Saturday, November 24, 2012

Agoraphobia, Astronomy, and Healing Affliction With Passion

Photo by Art Rosc

          Once upon a time I was agoraphobic.  For years I had a terror of strange spaces.  I was limited to my house, my yard, my car, and my place of work.  If I attempted to break this tight little orbit, I got sick.  My stomach churned, my heart raced, my breathing grew difficult.  At the time I didn't know the term "Panic Attack."  My symptoms were classic; trying to go anywhere outside my tiny race track brought on a general collapse.  I had no social life, I did nothing but read, watch TV and watch the animals that visited the hillside behind the house.
          One day I was out in the yard in the deepening twilight of an autumn day.  I had a pair of binoculars in my hands for watching a herd of deer who came to feed on the ripening pear trees at the top of the hill.  It was almost dark and I had an impulse to turn the binoculars towards the sky.
          I was stunned.   The binoculars showed thousands more stars than could be seen with the naked eye.  It was visually confusing but so beautiful that I instantly fell in love with the night sky.
         I spent the next several hours scanning across the heavens, trying to locate familiar stars in familiar constellations.  Not that I knew many constellations.  I knew The Big Dipper (which is only part of a constellation), I knew Orion and I knew Cassiopeia  because of its distinctive "M" shape.
          I saw things through the binoculars that I couldn't name.  I saw clusters of stars that looked like back-lit luminous cotton. I was lost, in the topographic sense.  The big bright stars took on a new relation to one another because of all the intervening stars that were less bright.
          There was the end star in the Big Dipper.  I could find that star.  But it was difficult to maneuver to the next star in the line without first taking my eye off the binoculars, locating my target, then carefully measuring my angle of movement.  Otherwise the sheer abundance of stars was confusing. I learned, that night, that the second to last star in the Dipper's handle is actually a double star, the pair known as Mizar and Alcor.  They can be seen as double with the naked eye in a reasonably dark location.
There's a legend that the Ottoman army checked the eyes of its soldiers by discerning whether or not they could separate Mizar from Alcor.
          I was lucky to live in a dark suburb sixty miles from San Francisco.  There were no streetlights.  In late summer the Milky Way can be seen with its glowing fleece and its lanes of darkness and dust.
          It breaks my heart to think of the billions of people who will go from cradle to grave without seeing a dark sky, without seeing The Milky Way in all its majesty.  People who will live without giving the night sky a passing thought.  To me, a life without awareness of the sky's beauty is like an amputation of the soul.  You're cut off from your ancestors, from the thousands of generations who measured their lives by the movements of the heavens.
          I'm not a scientific person.  I have no math skills, no understanding of chemistry.  I slept through those classes when I was in school.  But I was determined to give myself some training in astronomy.  I learned to read sky charts and I subscribed to magazines.  I joined a club.
          I needed to see a darker sky.  I needed to go places more than a hundred miles from a large city.  There is a substantial difference in what's visible from a sky that isn't compromised by light pollution.
          The problem was that I was agoraphobic.  The idea of getting into a car and driving to a new place hundreds or even thousands of miles from home made me break into a cold sweat. I have since realized that my agoraphobia was but a subset of phobic responses to a larger meta-phobia that I call Neophobia: Fear Of New Experiences.
Photo by Art Rosch
          This is a common posture for people with PTSD.  I consider that almost everyone has some kind of PTSD, that PTSD is another name for the experience called "Life".
          There are, however, people who have more severe life  traumas, longer lasting and more intensely painful body memories. I qualify for this troubled group.
          My life has been difficult.  No more needs to be said. The point of this little article is the way I pitted a powerful passion against an equally powerful terror.
          I was corresponding with people who had been to places like Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego State Park.  They measured the sky darkness and clarity by referring to the dimmest star visible to the naked eye.  Stars are rated by magnitude, with the lower numbers indicating greater brightness.  This system was first used by the Greeks around 150 B.C.  It hasn't changed very much since that time, which is remarkable.  That's one of the appealing things about astronomy; much of its lore connects to ancient cultures without the intervening technology altering its nomenclature or mythology.
          Let's describe a star of Magnitude 1 as a star visible even in a well lit suburb of a major city. The star Sirius, the brightest naked eye star in the sky (excepting the sun), is a magnitude -1.4.  That is Negative One Point Four. The brighter stars go into negative numbers.  A bright full moon is Mag -12.6. The sun is magnitude -26.8.  The stars where I lived were visible up to about magnitude 3.  That wasn't good enough.  My friends in the Mojave Desert were describing skies rated at Magnitude 6!  In practical terms that would describe a sky so rich in stars that the outlines of well known constellations would almost vanish in the profusion of surrounding stars.
          I was yearning to experience dark, beautiful skies.  At the same time I was terrified to leave my yard.  I could barely cross the street.  But I wanted to go to the high desert, down to the Mojave and cross into Arizona, where the cities are distant and the sky is dark and the colors of the stars sort themselves into distinct categories of white, red, yellow, green and blue.
          I struggled, I procrastinated, I beheld my fear like a chain and a set of padlocks, and I was angry with myself.  Everyone goes places!  Millions of people jump into cars, get into airplanes, leap from coast to coast, continent to continent without giving such travel a second thought.
          I was barely capable of making the twelve mile drive to my place of work, to my solitary manual labor position as a janitor for a large commercial property.
          I had an acquaintance who spent a lot of time in Yosemite Valley.  She was planning a drive from the Bay Area in two weeks.  I asked if I could come along.  I explained my situation, my phobia.  She was willing to help.
          The big terrors that we harbor in our fantasies usually turn out to be less taxing than the grief we've given ourselves in anticipation of the event.
          On the appointed day, I got into my friend's Honda, carrying my binoculars, a book of star charts and two changes of clothes.
          As we drove up Highway 80 I sat in the front seat as rigid as setting concrete.  I was desperately ill for the first sixty miles.  An hour-long panic attack savaged me like a hungry wolf.  I felt as if I would never be able to get back, to get home once I had left.  Then I  had the sensation of hitting a giant rubber band.  It stretched and stretched, urging me to reverse my direction, to turn back. 
          I had deliberately trapped myself by this arrangement.  I couldn't tell my friend to cancel her trip because I was phobic, because I was, basically, a great big scaredy cat.
[        I knew I had to break through the rubber band. 
          I was so sick with fright that we had to stop on the side of the road three times so I could puke.  My friend was beautifully patient and supportive.
          Just beyond Sacramento, about eighty miles from home, I puked one last time and the rubber band broke.  The pressure vanished.
          I was free.  I could go.  I was still scared but I could go to see the sky from Glacier Point, from an altitude above five thousand feet, from a place where the sky's clarity is utterly pristine. 
          Nobody really wants to face their deepest fears.  We would prefer to get through life dodging and weaving, minimizing our risk.  But some fears are debiitating.  My phobia was preventing me from pursuing a love affair with the sky.
My phobia was crushing my life, and if this was the only way to deal with it, pitting terror against passion, then so be it. 
          Passion won the contest of psychic forces.  Since my breakout to Yosemite, I've traveled thousands of miles, lugging telescopes, cameras, attending star parties and living a wider and more satisfying life.

Photo by Art Rosch

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo: A Reality Review

          Why is this show on television?           
          I like to think that my wife and I are easy going, tolerant people.  We respect our fellow human beings, simply because they're human.  BEING human is hard.  We're not going to snob out on the Thompson family, we're not going to condemn them as tasteless rednecks.
          The point of televising the lives of the Thomson family is that they ARE tasteless rednecks. Many recent reality shows are predicated on the idea that an audience will enjoy watching people who are more stupid and fucked up than themselves. "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" is one of those series built around pathetic dysfunction.
          For fifteen minutes we found the show to be unintentionally funny.  Who cares whether we're laughing at or with the characters?  It's still funny.  Mother's cross-eyed empty gaze is excruciating.  She looks as though she's trying to monitor the growth of the huge zit that's erupting at the corner of her eye.  Alana "Honey Boo Boo"Thomson is the designated driver of the family.  She has the most energy, the most confidence.  She's a "Beauty Queen". No matter that she's an untalented and unattractive little brat.  She is now a star on a Reality Television show.
          I could feel my wife's jaw drop when Alana (Honey) spoke shamelessly about her "vigajig".  We understood that this is the Thompson family's peculiar vernacular, that Mom and the three sisters refer to their Vigajigs.  There's only one male in the house, Dad, and he's so wasted that he may as well not exist.  The girls have a veritable dictionary of slang terms for their genitalia.  The term  sounded so surreal coming from the mouth of a six year old, who was speaking in front of a camera crew and ultimately before a viewing public.  It wasn't so much inappropriate as it was alarming.

          Reality TV series are cheap to produce.  Some of them are compelling but they are also frustrating because they are so loaded with Filler.  Every episode begins with a recapitulation of the entire season.  Then the story slips into gear.  Then there's a commercial and the week's episode is recapitulated for three or four minutes before a bit of fresh footage is leaked into the story.  This way a forty two minute television show is whittled down to about twenty minutes of written and filmed content.  The "stars" don't make much money unless the show sustains itself as a multi-season hit.
          We watched "Deadliest Catch" for several seasons and enjoyed it.  Still, there was the filler and the commercials and the recaps and the same footage shown again and again while the stories edged forward, oh so slowly.  A Reality Show has to operate on a strict budget.  Not much of that budget is going into the writers' pockets.
          In the last couple of years the trend has been towards sleaze shows with the state of New Jersey featured heavily in a selection of series in which the characters vary from laughable to reprehensible.
          "Honey Boo Boo" is an offshoot of "Toddlers And Tiaras".
We missed that one.  The whole pedophilic beauty pageant phenomenon has been examined by our culture since the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996. Nothing has changed. The unsolved mystery is an unresolved issue. Toddlers are still togged up in provocative makeup and hosiery and encouraged to wiggle and dance on stage in a way that would have shocked the shoes off my parents and grandparents.
          In any case, Honey Boo Boo is not a contender for any major prizes in the pageant world.  She attends tawdry little events where fifteen or twenty mothers stuff their little girls with fantasies.  Everything's been said and written about sexualizing little girls too early.  I don't need to add anything to this body of opinion.  I can only say that I have no plans to tune into any more episodes of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo".
I'm thrilled for the Thomson family's success.  I'm ecstatic for Alana's sudden stardom.  I know that her family has given her solid emotional grounding and psychological balance.  Fame won't damage Alana.  No sir, not Honey Boo Boo, with her baby fat love handles popping out the sides of her two piece leotard.  She'll be just fine. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Doggie Style: A Story Of Canine Lust And Humor


          Watching dogs mate isn't my favorite activity.  But this was MY dog mating, my Bear, the surprise doggie love of my life.  We acquired Bear in a last-second rescue from a puppy mill.  I've told that story elsewhere.
            Sometimes Fox (that's my partner) takes Bear to the grocery, all eight pounds of him, snugged in a sling. Fox was putting items into her basket when she was approached by a husky woman in her late forties. 
            "He's male?" the woman asked, putting her face near to Bear so she could see his eyes.  She smiled and made kissy sounds.  Bear's lips rose to reveal his teeth, a sign that he did not appreciate being patronized. The stranger retreated a few steps.  "He's got to be male!" she said.
             Fox nodded.
            "Tell me he's still intact, please!", the woman implored.  " I have a female poodle just his size and I would love to put them together.  What do you think?"
            Fox liked the idea, so one thing led to another which led to this:  Fox was out of  town when the lady's dog came into heat. 
          The dog's name was Snickers.  I got  the job  of supervising the mating of Bear with Snickers. Solo .  The phone rang, the heat was on and I was designated the Master of Ceremonies. 
            Bear stands six inches from the ground at the shoulders.  He would never win a blue ribbon or Best Of anything unless it was a dog show run by old beatniks on Quaaludes.
            It's strangely deceiving to describe Bear as tiny.  He has short legs and a round powerful torso.  If I had four of him they could pull a sled through the snow.
               There was a knock at the door.  I pulled the screen back to open.  "Here she is, " said Tammy, our new friend,  and dropped a gangly brown creature at my feet. 
          There was no ceremony, no meeting and greeting as Snickers' owner left her bitch with me.  " Gotta run!  I'll see you tomorrow night around five," she said.  "Good luck." 
            Snickers and Bear had a whiff of each other and without foreplay or so much as a hello, Snickers lifted her tail and accepted Bear's pursuit.
            It was clear from the outset that we had a problem.  Snickers stood nine inches tall at the shoulder.  Bear looked like a sixth grader dancing with a girl who towers over him. 
Snickers and puppies
            So far Bear had been a masturbator.  He loyally and monogamously humped a stuffed toy dog named Greta.  He got it right; he knew Greta's business end.  He pulled at her ear, beat her up a little bit, jumped and humped for a while before dismounting.  Greta was the perfect size and she obeyed implicitly.  Bear would beat her up again, hop on and hump some more.  Bear's humping was so enthusiastic that he literally launched himself into the air.  All four feet left the ground as he banged away.
            When Bear went into this amatory activity, Fox and I had to look away.  Otherwise we would start laughing out loud, and Bear's sense of dignity would have been damaged.  I am not being facetious.  
            Snickers was not Greta.   She was alive. She moved.  She wagged her tail in the air, and the fug of pheromones filled the room with flirty invitation.  Snickers wasn't much to look at.  She was a stringy toy poodle, dark brown, with a long pointed nose.  She growled but we were told in advance that growling was her only means of vocal expression.  There was no explanation why this was so.  It was a simple fact.  It made Snickers seem as if she had a grievance with the world.
            Wonderful.  Bear didn't care.  Bear had the whiff and was panting as he followed Snickers around our front room. They didn't care about privacy. They weren't looking for a hiding place, a love nest or cozy nook where the two could go off and get acquainted.  That isn't the way dog mating works.  The act of copulation must be witnessed.  And, hopefully, repeated as often as possible. 
            Snickers' business end was a little bit too high for Bear.  He was game, oh yes.  He got up on his hind legs and tried to mount the tall girl.  Snickers kept walking in figure eights.  I had the feeling she'd done this before.  In fact, Snickers was a bit long in the tooth.  Snickers was pushing the dog equivalent of forty.  We hadn't known any of this.  Our deal was simple.  We would get one puppy from the litter. 

            Bear tried grabbing her around the waist with his front legs.  Snickers kept her tail up and her parts ready for action, but she wasn't helping poor Bear.  She kept walking figure eights, up and down, round and round.  She dragged the grappling Bear along with her, growling all the way.   
            Bear tried jumping.  He hopped on Snickers' back but the angle was all wrong.  He slid back to the ground without gaining purchase.
            I felt awful for Bear.  His eyes held a bewildered sorrow.  His tongue
hung out and vibrated in rhythm with his panting.  He tried grabbing one of Snicker's hind legs and climbing.  Snickers walked around the room with Bear attached to her svelte but aging body.  I tried not to laugh.  I have learned that Bear is capable of suffering acute embarrassment.
            Is that a stretch for you?  That dogs can be embarrassed?  I've learned that animals have complex emotional lives.  The best I can do is try to understand their feelings.
            Bear was caught between humiliation and lust.  In the hierarchy of instinct, lust wins out.  Bear wasn't going to quit until he reached his goal.
           I tried to help by putting phone books under Bear's legs.  I was crawling around thrusting books, cushions and boxes to elevate him to the action position, but of course nothing helped because the two dogs were in constant motion and weren't about to stop and think things through.  I believe Bear felt a little better, though, because I was making such a fool of myself. 
            It just didn't work.  Now and then Snickers would turn her head to look at Bear and growl.  That was the only sound she knew how to make.  Growl.  I might have hoped for a more supportive partner for my boy, but fate had brought the couple together and fate would determine the outcome.
            I sat at my computer while all this strenuous activity went on under and around my chair.  Bear's energy was faltering.  I was beginning to worry about him. I tried to encourage him to take a break and drink some water.  No deal.  He had been following and trying to mount Snickers for three hours and he wasn't about to quit. 
            That bitch was in HEAT! (Note: My use of the word Bitch is correct.  It's not a word I use, otherwise, not ever.  I think the word has acquired way too much currency in our culture. End of note.)
             I was thinking about ways to end the situation.  I was afraid Bear was dehydrating.  The only way I had to separate the dogs was to lock Bear in the bathroom. I looked down from my chair and noticed that Bear had adopted a new strategy.  He was hopping from foot to foot.  His front paws were on Snicker's flanks and she was still ceaselessly moving.  I wanted to scream at her, Stand still for god's sake!
            Bear's hippity hop from foot to foot had the effect of getting him some altitude.  I don't know how he worked it out but the next thing I knew the two dogs were locked together.
            Nature, clever nature, had designed the female dog's parts to close down on the male's penis and trap it there.  Snickers was still moving in her relentless figure eights but now Bear was being dragged along, fumbling over his own paws.
            Snickers growled.  Bear looked up at me in utter bewilderment.  His tongue hung halfway down his chest, his mouth dripped saliva.  He managed to get himself onto Snicker's back so he could match her strides with his rear legs.  I know he felt ridiculous.  Now and then he would lose his rhythm and drop into an ungainly sprawl.  He was dragged on his back, on his side, as he struggled to achieve a position that gave him a modicum of dignity.
            When Tammy arrived for Snickers around five the next day, the pair had successfully copulated twice.  The second time was easier.  Bear used his hippity hop move and was trapped by Snickers for another ride.
            I could swear, when the whole thing was finished, Bear's eyes pleaded with me to get him neutered as soon as possible.  
            "Listen to me, man," he was saying. "If you want my balls you can have 'em!  Get them off me.  If this is dog sex, I don't want anything to do with this business, ever again!"
            Snickers' litter consisted of two pups, a male and a female.  The girl pup,
Gabe in blue, Kioni in pink
named Kioni, was twice the size of the boy pup, Gabriel.  We didn't want a female, so runty little Gabe became a member of our family.
            At first we thought he might be a special needs dog.  We worried about his body and his mind, but Gabe turned out to be clever and resilient. 
            That, however, is another story.

Friday, October 12, 2012


An identity is an infinitely precious thing. Cheryl Strayed's best selling book, WILD, is about building an identity out of flawed raw materials. The book touches us in deep places because all of us are involved in the same struggle. All of us come from flawed raw materials.

In the past, in smaller, more coherent cultures, identity was imparted from that culture and its well-designed rites of passage. Walkabout, Vision Quest, the names are many but the concept, of moving from childhood to maturity, is the same. These passages into adulthood are achieved by ceremonial activity that could be dubbed Initiation By Ordeal. In WILD, Cheryl devises her own initiation, the Ordeal of walking alone for more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

When she began her long walk in the Mojave Desert, she was grieving the death of her mother from cancer. Cheryl's mother died at age forty five.

The spirit of Cheryl's mother inhabits this book. She isn't idealized, she isn't sainted, but Cheryl makes it clear that her mother provided the structure and the strength to enable her three children to cope and endure. This book, WILD, is Cheryl's love song to her mother. Its pages are Cheryl's way of working with her grief and giving it that alchemical fulfilment: turning pain into understanding.

Cheryl's father figures were at best shaky. The men with whom Cheryl's mother related were often negligent and sometimes brutal. They left Cheryl with a gaping hole in her heart. When her mother died, Cheryl was forced to wear the mantle of orphan-hood, too young. Far too young. Her childhood and adolescence were a confusion of conventional achievements and marginal lifestyles. She was a prom queen. She was dirt poor and lived on remote acreage in Minnesota. She straddled worlds. She was the popular high school girl who liked boys and was liked by boys. She was a thinker who struggled mightily with fundamental questions. Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life?

The kernel of her desire was to be a writer. She wandered from Minnesota to Oregon and back again. She fell in love and got married to a good man. You know what people say about good men: they're hard to find. Cheryl loved this man but couldn't tame her own WILD side. She cheated and felt ashamed. Then she cheated again. And again. In Portland she met a man who consorted with dangerous diseases. He became Cheryl's heroin partner.

After her mother's shattering death, Cheryl came to one of those fateful forks in the road. After making a string of bad decisions, Cheryl summoned strength from within herself. The shame of her addiction was in conflict with her desire to honor her mother. She made the right decision. She would break off the flirtation with heroin and she would create her own Ordeal By Initiation.

She bought a huge backpack that she nicknamed Monster. She over-packed, weighed herself down with too much of everything and set out on an epic walk. Her feet grew blistered, her toenails fell off, one after another. She fenced with pain, exhaustion, doubt and the desire to quit. She didn't quit. She met people on the trail who touched her most quickened instincts. On the Pacific Crest Trail, you may walk with a person for an hour or a day. That person will be embedded within your psyche forever.

I didn't want WILD to end. I didn't want to leave Cheryl's company. I love this book and though I'm sometimes goaded to envy the success of other writers, I have no such feeling for Cheryl Strayed. She deserves her success.

She's experiencing one of those overnight triumphs that takes twenty or thirty years to prepare. It's my belief that Cheryl blasted a few doors open for other writers. I hope I am one of them. I too have my story, my memoir of my Initiation by Ordeal. I have been hanging on the edge of resignation, just about to give up, heartbroken with discouragement.

WILD gave me courage. WILD pulled me back from the precipice of complete capitulation. If Cheryl can become one of those rare black swans who appear as if from nowhere, so can I.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Your Content Will Resume In 30 Seconds....

Sept 29, 2012

          "Your content will resume in 30 seconds....".
          Over on the sidebar of my G-mail, there's a squib for an internet video.  It's called "Chef Says He Marinated Wife's Body Slowly". Before I can watch this delightful cooking tutorial, I get this pre-video advertisement.  
          This is a new feature in our lives, this pre-content advertisement. Everything I want to see or hear on YouTube, Vimeo, etc, comes spring-loaded with a product placement.  Frequently there is the courtesy of an opt-out click: I can skip it and go right to the video.  Nowadays, however, the "skip this ad" box is increasingly missing, and there's no choice but to wait through thirty seconds of being treated like an infant as the commercial for (chose at least one)Food, Cars, Vodka or Phones, throws its hook into the waters of your psyche.
            I want to see how ubiquitous this practice  has become.  I continue waiting for the cannibal chef video.
          "Your content will resume in 30 seconds."  First I have to watch a commercial from a product called Nautica, and I'm not quite sure what it is: A TV show, a body spray for men or a pitch for ocean resorts.  After thirty seconds of slick pitch I still don't know what the products is and I'm content NOT to know.
          THEN I get the details of the chef/murderer/cannibal. I close the page after about eight seconds.
          There are commercials at gas pumps and commercials on screens at urinals in public buildings.  Some day I'll buy a pair of pants and when I put my hands in their pockets a little hologram will appear at chest height saying, "The contents of your pockets will be available in thirty seconds."
          Monetizing.  I can monetize my web sites, have little ads
in the margins and get paid for every hit on my site.  Make some serious coin, oh yeah.
          I don't even know if this is a problem.  I've been watching commercials since I was a kid.  Our entertainment is funded this way.  It becomes a problem when our INFORMATION becomes funded this way because the funders get to decide what information we can access.
          There was a broadcast yesterday on Fox News, live, of a man blowing his brains out after a car chase.  "Get it off!  Get it off!," the shocked announcer barked, a second after the running man had pointed the pistol at his head and produced a vapor of blood and brain as he died in front of the cameras.  Any fool watching the live action could see what was about to happen.  The guy pulled a gun from his clothing.  He was in a desperate condition.  

          Your content will resume in 30 seconds.  Deodorant soap, aaaaah!  Cut to car chase, suicide, or cannibal chef who has re-visioned the term "eating out", or....any goddam grotesque thing in the world.   30 seconds.  Buy this new cell phone.  It replaces the one you bought last week that is now hopelessly out of date.  Siamese twins challenge courts for right to marry one another.
          This is our world.
          You want it? A fixer-upper, slightly used. 
          Your content will resume in 30 seconds.....but first the commercial: Planet Earth, a paradise in the Milky Way, comfortably nestled in the suburbs, not a black hole in the neighborhood.  Serene, bucolic. The Vacation Worth Having.
The natives are peaceful and friendly.....
          Your content will resume in thirty seconds.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Grandfather Milky Way

I took this photo some time ago.  The tree to the left looks like a troll.  I call him Grandfather Milky Way.  Light emerges from his heart; could be Zodiacal light, or ordinary light pollution,
or both.  The figure and his light give this photo valuable context, not to mention color.  Taken with a Canon 10D, eight minutes exposure at ISO 400. Canon 17-40L lens at 20mm.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Hunger Games: A View

            I watched this entire movie.  At the end I felt manipulated.  I'd been set up for the sequel.  It wasn't a cliff-hanger.  There was a conclusion, an emotional resolution.  I felt conned, anyway.
            If I see a Harry Potter, it's a given that there's going to be another Harry Potter.  I don't know snarf about this condescending hodge podge called The Hunger Games, except that I'm not going to rent the sequel. 
            Lo and Behold, as I scan the uber-film website Rotten Tomatoes, I see that
there are at least three more Hunger Games films already in the can and awaiting the release date in such fashion as to keep the market sharp.  No overstuffing, no bulimia in these Hunger Games.  The films are scheduled to release one a year, through 2015.
            The Hunger Games books form  a trilogy.  That's natural, that's the way the publishing business works these days.  Write a series: keep them buying the next book.  Keep spinning the story until the Young Adult protagonist gets herpes or joins a cult.  After eighteen years of age, the Young Adult hero/heroine has pubes and periods, and no longer qualifies for the teen discount.
            After watching the film for two minutes I knew that the story called for Revolution, that the Old Order must be destroyed.  Let's get rid of these mincing aristocrats who somehow never get fat in spite of hogging all the food in the world.  Wow, I think. In this future era liposuction has gotten AWESOME!
President Snow and Mr. Funnybeard
            So, in the final scene, the camera lingers on the face of Donald Sutherland, who plays the Benevolent Fuehrer, the grandfatherly President Snow.  He taps his 
lips with his forefinger.  He scowls.  His toady, Mister Funnybeard, had said, vis a vis unforeseen developments in the live-broadcast annual Hunger Game, "Everyone loves an underdog."  President Snow says that he (Mister Funnybeard) wouldn't like the REAL underdog very much if he got close enough to smell his B.O.             
          President Snow sees trouble coming.  The Underdogs are getting restless.  He forces Mister Funnybeard to eat poison berries.  The Beard wasn't tough enough.  Snow needs a bigger nastier villain.  I don't know anything about the books, the plot, the film sequels, NUTHIN'.  But I betcha Mister Funnybeard's replacement is a real gorilla.  My Predictable-Plot-Sensor has sniffed and distilled the corn sucrose and polyethylene glycol in Book One and says, "here she comes in Book Two! A real nasty character!"              
          This movie got critical raves and made tons of money and will continue to bask in its over-ratedness as long as the milk holds out.  Maybe that's because it's filled with such deep philosophical and political observations.  Maybe it has stimulated people to think deep thoughts!
            Here it is: In the not so distant future all the rich people, the one percenters,
have divided the country into twelve districts, with the richest district being, of course, District One, and so forth.  District Twelve is coal mining country, it looks like Appalachia in the 1920's. Freezing, miserable, hungry miners and their families have been so completely intimidated that they send their children to participate in the annual Hunger Games.  It's compulsory but every time a kid enters his or her name into the lottery there's a payoff.  They get a loaf of bread or a flank steak or something like that.  Hence, there are kids whose poverty and family-feeling has driven them to do the name-drop forty or fifty times, or a hundred.  They know that sooner or later their number will be up and they will be called to The Hunger Games.
            The Game is a live televised gladiatorial contest.  There is only one winner.  One survivor.  Two teenagers from each district are turned loose in a giant domed parkland and must hunt one another down.  There are hidden cameras everywhere.   The frog is a camera.  The butterfly is a camera.  The weaponry is strictly medieval. Swords, spears, axes, knives, bows and arrows.  The winner becomes a celebrity and gets all the perks of being a District One Percenter.
            Wow.  Would you let your sixteen year old sign up for this?  You don't have a choice.  Your kid might be irritating as hell right now but that's no way to shut up a teenager.
            The rich kids from Districts One and Two have years of training and are awesome killing machines.  Kids like Kaitness Everdeen, from District Twelve, have grown up in the woods and streams of coal country.  They've learned to trap and hunt to survive.  Kaitness is a wizard with bow and arrow.  She's Bear Grylles, Cody Lundin and Survivor Man Les Stroud dressed like a sixteen year old girl.  Well, she looks more like twenty six but what's one suspended disbelief among so many?
            There you have it, folks.  The Hunger Games.  It's the TV show Survivor with real edged weapons.  Alliances are formed and broken.  Since ultimately you may have to kill your boyfriend to win the game, emotional attachments are thrown all askew.  That's the real cruelty.  You have to stop trusting someone you love.
How heinous!  This crappy system has got to be toppled!  The Revolution will definitely be televised!
            I thought that was going to happen in this movie.  I hadn't reckoned on the sequel, the prequel, the dequel. or the hypnequal.  At the end I just felt ripped off.
            By the way, the movie is dead slow.  Two and a half hours of  Slowwwwww, leavened by five minutes of climactic battle with Cato The District One Killing Machine.
            If Kaitness was so smart, why didn't she recover her preciously limited arrows whenever she shot a squirrel or a pheasant? Stuff like that really bugs me.
            I give this movie one muskrat for the hair dressers and costume people.  They had a hell of a lot of fun.
          Aw, let's give it another half a muskrat for Woody Harrelson doing a great imitation of Woody Harrelson.  The guy's the Nick Nolte of our time.  He's made grunge into a career.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Yanni: An Overview

Last night I channel surfed past a PBS station in time to catch Yanni playing with a sixty eight piece symphony orchestra in  the Pass of Thermopylae.  Holy Shit!  THE Pass Of Thermopylae.

Yanni was standing between phalanxes of keyboards, four on his right, four on his left, and as the orchestra pumped out vigorous empty musical calories, he stretched his arms straight out to either side and played the keyboards.  He threw his hair back, arched his body in a spasm of ersatz passion. 

He was wearing all white. He was crucifying himself gallantly and nobly, ascending in resurrected bliss on a cascade of idiot dramatic crap New Age muzak fit only for hair salons and supermarkets.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not jealous of this man’s success.  Well...yes I am, godammit.  He undoubtedly works very hard.  But the insult of indulging in such silly and obvious showmanship only diminishes his besotted audience.  Showmanship is a wonderful thing.  Especially when it is connected to genuine talent, or profound ideas.  I saw a film of the Count Basie Band and watched drummer Sonny Payne twirl and juggle his sticks while executing a wildly complex drum solo. Sonny made the sticks pass under his legs and around his back, threw them into the air so they landed on the snare drum in perfect time, while holding and stomping on the beat, with the band bellowing. THAT is showmanship.  In Hell, Yanni will be a toothless bald man gesticulating wildly in front of a three piece band of Borscht Belt hacks who can barely wheeze in tune, let alone play music.  He will repeat the same phrase over and over again, “Aren’t I wonderful?” and a thin, bored applause will leak up from a cigarette strewn linoleum dance floor that stretches to infinity.

Sonny Payne with Count Basie

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I've spent a while working on this cover design.  I took the RV from another photo taken at Pyramid Lake.  It wasn't our RV, but it was perfectly situated.  It even  had a boat attached, and I'm wondering if I shouldn't include the boat.  In Photoshop terms, that means a bit more work.  I may yet try it, but I'm going for simplicity of composition.  All pics in this cover are mine.  I would love your feedback.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sherlock Holmes VS Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone's Sherlock

            My wife and I have virtually identical taste in TV and films.  If we've rented a stinker, we'll both know it within a few minutes. We don't have to talk about it.  Usually Fox allows me to state the obvious.  "This pretty much sucks, doesn't it?"  She'll agree and we'll move on to another DVD.
            We're fans of Sherlock Holmes.  Fox had never seen the Jeremy Brett episodes from BBC, so I ordered all of them and we addictively rolled through the classic Conan Doyle stories.  We enjoyed every minute of the Brett/ Hardwicke team of Sherlock and Watson.  Brett was electric.  His gestures were superb.  We couldn't take our eyes off his lanky, asexual figure as he paced the cluttered rooms on Baker Street.  Edward Hardwicke's Watson kept matters somewhere near Earth.  With his face buried in the pages of The Times, he maintained patient vigil over his eccentric friend.  In the background, a sprightly Mrs. Hudson kept the gentlemen fed and reasonably presentable.
            The 80's versions of Sherlock Holmes with Brett and Hardwick updated and overshadowed the  40's renditions that starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.  I didn't care for them, and I was especially galled at the portrayal of  Watson as a bumbling clown.
            "Quckly, Watson!", commanded Rathbone, "The game is afoot!".
            Portly Nigel Bruce as Watson would struggle from his easy chair. "Well, er..ahem..." he dithered, "if you say so, Holmes.  I don't know the point of all this hurly burly...brhem, brhem...wait till I get my umbrella."
            Times change.  Cinematic styles change.  Interpretations of classic popular stories change.
            Sherlock Holmes has been played by fifty four actors in English language film or TV productions.  Every couple of years there seems to be a new version with new actors and directors, new special effects and new approaches to the scripts.

Jeremy Brett

            Robert Downey and Jude Law played Holmes and Watson in the 2009 film "Sherlock Holmes."  I've forgotten the film but I remember enjoying it.  Downey and Law turned it into a buddy movie.  There were tons of special effects, explosions and acrobatic tricks.  The plot was strong enough to hold our attention. The film resembled a Jackie Chan flick with a huge budget and box office superstars.  The dialogue was cheeky.  The movie was fun.
            In 2010 the BBC produced a revisioning of the Sherlock Holmes myth.  Titled "Sherlock", the TV episodes star Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  These are references to the old stories built on a contemporary framework.  Holmes and Watson are now pitted against Professor Moriarty in the age of the internet.  The scripting has shifted forward in time and technology has became intrinsic to the plots. "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" involves biological warfare labs.  Holmes must of necessity be a superb hacker as well as a genius in the art of deductive reasoning.
            These episodes break the mold.  Benedict Cumberbatch has so much charisma that he can loan bricks of it to his fellow actors if need be.  As Holmes he stands outside the run of ordinary men.  He's hurtfully abrasive, ruthlessly honest, an out-of-control manic-depressive.  He has a bottomless appetite for intellectual stimulation and a pathological terror of boredom.  Common courtesy is alien to his character.  If he weren't Sherlock Holmes he would be just another irritating jerk.  Lucky for Sherlock, Doctor Watson runs interference for him in the world of normal human beings.  He writes the Sherlock Holmes blog, which has many thousands of fans.  He's the offensive lineman to Holmes' quarterback. The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman is beautifully realized.  Freeman's Watson understands that, in spite of everyone else's opinion, Holmes is not a sociopath.  On the contrary, Watson knows that Holmes is a vulnerable man who can't afford to leak the slightest touch of sentimentality. Watson respects Holmes' privacy.  He doesn't need to know the reasons behind Holmes' impenetrable armor.  They exist and Watson has the wisdom not to pry.  It is an unconditional love that Watson has for a  compelling but very unlovable character.
Benedict Cumberbatch

            Cumberbatch has an eerily feminine physical beauty.  As Holmes, his combined grace and arrogance are contrasted with Freeman's short, blockish Watson, the military surgeon wounded in Afghanistan.  Watson is brave yet unpretentious.  He's loyal and smart but has no need to compete with his friend Sherlock.  He leaves the competition to Professor Moriarty, who is played with terrifying gooeyness by Andrew Scott.  This is the scariest Moriarty, if not the scariest VILLAIN I have seen anywhere.  He mocks like a grade school bully with an I.Q. of 200.  He sings, dances, throws kisses off his fingertips in utter contempt as he pulls off world-changing, brutal crimes. The moral and intellectual duel between Sherlock and Moriarty propel these stories to a precipice of suspense.       
            It is Moriarty's contention that he and Sherlock are the same, that they work for the same overlord and are made of the same stuff.  Sherlock is an easy target because he is so horrible to friend and stranger alike.  Cumberbatch's Sherlock struggles with this question.  Who is he?  Angel, devil, scum or prince?  The entire series works through this ultimate dilemma until the shocking ending of Season Two.
            The suspense keeps us hooked.  This is a fresh interpretation of a pop culture workhorse. The Sherlock Holmes franchise has been so overcooked that it would seem to be dried out.  BBC's "Sherlock" has infused it with new vitality. 
            This brings us to the second Robert Downey/Jude Law film, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows." 
            I had said something to my wife about how much I looked forward to this film. "This ought to be good, the first one was a lot of fun." For some reason Fox thought I had invested some feeling into this film.  Yes, I had enjoyed the first pairing of Downey and Law.  I have high respect for both actors.  I suppose I could call myself a Robert Downey fan.  He's weathered his personal horrors.  He's alive, he's working, his films are good.  Even his comic book films are good.  "Iron Man" was great fun. 

            Jude Law won me over in "Cold Mountain."  He's been a high caliber super star and he hasn't made too many mis-steps in a profession fraught with all the pitfalls of grandiosity, wealth and fame.  Show business can turn the most grounded personalities into self-caricatures.  Hollywood has a tendency to tear up actors and turn them into absurdities.
            Okay, okay.  The film starts.  I note that Downey's accent is somewhere west of Portsmouth....say....mid-Atlantic.  Not good.  Why is Robert Downey, THE Robert Downey, struggling to deliver a sufficiently plummy English accent?  This is Sherlock Holmes, for goodness sake.  He must speak in the most precise upper class  British accent.  Downey's accent is mush.  Either he's phoning it in, or he just flat out doesn't care.  Er...those are both the same thing, aren't they?
            The dialogue is flat as a homeless recycler's Fanta can.  The action is nonsensical and non-stop.  There is no story to move forward.  There is frantic speedy zooming around, with Downey showing up in deliberately unconvincing costumes.  His fake Chinaman's whiskers are coming unglued.  His bald-cap is obvious as a giant latex condom, wrinkling at the back of his head.  The Moriarty character is about as scary as a pink marshmallow bunny in a wicker basket.
            Fox and I watched.  We emitted mirthless laughter at the stunts and the strained dialogue.  Fox didn't want to say anything.  She thought I was enjoying the film.  I thought she was enjoying the film.
            Our usual telepathy had broken down.  I thought it was a terrible movie.  I began to have the creeping sensation that Fox was being polite.  A half hour passed and I finally said, "This is incredibly boring, isn't it?"
            Fox sighed with relief.  Time to bail on this mess and watch some quality BBC mystery.
            This is a capsule history of the evolution (and sometimes devolution) of the Sherlock Holmes ouevre.  When it's bad, it's very bad.  When it's good, it's superb.
The major point in this analysis is that one can watch Sherlock Holmes productions from several eras.  As they move forward in time they reflect deeper psychological awareness.  At present the culmination of Holmes stories are the new Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman productions.  In these stories the Watson/Holmes relationship is nuanced and profound.  They are products of our times and our expanding psychological curiosity.  They are full of subtext, and that subtext is about love and sacrifice.  These may not be the Sherlock Holmes stories as written by Arthur Conan Doyle but they are faithful to the intent.  Doyle created a character who was a misanthropic genius, a towering intellect who saw himself as beyond the common lot of mankind.  The original Holmes was, however, a hero.  The modern Holmes is not quite sure what he is and is uncomfortable with simplistic labels like hero and villain.
            This places the new Holmes in our modern reality where labels don't fit,
where people no longer see themselves in such easy categories.  Cumberbatch, Freeman and the cast and producers of the new BBC series are on their journey with their audience.  We are all trying to revision ourselves as new kinds of people.
            Good TV and film are entertaining.  Great TV and film not only entertain but stimulate insight and are perhaps even inspiring.  The latest BBC version, "Sherlock", provides all of these qualities. 

Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How To Make Your Characters Come To Life

Making Your Characters Come To Life

Aug 7, 2012

            Have you ever seen a woman who brushes a wisp of hair away from her eyes, over and over? Every two or three seconds, her hand goes up, swats the hair off her forehead and returns to its original position.  She doesn't know she's doing it, nor, for that matter, does anyone else.  It's one of  thousands of unconscious gestures that exist in the ongoing silent dialogue of body language.  When I'm near one of these hair-compulsives, I want to reach out and stop the endless pendulum of arm to forehead and back.  Of course I refrain.  It's not my business to interfere with other people's tics.  These habits are revealers of character: of self awareness, vanity, personal boundaries.  Did President Clinton know what he was doing with his downturned lips, that indicator of defensive anger?  I don't think so. 
            Fictional characters can share these catalogues of gestures.  Lips and eyes project vivid signals of feeling.  The tilt of a head, the size of a character's pupils, the set of shoulders are all useful devices to express the state of a character's emotions.
            Developing a character's unconscious gestures is a fruitful tool in writing fiction.  Foot tapping, knee wiggling and finger movements can show
tension, anxiety or a lack of self control. 

            When I'm writing, I often practice gestures to see how they work in the context of a character.  My wife is now used to this exercise.  She might see me at my computer waving my hands, wiping my brow, raising and lowering my shoulders.
I'm working to see if these gestures fit my characters.
            This attention to the detail of unconscious gesture is one way of infusing characters with believability and vitality.
           I often catch myself repeating these gestures from one story to another.  Some of my heroes like to sit with their hands hanging loosely over their knees.  Some of my villains bite their lips or chew the insides of their cheeks.  By observing the people around me, I've acquired a list of body language indicators.  I translate them into the context in which my fictional characters operate.
           Adjectives are out of fashion.  Modern writing tends to be more spare with description than the fiction of other eras.  Economy is a great virtue in writing. I seldom describe a character in more than the most general terms.  I prefer to let the reader develop the character's appearance in his or her imagination.  I am partial to the use of gesture, conscious or otherwise.  Everyone has their tics, squinches, pouts, head-bobs, shoulder shakes, hand wrings and "tells" when they're bluffing.  .  If a writer wants to enliven characters and give them dimension, it's good to take note of the immense vocabulary of human body language.

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