Tuesday, December 29, 2009

IN MEMORIAM -- FICTIONAL FRIENDS WE'VE LOST THIS YEAR

As 2009 draws to a close, it's a fitting time to remember the loved ones we've lost this year. Whether it's the faceless billions killed in one or another global apocalypse, or a single caring doctor who sacrificed herself to save her friends, they touched our lives in ways that words can't begin to describe. And yet words are all we have to pay tribute to just some of the colorful characters who've passed on in 2009. Just because they didn't exist in three dimensions doesn't mean they weren't every bit as important to us as other public figures who squirmed out of this mortal coil in the past 12 months. Join me in thanking, honoring and remembering our fictional friends.

Ellie Fredricksen, devoted wife who sacrificed her dreams for a balloon salesman
Ellie Fredricksen, born circa 1930, died of natural causes on May 29. As a young girl, Mrs. Fredricksen aspired to be an explorer. She met her kindred spirit and future husband Carl on a neighborhood expedition when they were both children; they bonded over a shared admiration for the famed explorer Charles Muntz, who discovered Paradise Falls in South America. The Fredricksens dreamed of traveling one day to that fabled land, but in fact barely made it out of their own neighborhood throughout the course of their long and supposedly happy marriage. Underneath the cheerful exterior lay a piercing regret, say Mrs. Fredricksen's friends. Even as she kept a scrapbook documenting the mundane pleasures of married life, Mrs. Fredricksen reportedly cursed her choice of husband, a man who attained no greater station in life than that of a balloon salesman. Friends blame Mr. Fredricksen for his wife's death, and consider it a bitter irony that it was only after his wife's passing that he carried out the dream of going to Paradise Falls. (Up)
Man, survivor of global apocalypse and symbol of human resilience, succumbs to disease, again

 
Man, of unknown age, died December 2 of this year on the Coast. Man was famous for embodying the strength of the human spirit. He had survived the apocalypse that claimed the lives of billions of people, including his wife, Wife, nee Woman. In an effort to escape the grim prospects at Home after the global cataclysm, Man took his son, Boy, on a trip to the Coast. It was to be their last vacation together. After successfully evading or killing several Bad Guys bent on enslaving or cannibalizing them, the father-son team reached their destination in a journey that -- before the apocalypse -- might have gained them a slot on the Amazing Race. With his illusions crushed by finding the Coast every bit as desolate and uninhabitable as the miles of terrain they just covered, Man succumbed to despair and illness. Boy was placed in foster care with some Good Guys who happened along the Road after Man's death. (Editor's note: Man had died previously in 2006 in print, and was resurrected and killed again this year on celluloid.) (The Road)

Amanda Grayson, teacher, and mother of galaxy's most famous interspecies logician

More than 6 billion lives were cut tragically short this year, 2258, when the planet Vulcan imploded, the result of a Romulan revenge plot.  Amanda Grayson, an Earthling expatriate and former teacher, was among those killed as she awaited rescue on an ill-fated cliff, which collapsed in the seconds before she was to be beamed to safety. She is survived by her husband Sarek, an astrophysicist and the Vulcan Ambassador to the United Federation of Planets, and her son Spock, the half-Human, half-Vulcan logician and First Officer of the Starship Enterprise. The Lady Amanda, as she was commonly called in Vulcan society, died at other times in alternate realities, such as in a shuttle accident at Lunaport soon after Spock's alternate-reality death in 2239. In yet another reality, Amanda happily lived to help Spock get in touch with his human side, after the latter's death and rebirth. She will be sorely, or perhaps just logically, missed. (Photo: Winona Ryder in Star Trek)

President Thomas Wilson, calmed TV viewers as world came to an end

President Thomas Wilson died this year, 2012, in the tsunami that destroyed a large swath of the east coast of the United States. The tsunami was but one of the many catastrophes worldwide that were brought about by a rapid increase in the temperature of the Earth's core, in turn caused by neutrinos from a massive solar flare in 2009. Not much is known about President Wilson, other than that he was avuncular and in perhaps advanced middle age or early-mid old age. He was one of the first African American Presidents of the U.S., standing on the shoulders of such giants as Presidents Douglas Tilman, Tom Beck, David Palmer, Wayne Palmer, and others. Wilson will likely be remembered for his bravery in foregoing rescue and instead remaining in Washington, D.C. to calm what was left of a doomed nation with these now-famous words of consolation: "Today we are one family." This insufferable sentimentalist is survived by his smoking-hot daughter Laura, who is likely to help repopulate the planet with her equally handsome new romantic partner, the geologist Adrian Helmsley. Helmsley was the first to sound the alarm about the impending disaster, not counting the ancient Mayans who supposedly saw this shit coming down the pike many hundreds of years ago. Props to the Mayans, and to President Wilson. (2012)

Dr. Juliet Burke, nee Carlson, presumed dead in nuclear explosion


Juliet Burke, a former fertility doctor with the Medical Research Laboratory at Miami Central University and later for The Others, was presumed killed when she detonated a hydrogen bomb in order to prompt a rupture in the time-space continuum. Earlier in her career, Burke's successful treatment of her sister's cancer attracted the attention of Mittelos Bioscience. Only when her domineering and unfaithful husband Edmund was run over by bus, under suspicious circumstances, did Dr. Burke feel liberated enough to accept a job offer from the firm. She was assigned to work on an uncharted island with apparent curative powers, and her desires to return home were frustrated. She and her colleagues were named "The Others" by the survivors of a plane crash on the Island, and relations between the two groups were marked by frequent hostilities, kidnapping, imprisonment, and the excessive pursing of lips. Dr. Burke, however, gained the trust of at least one of the survivors, and, after an otherworldly set of events, became key to their survival. Then, after being transported back in time to 1974, she became a mechanic with the Dharma Initiative, an experimental research community on the Island. In an effort to save her friends trapped in a bizarre game of time-space hopscotch, Dr. Burke detonated a hydrogen bomb. The incident is thought to have killed Dr. Burke, at least in the present dimension, but some theorists believe she was transported to another dimension, or may exist in several other dimensions. That is, dimensions other than the TV screen.  (Lost, with credit to Lostpedia page for some information. Photo by ABC Television.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

SHERLOCK HOLMES -- DRUG USER, GENIUS, AND INGRATE

Using my keen powers of observation, I have come to believe that Sherlock Holmes is a terrible ingrate. 

How else to describe someone who berates the narrative skill of Dr. Watson, his faithful chronicler and friend of so many years? Watson, who has made written accounts of the great majority of Holmes' cases. Watson, who assists Holmes in any investigation at the drop of a hat, or even the mere suggestion of the drop of a hat! Read no further than "A Scandal in Bohemia," in which Watson cheerfully obliges the famed detective's request for his cooperation, which requires that he break the law and risk arrest. "I shall be delighted," Watson says.

To be fair, it must be said that Watson -- loyal pal though he may be -- is not the master logician that Holmes is. Holmes continually impresses his friend by deducing a person's job, travel destinations, diet, faithfulness in marriage, state of mind or daily goings-on from such simple things as a hat, a sleeve (one of Holmes's fixations), a fingernail, or "the great issues that may hang from a bootlace," as he says in "A Case of Identity." You'd think that Watson would get used to Holmes' fantastic abilities, but evidently not; it seems that every time Holmes deduces something the rest of us would miss, Watson exclaims with fresh astonishment, "How on earth-----!" or some such thing.
 
Still and all, it is Watson's unending capacity for surprise -- borne though it may be of dim wits -- that make him Holmes' ideal chronicler, his "Boswell," as Holmes himself has put it. Were Holmes to relate his own sleuthing, it would surely be a dreadful bore, reading more like a forensics textbook than anything else. Instead, we have Dr. Watson's literate, funny, and altogether entertaining accounts of the cases. Dr. Watson has made Sherlock Holmes! Without Watson, Holmes would have been a successful but by no means celebrated detective.

And yet, after all this, Sherlock Holmes insists on playing the literary critic. Get a load of this preposterous tirade from "The Copper Beeches." "You have erred, perhaps, in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements, instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record  that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about a thing." Watson rightfully defends his efforts, saying "that I have done you full justice in the matter." Sock it to him, Doc! You've done a great job!

Still undeterred, Holmes continues, "You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales." That's the thanks he gives his friend and chronicler for turning him into the most famous detective in all of English literature. Bug off, Sherlock, you creep! You go solve the crimes, and let Watson do the literary heavy-lifting. 
 
Hell, I'm tempted to boycott the new Sherlock Holmes movie, in hopes of drawing attention to this heinous miscarriage of literary justice. Perhaps readers of this blog will do the same.

(P.S. The above likeness of Watson (left) and Holmes (right) by Sidney Paget only proves my point: the detective's arrogant bearing, his inconsiderate use of tobacco -- or one of any number of other substances he was known to use -- in company, mark him as an unworthy subject for the attentions of Watson, who here appears to be justly saddened by the neglect and ingratitude of this supposed "friend.")

Sunday, December 20, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 14: BATTLEFIELD OF HISTORY



LISTEN TO THE EPISODE ONLINE HERE, OR SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES HERE.
 
Photo of members of the First Rhode Island Regiment from their website, here.

This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting some total nerds. Naturally, I mean that in the best way possible. Anyone who's as deeply into something as the members of the First Rhode Island Regiment reenactors are into dramatizing the roles of African Americans in the U.S. Revolutionary War is automatically a nerd.  Thing is, they say it's fun and I believe them. The Regiment is part of a larger organization called the Sixth Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactors, who do living history events about African Americans in U.S. military history from the Revolutionary War to the Korean War. Pretty nerdy, wouldn't you say? 
 
The event I went to was a "living history" day in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, to commemorate the Battle of Brooklyn, which took place on August 27, 1776. Among those who fought that day were members of the original First Rhode Island Regiment. The Battle was a rout for the newly independent country, but oddly the British didn't follow up on the advantage they'd taken, and General George Washington managed to pull out his troops to live and fight another day. (Lots more in "The Battle for New York: the City at the Heart of the American Revolution," by Barnet Schecter.) In the podcast, you'll hear these strangely overlapping time frames, such as when people are shooting off old-fashioned (fake) cannons, even as jets soar overhead. And I was moved to hear the intertwining of little-known African American history with the founding legends and words of the nation, not least of all the Declaration of Independence. Past and present were on display, and African Americans were demonstrating their righful and long-denied place in that past and present. So, what are you waiting for? Go listen!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

THE LAST WOMAN ALIVE -- NOW THAT'S AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT STORY

Like many kids growing up in the 1980s, I was terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war. But I also became fascinated by what would come after, in spite of the grim picture conjured up by the TV movie The Day After, the book The Fate of the Earth or the many other post-apocalyptic visions I have consumed right up through today (On the Beach, 28 Days Later, The Pesthouse). And this month we have the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, about a father and son's quest for safe haven after an unspecified global disaster. These works have survivors battle against mutants, disease or other survivors, and have more to do metaphorically with legacy or redemption, or literally with the effects of nuclear war, than they do with my true interest: absolute solitude.

For that purpose, I have found nothing so satisfying as The Wall, Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s splendid 1962 novel (English translation published in the U.S. by Cleis Press, 1990). The unnamed protagonist awakes one morning to find the entire mountainside where she is staying encircled by an invisible wall. Judging by indicators such as the lack of any aircraft, she surmises that the world has been silently destroyed and she is the only survivor. Rather than fighting off enemy legions, she struggles with feelings of futility, a toothache, planting and harvesting, and the responsibility she feels towards the animals that have fallen into her care. A beguiling incident of violence recounted at the end of the book is what prompts her to begin writing a report of her 2½ years (and counting) within the confines of the wall.

Reading is always a solitary act, even more so in a book with only one human character. I took refuge in the story’s rustic setting and in the company of this, the last woman alive, speaking in a voice that quietly commands recognition.

The narrator hopes against hope that someone will read her report: “[M]y heart beats faster when I imagine human eyes resting on these lines, and human hands turning the pages.” I felt as if I were the lucky someone who happened upon this account, on the shelf somewhere in an Alpine lodge. The sole survivor of the old world communicating directly with me, the first occupant of the new world that I—alone at last—was given to glimpse in the book’s pages.

(This piece was originally published in Paste Magazine online, here.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

INSIDE STORIES PODCAST 13: "LOVE SHACK" RADIO PLAY

LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE OF THE PODCAST ONLINE BY CLICKING HERE, OR BETTER YET SUBSCRIBE TO THE FREE PODCAST ON iTUNES BY CLICKING HERE

This is, I will admit, a rather random podcast episode. It's a diversion from the usual conversation on storytelling, which I didn't have time to prepare this past week because I was on vacation. Instead, it's a short comic radio play I wrote years ago, and recorded with some friends. It's called "Love Shack," and in it, self-styled revolutionaries calling themselves "Che" and "Vlad" take over a radio station during a sex advice show, and learn a little something about themselves in the process. I got the idea for this show after working at KPFA Radio, the flagship station in the listener-supported Pacifica Radio Network. KPFA has quite a history, with no shortage of tumult. It's the nation's first non-commercial, lister-supported station, and it and sister stations in Los Angeles, New York City and elsewhere have been charged with indecency, communist affiliations, and general bad taste over the years -- thanks to broadcasts of/by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the "dirty words" routine by George Carlin, an interview with Che Guevara, tapes by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and lots of other crazy stuff. I volunteered and worked for KPFA in the news and arts/literature departments about 1992-1997. At the time, the schedule was ALL over the place -- some weekly half-hour shows, some daily shows of a few hours, and many shows that only aired once a month. Cool, in a way, because they had programs that you'd never hear anywhere else -- news about Russia and the Eastern Bloc, Latin music, a gay talk show. Problem was, some programmers had become entrenched in their decades on the air, their shows sucked, and nobody was listening. And 94.1 on the FM dial is a pretty prime spot on the dial -- basically, the closer you were to the center of the dial, the better. So management shook up the schedule, dumped a bunch of old shows, and tightened up programming. 

This was not to the liking of many long-time listeners, or the shows' hosts if they'd been ejected, or to some public media activists, who noted a distinct change from political programming to music programming. Lots of protests ensued, the station was occupied at one point, there was a big conflict with the national board of Pacifica radio. Both (or all?) sides had a point, and I'm glad they duked it out, because the programming coming out of KPFA got better as a result. Now, fortunately, we have internet radio and podcasting, which makes "niche" programming of the sort that was happening on KPFA entirely possible, and accessible to a wide audience. I was only peripherally involved in the whole blowout -- I moved out of town as things were heating up. Not because things were heating up, mind you, but around that time, to go to grad school! It wasn't in direct response to the controversy that I wrote the script for this little radio play, but nor do I suppose is it much of a coincidence that this is what I came up with. I suggested the idea to the station manager, who dismissed it because it might cut a little too close to home! 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SEVERAL SIDES OF THE "DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS" STORY

Coming up next Monday, December 14, a national simulcast of the Oscar-shortlisted documentary film "Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders." There's a screening and panel discussion in NYC that night, and the whole megillah will be simulcast in nearly 450 theaters around the country. For locations and tickets, click HERE.

The organization "Doctors Without Borders" (or MSF, by its French initials) remains impartial in providing medical care -- they provide care based on need, and not on political affiliation. That sounds relatively uncontroversial, except when you consider that they're operating in countries at war, and with murderous rebels or government officials whom many people would consider indefensible. How do you treat a rebel army troop who, say, is willingly disrupting life in a refugee camp? And more to the point of this blog, how does the filmmaker remain neutral in treating these various issues? Is neutrality a cop-out in situations where one or another party may be "obviously" in the right, or another in the wrong?  

You can ask these and other questions if you attend the simulcast this Monday, December 14. Also, stay tuned for an "Inside Stories" podcast episode about the film, in which I speak with the film's director and with the organization's communications director about making the film, and how they hope the risky strategy of this one-night event will benefit the organization. I'll go to the film screening, and have a podcast for you this month or next. If you go to the simulcast in your home county and city, please let me know what you think.