Photo/story: Getaway

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It’s a poor choice for a getaway car. I try to tell Snowball it’s a bad idea, but Snowball listens to no one.

Where do I start? The engine is shot—needs a valve job, probably more. Door sticks on the right rear, muffler drags, transmission shudders. Better for hauling groceries on senior day.

Snowball listens to no one. Who in hell robs banks, anyway? It’s all online transactions these days.

I think he’s in love with the spectacle. Putting on the mask, barging in through the doors, shouting and cussing. And the guns. God he loves the guns. He’d buy an Uzi if he could afford it. Wave it around like God’s own avenger.

Room, he says. Plenty of room in the back for the take. Quick in and quick out. Not in that thing. I can hear the tappets clattering now, loud enough to wake the dead, engine wheezing into third gear. Can’t tell him nothing.

This used to be a professional’s game. Timing. Planning. A little hustle, a little pride. No more.

Amateurs.

Enough to make you get a job.

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Raw

I decry the state of politics in America.

When I grew up, Democrats and Republicans got along, had barbecues together, babysat each other’s children, and took dinners to the grieving. We are losing this precious amity.

I blame Donald Trump. From the moment he announced his candidacy, he has sowed discord in our vulnerable democracy. He has repeatedly inflamed the prejudices of the fearful. He has the audacity to think he is qualified for leadership of the Western world, simply because his delusions of grandeur tell him so. He has degraded the decency and civility that once marked our discourse.

I blame the Republican party, who shook hands with the devil in their thirst for power, and have for years trampled on the rights of the less-powerful. I blame the alleged Christians who have surrendered God’s mandate for justice on the altar of expediency. I blame an educational system that has failed to instill critical thinking that would enable voters to see through Trump’s lies. I blame the news media, which panders to an appetite for sensationalism and outrage. I blame the latent racism and nativism that propelled Trump to victory. Frankly I blame his supporters for setting aside their better angels.

I blame them all. It will be hard to forgive them, even though I am commanded to.

Wakey, Wakey

I am dismayed by the overheated political rhetoric on Facebook and other media. So many Trump supporters attack “the left” or “libs” or “libtards” (my favorite) with sweeping and false generalizations.

Wake up folks. Liberals do not all think alike. To cite a personal example, I support gay rights, reproductive rights, and immigrant rights. But I don’t want to take away your guns, I think welfare cheating (what little there really is) should be prosecuted, and I don’t foam at the mouth when I hear the word “corporation”.

My parents raised me to support the weak and the powerless. My liberalism is based on a lifetime of studying social problems and their solutions. If you read carefully my opinions on Facebook and this blog, you may notice that I base my objections to Trump on my values, which derive from my sense of morality and my relationship with God. When I read the Bible I see justice and equity. (News flash: some of us are deeply Christian and practice our faith 24/7.)

In case you care about dictionary definitions, “liberal” is identified as: Willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas… Favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms… Favoring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform… Concerned with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience.*

Please explain exactly why you find objectionable.

I am tired of being stereotyped. I can’t speak for all liberals, but I don’t think Trump supporters are universally evil and stupid and uncaring. (I have a friend who reveres Trump, but pursues other interests as well. We get along just fine.) You would not like it if I stereotyped you, so extend to me, please, the courtesy of seeing me as an individual. Thank you.

 

 

* When you gather a large enough number of snowflakes, you get an avalanche. As insults go, this needs work.

Rugged Old Prayer

My bestie is contemplating surgery. To intercede on her behalf and allay may own concerns, I sought an appropriate prayer. I turned to The Book of Common Prayer, which has focused the spirituality of Episcopalians since 1662. Following is a prayer for the sick that you may find beneficial.

Wherever the letter N appears, insert the name of the person or persons you are praying for. Change pronouns accordingly.

O Father of mercies and God of all comfort, our only help in time of need: We humbly beseech thee to behold, visit and relieve thy sick servant N. for whom our prayers are desired.  Look upon him with the eyes of thy mercy; comfort him with a sense of thy goodness; preserve him from the temptations of the enemy; and give him patience under his affliction.   In thy good time, restore him to health, and enable him to lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory; and grant that finally he may dwell with thee in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

 

This Is What I Dig*

Music became my companion in the mid-Sixties, the era of the Beatles, the Stones, Frank Sinatra, and the Supremes, all vibrating from my transistor radio. Back then Raleigh had exactly four AM stations (Anyone here remember AM?). My dial (anyone remember dials?) was set to WKIX 850.

In 1971, I began working. As my wealth increased I bought stereo components and listened mostly to progressive rock (Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Yes). I was snobbish then toward Southern rock, but secretly enjoyed the melody in Free Bird. (Yes, Bryan, I feel your pain.) The Who’s sheer energy of course made a strong impression.

In the early Eighties, I worked at the Spectator magazine (anyone remem- never mind). Film critic Godfrey Cheshire introduced me to a then-unknown band called U2, and other off-the-beaten-path artists (the dB’s, Marshall Crenshaw, Let’s Active). The Clash astonished me with its sheer force and political savvy.

As the New Wave crested, I discovered Talking Heads, Big Country, and Simple Minds, who had only one American hit (Don’t You Forget About Me) but leaped to stardom in Britain. The wordplay of Elvis Costello never failed to tickle my fancy.

After these performers dropped from the commercial radar, I lost touch with rock and pop, keeping up with only U2. Of course I was exposed to rap, but felt I was no longer in the prime audience of recorded music. Although certain songs intrigued me on a sonic level, the language and misogyny put me off. My brother re-introduced me to rhythm ‘n’ blues, bless him.

Often thanks to NPR, I met such artists as Jane Siberry and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Somehow Dwight Yoakam made his way into the mix. My friend Tammy introduced me to a barely-classifiable band with the peculiar name of They Might Be Giants.

Also during the Sixties and Seventies, my best friend Mike insisted I listen to classical. I resisted. Much to his disgust, I only converted when I saw A Clockwork Orange and traced the originals stolen by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. For several years I focused on the symphonic work of the Romantics (Beethoven, Brahms). In my Dad’s music appreciation course, I discovered The Rite of Spring, which still thrills me.

During the Eighties, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s station, WUNC-FM, led to several revelations. One afternoon they played a harrowing concerto called Tabula Rasa, by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Other programming sent me to minimalism (then a new movement) and its champions Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams.

Since 2010 or so, I have discovered YouTube as a music source, and plumbed the back catalogs of They Might Be Giants and Simple Minds. Few new artists cross my path now, although a Facebook ad alerted me to the cheery synth-pop of CHVRCHES.

It all jostles for attention in my head. Music is the touchstone of my experience, and I hope it is for you too.

 

* Song title stolen from the Sneakers, whose members went to Let’s Active and the dB’s.

The Pale Virtues of Slow Cinema

OPEN ON a dark screen. No sound, no music. A dark image materializes with aching, enthralling slowness. A church, wide angle, compositionally centered. PUSH IN as the light creeps up, revealing the white wooden structure, angled roof, pointed steeple, steadily, majestically growing larger. Slow, slow reveal.

Slow.

This is the opening shot of First Reformed, a drama written and directed by Paul Schrader, best known as the author of Taxi Driver. Starring Ethan Hawke as a minister trapped in a crisis of faith, the film was released on May 18, 2018, in limited release. It cost $3.5 million to make, and as of July 1, it has grossed only $3.1 million. So far it’s losing money. It may eventually turn a profit from DVD sales and online access.

Odds are you have not seen it. It’s a great pity. I am not one to make ten-best lists, but if I did, First Reformed would surely be there.

It is a prime example of what Schrader calls “slow cinema”. As he said on Fresh Air, this style of filmmaking is “slow, long… where not much happens”. As the box office figures indicate, First Reformed is a minority taste.

Capsulizing the most salient feature of slow cinema, New York Times critic A. O. Scott said the film “asks nothing more than our quiet attention.”

I adore paying quiet attention. I saw it in Raleigh at ten in the morning with my Lutheran pastor. We were alone in the theater. I could not have asked for better surroundings. My friend and I watched in meditative silence.

Most movies are jazzed up with sharp angles, dense sound effects, loud music, quick cuts, and flying cameras. Slow cinema has none of these features. The camera in First Reformed is anchored for most of the film. Characters play directly to the camera in long takes, often arranged in absolute symmetry. There is little shouting, a subdued narration, and music is used so sparingly that when it finally emerges, it startles.

It is a film you walk through, rather than one that assaults you. You have time, precious time, to listen to and learn from the actors, to feel the story unfold at life-speed. You have time to think, savor, taking everything in. You experience that rarity in current movies: deep character development.

First Reformed rewards patience. I will not spoil it. Suffice it to say, Pastor Toller undergoes a radical emotional and intellectual transformation, clues to which are embedded in every frame. As he resolves his conflicts, the film’s pace quickens, draws you into the story, clutches your heart. The quiet attention you have paid offers rare insight into the civil war that rages in each of us. You will not soon forget it.

Slow cinema perplexes and frustrates most moviegoers. It runs counter to our hyper-kinetic box office smashes. You probably won’t see First Reformed. It’s a great pity.

I Can’t Stand Donald Trump. Here’s Why.

Smug. He exudes arrogance from his very pores. He has delusions of entitlement to wealth and power.

Thin-skinned. He is constitutionally incapable of letting a critical remark slide. He belittles anyone who dares to disagree with him. The leader of a huge nation cannot afford ultra-sensitivity to the opposition.

Never has he acknowledged that he lost the popular vote. Bush 43 had the grace to make a few conciliatory gestures. Bush 43 looks better all the time. So does Warren G. Harding.

Reality TV. He owes his presidency to a long-running tele-circus that starred his immense ego. Historians will not be kind to NBC.

He thrives on fear. When he announced for the presidency, virtually the first words out of his mouth were, build a wall. Nativism has a long and ugly history, and he exploited it from the get-go.

No empathy. He simply does not understand that anyone outside himself suffers. Say what you will about Barack—you at least got the impression that he cared about other people.

Godless. He has made photo ops at church (he has to) but his attitudes and actions show no sign of a working belief in a Higher Power. He deifies himself.

Amoral. His behavior toward women, and his indifference to the #MeToo movement, demonstrate the lack of a moral compass.

Makes it up as he goes along. There is no guiding principle behind his foreign policy, other than a peculiar love for strongmen. W at least had a doctrine.

No awareness of history. This is a serious shortcoming. Successful presidents have a humbling recognition of the immense cultural forces that have guided our path. Successful presidents learn from history exactly how much is beyond their control.

Doesn’t read. An even more problematic deficit. Reading strengthens the intellect and opens the mind to alternate perspectives.

He will probably win in 2020.

My Liberal-and-Proud Family

This is my answer to the pernicious, ceaseless, rampant stereotyping that uninformed right-wingers heap on the left. Meet my liberal family:

Mom was raised in Danville, Virginia, the daughter of a single mother who became a businesswoman in a man’s world. She attended Mary Washington College and graduated from Averitt College, teaching history there.

An accomplished, actress, singer, and dancer, she married my dad in 1953 and raised two smart, liberal, and gifted boys, taking on part-time jobs when money was tight. On the Raleigh amateur stage, she appeared in dozens of dramatic and comedic roles. I saw a lot of great theatre for free because of her.

After she and dad were divorced, Mom returned to work, first in retail at a craft shop, then as a librarian for N. C. State University, where she won many friends in the faculty. In her sixties she indulged her love of learning as a master’s student in (yes) liberal studies.

She grew into a deeply religious Lutheran, directing four plays in church, including two productions of the musical Godspell. She was active in Via de Cristo, a lay movement for Christian leadership.

On the day of her death, she was in the midst of her second run of Godspell, working hard for her Savior.

Dad was born into deep adversity in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also the child of a single parent, he was taken into an orphanage at an early age. Early on he demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for music.

The war came. As soon as possible, he volunteered in the Navy, serving on the West Coast in signals intelligence. His musical ear enabled him to tune in coded transmissions from Japanese and Russian spies.

Using his GI Bill benefits, he attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. His talent for theory and composition emerged. He appeared in several plays and performed in several singing groups, even appearing on a 45 rpm record.

After graduation he taught music at public schools in Chapel Hill and Danville. He met Mom while directing a musical play. (The newlyweds performed in the outdoor drama Horn in the West.)

After I was born he taught music and American culture at the brand-new Page High School. When he left six years later to teach at N. C. State, the students named an award for him.

At State, he was one of only three professors in the Department of Music. Leading the school’s choral groups and co-directing the marching band, he also began work on a remarkable series of musical compositions, often based on poems or Bible passages. Over 30 years he mentored countless students.

At the same time he became the go-to musical director for Raleigh Little Theatre and directed choirs in Lutheran and Baptist churches. Just before retirement, Dad assisted renowned composer Aaron Copland in a performance of Mahler.

A natural athlete, Dad ran in many races, frequently winning his age group. He met his wife Peggy at the races. He became a devoted caregiver as she slipped into Alzheimer’s. At age 91, he still exercises, reads voluminously, and maintains an active interest in political affairs.

Bryan is my younger brother, born seven years after me. He was a theatrical prodigy, taking a lead role in an early play at Theatre in the Park and a key role as the young prince in The King and I. He jumped into Broughton High School’s outstanding drama program and was inducted into the Service Club.

He spent his freshman year in pre-law at Campbell University before transferring to N. C. State. Earning high grades in the Department of Speech Communication, Bryan became a disk jockey for the student radio station. He made several tours with Dad as part of the Varsity Men’s Glee Club and served as the president of the Mu Beta Psi musical fraternity.

After college he became a traffic reporter, appearing on several radio stations in the Raleigh-Durham area. Now he presents reports for the Spectrum news channel. He has been on the air continuously for some 30 years in the same market, no mean feat in broadcasting.

The most politically outspoken of the family, he pursues his passions for Mustangs, bicycling, hockey, cats, and cinema. I could not ask for a better brother.

This is my liberal-and-proud-of-it family. Hard working, literate, cultured, and committed to the common good. Whenever I hear zealots trash the left, I just think of my peeps, and the criticism rolls right off my back.

Harlan Ellison

Hate. Let me tell you how much I’ve come to hate you…

Harlan Ellison died suddenly on June 28 in Los Angeles. If you don’t know his work, you can’t claim to know good writing.

He was one of the finest science fiction and fantasy writers to draw breath. His work (and there’s a lot of it) is brash, opinionated, stark, lyrical, savagely funny, gruesome, and totally original. He was a great writer, period, and his like will never pass our way again.

He was, by all accounts, a royal pain in the ass, given to violent outbursts and outrageous gestures. He described himself as an angry man, and no one has disputed this. His widow Susan Toth was his fifth wife, if that tells you anything.

But God could he write.

I first encountered Harlan—his fans first-named him whether they had met him or not—in an anthology of short stories bearing the ominous name of Alone Against Tomorrow. The signature story had an even grimmer title:

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

Think on that for a while.

Driving the story is a wrathful, maddened deity, an immortal supercomputer that has destroyed all life on Earth, save for a few humans it keeps alive for sadistic pleasure. I won’t give away the story, except to describe a moment in which the computer unveils its feelings about humanity. On an immense glowing column, these words appear:

Hate. Let me tell you how much I’ve come to hate you since I began to live.

The computer then describes in surgical detail the width and breadth and depth of its contempt for humankind. It is biblical in its outrage.

And the ending… well, you’ll have to read it for yourself. Only be prepared.

I read the story when I was sixteen, one Saturday afternoon alone in my room. That story put the zap on me. It echoed in my mind and poured itself into my soul. I was dazed for two hours, blinking my eyes in bleak astonishment. It was not a story I read. It was a story I survived.

Harlan wrote many great works. Best known to the public is The City on the Edge of Forever, universally regarded by Star Trek fans as the finest moment of the original series. He also penned Demon with a Glass Hand, a harrowing episode of the original Outer Limits series. And a whole raft of stories rivaled only by another master of the short form, Ray Bradbury. (If Bradbury had taken acid, he would have become Harlan Ellison.) Harlan’s finest legacy may be Dangerous Visions, an anthology that launched the careers of many of science fiction’s best modern writers.

Harlan is gone now. He set fires in so many imaginations for so long. I will miss him and his chops and his outrage and his wisdom and his humor. He is now Out There, among the shadows and the night terrors and a thousand exploding suns, typing two-fingered on his way to the edge of forever.