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. 😉
Remember compare and contrast? It still remains one of the most useful tools in the grade school era repertoire, and has lead the world to innumerable discussions on Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Paul McCartney vs. John Lennon, and Superman vs. The Hulk.
Film sequels provide a particularly apt opportunity to explore similarities and departures and, most importantly, lead to questions about why those decisions were made—both originally and the second time around.
Today, I’d like to riff on two films—one very well-known, the other not-so-much. If you haven’t seen either The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler and starring the formidable Bette Davis, or The Unfaithful (1947), directed by Vincent Sherman and starring the under-appreciated Ann Sheridan, you might want to go do that now … spoilers abound below.
The Letter is considered (by TCM and most critics) an “essential”, a masterpiece, a quintessential viewing experience. It’s a beautifully made, chilling film, and Wyler’s direction is sublime. The Unfaithful—which was, indeed, a remake of The Letter—isn’t considered much at all, except by noir aficionados, as it was made in the noir-defining post-War years, and that’s the category into which it is generally lumped.
The basic plot line both films share is a short story (1924) and self-adapted play (1927) by W. Somerset Maugham, addressing the eternally fascinating subject of feminine betrayal. You might remember the theme—it’s been around since before Genesis.
The creaky tale has been filmed a number of times, both in English and other languages, with the Wyler/Davis version receiving the most critical attention and praise. The Unfaithful is a reworking of the same story … but oh, what a difference a war makes.
Auteurism and Bette Davis fandom aside, let’s compare and contrast the plots of these two films. Here’s a breakdown of the basic plot of The Letter:
A bored wife (Leslie Crosbie) is stranded in a foreign (colonialized) country while her amiable but physically and emotionally distant husband travels to his various rubber plantations and leaves her at home. One sultry evening, she shoots and kills a man whom she claims was trying to force his attentions on her (the word rape is never uttered); the act is committed in front of the native workers on the plantation and in front of the film audience.
Unfortunately for Leslie, her husband’s clerk makes it known that he knows of a letter in which she pleads with, cajoles and threatens the dead man, begging him to visit her the night he is killed. The letter is actually in the hands of the dead man’s Eurasian wife, who is willing to sell it while the clerk acts as a go-between. The couple’s best friend, an attorney, arranges for the sale, which empties her husband’s bank account (he’s oblivious). Leslie is acquitted of murder, but when the husband finally realizes the money is missing, he confronts her and discovers that a) she was in love with the dead man and b) she killed him deliberately out of jealousy, and c) she still loves him and isn’t sorry for it.
Leslie wanders outside in a daze, where she’s knifed and killed by one of the natives at the behest of the dead man’s wife, who now has both money and revenge. [The fact that Leslie must be punished is not in the original story, but was insisted upon by the 1940 Hays Code.]
Rather noir, right? Yet The Letter is usually described as a melodrama (which it is), as if it could only be one or the other.
Now, let’s take a peak at The Unfaithful:
Chris Hunter is living in Los Angeles in one of those swanky new ranch houses, waiting for her husband to finally get home from one of his many business trips. She seems happy and is viewed as “too good to be true” by her husband’s cousin Eve (Eve Arden, in a delicious turn); Eve, in fact, is the kind of audacious broad that throws herself a “Divorce Party”, which Chris attends.
On the way home, as Chris is walking to her door, she’s attacked by a man in the shadows, his hand over her mouth, and pulled inside the house. We see in silhouette a violent struggle.
Cut to her husband Bob waiting at the airport; she was supposed to pick him up. He phones, and we see from his face that the news isn’t good. Bob arrives, relieved that his wife is all right, but unsettled by the fact that she apparently killed a man in self-defense. Their best-friend attorney Larry arrives (he’s actually Eve’s divorce lawyer). Chris tells the cops that she didn’t know the dead man; that he’d shown up and demanded her jewelry.
At the precinct, she is confronted by the dead man’s wife; he’d been an artist and a not-very-good husband, prone to wandering off and not telling his wife about it. Still, the wife violently reacts to the accusation of attempted robbery, and hysterically accuses Chris of murder.
A bit later, Larry (played by the wonderful Lew Ayres) is contacted by a smarmy art dealer, who offers to sell him a bust of Chris sculpted by the dead man; the artwork clearly proves she knew him and therefore lied to the police. Larry confronts Chris, who admits she posed for the man but stopped when he tried to get “too personal.” Terrified that a scandal would hurt Bob’s business, she lied. Larry advises her to come clean; instead, Chris tries to buy the statue for $10,000, only to find that the art dealer has given it to the sculptor’s vengeful wife.
The wife eventually shows the piece to police, who arrest Chris for murder just as she’s confessing to Bob that she actually did have an affair with the sculptor, but that he truly was trying to kill her—and that she’d been lonely after their two-week old courtship and wartime marriage. Bob refuses to forgive her as she’s hauled away to face trial.
Larry gives an impassioned defense of Chris, reminding the jury that she’s on trial for murder, not adultery. Eve explains to Bob that he’s being a jerk by not forgiving his wife. Chris is acquitted, and, through Larry’s machinations, it looks as though Bob and Chris will at least try to start over.
The Unfaithful is a terrific film, and arguably less “noir” than its predecessor. So, without further ado, let’s compare and contrast.
1. Message movie vs. escapism
We know we’re not on a Malaysian rubber plantation from the opening shot of The Unfaithful. A palm tree-lined suburban street accompanies an omniscient narrator voice over that tells us “The problem with which [the story] deals belongs not to any one town, city or country, but is of our times.” The most fundamentally significant thing about the film is that it is seeking to be topical and explicitly, rather than implicitly, moralizing. We are told by the Voice of Authority that something is wrong with our present society, and we are shown a street in “Anywhere, USA” to prove it.
The “exotic” setting (and the concomitant, underlying racism) of The Letter has vanished, as has the escapism of the earlier vehicle. Malaysia may as well have been Oz for most American movie goers, and there is an obvious connection made both in The Letter’s script and direction between the oppressive heat and foreign (read “savage”) surroundings as contributing to Leslie’s crime. The Unfaithful does not portray a Joseph Losey version of Los Angeles in which a quiet suburban street can provide the same link between crime and setting that Wyler’s film does (see The Prowler); that would come later.
The Unfaithful is intended to pack a message; The Letter is intended as escapism.
2. Race and Gender
The gender roles, actions and implications of The Letter are unexamined and taken for granted; rather, the cultural tensions and explorations revolve around colonial practice and race, and, on one level, can be seen as upholding long-held racist beliefs; the wife sins when she is taken away from white society and left alone in a “savage” environment. The dead man was married to an Asian woman (changed to Eurasian in the film, as mandated by the Hays code—the character was brilliantly played by Gale Sondergaard); this alone was enough evidence for Maugham’s generation to understand that the philanderer was a lowlife.
Race is jettisoned in The Unfaithful, and instead, we are led to examine the interactions of both genders. Instead of a cold Bette Davis mercilessly gunning down her lover under a moonlit, sweltering sky, Ann Sheridan’s character is actually attacked; the audience is party to her vulnerability, not her guilt.
In fact, the film obliquely refers to a problem of violence against women, especially sexual violence. Though written in 1946, the film wasn’t released until June, 1947—six months after the Black Dahlia killing. Given the Los Angeles setting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the dialog uttered by the detective was alluding to some of the crimes against women (i.e. Diane Sparks murder in 1946, etc.)
Maugham was uninterested in exploring issues of female frustration or loneliness or guilt and is, perhaps, most famous for one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman in the annals of literature—and that’s a lot of misogyny—in Of Human Bondage. Women in The Unfaithful move from centuries of blame and guilt to a more nuanced portrait in just seven short years.
3. Woman vs. Woman
In the 1940 film, Gale Sondergaard’s character has Leslie killed in retribution of the murder of her (cheating) husband. Before this, she humiliated Leslie by throwing the titular letter on the ground and making the woman pick it up.
The real dynamic here is woman vs. woman; they both loved the same weak and despicable man who was unfaithful to each.
There is no female bonding; no Letter to Three Wives and certainly no First Wives Club. There is just raw jealousy, depicted as an inherent state of female identity, leading to social chaos and murder.
The Unfaithful, however, offers a different dynamic in the character of the felicitously and symbolically named Eve. On the surface, she is bright and brittle, celebrating her new-found divorce and not particularly team Chris. She is perhaps the iconic woman, in contrast to the actual heroines of the story, who both bear names that could be either masculine or feminine (Leslie and Chris).
It is Eve who delivers the punch at the end, who provides the message we’ve been waiting for since the opening shot. It is Eve who offers a reasoned and reasonable explanation to Bob for his wife’s behavior, and it is Eve who tells him he needs to take some responsibility, too.
She is a woman who is defending another woman, just on the basis of being a woman in a difficult situation, not out of friendship (as does the attorney Larry); as such, it is Eve who is the clearest thinker and the most uncompromisingly moral voice—all this in the mouth of a (scandalous) divorcee.
4. Forgiveness Does Not Equal Weakness
Leslie’s husband in The Letter is a dope. He’s distant, he’s dim-witted, he’s a sap. He joins a long line of noir saps in being such a sucker for a dame that he’s willing to forgive and forget if she just tells him she loves him.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Bette confesses that she still loves the dead man.
Queue up Gale Sondergaard.
Zachary Scott excelled at playing sleazy, villainous types, but in The Unfaithful he manages to project just enough decency to convincingly play a man who eventually understands that forgiving his wife does not mean he’s a sucker. He’s helped greatly in this by the fact that Chris is no Leslie; she loves her husband and actually was violently attacked.
Forgiveness is a powerful, powerful message, and one that must have struck home with the millions of couples who married quickly and, post-1945, repented at leisure.
5. It’s the War’s Fault
If The Letter could be said to have a moral, it would be:
A. Don’t trust women.
B. Especially out of the country and among “uncivilizing” forces.
C. They are inherently overly emotional, conniving, and devious.
Ultimately, the explicit lessons of The Unfaithful are as follows:
A. Divorce is bad, forgiveness is necessary and you should try to work it out (the post-War attempt to stabilize a society reeling from cataclysmic social changes).
B. Women aren’t all conniving gold-diggers and cheating hussies. They have feelings, too.
C. Don’t blame each other; blame the war.
When asked if it was “his fault” he was shipping out to another continent, Eve upbraids Bob thus:
“You knew you were going when you met her. Let’s face it, that’s why you married her—what you wanted was a whirl and a memory.You wanted a beautiful woman waiting for you, and you didn’t want anyone making time with her when you were away, so you hung up a no trespassing sign, like you’d stake a gold claim. You didn’t marry her … you just took an option on her.”
Bob: “She could have said ‘no.'”
Eve: “Listen, I was there. I saw you making with that uniform and that ‘today we live’ routine.And then you were off.”
David Goodis, a brilliant noir writer, helped pen The Unfaithful, which could just have easily been titled “The Unforgiven”. But the messages are less in character with what we think of as ‘noir’ (especially the ‘femme fatale’ trope) than they are in The Letter, which is much more rooted in 19th century melodrama.
One sought to titillate an audience desperate for escapism; the other, to reassure and pacify the jangled nerves and chaotic social structure that was post-War America. In so doing, The Unfaithful became a rara avis itself, a modest crime thriller/film noir that did not demonize women, but, instead, offered a sympathetic and far more realistic portrait of infidelity and the female homefront experience.
Once in a while, I like to rank things. Ranking helps you define the subjective qualities that comprise your individual tastes, forces you to think about the subconscious criteria that inform your opinions, and as a bonus gives you something to argue about endlessly at cocktail parties or (the internet equivalent) your blog.
On a recent road trip, I cranked up the James Bond themes and chose what are, to me, the top ten best. My criteria were as follows:
1. Expresses an essence of Bondian baroque: operatic, epic, seductive, exciting. The song should not feel like it could just as easily have been from another franchise (Eye of the Tiger, anyone?) or remixed disco euro-syth dance music (the dreadful Die Another Day, which ranks, in my view, as the worst Bond theme).
2. The song expresses aspects of the characters and themes, particularly James Bond, or at least the James Bond of that particular era.
3. The song was important to the franchise: it charted high and/or financially helped the film.
4. In style, melody and arrangement, the theme bears traces of the 1960s, the era that defined the film James Bond, but is still recognizably a well-written song.
5. The singer invests emotional hyperbole. If you’re singing about James Bond, people, make it big.
Of course, the Monte Norman theme is THE Bond theme, so it’s not included in the running, and not every song on my list scored high on every criterion. Your mileage—and 007s—may differ.
This is the Bond theme to end all Bond themes. It defined Bond, defined over-the-top villainy (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”) and is the essential benchmark for all subsequent Bond music. In other words, the song (and incredible performance by Shirley Bassey) set the standard for the entire series, much as the film did for the franchise.
After film after film of unmemorable Bond themes, Adele’s grand foray not only scores high in every category, but also qualifies as a damn good piece of music, independently from 007. Skyfall was a film that demanded gravitas, and Adele delivered, securing her rank as the second greatest Bond diva of all time.
Sir Tom Jones. James Bond. One of the greatest films of the series and remade as Never Say Never Again when Connery needed a job. Sir Tom and Dame Shirley Bassey are both Welsh, and the Welsh have that emotional, over-the-top investment in the music nailed. Most Bond themes have been sung by women, and I’d argue that Jones’ Thunderball is the single best male performance.
4. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
One of the worst films and one of the best Bond songs, thanks again to Shirley Bassey’s commitment. She’s too authentic to be campy, and too grand to be dismissed. Plus, it’s a rare theme that expresses a feminine (and even somewhat “liberated”, surprisingly) viewpoint. I don’t need love … for what good did love do me? Diamonds never lied to me …
5. LIVE AND LET DIE
Paul McCartney and Wings offer a memorable, fast-driving anthem that just misses sounding like most other Wings songs by incorporating enough of the Monty Norman/1960s flourishes that register as Bond. Plus, it’s Paul McCartney on Roger Moore’s debut outing, a most felicitous new beginning for the series. The first time a band’s performance helped sustain the franchise, but not the last …
6. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
Lulu is an underrated treasure, probably best known for To Sir, With Love. Here, she rocks the snappy Bond theme with nary a hint of the laid-back ’70s in sight. Another triumphant performance of emotional intensity helps compensate for the light lyrics (meant to evoke, of course, memories of Auric Goldfinger), and lifts this theme song to the level of classic.
Something happened to Fleming’s James Bond in the 1970s. Was it Vietnam? Watergate? Weed? There’s a thesis in there, somewhere, but meanwhile, we still have Carly Simon’s excellent pop song. Another example of a theme that lifted the franchise and defined the film Bond of its era, if not Fleming’s master spy. Imagine this playing over Daniel Craig’s face, and you’ll see what I mean.
Most of my top ten Bond songs are performed by UK artists—Welsh, English and Scottish (Lulu). Here, though, American Tina Turner helped relaunch the 007 franchise with this catchy-cool, urgent theme, adding some grit and edginess to Pierce Brosnan’s choir boy good looks for his debut film, an auspicious new beginning for the series.
Shirley Bassey’s third theme was still squarely in the 70s, but Dame Bassey elevates it to the moon, so to speak. Soaring, vocally rich and even a little haunting, Moonraker transcended its filmed namesake.
10. A VIEW TO A KILL
The only Bond theme to soar to number one, thanks to Duran Duran. That feat alone wins it a spot on the list, as musically, the song is more Simon Le Bon than James Bond. Still, it lifted up a sagging and flagging end-of-series and helped prove to the world that it needed a younger 007.
Notes: Only two Americans feature on my list. And, though I like two more of the Brosnan era theme songs (particularly The World is Not Enough), the vocals were reedy-whiny-90s enough to keep them in the bottom half of the oeuvre. I would recommend, however, kd lang’s end credits rendition of Tomorrow Never Dies/Surrender, which I prefer to the actual Sheryl Crowe-sung theme song.
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.
Most writers hoard what is survival gear for most of us … words.
Bits and bobs, flotsam and jetsam, beginnings and endings, random jots of thoughts and perceptions and well-intentioned stabs at craftsmanship.
You never know when a scrap might be useful, when that discarded sentence, slightly retooled, will fit perfectly into a problematic paragraph. And, because you never truly know whether or not your beleaguered brain will ever be able to replicate something reasonably engaging, you hold on to those scraps as life-preservers, wards against the terrors of the empty page.
Likewise, many authors file first completed attempts away, storing first drafts under the literal or metaphorical bed only to emerge with them later, held aloft triumphantly, after said authors have already been published and their early attempts are suddenly notable.
I wish I could report that I’ve saved up a few incomplete manuscripts, but my first book was published and every subsequent book has been, too. However—because I wrote all kinds of things, from translations to original poetry to sonnets to screenplays, long before I decided to cast caution to the winds and actually become a working writer—I can offer a few oddities from time to time, particularly when I’m hitting deadlines on a Monday and scrambling in the dark. 😉
Today, it’s Hemingway. Or, rather, a Hemingway parody/pastiche, a single page of prose based on both subject and style of Papa himself. I wrote this many years ago for a “Bad Hemingway” contest, but, as fate would have it, missed the deadline. To have and have not, eh?
At least in writing Hemingway satire, I am in good company … Raymond Chandler did, too. Those of you familiar with The Sun Also Rises and Papa’s short stories should recognize the title and a number of lines. So, without further ado …
Big, Two-Hearted Harry (Part I)
It was late and the room at Harry’s Bar and Grill was already smoky with the regular crowd when Jock walked in. He sat across from the rummy and pretended not to notice him as the rummy was always hard up and wanting Jock to spot him.
Jock nodded and watched Harry make the drinks. Harry ran a good place, a tight place, a place where a rummy could come and have a clean corner, a well-lit haven. A clean, well-lighted place where a rummy could forget his cojones had gotten blown off in the war.
“Your drink. Lady Breck’s been waiting for you.”
Jock liked Harry. He liked the way Harry poured the absinthe. He liked it the way Harry ran a tight place. He liked it how Harry understood about the rummy and could talk about the important things. He liked it about the scar on Harry’s arm. He liked it how Harry’s tattoo danced when his muscles twitched. He liked it when Harry bent over. Liking that made him feel funny.
“Hello old chap.”
It was Breck. Lady Breck was damned attractive. Her short hair fell boyishly off a chiseled face. Her tight sweater did nothing to hide the curves of a body built like a sleek-hulled yacht.
“I thought you were waiting for me.”
“Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable. I have been waiting, but I couldn’t help tromper-ing you with that white hunter. It’s the way I’m made.”
“That damned red-faced Williams? You didn’t have to do that.”
“Oh darling, don’t be difficult. I’m all yours now. My one true love. But oh darling, I’m so miserable.”
“Don’t talk like a fool.”
“You’re right. You know I feel rather good. I feel rather good not tromper-ing you with the bull fighter. I could have, you know. You chaps left me alone for an hour. I had everyone except Manuel and the rummy. Poor old rummy.”
“You should feel good. Let’s go upstairs.”
They kissed. Breck pulled away. “Oh darling, I’m so miserable. That rummy and I could have had such a damned good time together.”
Jock took her arm. “Yes”, he said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
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.
“A 12 year-old girl whose cousin wants to kiss her does not normally threaten him with a knife; she laughs and kisses him, he’s her cousin. Or if she’s shy or doesn’t like him she just escapes, and the incident is not important enough to mention.”
[Rose Wilder Lane to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a letter about the editing of the upcoming By the Shores of Silver Lake, part of the “Little House” series]
Last week, I wrote about A Wrinkle in Time, the children’s book that, in retrospect, probably had the greatest impact on the adult I was to become. Today, I stumbled upon a brief Slate article that reminded me of another series that I read and adored as a youngster: the “Little House” books.
No, I don’t intend to blog about YA books every week, but the synergy was inescapable. Especially since the Slate article interested me less in the editorial collaboration between mother and daughter and more in Ms. Lane’s efforts to stifle and censor the truth of her mother’s stories.
As a writer of historical crime fiction, I face a formidable obstacle: the nostalgic reimaging and reimagining of our historical truth by later generations—generations that want to “remember” the past through a rose-colored looking glass of wishful thinking.
World War II? The greatest generation. Never mind the corporations that backed Germany, the black market dealers, draft evaders, Japanese-American internment camps and the rampant anti-Semitism and institutionalized racism that characterized much of American life.
As I’ve often mentioned in panels and in interviews, the past was life, warts and all. For every beautiful Art Deco building or green, undeveloped pasture, for every Glenn Miller tune and I. Magnin hat, for every “please” and “thank you”, there was ugliness and brutality and inequality and unfairness and injustice. And much of it was not only tolerated and accepted, but perfectly legal.
If we write only half the story, we add to the injustice by either romanticizing or demonizing the human experience. Even “escapist” entertainment—to me, at any rate—should be plausible and truthful about life and the endless capacity for good and evil of which human beings are capable.
After all, isn’t that our reference point?
So I read the editorial letter by Ms. Lane with disappointment, if not surprise. I’d known of her extremist political ideology. If she were around today, she’d probably be an Ann Coulter acolyte.
“Here you have a young girl, a girl 12 years old, who’s led rather an isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you cannot suddenly have her acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight.”
In seeking to minimize (and she does this in two separate sections of the letter) her mother’s brave attempt to prevent child molestation—and note how she implies that such things would be expected for a “slum child”, such a casual and crass example of economic elitism—Rose Wilder Lane not only silences the historical truth of her mother’s experience, but both admits to and silences a truth women have always faced: once they hit adolescence, they are targets. And in cultures that encourage it or turn a blind eye toward pedophilia (particularly in “slums”, according to Ms. Lane), such targeting can occur very, very early.
Ms. Lane also seeks to censor some of the economic and labor woes that her mother witnessed. The idea of crooked businessmen—and getting revenge on such—is not something for a children’s book, she insists. It doesn’t matter if it happened. Instead, Ms. Lane often underscores nature as the enemy throughout the series: the drought, the grasshoppers, the winter so long that the family nearly starves. In her defense—and in the passage that stuck with me more than any other in any volume—she allows a moving description of the disappearing birds and wolves and wildlife of Silver Lake as the little town on the prairie is built, when even that minuscule development by today’s standards is shown to have a dramatic effect on nature.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the disappearing expanse of prairie with a profound sense of loss, and I’m grateful that her daughter let that come through.
No, I don’t fault Ms. Lane for staying on target with her audience, for manipulating facts, for conflating characters and events and all the other things one has to do to present a salable narrative. What worries me is what she chose to omit. She omits the story about Laura’s cousin. And she omits the warning that Laura’s Pa gave her concerning the men who worked on the railroad. And I’m afraid there Ms. Lane reveals her own prejudices as well as those of her time period, the rose-colored editorial glasses of a 1938 conservative.
“But Pa’s warning to stay far away from all those workmen because they’re dangerous seems to me far-fetched. There’s no motive for the men to do them any harm, except a degenerate one, and there was not enough sexual degeneracy on the frontier to make it typical at all.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pioneer, a strong woman and a determined one. And I wish we could have heard her full story.
It’s a foggy April day in San Francisco. Fog puts me in the mood to write (luckily) or, on a rare occasion when I’m not working, it’s the perfect weather for curling up with a book, with our without a cup of tea and a cat. (Those of us who like to indulge in both cats and tea know that the cat will often try to occupy the same space as a cup of tea, and the end result is scalding water in your lap or on your keyboard).
So thinking about reading made me think about books that influenced me as a child. I was an insatiably omnivorous reader, devouring novels and stories of all kinds—those written for my age group and those intended for much older audiences. Along the mystery path, I began, as so many do, with Nancy Drew when I was seven. By the time I was ten, I’d graduated to Sherlock Holmes (whilst still retaining a love for Nancy. Remind me to blog about The Nancy Drew Cookbook at some point. But I digress …)
A second grade school teacher put my first Nancy Drew in my hands (a vintage hardback of The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). A fourth grade teacher recommended A Wrinkle in Time.
Wrinkle didn’t fuel a life-long passion for science-fiction in the way that Nancy did for mysteries … though I was always a nut for Star Trek (original series, natch) and read everything by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov I could find. What Madeleine L’Engle did with Wrinkle was nothing less than help shape my spiritual, ethical and moral world view.
I was initially drawn to the book because I was always a science geek—one of my favorite Christmas presents was a deluxe chemistry set my parents got for me when I was eight years old. I owned a microscope, a telescope and a gyroscope. I loved the idea of science (if not math), and even when I graduated from high school and had become a young adult, I seriously considered becoming a Cosmochemist (just the title alone is almost worth it). In fact, I was accepted to U.C. San Diego as a Chemistry major.
A Wrinkle in Time is essentially science fiction. But it uses questions about science to delve into metaphysics, spirituality, and the human condition. It tops the list of all the books written for children/young adults that I read as a child (including stalwarts like The Hobbit). It is the first book I’d place in the hands of a curious, sensitive and intelligent child today.
I don’t want to reveal any spoilers if you haven’t read it—and if you haven’t, please do! Instead, here are my top five lessons learned from A Wrinkle in Time:
Love is the most powerful energy/entity in the universe.
Don’t hide or be ashamed of your uniqueness; be proud of who you are.
Conformity is the ultimate bogeyman.
Intelligence without empathy or compassion is the ultimate evil.
Your faults can be virtues under the right circumstances.
I wonder what lessons kids are taking home from today’s crop of more-popular-than-ever YA books … and what your life-lessons from your favorite childhood book might be? Please share below!
In this “tentpole” age, the primary goal seems to be distraction. Distraction from things we don’t want to think about … global warming, the Ukraine, growing corporate monopolies, terrorism, etc.
This isn’t such a new thing … after all, 42nd Street was all about distraction from the Great Depression. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers and that maestro, Busby Berkeley, were geniuses at keeping audiences thinking about things other than bank failures.
Today’s films shy away from tenors, the Great American Songbook and plucky chorus girls in mechanized dance formations. Instead, they give us action, CGI, more action, twists on iconic and/or familiar characters (even better if non-copyrighted), more CGI still more action, still more CGI, a dash or more of sex and/or romance, violence (cartoonish or visceral, depending), and the promise of being able to continue our distraction off-screen by buying a spin-off product.
They are also far more global products than their Golden Era predecessors, more dependent on the box office in Shanghai than in Dubuque. Their aimed appeal, in fact, is so broad that dilution and vacuity is often collateral damage.
To protect against this, sometimes everything inside the tent is just thrown out … any content, meaning or intelligence. What we’re left with are poles, and very little else.
Of course, not every film in the thirties bore a message, sought to open dialog or offered insightful commentary. But in an era that churned out hundreds of films a year, talented directors, screenwriters and producers were still able to create a Gabriel Over the White House or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang orFury. And this despite the noose of censorship and (even then) dangerous, repressive political waters.
So, given the recent track record of the tentpole era, I was surprised and happy to watch two films with thought-provoking (even subversive!) content do well at the box-office, supply the needed distraction, and still offer rich content between the poles: Noah and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
After reading reviews, I expected something from the former—after all, wrestling with an ancient chapter of the Judeo-Christian belief system should demand something more than modern Cecil B. DeMille-level showmanship.
I was not disappointed. Noah seeks to reconcile the contrary messages of Old and New Testament (the vengeful, capricious deity of Job with the embodiment of a deity of mercy), question and criticize man’s malignant “dominion” over earth while casting an admiring eye on his pride, drive and ingenuity, explore issues of pure ideology, human will and human responsibility, and ultimately ask what happens when obedience (to a god or ideology) and individual mercy/morals intersect.
The latter point intersects with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I found to be the single most provocative super-hero movie I’ve seen. It asks tougher questions and comes to more profound conclusions than Christopher Nolan’s much-acclaimed Batman trilogy, and many aspect of the film—including Robert Redford’s casting—enrich the meta-textual meaning.
What is patriotism? What is obedience to authority? What is security and at what price do you sacrifice freedom (and lives) to find it? Should not politicians adhere to a higher standard of decision-making, where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? To that already daunting list of issues, add the potency of fear, and what entities have the motive to keep us in a perpetual state of it (Orwellian theme), the moral teeter-totter that historically ensued when allied nations recruited scientists and spies from the ranks of the former SS, and whether the release of information can set people free or just drive the agents of chaos (or HYDRA) further underground.
No spoilers here, but EW has offered an article on the political aspects to the film, and I hope it continues to do well at the box office. Yes, it’s distracting and entertaining and funny and all the rest of those things we’ve come to expect from Marvel movies. But it’s also a damn good film, and leaves you thinking long after the end-credit sequences.
And when is the last time a giant tent offered us that? 🙂