I’m heading to Thrillerfest and New York City this week, and the prospect of traveling to the Big Apple again made me think about a few of the reasons why I love it.
So, from a West Coast perspective, mind you … New York, New York.
1. It’s the ultimate, fabled, legendary City of Cities. Sure, the Mama Rose line in Gypsy is true: “New York is the center of New York”—but it’s also the most urban, dense, entertainment-rich and storied city in the world. It’s an artistic treasure and an artistic treasure house, an inspiration for everything from Gotham City to a Miracle on 34th Street, and a focus of literary gold for Fitzgerald and countless other greats. My ancestors on my mom’s side arrived here, like millions of others, cleared through at Ellis Island and made a wish on the Statue of Liberty. History abounds at every corner, noise, hurry and bustle is 24/7, and the city’s profoundly global diversity makes it, at the same time, profoundly American.
2. Neighborhoods. They can be a block or a borough in size, but they are real and they are fabulous (to paraphrase Teri Hatcher). Small, unexpected touches, like baskets of flowers hanging from light posts and mom-and-pop stores in place of large chains can make New York feel like a very, very, very busy small town (on caffeine). Everyone has their favorite take-out place, their own dry cleaner, their own deli. New York is big … but it’s also personal.
3. The Food. Hungry at 2 am? No problem. You can find a tasty chicken kebab right outside on 42nd. Late night at a show? No problem. Pizza places are full through 2 am and beyond. Craving an egg soda and maybe “real” pastrami? No problem. Diners still abound and every neighborhood has a good one. For real bagels, real pizza, real anything, New York is the ultimate food capital of the world. Well, except for salads and sourdough (my San Francisco) or hot dogs and Polish food (Chicago).
4. Looking up. I love Art Deco, unsurprisingly. I can’t get enough of Streamlined Moderne, and San Francisco, while the Jewel of the Pacific coast, boasts plenty of Victorians and far fewer Deco masterpieces. The Chrysler Building is my personal favorite, but no skyscraper, however tall, can ever top the Empire State Building, the most magnificent, proud, and dignified tower in the world.
5. The people. I love New Yorkers. They are direct and to the point and don’t waste time. I’ve never understood the “rude New Yorker” cliche. What I find rude are people who do something thoughtless or dangerous that hampers your own activity, whatever it is, and then try to dismiss your aggravation as not being “laid back” enough. Hey, I was born on the West Coast, and I’ve got a very New York gesture for passive-aggressive “laid back” offenders.
There are a million reasons to love New York, which is why there are a million stories, songs, paintings, photos, films and celebrations of it. But here’s the one I’ll leave you with, one most of the world has recognized since 2001: New York is resilient. New York is heroic.
You know, I really had ambitions to write a long, thoughtful blog. When you’re a writer, you’re always writing—even when you’re not at a keyboard. The blog was starting to take shape in my head, and then …
You know what they say about best laid plans. Actually, it was Robert Burns, not “they”, and what he wrote was:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley,
He wrote “To a Mouse” in 1785. One of my favorite poems, actually. But I digress …
So what is keeping me from writing my planned opus, you ask? The fact that I’m getting ready for a trip to the American Library Association national conference and in the midst of booking signings for the upcoming CITY OF GHOSTS launch. Oh yeah, there’s also the small fact of needing to get a whole lot of writing done on CITY OF SHARKS (tentative title for the next Miranda Corbie).
So … until I get back from the ALA in Las Vegas, I’m relying on Mulligan Stew this week. Which means I dig up any ol’ bit of miscellany that might prove interesting enough to share.
What I found was a sonnet I wrote twenty years ago (when I had time to write sonnets). I wrote a number of them; always loved the challenge of the rigorous meter and rhyme scheme and resolving couplet at the end.
Here ’tis. I’ll be back next week after a sojourn in Sin City, and though I don’t expect the trip to inspire any sonnet-writing, you never know …
Sonnet on Reaching the Age of Thirty
By Kelli Stanley
Time’s sickle swings; his arcs draw ever near
While careless Laughter yields to wistful sighs,
Each pass of Phoebus’ chariot gleaming fear.
Persephone-like, the Earth we bid goodbye;
No more to smell the meadows blessed with green,
To reap the harvest bounty of God’s grace,
No more foam-flecked, blue-gray horses, Sea god scene;
Unkindest cut, no more to touch thy face.
And in such thoughts sinking, now graven heart stands still
Too ready, forsaking Fortune’s destiny;
In fear, dread drowning pulse of tree and hill
Frozen; cheating Death by dying free.
Then heart remembers, wise and old with strife—
While yet Love lingers, eternal is thy life.
I’m turning 50 this week. I woke up and suddenly have been around for half a century. And that feels old.
This birthday is a tough one. All birthdays are, since I lost my parents, who (as an only child without any close extended family) were not only my best friends, but the keepers of my history and the validation of my memories. But the older you are—especially on “landmark” birthdays—the more those memories of where you’ve been and who you were become faded … and there is no magical Photoshop filter to recolor them.
The thing is, you’re supposed to become wiser with age—that’s the plus side. As a child and a teen, I was always told that I was “older than my years” … now, of course, I want to be told that I’m “younger than my years”. Hopefully my preternatural wisdom has now not only chronologically caught up with but has actually been enhanced by this half century of life experience. Herewith, then, are 50 observations, bon mots, precepts and aphorisms … certainly not the sum total of what I’ve learned at 50, but a few pointers along the way.
Character is built on the edge of despair. (My father’s favorite maxim.)
You may regret what you don’t do, not what you do … so do it. (One of my mother’s favorites.)
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Tap it.
Honesty is not always the best policy, but it’s the only way you can maintain your own integrity.
Being hated by certain people is a compliment.
We are all part of the fabric of nature—sew and mend, don’t rip.
Be kind to all animals—including people.
Star Trek (original series, of course!) is the blueprint for our future.
Communicate by whatever means necessary, but always communicate.
Most business books contain one good point summed up in a pithy sentence, then spend 300 pages in embroidery.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
No one, including the people who love you best, can read your mind.
Death is as difficult a process as life. Honor it.
Don’t strive to be perfect. Strive to be the best you can be.
Opinions are like anuses. Everyone has one.
Expand your tribe.
Every generation thinks succeeding ones are spoiled, soft and witless.
Lean on your friends and prop them up when they need you.
Pop your head outside of your customized box and discover something new.
Know your generation’s faults and vulnerabilities.
Set your boundaries and defend them.
Re-read the “Desiderata” regularly.
In fact, read more poetry in general.
Try not to judge too much—remember that other people may be having a rotten day, too.
Trust your instincts in any situation where you feel danger.
Tell your children that you believe in them, and show them that you trust them.
Don’t let any relationship become a habit.
Look up once in a while.
Always travel—it grows your brain and your heart.
If you can’t travel, read about other places, cultures and times.
Talk to elders and treasure their memories.
Life is not just. Understand that, but keep fighting to make it so.
Don’t live your life for someone else’s approval.
Hug a tree, and marvel at the wonders of nature.
There are some absolutes in life. Recognize them.
If you’re stuck in traffic, make the most of it—play an audio book or learn a new language.
If you spend too much time preparing for the worst, you’ve lost some of the best.
Leadership is not a macho catchphrase. It’s responsibility.
War is never a good option, but sometimes is the only option.
Always respect a uniform, but always question authority.
Obviously, the library fun won’t be around-the-clock, so in checking out possible theatrical entertainment, I discovered “The Rat Pack is Back” show, and promptly booked tickets.
I’m not usually one for “tribute shows”, a genre I didn’t really recognize as a genre until I wandered through the Ticketmaster site. But the yearning for a Las Vegas that was demolished with the Sands and finally passed away with Eydie Gorme still envelops me; the Las Vegas of my parents, the Las Vegas of my dreams, all neon and snap brims and cigarettes and Old Crow bourbon on long, shining wooden bars.
The Las Vegas of the Rat Pack.
The hero of the Rat Pack, the Boss before Springsteen, the one and only Chairman of the Board was, of course, Frank Sinatra. A man as ineffably cool as his startling blue eyes, a voice that made bobby soxers swoon and middle aged women grow misty over their Pink Ladies.
I own most of Sinatra’s music; I’ve listened to Sinatra’s radio shows from the ’40s; I’ve seen most of Sinatra’s films, from musicals (Anchors Away) to five star dramas (From Here to Eternity) to his action/adventure/PI phase (Tony Rome). I know most of what has been written about Sinatra and some things that haven’t. And in addition to considering him one of the top three talents of the entire twentieth century, I think he was a very good and decent man.
Yes, I know about the “broads”. I also know about the organized crime connections. Sinatra was a man of his era in many ways and a man beyond it in others.
The fact is, when it comes to the treatment of women, the United States was and is grotesquely sexist. If you don’t believe me, check out the responses to the recent Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen, a topic designed to protest the domestic and global dehumanization and hatred/fear/abuse of women exemplified by recent events in Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Santa Barbara. The misogyny this affirmative hashtag has engendered is deep enough to drown in.
You could also take a look at the response to Hilary Clinton’s run for President in 2008.
Hatred and contempt of people based on race and sexual preference has been partially driven underground and has, in some places, diminished. But hatred and contempt of women? Not so much. I see more misogyny every day on social media than Sinatra’s ever been accused of. He may not have been a proto-feminist, but he was certainly no bully and from all accounts, he was, if anything, rather Victorian in his gallantry.
He was, however, a proto-progressive on matters relating to race and religion, and he famously put his money where his mouth was, recording a great anthem (“The House I Live In”) for an America dealing with an upsurge in what would later be termed “hate crimes” immediately after it had defeated Nazi Germany.
Stories abound about Sinatra’s ire over the contemptible treatment of his friend Sammy Davis, Jr.; when it came to standing up against racism and anti-Semitism, he really was the Chairman of the Board.
About those organized crime links. The thing is, Sinatra was Italian. Italians live and work and breathe within a system of personal relationships and networks. I lived it Italy long enough to understand this, and long enough to have experienced it.
Case in point? As a foreign student living in Florence, I shopped for groceries at the Mercato Centrale (the central market) which, at the time, consisted of many, many small, individual shops (the green grocer, the chicken lady, the pork butcher, the pasta maker, the bean seller, etc.). You get the idea.
The one bread seller in the market was always inundated with a mob of women crushing against each other and the small, glass display case, trying to get the attention of the girls who took the orders. One young bread seller seemed to empathize with an American student trying to speak good Italian … and it was on this bread seller and her favor that I depended, week after week, to secure my focaccia and everything else. She’d skip right over some of the louder and more aggressive Italian signore, and make sure I got my bread. God bless her … I hope she’s had a good life.
In short, Italy has had more governments than Joan Rivers has had facial surgeries because Italians invest more in familial, personal, local and regional relationships than they do in the idea of a distant, representative authority.
This is also the way Sinatra operated. He prized those relationships—and the loyalty that went with them—above all else. For an Italian, especially of his generation, they actualized his very identity and signified security and survival.
It was the Kennedy family’s betrayal of this loyalty that actually sent him toward the conservative side of the political spectrum in later years.
So yeah, I think I understand some of the Sinatra mystique, and, while I don’t expect much from this tribute performance, I do hope it will make me recall the time I saw the Voice himself … a wonderful memory, like so many wonderful memories, engineered by my mom.
She grew up in Harvey, Illinois, and was good friends with a young man named Tommy Dreesen. Mr. Dreesen grew up to have a fabulous career as a stand-up comic, and later became the regular opening warm-up act for Frank Sinatra.
Long before that, however, on one of Sinatra’s last tours—held at the now defunct and much-missed Circle Star Theater—we had a chance to meet with Mr. Dreesen backstage when he and my mom reunited and shared some personal stories and family history.
The concert was amazing. Sinatra was old, yes, and relied on memory prompts. But he was still the Boss, still the Chairman, and when he performed “The House You Live In”, he still sang it with the same conviction he had fifty years earlier.
I caught a glimpse of the man backstage, while we were in Mr. Dreesen’s dressing room. You could feel his presence, feel his energy, diluted with the years, but strong and sure and fierce. And those eyes …
I’ve only seen eyes that blue and that piercing twice in my life. Once was when I saw Frank Sinatra … and the other was at a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.
Somehow, I think Mr. Sinatra would have enjoyed that comparison. 😉
Nominally vacation—but actually research—the trip was phenomenal. Monterey, made famous by Steinbeck and Stevenson and a magnate for artists and dreamers for more than a century; both rural and urban, town and city, land and water. Smaller and slower than San Francisco, not as unforgiving, dominated by a sky that mirrors the sea and easily one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Travel is always educational—anything that plucks you out of your ubiquitous environment, your quotidian habits will, perforce, teach you something, if it’s only to take your sea sick pills one hour before boarding an ocean-going vessel. In fact, it’s the learning—that fantastic popping of brain synapses, the inspiration, the understanding, the wisdom gained—that, for me, makes travel as crucial as air and water and food.
So, without further ado, and with tongue only partially in cheek, here are five things I learned in Monterey. To be fair, some of the list I’d already learned, on other days and in other ways, but retaining knowledge requires repetition … if not a few days spent in Monterey.
1. Patronize people, places and businesses that strive to be better than they must. Our hotel, the Portola Hotel and Spa, is one of the few conference hotels in town. The location is ideal: just steps away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the State Historic Plaza of buildings, including the Custom House. And yet … the Portola is an icon of customer service, beautifully and thoughtfully designed rooms, and delicious food prepared according to the Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood guide. The hotel is better than it needs to be—and will always earn my patronage because of it. As a writer, I try my damnedest to follow the same rule: don’t crest at the minimum of excellence. Exceed your own expectations, and you will exceed everyone else’s.
2. The Earth likes balance. Balancing checkbooks, careers, family life, personal relationships, giving and taking and eating and sleeping and … yes. As 21st century adults, as global citizens, as human beings, we are pushed and prodded by the struggle for survival in an ocean full of predators. We act out that struggle on a daily basis, whether it’s managing a hostile work environment, trying to conquer feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem, or facing the dilemma of work demands vs. family needs. And through it all, we seek balance. Not too much of this, not too little of that.
The magnificent undersea kelp forests thrive on maintaining a balance, too. Like the redwood or saguaro cactus forests on land, they play host to a dynamic, intense and complex eco-system. Abalone and sea urchins eat kelp. Sea otters—a critically endangered species because they were once hunted to the very edge of extinction—eat abalone and sea urchins. Without the otters, the kelp forests will disappear. And with the kelp forests … oceanic life.
Balance. Yin and Yang. The secret to survival for us all.
3. You have choices. Make them count. The only unpleasantness I experienced on the trip was from a business that takes out whale watching cruises. Specifically, one man at that business. Their website lists “partners”, one of which was the glass bottom boat ride on Monterey Bay. My question was innocuous: because it was windy and the glass bottom boat booth was empty, I asked if they knew whether or not the boat was going out (their kiosk is within 50 feet of the glass bottom boat’s). His response was “Does this look like the glass bottom boat ride? Does this look like the same building?” etc. etc. Berating, abusive, bullying … because I was a tourist? Because I am a woman? As in all criminal behavior, the brain tries to find a rational reason for such ugliness, but, in truth, there is none. Criminality is all about the self—a profoundly anti-social attitude. When I told this man his behavior and attitude were unconscionably rude and that furthermore, his website suggested the businesses were connected, he demanded “Show me on the website where it says so.” Finally, he refused to give my anything but his first name.
I wanted to report him to his supervisor. And then I discovered that he owns the business … and that a close relative owns the glass bottom boat ride. Their family has been in Monterey for about fifty years, and apparently “give back” to the community. My response: So does Donald Sterling.
So, guess what? No patronizing his whale watching tour. No patronizing his family’s restaurants, which are in prominent locations on the Wharf and on Cannery Row. I exercised my right of choice and fervently hope others do, too.
4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Nature, the ocean, other people. Exercising that choice above, we set off on an amazing adventure through the Monterey Bay Whale Watch. The sea was windy and dark blue and the swells were not small, but, oh, what magnificence. We encountered a krill bed, so dense with these small creatures that they turned the water pink. Everything seems to eat krill, from whales to salmon to penguins. Thankfully, they populate quickly. And as a bonus, they look like sea monkeys. 😉
If you’ve never experienced seeing a whale spout—or watching a blue whale, the world’s largest creature, execute a dive, its gray, massive body gliding effortlessly through the waters, about twice as long as your 70 foot long boat—then take a trip to Monterey. These massive, gentle animals eating and playing (we saw mother and calf humpback whales rolling over in the water in between dives) is what the word awe was made to define. And did you know that the Orca (Killer Whale) is a member of the dolphin family?
5. Truth lingers. Cannery Row was once Ocean View Avenue. When overfishing killed the sardine and canning industries that gave the street its nickname, Steinbeck his title and a raison d’etre to Monterey, tourism moved in, and the city changed the name officially in 1958.
Cannery Row today—especially on a warm weekend in May—is overflowing with tourists who wander aimlessly into shoddy amusement halls, chasing something they couldn’t put into words. Most of the time, they are there to buy: food, souvenirs, shells, stuffed animals. They are surrounded by a wonder of the world, with sea spray and roar and nesting cormorants and barking sea lions and the occasional back-swimming otter within easy view, but most of them stalk wide-eyed through the streets, the history and beauty of the place serving as window dressing for a snack, a t-shirt, a drink.
Many of them, fortunately, wander into the Aquarium, which does an amazing and near-miraculous job of balancing education with entertainment and amusement with protection. In order to engage the average tourist, the amusement must be there, make no mistake; but they serve up lessons with the show, not lectures, and in so doing they are playing an instrumental role in saving the world’s oceans.
Also in so doing, they are continuing the work of Steinbeck’s friend and pioneer ecologist Ed Ricketts, whose unassuming business and home stands at 800 Cannery Row, unnoticed by many of the snackers and shoppers, just as it stood in the middle of the giant canning factories and apron-wearing workers, whistles shrieking a call to can the latest catch.
Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was already gone when he wrote the book, but even it lingers in the morning and late afternoon, the shacks of the workers still preserved off the main street, the vacant lot, home to his idealized bums, still vacant. The book is not the best of Steinbeck, because he was trying to resuscitate something already gone and so he romanticized it, the Great Depression through the ash-covered windows of Hiroshima, the lost past of youth always more attractive than the presence of middle age. But here and there you still see it, the noise and the stink, both as it was and how Steinbeck portrayed it.
Truth lingers in places like San Francisco and Monterey, the truth of personal experience and even the emotional truth of memory.
I write crime fiction, specifically noir. That makes me rather a rara avis as a female author; the traditional male-centric slant of noir (both literary and film) is well-documented and apparent. But I am even more of a rare bird demographically when it comes to another subject: the American superhero comic book.
Comic books have always played a significant role in my life. Unusual, yes, but I credit my parents, who encouraged me to read anything and everything from a very young age, from Dr. Seuss and Highlights to the Robert Browning poems my dad used to read aloud to me before bed. The first comic book I can remember devouring, at about the age of five, was an issue of David Copperfield, from the much-treasured Classics Illustrated series.
Flash forward about four years. Like most kids, I was a fan of syndicated reruns of the Batman TV show (the camp was lost on us; I’m not sure if today’s children retain that same sense of naivete). I was introduced by the brother of a friend to Batman’s flagship title Detective Comics during the ’70s heyday of the “100 Page Super Spectacular”, comics which offered a new story or two and a bunch of reprints, usually from the ’40s and ’50s.
A comic book fan—which was synonymous with superhero fan—was born. I never cottoned to Richie Rich, Uncle Scrooge or Archie—though I did love the band’s “Sugar, Sugar”. 😉
Unsurprisingly, it was Batman who lured me in, Batman who acted as a totem, Batman who became my guide and mentor. I remember the seminal moment. I read a story—”Night of the Stalker”—in which Batman has no dialog, and in which he witnesses the gunning down of a couple that mirrors his own parents’ murders. The story made me understand why Bruce Wayne dedicated himself to justice, why he donned a cape and cowl, why The Batman (as he was known in the 1970s as a nostalgic nod to his ’30s origins) was a character as worthy of my devotion as Sherlock Holmes or Bilbo Baggins or David Copperfield.
I cried when I read that story; re-reading it 40 years later still makes me tear up, particularly because—having lost my parents in the last couple of years—I have a much more profound sense of what it means to be an orphan.
Like Batman, I was an only child, too.
Among the other loves I discovered in those 100 pages of pulp paper were the reprints. Comics from the ’40s were more visceral, direct, primitive and brutal. The Spectre killed people without hesitation. Superman—that square-jawed All-American—was more of a vigilante before he found radio and became too mass-media to pursue radical social justice. An early adventure shows him kidnapping a greedy mine owner and threatening to abandon him in his own, unsafe coal mine.
These were the superheroes that seemed worthy of the name to me; and those crudely drawn images of power revealed a fascinating past, a culture of giant roof top advertising props and skyscrapers, of milkmen and radio broadcasts, of strange, mystical towers in Salem, Massachusetts and of gangsters and electric chairs.
I didn’t look for female costumed heroines—though Black Canary was my favorite. Because I was raised to think that I could do anything, be anything, including the President of the United States, it never occurred to me that these were “adolescent male fantasy figures” … to me, they were just superheroes.
Flash forward about fifteen years. I collected comics, particularly Silver Age (’50s and ’60s) and Golden Age (’30s and ’40s); I started to delve into the history of the genre, and analyze comic books as time capsules of popular culture. We also decided to open a comic book store … my mother, my partner, and myself. And all-woman owned store in a male-dominated industry? Why not?
The Funny Papers lasted eight years. We were successful; we made many, many friends and enjoyed a loyal and demographically diverse clientele. I became an Overstreet Guide Adviser, wrote columns for industry trades, and served on DC’s National Board of Retailers. I was privileged to know many of the greats in the industry and met legends like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby and Denny O’Neil. We’d never envisioned operating the store for longer; there were other adventures on the horizon.
While earning a graduate degree in Classics, I kept returning to comic books as a medium of cultural analysis. Superheroes are the twentieth century American mythology, and how they are portrayed and perceived and how they transform over the decades reveals much about American history and our changing culture. For example: superheroes were largely discarded in the post WWII era, as they had become synonymous with the war effort. In their place, crime and horror comics—and the nostalgic Western, emblematic genre of a ‘simpler’ time—emerged. Superheroes reemerged with the race to the Space Age, and have been popular ever since.
These four-color clues to our cultural psychology continued to fascinate me. I wrote academic articles combining Classics and the study of the comic book, and was invited to present at the world’s first-ever academic conference on the superhero at the University of Melbourne.
Flash forward to the present. Comic books are still a part of my life. I lost a number of my treasured Detective and Batman collection in a burglary a few years ago and am slowly but steadily rebuilding it. I still get excited over the smell of pulp paper and the crudely drawn dynamism of a Golden Age panel. And as the superhero industry and the comic book industry have vastly diverged and separated—a topic for a later blog post—I think back to that issue of Detective and how much the Dark Knight influenced me and how much he inspired me.
Adolescent male fantasy? Undoubtedly. Window to twentieth century popular culture? Definitely. But much more than that, too. Comic books matter, and not just to boys or girls or the bottom line of movie studios.