The memorial video I made for his service back in January.
I wrote this maybe a year ago for FLAUNT, but it got bumped from the mag and I’ve been trying to find it a loving home ever since. The amazing artwork was done by Michael Gaughan, who is worth getting to know.
The project was inspired by my wife’s grandmother, who lived in Latvia during WWII and was evacuated by the Nazi’s as allied troops invaded. She’s had a very full and intense life, which sweetens the fact that she loves the history-bending adventures of Dr. Samuel Beckett as seen on reruns of Quantum Leap. She also has the hots for Scott Bakula, who can, “keep his shoes under my bed anytime.”
Here is an imagined episode framed by some of her rich experiences titled …
The tops of a healthy row of sugar beets lay yawning out of the soil soaking up the morning sun and Olga brushed them lightly with the tips of her fingers, tracing the pinkish veins on the leaves that sent color down the stalks and into the roots below.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” she asked her sister, who was too young to answer but slapped at them with her reaching hands. “Be gentle, baby. Gentle.”
Olga looked out over the allotment garden and smiled. The landscape was unfamiliar. Her family had been run out of Latvia in the dead of the night by Russians moving swiftly though the forests and brought to Germany to wait out the end of the war. The landscape was foreign, but the signs of life bursting from the ground were as familiar as her relatives sitting inside their refugee apartment smoking cigarettes and staring blankly out of windows.
“Come winter, these beets will be blood red, pelite. And when you boil them and pull the skins away, they will stain your hands bright red,” she cooed, patting her sister’s fat little hands. “But oh, gosh are they delicious. I love them.”
The baby looked up at the sky, pointed a finger and barked. Olga laughed and looked up. A peppering of bombers moved swiftly overhead and the air raid sirens began sounding. She picked up the baby and yelled across the garden to her older sister. “Lucy, come on. Let’s go!”
“It’s fine, Olga,” Lucy said. “They’re going past us.”
“No, that’s what they do. They fly over once and then they come back to drop the bombs!”
Olga picked up her wooden shoes and ran barefoot across the garden to her sister.
“Let’s just stay here,” Lucy said. “They’re not coming back. The war is almost over.”
“No, we have to run to the bunkers, come on.” Olga grabbed Lucy by the wrist and they ran out of the garden and across a narrow bridge that reached over a small creek. Olga could see faces peeking out of the bunker in the side of the grassy hill when Lucy stopped and stamped her feet in the grass.
“Let’s just go down by the creek and hide there, I can’t stand that bunker any more.”
“Lucy, no. We’ve got the baby. Come on, we have to go. We’re not safe here, I just know it!” The air seemed to expand all around her and the sounds of birds calling and insects humming were sucked away until it was completely silent. The baby was calm in her arms and all she could hear was Lucy sniffling. She grabbed her sister by the wrist and pulled her toward the bunker, where now there were hands poking out, waving them on. The space around them contracted now and the air felt thick, like breathing in exhaust from a tank. Her toes gripped the grass and she hauled Lucy around in front of her and shoved her into the bunker. She set the baby into a woman’s outstretched arms and plunged headfirst inside.
Then came the thunder. She stood, and by the time she’d turned around, there was nothing but the earth that had just been underfoot in the air all around. She closed her eyes and felt the heat with her face.
Sam sat at the base of the stairs watching a group of American soldiers smoking cigarettes and flirting with a pair of girls. His skin was still prickling from the leap, and a gust of icy air that flew up the stairwell wrenched the muscles around his spine.
“Where are you Al?” he sighed.
Sam puffed warm air into his hands and pulled the collar of his pea coat up around his neck. A jeep stopped in front of the doorway and he caught his reflection: a sallow looking teenager with more of a hawkish beak than a nose and greasy black hair, pulled back but trickling down over his forehead.
He heard the sound of hard shoes coming down the stairs and wheeled around. Olga. He hadn’t seen her since she was a child, but her presence was as strong now as it was then. She looked about 20 years old and her porcelain skin and ruby lips stole his breath. He stood feebly to greet her.
“Hel-l-lo,” he stammered.
“Oh, hello. And how are you this morning?”
“I’m, uh, I’m fine, I suppose. It’s so good to see you again.”
She furrowed her eyebrows but kept her smile. “I’m sorry, do we know eachother?”
“I thought that maybe. You look familiar, I guess.”
“Well, you can keep me company while I wait for my sisters. My name is Olga.”
“I’m, uh, my name is Sam,” he said, not knowing yet who he had jumped into.
“Nice to make your acquaintance,” she smiled and took a seat on the step. “We’re leaving for America tomorrow and need to go and get a few things for the boat ride. “
“Oh, you’ll be taking a boat?”
“How else would we get there? Walk?” She laughed and reached in her coat for a rumpled pack of cigarettes. By the time she got one to her mouth, Sam had found matches in one of the young man’s pockets and held out a flame.
“Mmmm, thank you runsiet,” she said from the corner of her mouth. She reached in, got the end going and puffed a few times. She held the pack out to him and he shook his head. Once the pack was back in its pocket she took a proper drag and looked out onto the street. “I don’t know when I’ll ever get back here.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Sam said.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve been traveling a lot for a very long time and I don’t really know when I’ll stop.”
“Well you don’t look that old, honey,” she chuckled, “so you can’t have traveled that much.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Sam said.
“Nobody’s got a home around here anymore, have they?” she asked. “I feel lucky to have somewhere to go.”
“Yeah. That does sound nice,” Sam said. He watched Olga smoke and his heart started pounding in his chest so that he could see it through his heavy blue jacket. He imagined a home with Olga and thought of 100 things he wanted to tell her right there in that moment. Things about his old life and about his current life—if you could call it that—and about the life his mind was sketching out for them at a dizzying pace. He saw it all inside his head: a house, kids, pets, dinners, rooms filled with laughter and stories, quiet nights watching the sky. He closed his eyes for a moment to indulge this new life. Everything was dark and then he was gone.
A blindfold pressed tight against his eyes and a cigarette dangled from Sam’s lips, the smoke twisting upwards into his nostrils. He spit it out and heard it tap the asphalt.
“Now what’d you go and do that for?” Came a man’s voice some twenty feet away.
“This is so stupid!” he recognized the woman’s voice.
“Shut up! And you, put that cigarette back in his mouth!” the man shouted.
“No Daniel, this is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had,” She barked, “and there have been a lot of them.”
Suddenly, the air near his head snapped like a dead tree branch.
He pulled the mask away and saw that it was dusk. Olga, now in her thirties, was sitting on the curb near an unopened bottle of beer. Daniel—a short stout man in dark pants and a cowboy hat—was under the shadow of a tree coiling a bullwhip in his hands.
“Now we had an agreement, here,” Daniel said. “How am I supposed to hit the cigarette if you keep spitting it out?”
“A-a-a-al,” Sam muttered from the corner of his mouth.
“Pick up the damn cigarette,” Daniel yelled.
“Alright,” Sam said, bending over and pinching it off of the ground. “Can we go over the, uh, agreement one more time?” Sam asked realizing that he was drunk and that he’d never leaped into an inebriated body before.
“Alright, fine, for the last time. We’re taking turns here. I won the coin toss so I’m going first, and whichever one of us whips a cigarette out of the others’ mouth first wins.”
“Wins what?” Sam asked.
“Man, how drunk are you? The winner gets Olga’s hand.”
“He’s right Sam,” Al said, popping out of the ether at last. “According to Ziggy, there’s a 98-percent chance that whichever one of you whips the cigarette out of the other man’s mouth ends up marrying Olga.”
“And who am I?” Sam asked, rubbing his forehead.
“Your name is Lenny Reed. You’re the drummer in his band,” Al said, motioning to Daniel.
“And he is—”
“A country muscian named Daniel—”
“HEY! Are we going to do this or not?” Daniel yelled.
“Fine,” Sam said, putting the cigarette in his mouth and pulling the blindfold down. “Go!”
Sam took a deep breath, held it and waited. He heard the whip uncoiling as it stretched the distance between them and then felt it snap a foot in front of his face.
“Damn!” Daniel spit.
Sam pulled off the blindfold and walked toward Daniel, glancing at Olga who smiled at him, shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m alright,” he said.
Daniel approached and finished curling the whip in his hands. He thrust it into Sam’s chest and sneered.
“Al, what does Ziggy say? Am I supposed to win? This could be my chance.”
“I don’t know Sam, Ziggy still hasn’t figured out what you’re supposed to do.”
“I can whip the cigarette out of this guy’s mouth, no problem. I used to whip leaves off of tree branches all the time growing up on the farm.”
“I know, Sam. But you’d better miss until Ziggy figures out what you’re supposed to do.”
“But what if I’m supposed to marry Olga? What if this is what I’m supposed to do? This is the next best thing to home. Maybe even better!”
“Sam, I think you’d better miss.”
Daniel stood in the spot where Sam had been, pulled the blindfold over his eyes, lipped a cigarette and brought a lighter up to it.
“Let’s move!” he shouted from the corner of his mouth. Sam studied the heft of the whip in his hands, looked at Al and let the tail unfurl around his feet. He worked the end of the whip, swinging his arm lightly back and forth, then reared it back and sent the end cracking. A shower of sparks exploded off of the end of Daniel’s cigarette but it stayed in his mouth.
Daniel lifted the blindfold. “Close, but no cigarette!” he cackled. “My turn. Olga, hand me that beer.”
“Sam, that was smart. According to Ziggy there’s a 75-percent chance that if Olga marries you, you’ll both die within the year.”
“What? How do we die?”
“Ziggy doesn’t know, but if you really love Olga, I think you’d better let him hit that cigarette.”
Sam held out the whip and as Daniel grabbed it, he kept his grip on it. “You’d better take care of her.”
Daniel looked confused, but took the whip and stormed back to his spot under the tree. He took a long pull of beer, set the bottle on the ground and started swirling the whip around. “I got you this time, Lenny!”
Sam took his spot and lit a cigarette. He set it in his mouth and stared at Olga. She smiled at him, but the look one her face suggested Lenny was nobody special to her. He pulled the blindfold down and waited.
“C’mon, now,” Daniel muttered before sending the whip lashing down the street where it punched the cigarette out of Sam’s mouth.
“I’m going,” Olga said. She picked up her purse and walked away from both men out of the glow form the streetlight.
“See!” Daniel yelled after her. “Minnie Pearl didn’t make me her song and whip man for nothing, and I tried warning him.” He coiled the whip up hastily, picked up his beer and started running after Olga. Sam stood still and watched his as he passed.
“I told you so, Lenny,” Daniel muttered as he passed.
Sam watched them both get smaller in the dark and, feeling the heat of a leap coming on, closed his eyes.
The sun dropped behind the round maroon Furr’s Cafeteria sign as Olga handed a woman her change.
“Oh my,” she said, noticing the minor eclipse. “How beautiful.”
The woman grunted and shuffled toward the door. Olga continued looking out the window, counting the seconds that the sun hid behind the familiar sign. Thirty-nine—she knew good and well, but counted it off anyway. The glare made the letters disappear from sight and, if not for the smell of overcooked peas, Olga could have been somewhere else entirely. She smoothed her Furr’s apron, looked at her feet and wished she was barefoot in the grass.
The front door jangled open and she watched a boy walk into the cafeteria. He moved slowly, keeping his eyes on hers until he reached the register.
“Hello. Are you here for a meal, runseit?”
He shook his head. “Just some coffee.”
“Aren’t you a little young for coffee?” she asked.
He shrugged and stood still as the sun fell from behind the sign and washed everything away. She brought her hand up, smiled and heard him walk away.
The boy poured himself a cup of coffee at the beverage stand and found a table. The air smacked of killed vegetables and disinfectant. Al stepped into the room and sat next to him.
“Sam, what are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to see her,” Sam muttered.
“I knew I shouldn’t have told you where she worked, this is too dangerous. You’re here for a different reason and it has nothing to with Olga.”
“I know, Al. I’m not going to say anything to her, I just wanted to see her one more time before …”
“I know you love her, Sam, but did you stop and think for a minute that maybe your feelings have something to do with how many times you’ve leaped into her life? Especially starting with, well …”
“Leaping into her baby sister, I know.”
“She saved your life,” Al said, puffing on his cigar.
“I know. These leaps all felt different from the others, Al. They were all so fast, but they felt more like a part of my life—there was a real connection. Every time I see her I feel like I’m home. It’s a different home, though, not like back at the lab. It’s more like home in the waking moments before the end of a dream.”
“Which should tell you that this isn’t meant to happen.”
Sam sipped some coffee and watched a woman scoop mashed potatoes out of a metal dish with a giant ladle.
“You remember Lenny?” Al asked.
“Of course I do.”
“He died a few years after that bullwhip contest. Rolled a truck off a mountain highway and killed himself and his wife.”
“That doesn’t mean it would’ve happened if I’d stayed, Al,” Sam said staring his holographic friend down.
“Sam, this isn’t supposed to happen. Everything about this says so. You came into Olga’s life helpless and she saved you, which she would’ve done no matter what, you were her baby sister. This is all just an accident. According to Ziggy, she might have lived the same life even if you hadn’t been there. You should be happy for her, Sam. She has children, grandchildren—even great grandchildren.”
“I know,” Sam said, dropping his head into his hands. “I know.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to eat something, my darling?” Sam looked up and saw Olga standing over him smiling. “We have some beets that are just beautiful. I can get you a plate.”
“No, I’m fine. I have to go anyway. What do I owe?”
“Don’t worry runseit, I’ll get your coffee. You just go out there and have a good day, okay?”
Sam stood up and looked firmly into Olga’s eyes. She smiled and he grabbed her face and kissed her softly on the mouth.
“Goodbye,” he said, and walked away.
My Father’s Day gift this year was carte blanche.
“We can do whatever you want to do today,” my wife said as we got out of bed.
I decided that we should start with a matinee screening of Toy Story 3. Elias loves watching Toy Story (we have two copies on VHS, in case one craps out), and even though he lost his shit about 30 minutes into Up, forcing us to flee a crowded theater, I thought this would be different. He recognizes the Toy Story characters and he’s almost a whole year older.
About 45 minutes in, he started squirming in my lap and chirping “Let’s go home,” and “Let’s go back to the Subaru.” Rather than try and fight through another ten minutes, bribing him with M&Ms, we left the theater and opted for a drive to Boulder. Elias loves the outdoor Pearl Street Mall—it brims with buskers, kids, and stuff to climb on—and a walk sounded nice.
As soon as we parked the car, Elias announced that he needed to “poop,” so I had him lean into a tree and take his first, upright outdoor piss. That—along with Arius rolling over from his back—took care of my father’s day memories, but Nicole and I were exhausted and the day was still feeling like a bit of a wash.
Once turned loose on the mall, Elias tested our endurance, running zig-zag across the brick walkway and refusing to hold our hands as we crossed busy streets. We were both seconds away from throwing in the towel when were heard the violins.
A pair of high school-aged boys (one recently accepted to Julliard, their little sign said) stood opposite a smattering of kid-friendly climbing rocks rapturously playing a favorite Beethoven tune. Elias stopped, his arms dropped to his sides and he watched in silence. When they finished playing, he clapped enthusiastically and yelled out, “encore, encore!” Well, he said “more” anyway.
And more they played. Elias took turns watching from the front row and from a rock near the edge of a gravel pit. I stood on a small footbridge watching him, thinking to myself that I might be witnessing the formation of a memory. The particulars will be grayed away by time, but Elias might always harbor a fond, indelible memory of sunshine, violins and a large warm rock.
It was a very satisfying Father’s Day after all.
Then the duo played slimmed down version of “Nearer My God to Thee” and it was time to go home.
Very often, when I’m watching a movie with Elias, I’m actually watching him—studying his face to see what he’s seeing and how he might be seeing it. It’s mostly hyperbole, of course, because he’s only two years old, but I like to think that I can tell when he’s actually studying a movie. There are things that he watches and enjoys, like Yo Gabba Gabba, and then there are the bits of media that he’s rapturous about, like Marry Poppins. He quotes from the latter, and sings some of the songs, so I know it’s making a serious impact.
When we watched Fantastic Mr. Fox the other morning, his face took on a new hue. He was paying good attention but also appeared a bit flummoxed. This seemed appropriate. Working with a cast of small figurines on miniature sets, Wes Anderson’s obsessive attention to detail gets to flood every conceivable nook and cranny of the film to superb effect. Even though Mr. Fox isn’t as emotionally resonant as his other films, this picture is Anderson unbound.
I’ve been a stop-animation lover ever since seeing the Cosgrove Hall version of Wind in the Willows as a young boy. The sheer patience involved in the project still amazes me, as does the way the whole project comes to life in a very singular way. My ardor was only buttressed by the enigmatic works of Ray Harryhausen, but nothing I’ve seen has matched their ethereal quality of Wind in the Willows. There was really no other fantasy world I wanted to inhabit quite as much as that of Rat, Mole Toad, and Badger. Turns out Anderson consulted with Ian MacKinnon and Peter Saunders, the animators who worked on Wind in the Willows years ago.
No surprise then that there’s so much to love here. From the philosophical discussions of trying to curtail wild animal behavior to the way these impeccably dressed animals devour their food, the way the picture addresses the lapses in logic of anthropomorphism are clever with out being outwardly heady. The set design and costuming are utterly complete though the animation is purposefully rough. The tracking shots are unreal and the music is, well, a Wes Anderson soundtrack. I don’t think I’ve been as caught up by a Rolling Stones song in a movie since “Jumping Jack Flash ” greased the bar scene in Mean Streets. Here, “Street Fighting Man” accompanies the bloodthirsty trio of farmers as they use tractors to try and uproot the Fox family. Due to their shared affinity for tracking shots and great music alone, it seems totally natural that Martin Scorsese nominated Anderson as his successor.
More than any other directors that are coming to mind at the moment, these two grab a song and brand the hell out of it. I can’t listen to “These Days” without thinking of Margot Tenenbaum even though I knew the song before I saw the movie. Similarly, I can’t hear phase two of “Layla” without picturing a montage of gangland killings. That’s something.
Funny, also, how this clip of the openingt minute of Scorsese’s first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at my Door has a madcap energy similar to Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket.
The nut here is that I’m already hugely moved by the experience of sharing film with my older son. It’s enthralling in a way I could have never imagined. When both of my boys are older I like to imagine we’ll have recurring movie marathons. Today’s double feature, Wind in the Willows and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Tomorrow’s: Mean Streets and Rushmore.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (Full Version)
This little animation is cute and all, and Elias thinks it’s hilarious, but it led to the rather disheartening discovery that The Tokens are a bunch of white dudes.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens
I’d always pictured a robust and glowing black woman belting out the “weeomammaway,” not one of Blanche Devereaux’s anonymous beaus from Golden Girls. Granted the above performance is from 2008, but these dudes couldn’t hold their own against a stiff breeze, let alone a tired lion.
“Jamaican Farewell” by Harry Belafonte
Thankfully, the Belafonte fascination continues unabated. In this video, he looks like he could clean a lion’s teeth with his fingernail.
Last week was overcast with tweets from Roger Ebert and hordes of dissenters all orbiting around a blog post reasserting his argument that video games are not art. The dapper old curmudgeon in me who wonders why everyone is bonkers for Lady Gaga agrees with the sentiment, but the teenager in me can’t abide. I spent a lot of time in college pumping quarters into the one Samurai Shodown II machine in Alamosa, CO, and this isn’t the first time I’ve felt compelled to champion its artistic merit.
A classic fighting game in many respects, Samurai Shodown II transcends the genre with vivid, well-conceived characters dueling by sword in feudal Japan. My roommate, Steve, and I would spend hours at a time playing the game in the back hallway of a gas station on main street. Victory over one another or the computer was not the primary goal. We were on a journey. Trapped in one of the blandest towns in the state of Colorado, through SSII, we found escape to another world that teemed with style and excitement. The closer we got to mastering these characters, the further we felt from our surroundings. I even daydreamed a lot during classes about heightened gameplay—sword/kick combinations, power moves, combinations of power moves. (I also remained a virgin until I left Alamosa.)
Steve and I were handy with many of the game’s 16 characters, but we both held Ukyo Tachibana in the highest regard. Far from a one-dimensional brawler, Ukyo is a tubercular heartthrob based on real-life swordsman, Sasaki Kojirō, who was killed by the sword of Miyamoto Musashi (himself the inspiration for the character Haohmaru) in 1612. He fights for the honor of his true love, Kei Odagiri. Although she loves him, too (and watches him fight from afar), he won’t pursue a relationship with her because he is on the verge of death.
Steve and I were both romantics and Ukyo’s old-school gentlemanly decorum balanced against his powerful attacks made him quite the dorm room hero (there were conversations about him striking down Jordan Catalano to preserve Angela Chase’s honor). Intriguing as Ukyo is, almost all of the game’s characters are fleshed out and interesting. Mysterious ninja Hatori Hanzo is based on a Tokugawa samurai of the same name who died in 1596; Yagyu Jubei is based on another romanticized samurai called Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyshi (with his two swords, cigar and eye patch, he’d be right at home in Sanjuro or Yojimbo); Kyoshiro Senryo is a fictional kabuki warrior who hops about on one foot; Neinhalt Seiger, also fictional, is the son-in-law of a Prussian King with a gigantic mechanical hand; Charlotte Christine de Colde is a French noble woman whose fencing techniques are nothing to sneeze at.
Does that mean the designers at SNK are Tennessee Williams? Fuck no, but they did create characters with histories and futures that have continued to evolve as further installments are released (though it’s worth noting that, so far, the series has peaked with SSII). Furthermore, the game’s lush settings and amazing sound effects—the sound of a sword ripping through flesh has never been so maudlin—are heightened by musical score that pulsates with growing intensity as the matches draw closer to a conclusion.
Despite my ardor I don’t play many video games anymore. I don’t have enough free time to conquer a 13-hour adventure game, and even if I did have the time, I’d rather do something else.
We have a Playstation 3, but it’s existed solely as a Blue Ray player so far, which has reminded me that one of the amazing things about watching a great movie in the company of others is that you are all at rest, ready to absorb a story that unfolds in a tightly conceived manner. Video games don’t offer that shared experience. Watching someone play a video game is boring (SSII excluded), and playing one yourself is numbing.
Given the lighting-quick clip at which video games have already grown, I am intrigued and horrified at the gaming prospects my two boys will encounter in their teenage years. I doubt the inclination to classify video games as art will diminish, however, because it is a visual and auditory medium with the power to tell stories, however silly those stories might sometimes be.
Movies My Dad Took Me To See: My dad took me to the movies a lot when I was growing up. Instead of hauling me off to every piece of drivel aimed at my demographic, we usually saw something that he was interested in.
The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam, 1991)
By the time my dad took me to see this, my brother and I had already watched Time Bandits about 85 times on VHS and had seen The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen twice in the theater, so I was a young Gilliam enthusiast.
The thing that made the biggest impression on me was the way New York City became another one of Gilliam’s quirky, rounded characters. Central Park was an endless Quixotic playground, the skyscrapers were unfeeling sentinels of the powerful and disconnected and the city streets were arteries pumping weirdo-rich serum in all directions. The city, which has essentially chewed up and spit out the two protagonists, takes them back in a loving embrace by the end.
The Fisher King made NYC seem like damn magical place to 15-year-old me—in the transcendental Grand Central Station ballroom dance scene especially. Gilliam’s Big Apple swirled together with the whimsical version of the city in The Muppets Take Manhattan and the middling vision of Jason Takes Manhattan, creating an idealized interpretation that I held onto until I visited a decade later: that New York City was a place where genuinely eccentric people gathered and alchemized their own realities (sometimes with machetes).
Jeff Bridges is amazing in this movie, but Robin Williams still steals the show for me. The flack he gets for appearing in so much emotionally manipulative drivel is understandable, but the dude can roll (er, role). His monologue here about the little people appearing before his eyes at the crest of a mystical bowel movement resonates with me today as loudly as it did then.