work trying to discredit them, with comment boards flooded with enough vitriol to embarrass a Klan rally.  The Star, like the Post before it, stood by its story, even as time wore on and the fabled video failed to materialize, leading even the most ardent Ford opponents to believe that perhaps there was no there there.  (A common rumor suggested that Ford’s people had acquired and managed to destroy it.)  All the President’s Men winds to a conclusion as Woodward and Bernstein “shoot too high and miss” – implicating Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in the Watergate coverup without solid proof and perhaps fatally jeopardizing the reputation of their newspaper.  They are ultimately able to correct their mistake, but not before a dressing down on Bradlee’s front lawn in the middle of the night, where the cynical old newsman remarks, “Have you seen the latest poll?  Half the country never even heard of Watergate.  Nobody gives a shit.”  Forum Research released a poll indicating that since Toronto Police Chief Blair’s fateful announcement, Ford’s popularity had risen five points.

There is no future, only the past happening over and over again.

Woodward and Bernstein get back to work, typewriters hammering away over the sound of Nixon triumphant in his re-election, before a series of teletype headlines reveal the fate of the major players, with one Nixon confederate after another sentenced to prison or forced to step aside before the big dog is finally brought down.  Mayor Ford’s mea culpa of yesterday, offered with a determination to stay in office in the face of every major Canadian daily calling for his resignation, can be seen as a calculated move designed to wait out a fickle public whose attention span is only as long as it takes to click over to a story about Miley Cyrus and sideboob.  But we’re seeing the same story play out in a repetition of subconscious themes ingrained in our collective memories that would impress Joseph Campbell.  And we know how it ends – or at least, how it’s supposed to end.  The only difference is that Robert Redford is too old now to play Robyn Doolittle.

When you’ve got nothing to say…

surfer

Say it anyway.

Say cheese.

Say it with flowers.

Say my name.

Say it with a smile.

Say what?

Say what again.  I double-dog-dare you.

Say the first thing that pops into your head.

Say yes to the dress.

Say no to drugs.

Say you, say me.

Say anything.

Say a man and a horse walk into a bar.

Say, say, say what you want, but don’t play games with my affection.

Say seven things you can’t say on television.

Say what the fox says.

Say what you need to say.

Say something.

The lesson of the Pumpkin Snowman

Happy Back to Standard Time Day!  It’s been a productive, decorative day on this side of the pond – installing curtain rods, acquiring Christmas accouterments and saying goodbye to the Halloween tchatchkes.  On the subject of the latter, I regret to announce that the otherwise brilliant and crisp morning delivered an unhappy surprise.  A few weeks ago my better half came up with the delightful idea of making a pumpkin snowman – three gourds stacked atop one another, clad with a scarf, belt and gloves.  We used thin bamboo sticks to anchor the pumpkins together and branches for arms with tiny leaf-stuffed mittens on the end, so he could wave hello to the trick-or-treating kids.  It turned out great and lots of compliments were to be had from visitors.  This morning, however, we discovered that a misanthropic type or types had decapitated him and smashed his head across the street.  We haven’t had the greatest of luck with our outside decorations; last Christmas a light-up doe was stolen from our front yard and never recovered.  But even though Halloween was over, even though we didn’t have to go out and purchase a replacement, this particular act of vandalism really set me off.  Unfortunately, smashing pumpkins isn’t just the name of a crummy 90’s emo band, it’s a deplorable Halloween “tradition.”  Certain folk seem to acquire an endorphin rush by destroying every pumpkin they can find, and our innocent, happy little guy was just the latest victim.

Warning:  Gruesome images follow.

Our pumpkin snowman in happier times, and this morning's crime scene.
Our pumpkin snowman in happier times, and this morning’s crime scene.

The sheer futility of the exercise is staggering.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter – their job done, the pumpkins would have all gone in the garbage on the next collection day.  But to take the time to trespass onto someone else’s property to destroy something cute for what – because it was there?  All smug in its cute pumpkin-ness?  Joy in destruction is a concept that continues to elude me.  It certainly speaks to the character, or lack thereof, of the pedestrian minds that spotted our pumpkin snowman and decided to strike.  Not that I’m bitter or anything.  Little @#$!ers.

In everything there are those who build and those who tear down.  A while back a Chinese tourist in Egypt decided that what a 5000-year-old hieroglyphic really needed was his name scratched onto it.  You may remember as well the story about the ancient Buddhas carved into hillsides in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban with rocket launchers.  I’m not in any way suggesting that a little headless pumpkin snowman compares even remotely to such significant acts of cultural vandalism, but it’s a minuscule part of this larger trend that sees a portion of humanity dedicated to destroying what the rest of it is creating.  You could even extrapolate this argument further and point to corporate entities that ravage landscapes in pursuit of profit, and strangle any attempt to legally prohibit them from doing it.  It doesn’t even have to be corporations – look at the photos of what’s left of the Amazon rainforest, a bleak, yellowed, poisoned wasteland, now that enterprising gold prospectors have decided to set up shop.  Far too many of us have chosen to be irredeemable Wreck-It Ralphs.

How do you swim against the tide?  We can all probably remember a time in our childhood when we spent what seemed like hours carefully crafting a fortress of sand only to have a sibling stomp through it out of sheer petulance.  There was little choice then but to begin the painstaking effort of rebuilding, grain by grain.  So too must it be in later life.  You can’t let yourself be intimidated out of creation by the fear that someone may come along and smash it to bits.  Someone very well may.  But the fact that we’re all still here, alive and continuing to thrive, leads me to believe that there are far more builders than wreckers in the world.  There is a philosophical choice to be made, whether to believe that people are basically good or basically evil.  I’ve always fallen into the former camp, despite my faith in such having been tested on numerous occasions.  Fundamentally, the kids who thought it would be hilarious to smash our pumpkin snowman – as much as (a very small) part of me would enjoy seeing them flogged – aren’t psychopathic miscreants or agents of chaos.  They weren’t out to cause me or my family any grievous harm.  They’re just kids driven by hormones making a bad call.  And I’m sure at some point in their lives someone has destroyed something they created, and they know how rotten it can feel.  So I’m choosing to forgive, and vowing to make our Christmas exterior display even better.  Gotta keep building that sandcastle, no matter how many times somebody kicks it down.

Unless our deer gets stolen again.  Then I’m out for blood.

Theories of relativity

earth

Thanks to the modern miracle of wi-fi, I’m writing this in a Starbucks, where the scents of burnt coffee blend in an orgiastic melange with subliminal jazz and the tinny patois of the three teenage girls sitting to my left, cajoling one another with tales of romantic woes with such frequent interjections of the word “like” it might as well be in, like, a completely different language.  I gather an acquaintance was at a young lad’s house overnight and the former somebody is obsessed with the latter, and another someone is totally getting engaged in Utah, omigod, make of it what you will.  Shards of October are littered across the deep sienna tile in the form of fragments of leaves hitching rides in from the street on clumsy boots, and yet, November is in full swing inside, pumpkin spice abandoned for peppermint, gingerbread and hot apple cider, menus and cups transformed to holiday red.

The espresso machine whirs and spits milk foam, and the girls are on to complaining about work now, and while to each his own, I can’t help but smile a bit at the relativity of personal problems – what seems disastrous to one person is laughable to someone else.  I guess the whole “First World Problems” meme is the perfect example of that; how dare we privileged few whine that our latte is weak when someone in the deserts of Sudan is crawling haggardly across the sand in search of a drop of water.  I read a statistic a while back that if all seven billion human beings lived at the same standard as we do in the northwestern hemisphere, we would need four earths worth of resources to sustain everyone.  I haven’t checked the star charts lately, but barring some unforeseen discovery I’m pretty sure this is it.  Kinda makes it difficult to justify getting mad at an inadequate supply of chocolate shavings on a peppermint mocha.

This week has seen some interesting developments in the political sphere, particularly as it concerns two gentlemen whose continuing success seems the embodiment of global unfairness.  First, Dick Cheney decided to cancel his trip to Toronto, where he was scheduled to give a speech to an economic forum, claiming that Canada was “too dangerous.”  This followed a report that a group of lawyers had sent a letter to the Attorney General of Ontario demanding that Cheney be arrested on war crimes charges the moment he landed.  Dodging small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on the way to this cafe, as I often do, I wondered what on earth would possess anyone to want to go see a speech by Dick Cheney in the first place.  Really, what was he going to tell the group of too-rich-for-their-own-good muckety-mucks ponying up for the ticket – how awesome it is to be wealthy and how the only way to become more wealthy is to screw the poor into the dirt even harder?  There, I saved ol’ Six Heart Attacks the bother of the trip.  But had he chosen to tread upon these allegedly too hazardous shores, he would have found his appearance swallowed up in the news by the Rob Fordpocalypse.  The two men are truly a pair of poison kings:  unrepentant bullies who always get away with everything because karma’s apparently asleep at the wheel.  Confronted by the revelation that the Toronto police have the infamous “crack video” in their possession, and facing calls by all four major Canadian newspapers to step down and attend to his personal problems, Ford is pulling the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and bleating “na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you.”  We’ll see in the coming days and weeks whether he’s able to hang on to his office, but if and when he does go, it won’t be voluntarily, no matter what consequences Toronto suffers in the meantime.  The man’s CN Tower-sized ego simply won’t permit him to express those magical little words, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”  Ultimately, that’s what the opponents of both men want.  It isn’t to see them flayed or doing the perp walk in irons (though to be fair, in Cheney’s case that image would be particularly satisfying.)  It’s wanting them to feel guilt and regret and shame and desperate wishes that they could somehow atone – you know, wanting them to be human.  Cheney is probably too far gone, but Ford may have a semblance of a soul left.  One can only live in hope that he will ultimately do the right thing, but I’m not a betting man.  (At least not if his serial-enabling brother Doug has anything to do with it.)

And yet, what happens to Rob Ford and Dick Cheney affects my life as little as what the girls at the next table decide to do about their next shift at the restaurant, or about the girl who’s apparently getting engaged in Utah, omigod – so why worry about it?  I remember an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation involving a telepathic guest character who was so overwhelmed by the emotions and thoughts of others that it drove him to near madness.  You can be paralyzed if you let all that stuff get to you.  Yes, it’s awful that Dick Cheney will probably live out the rest of his life in ease and affluence after ruining the world for everyone else, but there’s no sense in shortening our own time on this troubled planet by stressing out about it.  Nor is there much to be gained by spitting blood over the escapades of RoFo and DoFo.  They’re certainly not up late worrying about us.

At the end of Casablanca, Rick tells Ilsa that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.  Perhaps, but when you’re neck deep in beans that hill feels insurmountable – even if a stranger would look at you and scoff, wondering what the heck the big issue is.  Much as how while I might feel that what these three girls are obsessing over is utterly trivial, so too would they think I’m an idiot for wasting my hour writing about the travails of the former U.S. Vice President and the Mayor of Toronto, two men I have never met and will likely never meet.  At least they’re talking about people they know, people who matter to them, smiling and laughing and having a great time.  I’m the solitary soul typing away in dour silence about strangers.  Who’s better off?  We are all our own little universe, after all, we define the shape of that cosmos with our individual hopes and dreams and fears, and it is not anyone’s place to say that universe doesn’t matter.  That way lies the death of empathy and of compassion, of seeing others as human.

I eye the clock, drain the last of my lukewarm beverage, click save and shut down and slip the laptop back into the bag.  And as I head for the door I wonder if by some quirk of fate one of those young women ends up reading the post their conversation inspired.  Unlikely, of course, but you just never know.  Cold air touches my face, and I step onward into the street and disappear.

We get lots more letters

ponymail

As NaBloPoMo begins (which I’m not saying for sure that I’ll be able to do, but we’ll give it the old college try anyway), we find our filter choked with comments from dubious sources far and wide looking once again for their moment in the sun.  It’s tough when you’re a famous writer, you know, and you get deluged with all this fan mail.  So we do our best to try and answer as many as we can.  To wit:

“Hostgator Review” whines:

Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the pictures on this blog loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.  Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

No, it’s you, you passive-aggressive base assemblage of hacker-vomited, barely literate code that isn’t worthy to wipe the spare digits of a broken copy of Pong.  Was that the response you were expecting to greatly appreciate?

An overseas guest!  From “Super Slim Green Lean Body”:

Hi I am from Australia, this time I am watching this cooking related video at this website, I am truly glad and learning more from it. Thanks for sharing.

G’day, mate!  Throwin’ a few shrimp on the barbie, are yer?  Let me be the first to congratulate you on your weight loss!  I’m glad to hear that you’re super slim and lean now.  Though if you are turning green you should probably cut back on the chlorophyll-laden energy drinks.  Just sayin’, when you sprout leaves it’s time to stop juicing.

“Landlord Insurance Quotes” offers:

It will let you replace the items and for this purpose you pay a monthly seet premum too the insurance provier you take the policy out using. Property management pertains to the processes applied to maximize returns by effectkve administration of property — one of the major assets of most organizations. As he said in his inaugural address ‘I came to California with nothing, and California has given me everything’.

That’s what I’ve been doing wrong!  Sheesh.  I figured I was getting hosed on my monthly seet premium.  Between that and the biannual fronk charge you’ve no idea the dent it’s put in my cash flow.  But I have to be honest, I’ve put in several requests to California now and I never get a reply.  Lousy, stingy, miserly state, or as I call it, “Scroogifornia.”  Can’t be bothered to help out a poor blogger who can actually pronounce “California” properly.

“Wayfair Coupon” tickles our tastebuds thus:

Today we’re gonna be using sugar, I’m actually gonna be using sugar, I’m actually gonna be using wayfair venture capital sugar, I’m actually gonna be using sugar, I’m actually gonna be using Agave nectar, or syrup. Just like that We want to incorporate everything but not mix the hell out of here and never come back if I did that. But I’m just going tto rub and just smooth that over the top, just like that.

I gotta be honest, you’re getting me a little flushed with that last line about rubbing and smoothing.  Hoo boy, is it hot in here?  To your main point, the problem with Wayfair Venture Capital sugar is that Wayfair’s been on a losing streak ever since they decided to put most of their assets in horse & buggy futures, against the prevailing market trends.  The recession of 2008 didn’t help matters with the collapse of Consolidated Buggy Manufacturers Inc. (NYSE: CBMI) when they failed to repay their loan guarantees.  Several of the main investors did indeed mix the hell out of there and never come back.  So thanks but I think I’ll continue backing International Spats because they are definitely due for a resurgence in popularity.  I’m wearing a pair right now.

“Ninja Blender Vs. Vitamix” (my favorite Street Fighter battle) weighs in:

What i don’t realize is if truth be told how you are not actually much more neatly-preferred than you might be right now. You are so intelligent. You already know thus considerably relating to this matter, produced me in my opinion believe it from numerous numerous angles. Its like women and men don’t seem to be interested except itˇs something to accomplish with Lady gaga! Your personal stuffs nice. All the time deal with it up!

Hey, anytime I can accomplish something with Lady Gaga I’m all over it.  I do it for the applause, applause, applause.  And I’m always striving to be more neatly-preferred, from all numerous numerous angles.  “All the time deal with it up!” is so going to be my catchphrase from now on.  Thanks for writing and good luck – I’m wagering on Vitamix to take it in the fourth round by eighteen, though you never can be too careful around a Cuisinart that has ninja training.

“Longbeach” has this to say:

So what we’re going to add some white vinegar. Now, don’t panic; we’re not going to take our marinade and I’m justt going to give this a go on Valentine’s day because it’s going to lend you slme loving.  So were just gonna start this up and let’s get stuck into one of these little gadgets you can just use some dried bread crumbs and chop up our herbs nice and fine. And now we can serve this bad boy up and let’s get stuck into one oof these griddle pans for inside cooking.

It’s taken your touching half-recipe to make me realize that what was missing from my life was slime loving.  It’s tough out here for a guy when you realize that all the best pieces of ooze are taken, and the muck and goop that are left are gelatinous masses of filth you wouldn’t touch with somebody else’s.  Quite frankly though, what you want to stick into little gadgets is your own private business and shouldn’t be shared on a public site like this – there may be children reading, won’t someone please think of the children?!

Finally, from “Insurance Landlords,” who may be the unmarried cousin of “Landlord Insurance Quotes”:

There is quite an impressionable difference between those who simply wait tables and those who take pride in providing excellent food service to their customers. All major banks and wilding societies offer a comprehensive range oof personal financial services be-ond simple bank accounts. Theey can, and do, force payment through credit collectores and lawsuits, which can stay with yyou for a long time to come.

I knew a professional waitress whom I used to work out with, and I can say she was definitely the latter, and certainly impressive, though unfortunately dating someone else at the time.  I am intrigued though by this wilding society that offers such comprehensive financial perks.  I gather it’s something like a Lord of the Flies-type setup where currency is human skulls, and retirement planning consists mainly of trying to avoid being eaten until retirement.  One wonders though what use lawyers would be in such an arrangement, if we would not be best disposed under that system to take a suggestion from The Merchant of Venice, as a statement of claim isn’t going to protect you from savages with clubs coming for your liver.  Regardless, good food for thought, pardon the pun.  Thanks for writing!

And so we beat on, boats against the current of nonsense, borne ceaselessly back into the mess.  All the time deal with it up!