Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Dead Raccoon That Is Trumpcare

What The Failure Of Trumpcare Can Tell Us About What’s To Come

I believe President Trump made the best of a bad situation in withdrawing his healthcare proposal. Admitting that he lost is not something that comes easily for Trump, but distancing himself from a sure-fire disaster is second nature.

We’re finally getting a sense of what the Trump Presidency is like. Make bold promises, offer the moon, and then rely on others to carry out the hard work once the deal is agreed to. The promise on the campaign trail was to immediately repeal Obamacare, and replace it with something much better. Clearly, Donald Trump had no idea what that something better was, but he figured somebody in the senate was smart enough that they had been busily preparing for the moment when they might have a chance to repeal the ACA and replace it.

He was wrong. He left things in the hands of Paul Ryan, who was confident, articulate, and absolutely out of touch with reality. Trumpcare was in fact Ryancare, and Ryancare might just as well have been called Randcare (Rand as in Ayn, not Paul). Ryan’s idea was that if you were poor or you were sick that people like you should not burden people like Ryan’s opportunity to get Lasik eye surgery.

Now I don’t consider our government to be much of a democracy, but there are limits to what any government can get away with. Even brutal dictators have to show some semblance of concern for the poor and unfortunate. Even Adolf Hitler had to disguise what he had planned for the untermenschen.

So Trump/Ryan/Rand care was dead in the water. Rule number one that astute politicians learn is not to stand next to a dead raccoon or people might associate you with the stink. Given that the dead raccoon is sitting on top of his head, Trump was unable to distance himself from it. Fortunately Obama had a stinky raccoon of his own, and Trump was savvy enough to put that in front of the public’s nose and point to it as the cause of the stench.

Now Obama’s raccoon wasn’t quite dead, but it never was a very healthy animal. It was the spawn of a most unlikely coupling. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it was Mitt Romney and not Barak Obama who was the biological father. It doesn’t matter, it bore the Obama name, and therefore President Trump could never let it live. You see, Donald Trump can never tolerate anything that has the name of another man. He’s like the sultan in 1,001 Nights, who takes a virgin bride each night and has them beheaded in the morning before they can cheat on him. The thought of other males in his domain is unacceptable. Trump is the alpha-male and any other who challenges him must be eliminated.

So with Trumpcare dead, it was best to shift attention to Obamacare. Let’s put aside for a moment all these health care plans mean something to sick people and even well people who are afraid of needing healthcare someday, because Donald Trump never cared about that end of things. Trump cared about scoring points with the voters and Obamacare was a vulnerable program. Still is, especially since the Republicans have done nothing to nurture it and everything to wound it. Again, let’s not worry about those people who are actually in need, let’s worry about scoring political points.

Donald Trump will let Obama’s lame child live, all the while tripping it whenever it walks by, depriving it of food and scaring off those who would try to help it out. Let it shamble weakly towards its grave, the whole while taunting it and by extension any other male who would attempt to put their name to something that is rightfully Trump’s. That’s what alpha-males do.

But here we have exposed Donald Trump’s weakness: his unending need to feed his ego. Here should be the game plan of Democrats going forward, to rename every proposal the Republicans put forth from here on out. Donald Trump comes up with a tax proposal that would reduce taxes for the wealthiest Americans? Call it The Ryan Code. Instantly Trump will lose all desire to support it. A new war in the Middle East? Call it McCain’s war if you want peace. This must be done for every plan President Trump comes up with, every single one. Except Trumpcare. Leave that stinky thing firmly perched atop the president’s head.

P.S. The raccoon in the picture is not dead, it is only sleeping. I would never post a picture of a dead raccoon.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Magic, Belief, and the Art of the Elevator Pitch

I was doing a book sale/signing last weekend with a group of local authors I know. We were one table among a myriad other vendors selling their wares. I’m not really one for talking about myself but I did grow up with a few performers in the family and understand the necessity of hawking one’s wares. So I talked to people and did point out the books we had for sale. But then somebody asked me what my books were about and suddenly I sounded like Maimonides attempting to describe God. All I was able to say is what my books weren’t. Yes, my books involved magicians, but they weren’t the kind that waved their wand and turned people into animals. I mean, they’re stage magicians, but they don’t have supernatural powers. Well, they sort of do have supernatural powers but not the typical kind of powers. I mean they can see into the future or talk to the dead, sort of, but it’s not from saying hocus pocus and gazing into a crystal ball…well, not exactly.

And I could see in the eyes of my potential customers that the light had faded and they soon walked on towards other booths. I had failed to make a connection. And instead of getting to the root of why I had failed to make a connection, I closed the chapter in my mind and started thinking about something else. You see, when things become uncomfortable, when questions arise which cause us to question our reality, we humans often have a tendency to change the subject or look the other way. We become comfortable in the world we have fashioned for ourselves even if it is not helpful to us.

Fortunately, my fellow author, Tara Meissner (this isn’t a plug, but buy her book Stress Fracture) told me something like “you don’t have an elevator pitch. They were looking at your books and you couldn’t even tell them what they were about. Why would someone buy your book when you can’t even explain what it’s about?” At which point that trigger response in me wanted to reply something like “It’s art, baby, don’t even try to categorize it. Don’t label me, because labels are limits.” Fortunately before I could say anything stupid like that, she followed it up with something like “It comes off as kind of arrogant”.

Aw, cut to the quick. And I knew she was just being honest. More than that, she was right. She tried to beg off it a bit as though she thought I might be offended but I knew just what she was talking about and agreed with her a hundred percent. Of course, we all need others to point out the obvious from time to time, especially us authors or, dare I say it, artists. See, as an author, I see the picture as it exists in my mind, as it should be, rather than as I have actually put it down into words. A writer first has to conceive of an idea, and then put it into words. If you cannot put it into words so that others can share what you have conceived, then you are not a writer but a dreamer. Which is totally cool, too. The world needs more dreamers, they are beautiful people. It’s only bad when you are a dreamer who thinks he is a writer, then you are a delusional dreamer. So in order to be a writer you have to express the ideas you have given birth to. You have to awaken those same ideas in the minds of others that you yourself have experienced. And if you aren’t able to tell people why they should read your books then you are doing a poor job of it.

It’s just that I’m a writer, not an advertising agent: on that I am firm. For me it is the writing and not the sales that must always be my motivator. I hate the term “elevator pitch” because it suggests to me some sleazy self-important climber sucking up to a superior or a client in whatever manner is necessary. And that’s what I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding being. I have to place honesty above all other considerations.

Okay, but I should be able to explain what I do honestly, shouldn’t I? Below is one attempt to do so. It might sound a little pompous, or arrogant. It might sound grandiose. I guess I’ll have to risk it. Perhaps it is not merely misrepresenting myself but having people see me too clearly that I fear.

I write about real magic. I write about what is left after you get rid of all the illusions. And the world is full of illusions. We never really are able to cut our way through the illusions. But magic is the belief that there is something beyond the illusions, that in smashing through the simplistic answers we more closely approach the reality, though we may never see it fully. To disbelieve in magic is to believe that there is nothing more than illusions, that beyond them there is simply nothing. Ultimately, neither answer will have definitive proof. Ultimately it is a choice, the choice of limiting ourselves or giving ourselves up to an unseen and invisible something that turns mundane existence into a miracle. We create magic within our souls, by choosing to believe, by opening ourselves up to something beyond what we are presently aware of.

Perhaps it is a decision to believe in God. Or at least just believe, believe in something even if I cannot express in words what exactly it is that I believe in. Life after all is not about living the life that we can understand but the life we can briefly catch a glimpse of. It is being humble in order to grasp the vastness of the universe we exist in. And it is having faith in that universe. It is believing you are a part of that universe, and it and you have a common goal/destiny, potential for harmony. It is believing that the division between you and the outside world is an artificial distinction we draw because we have not yet pierced the veil of illusions to reach what lies beyond.

I guess I have not worked it down to an elevator pitch yet. In time I’m sure I can winnow that down to a couple of sentences in order to give people an idea of what it is I write. Until then I’m afraid I’ll be staring at the walls of the elevator anytime someone else enters.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A New Short Story For You, Prayer Shawls

Prayer Shawls


The word was mouthed soundlessly into folded hands, so that anyone who might have seen Betty Volk would have believed the old woman was deep in prayer.

Her eyes were cast forwards, but it was not the crucifix in front of her which held her gaze. To the left of the altar was a display of shawls, made by women of the church to be donated to patients at the local hospital. But there was one in particular that demanded her attention. That shawl, that bright, gaudy shawl captured her attention like a neon sign, making all else about it seem drab by comparison. Everything else—the other shawls that were on display, the green pennants behind the altar, the chalice into which Christ’s own blood soon would be poured—nothing else mattered. Those garish colors stung at her heart like knitting needs plunged by hateful hands.

She closed her eyes, trying to drive away the malice it aroused in her. But closing her eyes she saw the face of Mabel, the woman responsible for her pain. She saw that glib smile that passed for kindliness to so many who knew her superficially. She saw the woman who bought her clothes new rather than from Goodwill and rummage sales the way she and most of the others in the knitting club did. She saw Mabel’s hands, hands that had not been worn down by years of work the way her own had.

She opened her eyes again, saw her own gnarled and misshapen fingers in front of her. Once she had been capable of producing such finery that she would have put anyone of them to shame. Now pain gripped her hands so tightly it brought tears to her eyes while she had knitted the prayer shawl that was on display with the rest of them.

Hers was a simple blue shawl, tasteful, but thick and well constructed. Mabel’s was a flimsy thing, made more for show than comfort. Dear God, it looked more like something a lady of the evening might wear, not something to keep an old person warm. Betty had used yarn donated by a parishioner, but Mabel… Where did she even find such yarn?

It betrayed the whole idea of charity, betrayed those who had contributed yarn for the project. It was all about vanity for that…Bitch…Mabel. The hatred rose again in her, a hatred so burning and alive it almost made her feel young again, almost made her feel capable of things she had never even considered in so many years. She was old—oh, so old—but there were passions that were still sharp in her. It seemed that all that was once good in her had been taken by time, while those passions that should have mellowed with age, should have been conquered at long last by maturity or simply dissipated with the ebb of vitality, still lingered in her.

Lust. Dear God, it still possessed her, though nobody would ever want to consider the idea. Pride. It still determined her behavior, though there was precious little for her to take pride in at this stage of life. Jealousy. She prayed that she might be free of it, but somehow it seemed more difficult to pray with any degree of focus nowadays. Age and human frailty had overridden and overcome all that was once best in her. And while she once believed in the superiority of spirituality over the physical, time had taught her many bitter lessons. It seemed as if her inability to straighten her fingers to pray somehow prevented her prayers from coming out straight. She was merely clay, a poor vessel for holding the virtues she wished to possess.

She had spent the better part of mass obsessing over the shawls, over her hatred of Mabel. She mumbled the required responses and amens without really being aware of what she was saying. At some point the priest had pointed to the shawls and explained to the parishioners that they were to be donated to the sick at the local hospital, but Betty took no pride in her accomplishment, spoiled as it was by thoughts of Mabel.

Lost in thoughts that had taken hold of her despite her attempts to drive them out with prayer, she suddenly became aware that the priest was now in front of her. It was time for communion, and he was delivering the host first to those in the front row, those like herself who were too old and infirm to stand in line like the rest. She opened her mouth to have the host placed upon her tongue, then took hold of the chalice and drank perhaps deeper than she should have of the wine.

A thought flashed through her mind, powerful and compelling. For an instant, the idea of spitting into the chalice so that Mabel might unwittingly drink from it came to her. It filled her with revulsion, and she choked it down quickly into the dark recesses of her mind. She concentrated on the host within her mouth, hoped to find strength and salvation from its presence within her.

She swallowed determinedly, lowering her gaze once more to her hands folded in prayer. But the thoughts continued to come from the dark areas within her.

Her eyes closed, the blackness within her became more overpowering. The prayers she silently uttered seemed to be lost somewhere in parts of her mind no longer accessible by her aged spirit. Within a gap where memory could no longer find the words, she heard the voice of Henry talking soothingly to his mother.

Henry. What a despicable little lickspittle. Mabel’s youngest, her special child, her baby. Spoiled brat, more like it. She had ruined that child. She never allowed him to grow up, never let him become his own man. And now here he was, middle aged, and still living at home. Taking pleasures in things someone with a bit of youth to them should not be bothered with.

He should have had a wife, should have had a life. Instead, his life centered around his mother. And when she passed, what would he have then? Bah, what a waste of life.

She turned her head to see Henry arm in arm with Mabel. It was disgusting. It looked more like man and wife than mother and son. It was unnatural, that’s what it was. And Mabel, she was lapping it all up. Her child was like the shawl, not something with a value in and of itself but a thing to garner attention for her.

Henry stood back so that Mabel might receive the host, then he followed. Such a dutiful child. You could see the thought in Mabel’s eyes, could see the pride she took from his debasement. Anything to get attention, anything to have all eyes on her.


Very well, thought Betty. If it’s attention you want, it’s attention you will receive.

Having received the Eucharist, Mabel moved to the left where a deacon awaited her with chalice held in front of him. She walked right in front of Betty, noticed her and gave her one of her fake smiles. And in that moment the darkness took control of Betty.

Betty had her cane in one hand. Henry was now taking communion. For a moment, Mabel was without the support of her son, without which she might well have needed a cane, just like Betty. With a deftness that surprised her, Betty moved her cane subtly in front of her, directly between the legs of Mabel, throwing her off balance. Betty looked up at Mabel’s face to see the smile die, turn to surprise and then fear.

It pleased Betty. For a moment she felt young again, felt the thrill of excitement and accomplishment. She could still make her mark on the world.

Betty watched it all as if it was occurring in slow motion, as if at last time had slowed down for her, as if time was finally giving something back. Mabel came down hard, harder than even Betty would have imagined. The surprise and fear that was on Mabel’s face was now wiped away and replaced by agony. She lay there, motionless.

Apparently, beneath the fine clothes she wore, she was every bit as frail as Betty. In that moment, the regret began to well up in her, but the thrill she felt at what she had done never really left her. She felt that she was still alive, still capable of doing big things, even if what she had done was horrible. She was alive, she could right injustices. She still had power.

Henry was hunched over his mother now, who was lying face down. He attempted to roll her over but his actions were accompanied by a piteous shriek, the old woman’s voice an insufficient tool to express the pain it must have caused her. Betty looked at Mabel, whose face was now turned towards her. Blood dripped from her nose in gobs, but she knew that was not the main source of her pain. It was a hip, Betty could see that by the way she responded when Henry had sought to move her. She could sense that it had shattered like an old piece of stained glass.

Gone was any semblance of pride or sense of superiority from Mabel’s countenance. So wrapped up was she in her own pain she didn’t even care about how undignified she appeared with the blood pouring down her face, the grimace of agony on her face that rivaled the one carved into the face upon the crucifix. Pity rose in Betty once again. Like a pendulum, pity and satisfaction moved through her. She had the natural revulsion at seeing another human being in pain. And then she remembered the smile that had been on Mabel’s face and the pendulum swung back again. Betty preferred the look Mabel had upon her face now.

For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, and permitted a smile to come to her lips. Then she remembered and wiped any sign of satisfaction from her appearance. She looked at Mabel, but she hadn’t noticed, so wrapped up was she in her pain. Henry too, had no attention for anyone other than his dear mother. Relief surged in her, until she averted her gaze and saw another member of her knitting circle. Flora had a look of horror on her face, but it was not Mabel she was looking at. She was looking at Betty.

Flora knew. Betty was certain of it. Betty could tell by the way Flora could not avert her gaze, although she tried to look away.

Yes, Flora knew. It was time to close her eyes, to appear deep in prayer as she contemplated what to do about Flora. She would have to be dealt with.

Friday, March 3, 2017

My Grandfather Was A Refugee And Helped Build This Country

I would like to thank the United States of America for welcoming my grandfather, Alex Rozoff, who was a refugee from the Russian Revolution. Things were tough in Russia, which is why he left. It must have been damn tough because he left the only home he had ever known to come to a place where he knew no one and could not speak the language.

It must have been hard for him, but somehow he managed to land on his feet. It was a time of mass immigration and there must have been a sizable Russian contingent in the states, one that was willing to help him in one way or another. He got a job at Youngstown Sheet and Tube and worked there for forty years, worked there until a brain tumor stopped him from working and eventually ended his life.

It was hellish work, the kind of work his son and his son’s sons wanted no part of. Without any proof backing this statement up, it might well have been the work conditions he endured that contributed to his condition. After all, workers back then had nobody looking out for their safety or questioning what chemicals were being used. In fact nobody was looking out for the workers at all. Things got so bad that they decided they had to look after themselves. They went on strike for better wages, better working conditions, and a chance at a decent life. Things must have been bad for someone so far from home to risk everything he had in order to fight for a better life.

It must have been bad too for those workers in the mill who were born in this country. You see, all those immigrants that were let inside our borders weren’t brought in because the U.S. had a mission to help the poor and the dispossessed. Sure, words to that effect are inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty, but that was a gift from the French who wanted to believe the U.S. was something special, a beacon to the world. It was a symbol of our promise, not a reflection of our reality. No, the U.S. wanted cheap labor, that’s why we opened our borders to tens of millions of people from all over the world. The U.S. wanted it, and by that I mean the rich people who owned the politicians who made the rules wanted it. You see, they had been using cheap domestic labor for a while now. They had been getting away with it for decades, promising that once U.S. industries reached a place of prominence that it would then be U.S. labor’s turn to share in the good times.

Of course, the rich industrialists never had any intention of sharing the profits equitably. Promises are just a tool in the capitalist’s tool belt to help motivate those who earn profits for them. But it is a tool that can only be used so often before the workers can’t accept the status quo anymore.

That’s when the immigrants started pouring in, to awaken the working slobs from the delusion that they had some degree of power. All of the sudden a working class that was beginning to feel its strength had to contend with competition from beyond what they believed was a closed environment. All those promises they had been given in return for their blood and sweat and sacrifice were swept away in a flood of foreigners willing to work for a fraction of what U.S. labor was already being given, which wasn’t enough to begin with. You see, those foreigners were just looking to survive, they’d take promises of better days to come, just as the U.S. workers once had.

I can imagine just how much the U.S. workers hated those foreigners. If they weren’t taking their jobs then they were driving down wages. They were taking over neighborhoods and driving up rents. Those damn foreigners were living five families to a house. They stunk like garlic or other unfamiliar spices. They worshipped God differently, they spoke a different language and made people feel alienated in their own country. IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY.

So it must have been really hard for those foreigners and their coworkers who were born in the U.S. to somehow come together and join a union. They had a hell of a lot of differences to overcome, and there were assuredly company forces working really hard to drive a wedge between them.

But somehow they managed to pull together. Somehow they realized they were on the same team, that they all wanted the same thing, a decent life for the people who did the work and created the fancy mansions for the bosses. They faced the private muscle that the company hired, and they faced the government troops that were sent in because in the end the government always works for the people wealthy enough to make a politician understand that he is in office only because of the power and influence of the people who write the campaign checks.

I won’t lie to you, the struggle was real. It was very real. It was real in the way that most of us, living in an imaginary world constructed for us by a very powerful propaganda machine, do not wish to contemplate. There was blood on the streets and there were cracked heads, and there were threats of so much worse. Those who took to the streets, who walked off their jobs, risked so very much. Perhaps they were capable of doing so because they had already learned how precarious life can be. Perhaps there were many who, like my grandfather, had already left all they had known behind in search of a better world. Perhaps it was because they had been born in a time when values and convictions meant something, when a secure life wasn’t more or less assured to you so long as you didn’t make waves.

I don’t know for sure what was going on in the mind of my grandfather, or the tens of thousands of men who stood with him, or the tens of thousands of wives and mothers who stood with them. I really wish I did because I’m sure I’d be a better person for having a taste of it. It must have been something special, because what they accomplished is nothing short of amazing. When people are able to put aside their differences—real as well as imagined—in order to work on their mutual interests, there is where greatness is to be found. That is how the world is changed for the better, that is where we as humans discover just what we can accomplish and how absolutely wonderful it is to be a human being.

We are capable of great stuff. We can send people to the moon, we can transform the planet. We just have to do it together. We have to put aside our differences and understand the goals we share. And we have many shared goals. The examples of what we can achieve for the individual by working together are endless. We just have to start looking at them, learning from them, honoring our fathers and forefathers by showing once again what we can do by working together for the common good.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Thousand Forgotten Influences

I’ve always felt fortunate to have kind and inspirational people around me, and yet never did I feel quite as inspired by them as I did through the various people I have never met. In fact, what I love best about the people I have known, it seems, is that they have introduced me to music, movies, and literature that has moved me more deeply than I can express. Perhaps it is that people can come and go, but their creations can remain forever. I loved my older brother Bob, but when he moved out and got married, the music that he had introduced me to remained. Rick and Tom were also older and did not always have that much time to share with an 8-year old boy, but their comics were always available to me.

Books, movies, music, those were my influences. Each wove stories for me, each brought me glimpses of lives and worlds far beyond my immediate surroundings.

I led a normal enough childhood. I spent many days playing baseball and football, and exploring whatever nature was to be found in my small part of the world. I spent my nights playing hide and seek, truth or dare, and even ding dong ditch (the game where you knock on someone’s door and run like hell). I played board games with friends when the weather kept us inside and made more than my share of prank calls. When on vacation I spent all the time I could at the beach or in a boat fishing.

And yet when I think back to my childhood, some of my most intense memories are of the basement of our home where the books, magazines, and records of my older siblings were stored. There I could adventure along with explorers of ancient civilizations and distant planets. There dwelt superheroes intent on defending justice, or monsters who sought vengeance on a world that had done them wrong. There were worlds under the sea and civilizations within the planet’s crust. There were giants and Lilliputians, sentient beings with many tentacles, and kind but misunderstood swamp creatures.

As I read through literally hundreds of horror magazines and comic books, I listened to the albums and 45’s that were part of my brothers’ collections. From such gems as Walk Away Renee and She’s Not There, I learned of love and caught glimpses of the mysteries that would be revealed to me when I achieved the mythic stature of a teenager. Motown and The British Invasion taught me of romantic love and through that, of a desire to be seen as noble and true in the eyes of another. I even managed to learn a little class consciousness through some of my favorite songs: Down in the Boondocks, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, and Tobacco Road.

Perhaps the world created for me by such stories did not grow more expansive as I aged—after all, how can the world ever be larger than our imagination—but the stories grew in depth. The books I started to read kept closer to reality but showed me how truly rich the real world can be. Gone were the days of creatures from outer space, and yet somehow I recognized that in such far-flung stories of superheroes and aliens I had also learned about nobility and relating to those we considered different from ourselves. Superheroes had super powers, yes, but they were also heroes. Their powers often failed them but even in their darkest moments they retained their moral code and their passion to do what was right. Mankind might have explored far distant galaxies but they still had to deal with the same questions we on Earth ask ourselves. And while they met many a menacing alien, there were as many more who were capable of teaching us a lesson about ourselves.

And so it was that I learned many of life’s important lessons from people I had never met. A thousand obscure authors and storytellers all but forgotten now by the world. It was more difficult to translate the lessons I learned on paper or in songs into real life—things were always so much more perfect and heroic in fiction. But in the end I learned that heroism and idealism were guiding forces. I feel a debt to each of those thousands, literally thousands, of strangers that brought me into their world of imagination and passion and made me see and feel and imagine things more deeply than I ever would have otherwise.

I want the world to remember their names. I want them to know that Jim Shooter, Michael Brown, James Warren, Robert Arthur, Gardner Fox, Jean Dutourd, Anthony Phillips, and so many more lived and created and inspired. I want to introduce such influences to a new generation so that they can experience the thrill I once felt, still feel when I cast my memory back to my youth. I want to keep alive all that was once so vital to me, and so I push on in that direction, hopefully making a bit of a name for myself so that I can reflect back on those who influenced me.

But even more than keeping alive the names of those who pushed me in the story-telling direction, I want to keep their spirit alive. I want to give to others what has been given to me. Not amusement and amazement only, but a sense of heroism and possibility as well. I write for adults, not for teens or children, but I feel it is important for everyone to keep alive ideals that we too often dismiss as na├»ve or impractical in our later years. Achieving a better world must first begin with perceiving and believing, and there is surely a better world possible than the one we’re currently constructing. I know that it is so, I have seen it in the work of a thousand nearly anonymous creators of wonder, and I will not let their inspiration fade away.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Whispers and Explosions

For a long time now I’ve had the habit of watching my television (on those occasions when I actually watch television) with remote control in hand. The reason I do this is to lessen the loud sounds and enhance the soft. More and more it appears to me that there is no in between, movies are either explosions or whispers.

Sure, you can blame it on my age. With each passing day that is the reason for much of what I do and how I perceive the outside world. But I’m really not that old yet (50), and besides, I’ve heard people far younger than myself say the same thing. So I imagine there is some truth in my observation. If this is so, then there is probably some reason for it being so, and since I love to dissect everything I observe to death, let me take a moment to ask why this is so.

A lot of it comes down to increases in technology. Advances in sound systems as well as production have enabled someone sitting at home to have a movie theater-like experience at home. Explosions played through a powerful bass unit played at proper level can literally get the windows shaking. And played at that level, well even the whispers can be clearly understood.

Movies and television didn’t have such options decades ago. Sound needed to be compressed in order that it would sound decent on the equipment available to them at the time. Heck, Purple Haze was recorded in a way that would make it sound good on a transistor radio.

But there is something more at work than technology, at least I like to entertain the possibility that there is. After all, every observation that floats into our consciousness gives us an opportunity to reflect on the world we live in and perhaps get to know it better as a result.

With that in mind, there may be cultural reasons for the louds being louder and the softs being softer. Perhaps actual words have become less important in the movies we watch today. Perhaps spectacle is a bigger part of our movies than ideas expressed through dialog. This might be an inevitable part of the improvement of technology, but it nevertheless alters the movie-going experience. To change that experience is to alter the nature of what we call film. Is it art or is it entertainment? Most any movie should be a mixture of some degree of the two, but increasing spectacle while decreasing the importance of dialog undeniably slides it away from art and towards entertainment. As Aristotle argued thousands of years ago, spectacle is the least important, least artistic aspect of drama.

Spectacle is playing a larger part in our drama today merely because the opportunities are so vast. We can now witness on the screen an army a hundred thousand strong lay siege to a city, using elephants and mythical creatures, as we did in Lord of the Rings. Of course, such spectacle is not cheap. And to acquire the needed investment for such special effects, investors want to lessen their exposure to risk. In other words, anything that might get in the way of profit, say a controversial idea or an actual message, must be trimmed or avoided. So if you want to compete with the big boys on special effects, you’re going to have to march to the beat of the investors. And the overall difference in the look and feel of a big studio and an indie film is going to grow wider, making ideas and messages riskier propositions.

But if we can perhaps explain why movies have grown louder, we have not yet addressed why movies have at the same time grown softer. Perhaps words and ideas have a lesser part to play in film nowadays, but that is no reason for the characters to not be intelligible. So why the whispering, why the softly-spoken lines?

Perhaps it is a wild assumption but there seems to be more intrigue in movies today. Nobody is direct anymore unless violence is imminent, in which case the whispers turn to yelling. Game of Thrones is all about the intrigue, all about the plotting behind other people’s backs.

John Wayne seldom whispered, nor did he often yell. He stated things plainly. He neither connived nor did he threaten. He was a man who spoke softly (that is to say at a normal level, not a whisper) and packed a punch. I don’t recall Humphrey Bogart ever whispering, nor Jimmy Stewart. Somehow they managed to pack a whole lot of personality into a rather limit decibel range. Clint Eastwood, that’s where it all started.

Tyrants rage and traitors whisper, but the honest man speaks in a normal tone. We seem to have lost track of the idea of the honest character as protagonist. Somewhere in the 70’s we were introduced to the flawed hero (Dirty Harry, for one), and it has only gotten worse since then. Before then you could tell who was who by the color of the hat they wore. That was obviously a simplistic way of viewing the world but it wasn’t all wrong. Good guys dressed like good guys because they wanted to display respect for others and for the law. Bad guys dressed like bad guys because they wanted to intimidate others and make them submit to force or threats. And that’s it: bullying calls for a raised voice while threats can be whispered in the ear of an intended victim. And the good guys who spoke plainly and in measured tones, well they’re not part of the narrative much these days.

Admittedly my observations are not backed with mountains of research and evidence. They are merely the observations of one man with an hour to waste on a Sunday afternoon. And yet I believe there is some truth to them. Movies are different today than they were a generation or more ago, and it goes beyond the technological changes that have occurred. Our society has embraced change like none other in history. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it is still important to note what changes occur and question why it is they have come to be. Let us not fall into the position that change is always for the better, lest we become no better than those who once believed that change was always to be repressed. We, each of us, have some degree of say in what changes do or do not occur in our society. We have a role to play, a part in the discussion of where our culture is headed. It’s what grownups do.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Gates Of Heaven Open Wide For My Dog Bella

Here's something I had written a few years back that I never posted here, a happy moment from the life of my dog Bella:

The Gates of Heaven Open Wide

This summer has not been kind to my beloved black lab, Bella. Let’s face it, a black fur coat is not the kind of thing you want to wear to the beach on a hot, sunny day. And this has been one hot, muggy summer. Furthermore, in her old age, she has developed a real fear of fireworks. It wouldn’t be so bad if the kids (and grown up kids) in the neighborhood would restrict themselves to the 4th of July, but the noise begins in mid June and gradually fizzles out sometime in late July. Poor Bella can be enjoying her day until a single firecracker will send her slinking into the basement to cringe under some piece of furniture. But perhaps the cruelest blow of all for Bella this year has been the loss of one of her most beloved enjoyments. We never really turn on the air conditioner for ourselves, we do it for Bella and Charlie, our guinea pig. And it is our great joy to watch Bella realize that the air has been turned on and see her plop herself upon the air vent. But several weeks ago, I walked into the house to discover the grating for the air vent not where it should have been but under the dining room table. I put the grate back but since that time, Bella will not go near it. Me and the Misses have put 2+2 together and made the following assumption: one day while enjoying the cool air coming from the register, Bella must have got her dog collar caught in the grate and lifted it out. Who knows how long she had to carry the heavy, cumbersome object around, but it is clear that she doesn’t want to risk doing so again.

But all is not bad in Bella‘s life. In fact there was one event that was so spectacular, it just may have made up for the rest.

One block down from us is a bakery, the old-fashioned family-owned kind that is closed on Sunday and for a week in the summer when the owners go on vacation. The kind of bakery that sends its tantalizing aroma down the block to my front porch, an aroma enticing enough to challenge any good intentions when it comes to dieting. For 11 years now, my wife and I have walked Bella past this bakery most every day. When we walk together, one of us occasionally will stop in while the other waits outside with Bella. While we sometimes get donuts or sweets for ourselves, we never leave without getting a dog cookie, baked fresh, for Bella. Upon leaving the store, we will hand the bag with the cookie in it to Bella and she will carry it home. When she was younger, she would carry the bag gently by the end in the same way Jackie Kennedy might have carried a handbag. Now that she is older, though, she seems less willing to take chances and carries it as tightly wedged into her mouth as she can get it. Either way, I walk her home and feel the same misplaced and slightly disturbing pride that a mother of a toddler beauty pageant contestant must feel. I have few vanities in life, but I love to see people driving down the road turn and look at my dog.

My wife was not with me on my last walk, but my dog was giving me the same hints she always does as we approached the bakery. Feeling sorry for her, I suddenly thought of just poking my head through the door and asking if they could bring a dog cookie to the door. I did so, and to my amazement, they told me to just bring her inside. Never in my life could I have imagined that someone would allow a dog into a bakery, it just doesn’t seem like a very smart thing to do. Dogs are notoriously lacking in manners as Bella was quick to demonstrate. I think it must have been the thrill of her life to enter this building that housed such gastronomical delights. She predictably behaved in a manner unmannerly, but with such genuine enthusiasm as to make it forgivable. I’m sure there were nose smears on the display windows that needed cleaning after we left, as Bella demanded a close view of every croissant, scone, cookie and pie that was on display. As it was, she left quite satisfied with her typical dog cookie, carrying it in a bag wedged far back in her mouth. 11 years of curiosity were finally satisfied for her, in what was surely one of the most momentous events of her life.