Monday, January 24, 2011

Dr. Strangelove is my favorite movie, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dark Humor

  I grew up in a house with a group of people who reveled in laughing at things at which polite society hath deemed not ought to be laughed.  Humor could always be found in things both dark and disturbing.  My mother being an RN in obstetrics and later a surgical nurse would generally provide dinner time conversation revolving around the latest rectal hernia case they worked.  My father was the county director for Special Education and after dealing with many of the “parents” of emotionally and physically abused children, I think that finding humor amid such horrors kept him from losing his mind.  Living on a horse farm also made us keenly aware of the harsh realities of nature.  (Whoever says that birth is a beautiful process has obviously never seen a tractor drag a colt from a mare’s prolonged vagina.)  So my sister and I gravitated easily into the orbit of guffawing during horror films and snickering at funerals.
  Thus when I first read “Cat’s Cradle” by Vonnegut I laughed myself to tears as the world came to an end.  I would watch Harold hang himself in his Mother’s parlor and find no end of amusement.  A sketch wherein a man repeatedly attempts to convince a shop owner that the parrot that he purchased not half an hour ago was indeed dead?  Hysterical!
  The key to good dark humor is to get the audience to see the absurdity in something that would normally be terrifying.  What could be funnier than the end of all civilization and human-kind as we know it?  That’s right, nothing.  And no work of art tickles that particularly sinister part of my funny bone quite as well as the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

 The War Room

  While many of the technical aspects are far outdated the sentiment is timeless.  The U.S. has an enemy with whom the politicians dance the diplomatic tango, despite the fact that said enemy would gladly see us all dead and burned.  In this case the enemy is the U.S.S.R.  (Bear in mind that this movie was made in 1964 when Cold War tensions were high and the Bomb we learn to love is the Atom Bomb.)  The Ruskies have invented a Doomsday Device which will destroy all plant and animal life on the planet should any of their key targets be attacked.  It is intended as a deterrent, but fails as such as the Soviet Premiere was saving announcing its existence at a U.N. meeting the following month.  Unfortunately, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Just one of the many great character names.) has lost what was left of his marbles and decided to save our drinking water from Soviet fluoridation by launching a first strike against the Godless, cowardly, pink bastards.  A group of the best military minds, including the unabashedly scene-chewing George C. Scott as Gen. Buck Turgidson, a brilliant Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley (One of three roles he plays in this film.) and Peter Bull as the Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky are hard at work in the War Room coming up with a plan to stop what the mad General has started.  Meanwhile, up in the clouds flies a plane piloted by Slim Pickens as Maj. “King” Kong who serves up his lines with a side of fried Okra and hominy grits.  He and his crew are carrying their nuclear payload right to Ivan’s front door, and cannot be recalled because the only person with the recall code is our demented Gen. Ripper.  Hysterical, right?

There's no fighting in the War Room!

  Many parts of this film make me laugh from the broad, obvious jokes such as the line, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here.  This is the War Room,” to the more subtle nuances such as the choice of closing song.  (We’ll get to that in a minute.)  However, the parts that always makes me cramp up from insane giggles are all of the scenes in the War Room.  While the world is leaning over the brink of destruction this team of leaders squabble like a group of 12 year old boys playing Dungeons and Dragons in a suburban basement.  In possibly the greatest moment of the film, President Muffley makes a phone call to the drunken Russian Premiere to let him know that we are about to inadvertently drop a bomb killing many of his citizenry.  Go ahead and watch.  I dare you not to laugh:

*Spoiler Alert*
  Not really a spoiler, because even if you haven’t seen it, surely you have figured out how this all ends.  Slim Pickens rides the A-Bomb as if it was a buckin’ bronco all the way to ground zero and the Doomsday Device becomes enabled.  As we watch mushroom clouds engulf the planet under the closing credits, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again”.  Now that’s a funny ending.

I am required by law to include
this shot when writing about this film. 

  The film’s source material is the novel Red Alert by Peter George.  George’s novel is a thriller and was meant to raise awareness of a very real flaw in the then military chain-of-command.  Kubrick did with it what he always did with source material, he took the parts he liked and changed the parts he didn’t, even character names.  Thus, he took what was intended as a serious look into the complexities of arms management and turned it into a satire mocking not only the military and politics, but our own fears which had been trumped up by the media.  Maybe now you see why I find the film so universal.  Today the enemies may have changed, but the same social environment abounds.
  So, if you are one of those folks who can’t read the obituaries without stifling a giggle, this may be the movie for you.  If not this one, I have a list of many, many others that may suit your particular tastes.  Believe me, when watched from the right perspective Sophie’s Choice can be downright rib-tickling.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Joss Whedon knows me: Part I

  This is to be the first in a series of musings on my love for all things Joss Whedon.  I realize that this is unheard of in the blogosphere, as no one else has ever written anything about him.  You should feel as heroic and groundbreaking treading forward into these words as the early pioneers felt wandering into the western wilds.

My virtual friends.  What?  It is perfectly healthy.

  I suppose that it only makes sense that this first in the series start where all Whedon Lore begins... with Buffy.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite television show.  That simple.  While I may watch others, it will always come back to Buffy for me.
  Before I go any further, let me temper my earlier sarcasm by stating that there is little that I can say here that hasn't been said already.  My favorite take to date happens to also be on my favorite blog, Kindertrauma.  To read the words of the inimitable Unkle Lancifer go here, All I plan to do is what I intend to do with every post here and that is explain how Buffy helps me deal with life.  Redundant sentiments or not, my heart is determined that I tell my story.
  In order to give my full perspective we all need to hop into the Wayback Machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman where we will be setting it for 1997.  I was but a wee lad of 25.  I was making a living as a playwright, a theater tech, an actor and in many side projects including work in a local sideshow.  Life was going exactly as I had expected it.  To top it all off, a new television show called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" came on the scene.  I remembered seeing a film of the same name some years before and being mildly amused, but mainly remembering Paul Reuben's credit-stealing death scene.  A TV show?  I had a bit much going on in my life for TV, but I made time for the occasional episode when I could.  I loved what I saw, but was too busy to be able to make watching a ritual.
  Fast forward to one year later.  My wife was pregnant, my jobs were all falling to the wayside and I would very soon be completely unemployed with no idea what to do with myself.  Well, at least now I had time for television.

 Despite their tendency to rip out a heart here and
there they had surprisingly good manners.

  Very soon my Tuesday nights were my sacred time.  With my newborn son asleep on my chest I would watch Buffy and the Scoobs as they saved the world with smarmy remarks, martial arts and pop culture references.  As my career took a sharp turn and I was suddenly working as a mapmaker, Buffy was always a constant.  I could count on them because, unlike most of the other people I was now working with, Buffy and the gang got me.  Xander knew just what to say to make me laugh.  Willow, like me, felt like the nerdy outcast who needed to dabble in witchcraft just to try and feel important.  And Buffy.... well, who doesn't want to be friends with the sassy cool girl?
  What is it about Joss Whedon that taps into the heads\libidos\lives of we geeks so well?  Is it simply because he is one of us?  I think what it comes down to is that he does whatever he thinks is the best thing for the show.  It usually turns out that it is also the best thing for the fans.  Even when Buffy was hitting the occasional snag in the sixth season, I could still count on each episode to deliver at least one moment of catharsis.

We've all had days that ended like this.

  The show just has so many complexities over all that it is hard to pin down what I like best.  I could write an entire thesis on the psychology behind Angel and Buffy's relationship.  (A guy who doesn't age, expects nothing of the girl but long staring sessions and who can't have sex.  Oof!  The stuff of fairy tales.  Amiright, ladies?)  Buffy coming to terms with dying, coming back, dying again and coming back again.  That whole Spike\Buffy relationship.  That whole Buffy\Faith relationship.  A spontaneous sibling in Dawn.  A trio of nerds as villains.  The "Hush" episode.  The "Ted" episode.  "Once More with Feeling," that's right.  A musical.  A freaking musical.  Speaking of music!  There should be a compilation album of all of the fantastic bands that played The Bronze.  Like all Whedon written things, however, it is really about the characters.  Care about the characters and they stories tend to write themselves.  Joss loves these people, so, in turn we love them, too.  (I don't go to many conventions and it is probably for the best.  I like my Buffy to be carrying Mr. Pointy, my Oz covered in fur and my Spike to have an English accent.  A dark haired James Marsters would just about ruin all of the fun for me.)

A musical?  It is like Whedon is in my head.

  Here we are now, some 8 years on since the last episode aired and I can still pick any one of them to watch and be happy.  Especially now as my son no longer sleeps on my chest, but sits next to me as we watch together.  Better still, he suffers through me pointing out references that he might have missed.  Of course, we have raised him too well for him to miss a good pop culture reference, but he humors me... most of the time.  So, the torch is passed.  Who knew geek was hereditary?
  Rereading this, I feel like I am doing a lousy job explaining my passion for this show, but I guess that is the point.  Like all love, it is simply to complex to put into words.  It will be just as bad whenever I decide to write about Firefly.  When it comes down to it love of a good TV show is just like love of a certain food.  No two tastes are alike.  It is likely that even those people who love this show as much as I do love it for very different reasons.  It is more likely for those people to argue against my points more voraciously.  That's love, though.  And the more geek the love, the more geek the arguments.
  I guess it is this.  Everyone has that show that, whenever they are down can pick them right back up.  Something that seems to be talking directly to them.  Same with books, movies, music... that is the entire point of this blog.  How we all use these things to make a bad day better.  Buffy has made many a dark day shine through with a little sunlight down to burn my vampires to dust.  Just as she is destined to do.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Breaking Away

  Growing up a Hoosier I learned that there are a few required tasks.  A Hoosier should read Vonnegut, listen to John Cougar (Not John Mellencamp, but Johnny "Rockin'" Cougar.) and watch "Breaking Away."  While Vonnegut remains my favorite author to this day and I have begun to start to kind of appreciate what John Mellencamp has done musically (Johnny Cougar has yet to move me.) it is the movie "Breaking Away" that has had the longest lasting impact on me.

Meet Dave.                  

  For those unfamiliar allow me summarize the plot.  In Bloomington, IN there was an apparent class war going on in the 70's between the students at Indiana University and the Bloomington natives who barely graduate high school and go on to work cutting Limestone in the quarries, or "Cutters."  This name carries the multiple-meanings of cutting stone, cutting class and, more ominously, cutting life short.  Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher, who would later reenter my life as Cyvus Vail in "Angel."), the son of a used car salesman, is a Cutter.  He does not, however, lie down and let life roll over him.  Instead he pretends to be an Italian student to woo the college girl of his dreams.  He also rides his bike.  He RIDES his bike.  His passion for cycling, for the Italian cyclists of the day, for the Tour de France and the Spring Classics and chains and ball bearings and cassettes and.... well, he just really loves cycling.  The movie climaxes with Dave assembling a team of his friends (Including Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid and a young, not yet scary, Jack Earl Haley.) to race in the, traditionally college student only competition, Little 500.  (This is a real bike race that takes place in Bloomington to this day.)  The Cutters end up winning the race and all is right with the world.

JEH in his less harrowing form along with some other actors.              

  Yeah, I know, it is not an original story, but for a Hoosier in, as I posted last time, a small town it was just what I needed to see.  Cycling quickly became my passion.  I moved steadily up the cycling hierarchy from Sears 10 speed to Huffy 10 Speed to (Insert blows of the one thousand trumpets of the angels here.) a Schwinn Super le Tour 10 speed racing bike.  This was a bike meant for kicking some Italian ass and leaving the French in your dust.  My best friend got a similar model and he and I would ride.  I don't just mean kids riding around the neighborhood.  I lived on a horse farm six miles outside of town.  So, when Mark (Best friend.) and I rode our bikes, that means on an average summer day we could put in 40 to 50 miles easily.  Not just any miles, but climbing and descending the knobs of southern Indiana.  The climbs were the payment for the joy of descending again.  Hitting anywhere from 30-40 miles an hour on our bikes we would less ride than fly down those winding hills.  The poetry of body and bike was always evident on those descents.  Leaning in and out of curves while debating the merits of keeping the upper knee in against the frame or sticking out in the wind.  How low could I keep my body and still maneuver safely?  Cars, cinders and the various other distractions were gone to us.  We simply rode, comparing our top speeds from our cycling computers that in the 80's were the size of encyclopedias.
  I could mention that cyclist in southern Indiana were then, and still are, given little respect.  The cups of soda and ice thrown at us, the cars veering into our path, etc.  I really don't think about those things, though.  What I remember best is the cadence of my feet as I pedaled.  When at my best they were fluid in motion one following the other in a primordial rhythm to a beat that only I could hear.  When at my worst I seemed to be stomping the pedals to the ground as though crushing cockroaches with my toe clips.  It didn't matter so long as I was still pedaling.
  I still ride today.  My passion for it has not waned, even though my ability has been somewhat hampered by age and dwindling knees.  Today, as in my youth, I still think of Dave Stoller at least once a ride.  I remember how he taught me that, regardless of the distance I am going and the location in which I am riding, every bicycle ride is a journey of significant magnitude.  It can take you out of the small town and into a blur of color and sound where no one but you exist.  A bicycle can turn commuting to work into commuting through the streets of Florence.  A ride, in short, can turn a Hoosier into an Italian. Grazie, Dave!

The author and his bike in Beulah, MI.  Pedaling his Hoosier roots in the Wolverine State.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nevermind the Haystacks

  Growing up in Hanover, IN was not how I envisioned my youth.  From an early age I felt less like I was growing up and more like I was waging a personal war on the mundane.  Hanover is a very small town that happens to have a college in it.  I would call it a college town, but that conjures images that do not apply to Hanover.   To me a college town is a place like Bloomington, IN or Madison, WI.  Five or six iconic bars, quaint used-book stores, a music store full of obscure titles and an over-large classical section, maybe a coffee house or two with open mic nights.  Hanover, as I knew it, had one bar on the outskirts of town called “Johnny Rebs.”  Johnny Rebs was\is a smoky, smelly, slightly scary brick edifice specializing in cheap beer and angry clientele.  I went once after I had graduated from college and ran into many of my old high school teachers who seemed to be contesting for the honor of drinking away the memory of all of the former students.  Who could fault them?
  My sister left for college when I was in Junior High.  She went to Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.  As mentioned above, a real college town in every sense of the word.  When she would come back for visits she would let me listen to the music that she would get at the record stores there.  Violent Femmes, The Dead Milkmen, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Sex Pistols and a thousand other bands that had rarely been heard of by the inhabitants of my hometown.   My mind was opened to a completely new world.
  The thought that music could be used as a political tool was nothing new to my sister and me.  My parents owned the Woodstock Movie soundtrack, so we had heard people lashing out at the establishment.  However, nothing was like the first time we cued up “Nevermind the Bollocks.”  The sound of marching boots followed by Steve Jones grainy, explosive guitar and then this high-pitched, whiny voice began mocking the entire monarchy of England.  “God save the Queen!\The fascist regime!\They made you a moron!\A potential H Bomb!”
  While my transition was not overnight, after a couple of years of listening to the music my sister continued to introduce to me, I was seeking it out for myself.  Then I began discovering the culture of the music as well.  It was not long before I had my combat boots and leather motorcycle jacket adorned in safety-pins and a large Sid Vicious patch on the back.  A small town rebel with nothing to lose and everything to prove.  Patton Oswald once said in an interview that he was a “Repo Man soundtrack punk rocker.”  That summed me up pretty well.  While I dressed the part and listened to the music, the real ethos of punk, and the lack of awareness that it was dead before I was in fifth grade, was never in my realm of consciousness.  (And before I get berated about saying punk is dead let me just state now that it is a never-ending argument in which I will no longer be engaged.)
  Despite my reflection on it now, I wouldn’t trade my attitude in those days for anything.  My appearance caused me no end of trouble in my small town high school.  Day after day of threats and stare downs from the bitter, squinted eyes of hateful people who despised anything they did not understand, all I was able to endure because of the music.  Jello Biafra’s improvised stage story about the last time he was in Portland, Dean Clean singing “Tiny Town,” “Kiss Off” by The Violent Femmes was a personal favorite.  The music always made it easy to walk down the halls and endure it.
  I will probably be writing a lot about music, because it is the most prevalent driving force in my life.  Listening, performing, writing, et al.  But it all started on those weekends so long ago when my sister trusted me enough to introduce me her own musical discoveries.  I will always be grateful to her for that.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Half Clogged Drain

A couple of years ago I had to do a plumbing task, so I cued up my IPod to Jim Dale reading “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and began disassembling drains.  It was easier this time to do the work and listen, for what must have been the 20th time, to Harry as he struggled with adolescence and government oppression, than it had been in previous plumbing experiences.  As it turned out, Harry had a lot to do with that.
Rewind to about two-and-a-half years before the drain project.  I had woken up earlier than usual on a Monday morning, about 4:30am.  Rather than lay in bed until the dreaded alarm I sat myself in front of my computer and surfed the net.  At about 5:30am the phone rang.  A phone call at that time is rarely someone telling you good news.  This call was no different.  It was my mother calling from New Mexico where she, my father and brother were taking a vacation to tell me that during the night my father had died suddenly.  Certainly not what I was expecting, but, as it was August, I was more guarded for this sort of thing than had it been, say September.  (My family has had a string of bad luck with the month of August, so it is a month that we seldom take for granted.  In fact, we no longer acknowledge it as an actual month, but instead refer to it as the month of Gloop, as in Augustus Gloop.)
The next week was fairly standard death-in-the-family fare.  My mother and brother flew back from New Mexico in an unimaginable state of shock, we arranged the funeral, we were given a ton of food by the many, many visitors and we just tried to get through.  My way of getting through was to build his coffin because he had always said that he wanted something simple and because he was the man who had taught me carpentry.  Finally, the time for the funeral came and I delivered the best eulogy that I could.  I have since decided that no eulogy should be delivered until at least a year after the deceased has passed.  Only then do you really know what you are going to miss.  It is this last part that leads me to how Harry Potter changed how I do plumbing, because I found that I really missed calling the old guy.
It was a tradition of sorts that whenever I began any job around the house, be it carpentry, electrical or plumbing that I would call my dad while I was driving to the hardware store.   Sometimes it was for advice, but more often than not it was for commiseration.  The conversations went something like this:
Dad: Hey, bud!  What are you up to?
Me: Changing out the kitchen sink.
Dad: Ohhhh shit.  Your mom is after me to put a new faucet in ours.
Me:  I am pretty sure that this new sink was just a ploy to get a new faucet.
Dad:  Your wife is so clever.
And so on.  Not long after his death I found myself on the way to the hardware store for something and I was dialing his number.  Since his death I had kept his cell phone with me in order to take calls from any work associates he had who may not have heard about his death.  It was not until it began buzzing in my pocket that I remembered that he was not going to answer.  This would turn out to be something that I would continue to do out of habit.  More than once I would be ensconced in a project and realize that I needed his counsel only to catch myself in the act of dialing his number.  It was equal parts frustrating and depressing.  I was frustrated because he died just days shy of his 60th birthday.  How does that happen in this day and age?  Why didn’t he take better care of himself?  The nerve of him to die when I still have projects to do.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was released two years after dad died.  Prior to its release I had listened to the audio books from Book 1-6 in order to be up to speed when reading the final book.  It was while reading book 7 that I felt a great weight slowly being lifted from my chest.  It came in the understanding that the books were less about an adolescent hero facing an evil foe, but more about the fragility of life and the appreciation of life that can come only when one accepts that death is not the end.
Let me note now that this is not a new thought.  Rowling herself has been quoted saying, “My books are largely about death.”  New or not, for me it was a revelation and a source of great comfort.  Dig it:

“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” –Dumbledore, HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” –Dumbledore, HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

"Oh, come on. You heard them, just behind the veil, didn’t you? They were just lurking out of sight, that’s all. You heard them." –Luna Lovegood to Harry explaining why she is confident that she will see her dead mother again, HP and the Order of the Phoenix.

"Indeed, your failure to understand that there are much worse things than death has always been your greatest weakness." -Dumbledore, HP and the Order of the Phoenix.

“Do not pity the dead, Harry, pity the living. Above all, pity those who live without love.” –Dumbledore, HP and the Deathly Hallows.

For the record, I was not, until the moment of realizing all of this, a slobbering drone of inefficiency.  While I was still burdened by the untimely death of my father, I was moving on.  It is simply that these, let’s be honest, fairly benign pontifications about life and love and death are generally taken for granted by all but only the most romantic among us.  And even Lord Byron took a day off once in a while.
When it comes down to it, these books helped me to understand that my loss was neither unique nor was it insurmountable.  I think that anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a loved one could attest that it is often a longer lasting grief than the loss of one whose death is predicated by disease or age.  It turned out that the understanding of death that I garnered from these books lead me to read more on the subject, which many of us, understandably, avoid out of a guarded sense of our own mortality.  I found that the sudden death of my father two plus years previous and even the equally sudden death of my sister some seventeen years before that were both far more present in me than I realized, but suddenly I was able to embrace the memories of them rather than mourn the loss.
Because of this I am now able to embark on a DIY task and no longer hate the thought that I cannot call on the old man for help.  Instead I pick up the tape measure that he gave to me all of those years ago and know that he is here, ready to remind me to measure an extra eighth of an inch beyond to compensate for saw blade width, or simply to commiserate on the drudgery of the task at hand and to remind me that there is a good, dark ale awaiting me in the fridge when I am done.  “Your father is alive in you…and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.”  Indeed he is, Professor.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What the what?

Why, oh why, dear Dylan Donnie-Duke Dali Lama are you wanting to get in on this entirely new thing called blogging?  What possible value could you have to add to the millions of voices already stirring emotions and ringing truths 'cross the internets?  In short, just what makes you so special?  Yes, I hear all of you crying out with these questions and more, so here, in my first post, I will attempt to answer, and hopefully give some solace.
Why am I doing this?  It could be that I simply forgot how to masturbate in the old fashioned way.  However, I got to thinking (A thing which I am loathe to do, but is sometimes unavoidable.) about how I have managed to get through the more trying times in my life with the aid of plain and simple escapism.  Though what I have learned is that it is less an escape than a calculated plan of attack on whatever obstacle seems to be muddying my path.  While I might be putting on my headphones and listening to The Cramps "Bad Music for Bad People" after a particularly off-putting meeting at my office, I am not merely escaping into the music.  I am channeling the angst and furor of Lux and Ivy until I finally reach a catharsis of reasonable not-going-postalness.
Okay.  That does sound like bullshit.  I agree.  So, let's look at it this way.  Dig the fella' in the photo on my title page.  I took this pic while I was at Star Wars Celebration III here in Indianapolis.  Some might look at him and wonder what possible miss-deeds were perpetuated upon the poor lad to lead him to dressing like a nondescript character from a sci-fi fantasy.  I see him as the personification of all that this blog is about.  When life hands you lemons, make lemonade, then sell enough lemonade until you can afford your own Stormtrooper costume and spend your weekends giving real-life the finger.
That is what this is about.  Pop Culture coping skills.  Please feel free to e-mail me your own pop culture coping skills at if you would like to share.  Together we can make a more blah, blah, blah.....
Next post:  Harry Potter changed how I do plumbing.