Sunday, December 31, 2017


I've told people the stories, of the well-liquored crowd gathering in the Vegas streets as midnight approached, of the Elvis impersonator at the wedding chapel whose singing made my soon-to-be wife wince, of the taxi ride back to the hotel as fireworks lit up the sky.

These are the stories of my wedding night, twenty years ago today.

Thing is, though, they seem to exist mostly as stories, not as actual, tangible memories.  Whenever I tell anybody about that night, or the brief years of married life that followed, it's like I'm reciting lines, an actor late in the run of the play, no longer capable of feeling the meaning behind the words.

Part of that is simply time.  This happened a long time ago, and a lot has happened since.  Memories fade, details disappear, all to make way for newer memories.  The human brain only has so much storage capacity.

Sure, but I can remember the late afternoon light falling through the windows in the mental ward of the University Hospital in Iowa City, and the Phil Collins video on the TV, and the juice boxes that accompanied meals.  I can still feel the intense heat and smell the urine-soaked floors of the Port Authority men's room from my first trip to New York City.  For that matter, I still vividly recall the crisp air and overcast sky on my first date with Sue Ellen, before I was foolish enough to propose, before she accepted, before we found ourselves in Vegas.

After that, though, it all gets hazy.  Is it because I know how the story ends?  Have I distanced myself as a form of protection?  Or was it maybe just not as big a deal as it seemed at the time?  I'd never been in love before, and I thought it was supposed to last forever, but really, it was only five years out of a life that has lasted fifty-two years.  Maybe it was just a blip along the way.

We're still friends.  We don't talk as much as we used to, but that's okay.  We have different lives, and as time goes on, it's become more obvious that we don't really have all that much in common.  But I suspect we have similar memories of that night, and of all our time together.  It was a thing that happened, but it was another time, another place.

Another life.

Saturday, October 07, 2017


The first person in my life to die was Uncle Burr.  I don't even remember how old I was, but young enough that Mom decided it would be for the best if I didn't attend the funeral.  Everyone else did, though--on that day I came home from school to a plate full of brownies, a new comic book and a note from Mom.  I may not have grasped the concept of death, but hey--brownies!

The thing is, I don't remember Uncle Burr.  I remember that he existed, I remember that he and Auntie Alice would come to visit once in awhile, and they'd stay in Grandma's trailer, right across the driveway from our house, but there's a hole where the actual man should be.  My memories of him are like a bad, smudgy carbon copy--a memory of a memory.

Even my Dad, who died twenty-one years ago, is no longer as active a presence in my mind as he should be.  I recall his blue chambray shirts, his fondness for Grain Belt and the sound of his voice, but I have to work a little harder to remember what he was actually like, to remember him doing or saying something specific.  Dad, my brother Keith, even Mom, in whose memory I started this site--yeah, they're there, but not all the time.

On the other hand, Walter Becker and Tom Petty, guys I never met, never had a chance of meeting--they won't ever leave my memory.

Partly it's the music, of course--there's always a Steely Dan or Petty tune playing in my head.  But I only saw The Dan live one time, and Becker's hilarious, rambling patter ("I'd like to invite you all--figuratively, not literally--back to my hotel room for a drink"), his old-man sweat pants and countless dazzling guitar solos will stay with me, even as I forget memories I shared with actual family and friends.

And Tom Petty, well, I mean: Damn The Torpedoes dropped like a big-ass bomb just as I was entering high school, and its string of perfect singles--Refugee, Don't Do Me Like That, Here Comes My Girl--tracked one of the most difficult periods of my life, and the depression I spiraled into for most of the eighties was made largely bearable by Hard Promises, Long After Dark and Southern Accents.

Our cultural heroes become a part of us, whether we're telling their jokes, singing their lyrics or watching their movies.  They matter, and when they die, it's natural to grieve--if not for the actual person, then for what they brought to our lives, and what they can never bring again.  Or to put it another way: I loved my mom, but she didn't write American Girl.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


In the online world, things get recommended to you for reasons you don't always understand (No, Amazon, I do not want the soundtrack to Xanadu, so please stop trying to push it on me.)  In this case it was Google that thought I would be interested in the trailer for this new movie.

That, uh, looks a little familiar, doesn't it?  I mean, the specifics of the plot and characters may be somewhat different, but in form and intent, doesn't it seem a lot like this?

 Look, I realize that not every New York-set comedy/drama is automatically ripping off Woody Allen.  I haven't seen Person To Person.  Sure, everything about the visuals in this trailer, from the staging to the framing of the shots, is, shall we say, reminiscent of the style Allen worked out with cinematographers Gordon Willis and Carlo di Palma, just as the clipped pacing strongly reminds one of the cutting style of Allen's former editor Susan Morse.  But it's just a trailer.  Maybe the movie's different.  (Louis C. K., incidentally, hired Morse to edit one season of his series Louie, but hey, I'm sure that was pure coincidence.)

I have, however, seen Frances Ha...

...and yeah, it's a really good movie, and the focus and characters are different, but come on.

And then there's the most egregious example of all.

i mean, they're not even trying to hide what they're doing in this case, right down to the use of  white-on-black titles and old timey music.  The difference, of course, is that Annie Hall is prickly and uncomfortable while When Harry Met Sally is cuddly and lovable.

And it's weird that people rip off Allen by making generic "neurotic New Yorkers" or "bittersweet romance" movies, because Allen himself has made relatively few of those.  He has one of the most recognizable visual and verbal styles of any filmmaker in history--at his worst, they become mannerisms--but he's really quite diverse in his subject matter.  Many of his best films--Zelig, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Alice--are fantasies, or memory pieces like Radio Days and Cafe Society.  Some of his best comedies, like Manhattan Murder Mystery or Bullets Over Broadway, are pure door-slamming farce, but nobody tries to emulate that.

No, they go for the things that are stereotypical "Woody Allen" without seeming to realize he's a filmmaker, not a brand.  The only other director who has been stolen from so shamelessly for so long is Steven Spielberg, everything from Cocoon to Super 8, and like Allen, Spielberg has made relatively few movies in what is thought to be his signature style. 

Allen has a new movie, Wonder Wheel, coming out later this year.  He's in his eighties, and his best days are almost certainly behind him, but even if this one sucks at a Curse Of The Jade Scorpion level, at least the only person ripping him off this time will be himself.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


As she started explaining the details of the chemo, my mind wandered, because that was my defense mechanism.  Anytime she talked as if she had limited time left, I pretended she and the doctors and everybody else was wrong, because it was the only way the world made sense.  I didn't want to live in a world without my mom, and I tried to will it so.

But I wasn't listening in another sense.  As she explained the possible side effects, what chemo could and couldn't do, she was also expressing her own ambivalence about the whole thing.  The cancer was fatal.  There was no doubt about that--it had spread too far, and her body was too old and weak to fight it.  All the chemo could do was slow it down, give her another few months or weeks or days.

Well, you have to do it, I said.  You have to live as long as you can.

So she did.  The first round went okay, but the second round was much worse.  She was violently ill and physically weak, and since she lived alone, she took a nasty fall.  Her medical team had somehow neglected to take her off her blood pressure meds, and they combined with the chemo to limit the flow of blood to her brain.  She started hallucinating giant scarecrows and fissures in the earth.  Her body weakened.  Her heart stopped.  She died, and the chemo hadn't extended her time on earth, and in fact only made her final days miserable.

And I realize now that she never wanted any of it in the first place.  Living with cancer was uncomfortable, but she was still herself, still eating and going out to movies (and complaining about them), and she probably saw the end coming and just wanted to be done with it.  To make a comparison I'm sure Mom would have appreciated, she wanted to end like Season Five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, at the top of her game and like she'd always been, but the chemo made her more like Season Seven, muddled and weird and somewhat out of character.  

How dangerous it is to play the "what if?" game.  What if she hadn't had chemo?  Would her final days have been less painful?  Would her mind have been clearer, her body more steady?  Would she have not fallen, and fallen again, with welts and lumps on her face?  Would she have seemed less small and sad when the time came?  Could she have spent her final hours at home, surrounded by her beloved cats and dog, instead of an anonymous hospital room?

No.  Or, put another way, maybe, but so what?  She died, and she would have died either way, and it wouldn't have been pretty because death never is.  And none of that means anything, because the important thing is that she laughed and cried and sang to her cats and marveled at rainbows and loved her children with the intensity of a thousand suns.

She lived.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017


The flimsy cardboard kitty carrier may not be strong enough to hold him if he starts to struggle.  Delmar is a very strong cat, and can be very determined.  But he simply eases in and rests there.  He knows.

He and I have such history.  I've had him since he was born, the first cat I owned after my protracted, painful divorce.  I had to move back in with my mom for awhile, and Delmar was there.  I got a job, moved into a tiny apartment, got a better job, kept the same apartment, and he remained my constant companion.  Mom died, I was in despair, he comforted me as best he could, mostly just by being there, which was always enough.

It's a gray day.  Not cold, but a dampness in the air.  Not that I notice it as I take him out to the car.  I reach through the air holes of the carrier and touch his coarse, spiky fur. "It's okay, Buddy.  We're going for a ride."

A few blocks later, we're at the vet's office.  They wave me right in to the exam room.  The table is covered with a little blue blanket, and it looks so much like the penguin blanket my mom had, the one I inherited, the one Delmar so frequently used for naps.  I start to lose it.

Del was born pretty much fully-formed.  He never had a cute kitten phase.  He was awkward and gangly from the very beginning, and always would be.  He could be cranky, he could be sweet, he was never quiet and restful.  I could usually anticipate his moods, but he couldn't tell me when his kidneys started failing, not until he started drinking massive amounts of water and eating less, and by then it was too late.

I set him on the table and he immediately curls up, as if he's bypassed all the other stages and gone straight to acceptance.  The doctor comes in and explains the procedure, asks if I'm okay with it, has me sign some forms.  I hold Del as they give him a sedative, then they leave the room while it takes effect.

I talk to Del, I sing the lyrics I invented for the first season instrumental theme from Walker, Texas Ranger ("Hey!  It's Delmar and he's great!  It's Delmar and he's grea-ea-eat!").  The doc comes back in, shaves some fur from his hind leg and administers the IV.  Del puts his paw in my hand.  I grip it as tight as I can.

And he's gone.

"Do you need some time?" the vet asks, and I nod.  "We don't need this room for the rest of the day.  Take as long as you need."

His paw is still resting in my hand.  He looks like he's asleep.  I don't know what I expected.  I talk to him some more, running through his many, many nicknames.  (Del Star, Delmar Von Delmington, Li'l Feller, My Special Little Guy...)  My tears are falling without control, hitting the table, dotting the blanket all around him.

There is a thoughtfully provided box of tissues on a stool beside the table.  I blow my nose, then again, and I turn back to Del.  "Not so bad, was it?" I say.  "See you, Buddy.  See you whenever I can."  A final tissue to wipe my eyes, and I leave.

Driving home, I'm listening to Ben Folds' Songs For Silverman because it's the album that happens to be playing, and I know I will always unfortunately associate it with this.  Janie will be there when I get home, and two other wonderful cats, and my beloved beagle.

But Delmar won't be, and he never will be there again.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


It was burnoff season in the summer of 1980, when the Big 3 networks aired all the failed pilots and unloved theatrical releases to which they owned the rights, and which would inevitably get terrible ratings.  But they had these things, and they were contractually required to air them, so when they knew no one was watching, they'd go ahead and show them, these pathetic Bob Denver sitcoms and terrible variety shows, and these odd, obscure movies.  Like The Little Prince.

A failed, little-loved adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book, it was airing in a ninety minute time slot as part of The CBS Saturday Night Movie.  Though a short film, it would have been extensively cut to fit in that time slot, which shows how little the network cared about it.

Nonetheless, my brother and I made sure to watch.  We didn't know Saint-Exupery's book at all, or care about the fact that it had an original score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.  We just watched because it featured an appearance by Bob Fosse, and we were both huge admirers of Fosse's All That Jazz, and the chance to watch the man himself, as opposed to Roy Scheider portraying him, was just to strong a lure.  Plus, hey Stanley Donen directed!  Singin' In The Rain, Bedazzled.  How bad could it be?

Well, it wasn't very good, and even Fosse's sequence is kind of disappointing.  But it does have Gene Wilder as a fox, a wild fox tamed by the title character.

This scene was followed by a commercial break.  We were watching this in my brother's room upstairs, and during the break, I went downstairs to the kitchen to get a drink.  Turns out Mom was watching it, too.  She'd exiled herself to the kitchen to watch it on a small black-and-white TV, because she knew it wasn't anything Dad would like.

And she was crying.  I asked her if she was okay.  "Oh, honey," she said.  "The poor fox," then, unable to say anything more, she continued crying.

I could talk and talk and talk about the greatness of Gene Wilder, who died Sunday at the fine age of 83.  I could explain how his surprisingly melancholic performance in Blazing Saddles anchors that film's anarchy, how his meticulous preparation for the role of Willy Wonka, a role many actors would have tossed off, resulted in a film that is rediscovered and loved by every new generation.  I could tell you that the screenplay he co-wrote with Mel Brooks for Young Frankenstein is a masterpiece of carefully-escalated comic madness, or that his performance, descending from barely-controlled calm to outright madness, in a brief segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex is possibly the greatest comic performance ever put on film.

I could tell you all that, and it would be true.  But more important than any of that, at least to me, is this: Once upon a time, he made Mom cry.

Saturday, April 02, 2016


One of the many unfortunate side effects of the successful 1983 film The Big Chill was the way it turned the recorded legacy of Motown into a soundtrack for Boomer nostalgia.  Suddenly "The Sound Of Young America", some of the most important and influential music ever performed and, more importantly, written and produced by black artists was being used to soundtrack the lives of well-to-do white people.  The Four Tops were used to sell luxury cars, Smokey Robinson became a karaoke favorite and, worst of all, Marvin Gaye's indelible I Heard It Through The Grapevine was rerecorded in a soundalike version and used to sell raisins.

But in honor of what would have been Gaye's 77th birthday, let's reclaim it and recognize if for what it was, is, and will always be: One of the greatest singles ever released.

Let's start with the beginning: That first snap of a drum, leading into Johnny Griffith's slightly ominous keyboards, their terrible portent joined by the rattlesnake tambourine.  This is not an upbeat pop song, or a heartbreak song.  This is something else.

Next, a solid groove is laid down by James Jamerson's bass.  Whatever else is going on here, there will definitely be funk.

And then.  Oh, and then.

The sheer majesty of Gaye's vocal performance simply can't be overstated.  With this one song, he went from being one of Motown's most reliable crooners to something else entirely, an artist fully in charge of his instrument, able to whiplash from paranoia to anger to aching vulnerability, all in service of the song, or, more accurately, the emotion of the song.

And he does this all without showing off.  There are so many times here when Gaye deploys a falsetto ("losing YOOUU would end my life you see"), and it could come off as shameless showboating of the Whitney/Mariah school.  But it never does.  He knows how to use his voice not for effect but for truth.  His voice can do anything, but he only takes it where the song needs it to go, not where he wants it to go.

I Heard It Through The Grapevine was produced--magnificently--by Norman Whitfield.  The musicians and arrangers at Motown were second to none, but the actual recording techniques used by the label tended to be utilitarian.  But Whitfield clearly took extra care here, in mike placement (the drum sound is amazing) and in his handling of his singer.  He didn't just record Gaye's vocals, he directed him, and helped him follow his emotions while singing, wherever they may lead.

And those emotions could lead to some dark places.  It's obvious in the vocal track that Gaye is wrestling with some personal demons, the paranoia and pride and arrogance that would unfortunately define his personal life, but would also lead him to explore those emotions on record, and how to harness all that to the astounding instrument of his voice.  He took charge of his own career after this song, and wrote, produced and arranged his own material.  The results were What's Going On, I Want You, and Here, My Dear--some of the greatest recordings ever made, by arguably (inarguably, if you ask me) the greatest singer who ever lived.

And that's a pretty good legacy for a song that too many people associate with dancing raisins.