Due to Circumstances Entirely Within My Control…

I am taking a wee break from writing the essays.

I am throwing you over for novelist Paul Auster, whose work you should know. I am getting a copy of his massive new novel 4321 and I will need time to devour it.

I can’t say when I will return. Could be days, weeks, months… on the scale of geologic time, it will be but a flicker.

Meanwhile, you can, as always, visit my photo website.

Seeya!

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William Brittelle: Beyond Genre

I simply did not know that that music like this was even possible. After you read this, click on the YouTube link below, listen to “The Color of Rain”… and be astonished.

A tympani beats, an electric guitar sings, and a choir of (French?) horns swells in slow ecstasy. An ethereal voice croons, I pledge my allegiance and bite my tongue as I say goodbye to the only thing I care about…

Oh my sweet heavens, this is so lovely. It is quiet and exultant, mystical and earthy. On a day of jagged emotions, this song is my benediction.

The world insists on labels, and “electro-acoustic” seems to have taken hold for Brittelle’s work. So be it, a concession to our small categories. “The Color of Rain” partakes of classical’s sound-world but it exists on its own, insisting on nothing but a listen.

When you need a lift, treat yourself. You won’t regret it.

The Color of Rain, 2015, William Brittelle

Acolyte

I am something of a ham. I feel quite comfortable on the stage and have done some not-too-shabby work on Raleigh amateur stages. Theatre is one of my favorite places to hang out.

I trace my love of the boards to Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Raleigh, where I served as an acolyte in the mid-Sixties.

It was a straightforward gig: During the processional music, pick up the [thingabob whose name I can’t remember], walk reverently down the center aisle, bow before the altar, and light the candles with the thingabob. Sit quietly through the service (which at age ten lasted several decades).

When the final hymn began, get up from my rest, bow, transfer the candle flame to the wick on the thingabob, spin the thingabob around, use the bell-shaped thingie to extinguish the candle, and walk back up the aisle. Then to the vestibule to take off my robe and resume life as a mischief-maker.

I had some chops. I held the thingabob high, and became adept at spinning it a half-turn to use the bell thingie. My walk was neither too fast or too slow (some of my colleagues were too rambunctious) but paced to an inner music of sacredness. I would have been great at weddings.

One day I nearly quit in disgust. I went through my paces, held the thingabob on high, and had lain down a righteous groove.

Then it happened. The candle on the left refused to catch fire. I weaved the thingabob about, scorching the edges of the candle. Lifted it up, set it down, tried again. No joy.

I turned a previously unknown shade of red. Silently I cursed Murphy’s Law, Fate, the uncaring Universe, the altar guild, everything. Unholy words formed in my mind. I froze in mute rage, resisting the urge to lift the thingabob as high as I could and bring smashing down on that Godforsaken altar, howling like a banshee.

Exactly 14.78 hours passed. A kindly man from the congregation came up with his cigarette lighter, eased up the black nub of the candle, and got it going. I was too embarrassed to thank him.

I sat down and learned a special brand of seething. Eventually I calmed down. The memory faded, lost in my busy schedule of making model airplanes and ignoring my younger brother.

This morning I attended a new church. I liked the liturgy and the music and the communion, but most of all I liked a little girl with flowing red hair—the acolyte for the day. She was flawless, lighting six candles to my two, ratcheting up the degree of difficulty. She sat down in the front and paid close attention to the service.

It’s always fun to watch another professional.

How I Find a Good Movie

Let’s face it: Going to the movies is a crap shoot. You can look on Rotten Tomatoes all you like, watch trailers, and get recommendations from friends… but sometimes, you encounter the sinking of feeling of watching the credits roll by and realize you will never get back those two hours.

Movie taste is of course notoriously individual. When we see a movie, we bring to it a lifetime of memories, expectations, and experiences. So what I am about to say may well be useless to you. (Please read it anyway.)

Here are some of the ways I choose a movie:

I know the director. I am a big fan of the auteur theory. If I am in the mood for an old movie, choosing a work of Kubrick, Ford, Hitchcock, Bergman, or Tati generally works for me. This system isn’t perfect (Wim Wenders veers from greatness to awfulness with occasional stops at mediocre) but it’s pretty reliable.

Selection by director works less well for contemporary films. I am sure there are many fine present-day directors, but I don’t know them yet. Conversely, there are some directors I know to avoid. Seeing for example, Tyler Perry’s name on the credits is enough. (I could write an entire essay on why I can’t stand his work, but it would put me in a bad mood.)

Actors with good taste. Some actors (I’m talking to you, Sly Stallone) make poor choices as to what they appear in. Others, such as Ryan Gosling, have learned to associate themselves with good projects.

Genre. This is variable. The only genre I avoid entirely is slasher movies. On the other end of the spectrum, I am fond of caper movies—watching well-planned grand larceny warms my heart, even though the plan always fails. Just once I would like to see a movie in which the heroes make off with the money, no one rats them out, and everyone retired to Brazil.

I like the occasional action movie, but if the explosions/time ratio is too high, I come away exhausted.

My dear brother has taught me the virtues of the western. They are few and far between now, but their mythic power cannot be denied.

A word on science fiction: Most films labeled as science fiction are in fact action movies with weird art direction. I can sniff out the occasional film that has a truly speculative idea, such as Arrival or the Blade Runner diptych.

Trailers. Of course, these are marketing tools, and most every movie has two minutes’ worth of good shots. But a trailer that’s not so slam-bang and highlights some interesting dialogue is a good indicator.

Incidentally, modern trailers are the worst part of movie-going these days. Seeing five of them in a row, each one a sensory assault, literally makes my chest vibrate. Will you please turn down the damn sound.

Anti-recommendations. Some reviewers like everything (hello Peter Travers and Rex Reed) and if they are the only name on the list, I stay home. Similarly, everyone has a friend with opposite tastes. If they love Film X, odds are you will see it as a travesty.

Awards. These are a pretty good indicator for me… as long as the category involves acting, directing, or screenwriting. Remember, the film that won an Oscar for best sound mixing could be a steaming pile of bovine byproduct. Much as I love good photography, the cinematographers in the academy look for striking visuals first and good stories second.

So… what what works for you?

Ignorantly Blissful, Part One

Pilfery, sheer pilfery. The blog backlog is running low and I am resorting to reproducing dubious satire I wrote for a college newspaper in the 1970s, aka the Mesozoic Era. I resist the temptation to edit out the weak jokes and syntactic sins. You may find this amusing as a period piece. Headlined “Secret sources”, it goes…

Excerpts from All the President’s Weathermen, by Bob Woodwind and Carl Bernslime:

It was a hot summer day in 1972. The Washington Pest’s summer weekend weather writer, Bob Woodwind, was checking his meteorological sources. He contacted an ESSA official.*

“Is that you, Bob? Listen, we have a rumored tropical depression. You better check around; this could be the ‘big lasanga’ you’ve been looking for.”

Puzzled, Woodwind talked with the city editor, Ben Badly, who introduced him to Carl Bernslime, a new reporter on the Disaster Desk. They would make an unusual journalistic team: Woodwind, a former Yakology major, Bernslime, formerly a zeppelin repairman based in Wyoming.

Immediately, Bernslime decided to contact his secret source, Deep Cold Front. He signalled him by sunbathing with penguins beside his barbecue grill.

At 8 a. m. Bernslime met Deep Cold Front by a brontosaurus in the Smithsonian Institution. “Do you have anything about a tropical depression?” he asked.

“It’s bigger than that. The responsibility goes up a long way.”

“To the Committee to Re-Elect?”

“Higher than that, even.”

“Good Lord! You mean” but Deep Cold Front had vanished, leaving behind only a slight low pressure system.

Woodwind wasn’t doing any better. He had managed to get a look at the National Weather Service’s files, but he couldn’t take any notes. So he had to memorize the highs and lows of each city, lock himself into a pay toilet and flush his notes to the Pest’s executive washroom.

The next edition carried a lead story under their bylines stating that the CRP was behind a plot to use a tropical depression to keep Southern Democratic voters at home. Ron Ziegler denied it, calling the Pest “an occluded front of climatological confusion.” The President’s personal weathermen, H. R. Scaldeman and John Hairlipmann disavowed any wrong doing.

After a day of questioning CRP employees, Woodwind hit paydirt: Not only had the CRP authorized a tropical depression, it had funded a full scale hurricane in Cuba, which accounted for the 500 raincoats stockpiled in a CIA telephone booth.

But Bernslime knew that the trail led to higher officials, perhaps as high as Scaldeman and Hairlipmann themselves. He got out the penguins for another rendezvous with Deep Cold Front. They met again, this time in a remote trash bin in the Tidal Basin.

“Beware the Ides of March,” Deep Cold Front whispered.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing, but it sounds authoritative, doesn’t it? But you’re right. Scaldeman and Hairlipmann authorized that hurricane with CRP money.”

Bernslime found Woodwind with his secret source in an all-night laundromat. He pulled Woodwind out of the dryer; together they took the findings to Badly.

“Get another source to confirm this. It’ll look good in the screenplay.”

For a week the two newsmen scoured every weather bureau in the city. They found nothing, until Woodwind found a wind sock with the initials “H. R.” on it. Here was the missing link they’d been searching for!

The implication of Nixon’ top men in the Weathervane scandal was the beginning of the end. Soon a shocked nation would learn of official plans to “snow under” sensitive documents and “rain out” political enemies. Two fledgling reporters had unearthed a series of small craft warnings that led straight to the cumulonimbus clouds over the White House, to the “Big Forecaster” himself.

* The ESSA (Environmental Science Services Administration) was the incorrect agency. I meant to write the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). So sue me.

Elegy for Sears

I heard on NPR this morning that Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, after failing to pay $134 million in debts (its total debt load is $5.5 billion).

It’s a shame. Probably every American over 40 bought something at Sears—and there’s an excellent chance they still have it.

The NPR report described Sears as the Amazon of its day. It sold everything, even houses, through its catalog, a massive book of dreams that dwarfed our tiny phone books.

What did not come from Sears? I don’t have the receipts, but in the Bliss household, the TV, the refrigerator, the air conditioner, the lawn mower, the washer and dryer all came from Sears. If Sears had made cars, we would have had one.

My first camera came from Sears, and probably my table radio, and transistor radios. Even my chemistry set, which I abandoned once I discovered that I could not make explosives. I had a Sears bicycle, a Sears wagon… who knows? Maybe the bed on which I was born came from Sears.

The arrival of the 500-page holiday catalog was an event in the annals of materialism. My brother (always a little more direct than me) circled all the items he wanted for Christmas. Thumbing through it was an education in more ways than one—let’s just say the women’s undergarment pages did not escape my notice.

In my drawer I have three Craftsman screwdrivers, still as useful as the day they were forged. I bought them in a five-piece set when I left home in 1977. As a bonus, it came with a metal disk: a “four-way pocket screwdriver,” emblazoned with the motto, the biggest name in tools.

It adorns my keyring to this day, after hundreds of impromptu fixes. Best thing around to slit open package tape. A talisman of smart engineering.

Sears embodied the best of American know-how. Sears never sold moon rockets—but it could have. Instead, it built the Sears Tower in Chicago (now renamed to honor a holding company), for some time the tallest building in the world at 110 stories.

NPR attributed the company’s demise in part to the loss of its strong brand image. Kenmore, Weatherbeater, Craftsman, Diehard—all gone. I am no economist, but I know that a company that loses its brands will eventually die.

So what happens next? Many will lose their jobs, of course, and shareholders will take a big hit. And, wonder of wonders, the CEO of Sears, Eddie Lambert is a billionaire.

I wonder—when did Mr. Lambert last mow his lawn?

Three Words

I hate him.

A few weeks ago I posted three words on Facebook: I believe her. Three words.

My good old liberal friend Ruth said right on. Another acquaintance said I don’t, and left it at that.

A woman I know, who is now a former friend, came back with a rant about how I was unfair and how would I like to be falsely accused and how terrible the liberal media was, and so on. Roughly 100 words of hysteria brought on by a simple opinion.

At that point I shrugged it off. Then another friend shot back, highly offended by the former friend’s dismissive tone. Ah well. A flame war had begun. I’ve seen it before, and have been sorely tempted to join in. Still, no big deal.

The woman who shot back happened to mention she had been raped. My heart went out to her, as it does to any woman brave enough to come forward.

My former friend went into overdrive. She piled on the invective, the bitterness, the ignorance. She would not relent.

The woman she attacked is my friend. She has been most supportive of me through some difficult times. She’s part of my support network.

I could not let this verbal assault pass. I told the attacker to knock it off or I would report her.

I have heard nothing from her since.

I hate him. He has used the office of the presidency as a club against anyone and everyone who does not live up to his warped standards. He mocked Dr. Ford before a cheering crowd, and while many were outraged, I was simply surprised he had not done it earlier.

It says very little about our nation that he was elected. There is an excellent chance he will get another four years, and that says even less.

He did not create create bigotry. The racism behind his ascension to power has festered for a long time. He is a symptom of our failure to be decent.

But… he exploited the worst in our country, and he panders to it every day. He works day and night to turn us against each other.

Somewhere in my former friend, a kind and decent person is struggling to get out. I pray for her. I hope she finds a better way. But the man she admires is ruining her humanity.

I hate him. But more than that, I hate the hatred this unleashes in me.

Whose Wicked Ways?

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

It’s a lovely, hopeful verse. It implies to me that a nation, even one like ours that is rife with fear and inequality, can mend its ways and learn the ways of justice. It tells me that the United States of America could once again lead the world toward democracy and human rights.

It’s too bad the fundamentalists have hijacked it. More often than not, it is used not as a call to prayerful amendment of wrongs but as a signal to credulous Christians to defend the status quo. Its latest appearance is in The Trump Prophecy, a film that propounds a dangerous doctrine that God’s children should submit without question to state authority.

Make no mistake. When the religious right talks about “wicked ways”, they mean same-sex behavior. Nothing offends fundamentalists more than homosexuality, even though Jesus never favors one mode of sexuality over another.

Several verses in the Bible condemn homosexual behavior. Biblical literalists use them to persecute the LGBTQ population.

In the view of many scholars, these verses refer to specific practices that violated the religious norms of the society in which they were written. (So are the apostle Paul’s injunctions against women speaking in church.) Those who take a more nuanced view of the bible will tell you that many verses are meant to address culture-specific problems. They were not intended to be universal truths.

Written in a pre-scientific world, the Bible does not acknowledge that homosexuality involves a deep and inborn attraction to members of the same gender.

Coexisting with the fundamentalists’ Pharisaical obsession with heterosexuality is a dangerous attachment to nationalism, sexism, plutocracy, racism, nativism, militarism, and greed (aka unregulated capitalism).

I apply 2 Chronicles 7:14 differently. You want wicked? Here’s wicked.

Sexual assault. Immigrant children torn from parents. Muslims castigated. Women insulted. Minorities demonized. The poor left to rot. Science denied. Art censored. Flags used to sell cars. Soldiers who come home addicted and suicidal. Oppressive marriages. History forgotten. Selfishness elevated. Gambling hyped. Alcoholism glorified. Ignorance enthroned. The intellect derided. Bigotry championed.

Yes, adultery and pornography are on the list, but so is male domination and the exploitation of children. (By the way, does anyone besides me consider it wrong to push a career on an eight-year-old?)

I could go on all night.

You may have detected anger in my list of sins. So be it. Evil should make us angry. Dwelling on and acting on anger is dangerous… but so is complacency.

God breathes hot fury against injustice. One day that fury will scorch everyone who cheats the poor and shafts the downtrodden. He will do this without regard to what believers profess with their lips. Judgment will come. Count on it.

Give ‘Em the Bird

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Those new-fangled Bird scooters are popular here in Raleigh. They are convenient and look like fun to ride. They provide income to people who collect them and night and recharge them. They are all the rage among the new urbanists.

Here is why I wish they would die a horrible death.

An Indy reader pointed out their danger to persons with visual impairments who encounter them on sidewalks without warning. Enough said.

I see them everywhere. It was okay when they began popping up in a few places. It was a curiosity.

Now they are mechanized litter. There is one on every block it seems. Three of them appeared on the sidewalk beside a church. Somehow that bothers me.

They represent the power of distant corporations to dump their products into the environment with the consent of no one. Since they represent a new kind of transportation that has yet to be legally defined, they are essentially operating outside the law.

I have heard this strategy was deliberately aimed at sidestepping the process of governmental reviews and citizen input. I guess democracy isn’t cost-effective to these folks.

Has any representative of Bird ever visited Raleigh, even for a cup of coffee? I doubt it.

Of course they are here to stay. Their shills have made sure of that.

I am going to invent a useless machine that contributes absolutely nothing to society. Call it a pushmi-pullyu (with apologies to Hugh Lofting, the creator of Dr. Doolittle).

My underlings will deposit one on the front lawn of every member of the Bird board of directors. (Big yards will get an entire squad.) It will make unbearable noises and emit disgusting liquids.

Fair is fair.

My Code

Personal mottoes:

 

Don’t fuck with my peeps.

Never kick someone when they are down.

Fight fair.

Win and lose gracefully.

If the movie sucks, leave.

Question your first impulse, except in emergencies.

Root for the underdog.

Vote or shut up.

Hit no one for any reason.

Give to all your full attention, especially kids.

Think for yourself and no one else.

Admire art.

Bathe in music twice a day.

Take the stick out.

Laugh at old jokes.

Practice silliness.

Read your favorite book every ten years.

When all else fails, procrastinate.

Honor the God of your misunderstanding.