Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Appledore Revisited: I Am Charles Ryder (& Ishmael for Melville's Birthday!)

Happy Birthday, Herman Melville! Born August 1, 1819.

I read the stupendous Moby Dick in college, like generations before me.  My experience of the great American novel is that it is a symphony: some chapters seem to be independent movements, but you come away from the whole as though you have heard a musical masterpiece.

My own schooner sailing experience, however, has more resonance with Hemingway and Waugh.

“I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.”

Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited

Last night I dreamt I went to the Appledore again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the dockyard, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. I called in my dream to the captain, and had no answer.

Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me, and I was once again on the familiar douglass fir deck, underway with the enormous sails around me.

M.A.Peel via Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca

I crewed for two summers during college on a schooner out of Sag Harbor, New York. The Appledore was the last schooner custom built by the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine, in 1978, designed by Bud Macintosh. After Herbert Smith sailed it around the world, he sold it to Cornelius Donovan and Ed Orr, two wild dreamers who were making a business of day sails in Gardiner’s Bay, and overnights from Montauk to Block Island. That’s when I entered their story.

I had only just sailed for the first time in college, as a guest of a childhood friend and the Georgia Tech Sailing Club for their annual tradition of sailing from Miami to Bimini. We were under a pelting storm across the Gulf Stream throughout the long night, and it was thrilling. When I got back home I wanted to learn to sail. I saw an article in Newsday about big boat sailing on the East End. I wrote 3 letters asking to be apprentice crew, and got 2 job offers. And so I landed on the Appledore.

Ed Orr: A Sagaponack Hemingway

The man who offered me the Appledore job was her captain Ed Orr, a retired principal of Southampton High School who loved sailing and the life of skilled sailors. He had a soft spot for an Irish American English major, and he received my letter just as he was thinking that he needed a feminizing influence for his overnight sails from Montauk to Block Island (although those aren't the exact words he used). His real schooner sailors were colorful, if a little rough on the edges. (They turned out to be great shipmates.)

He had sunk his retirement money into the Appledore, and strove to run it without losing the joy of it. Cornelius Donovan was a true Mad Men ad man,  a silent business partner who didn't interfere with how Ed handled the sailing.

Ed had the timelessness of the sailor's soul. He could have been been a whaler during the 19th century or on the deck of a Roman trireme.  I didn't know him well,  but there was a commonality of place and time: like my father he was in the service, I think also a Marine, went to college on the postwar GI Bill, and raised a family in postwar suburbia. He was blustery, with the Irish gift of storytelling. It wasn't hard to see that he was frustrated by some of the life choices he had made and he was railing against his fate in ways large and small, unimportant and corrupt: a classic tortured soul.

The Funniest Day: Tough Time Docking on Block Island

This memorable day took its first turn when the real schooner sailors George and Bobby both didn’t show up, and we had a usual sail planned from Sag Harbor to Block Island, with about 10 guests.

The captain that day was a very young, very talented guy named Robbie who had gotten his GRT 200 commercial captain’s license at a very young age.

“Captain—no guys today, just me.”

“No problem, we’ll be fine.”

Hmmmm. Maybe.

We had the guests to help raise the main and foresail, and the winds were low that day, so the run to Block was—yes—very smooth sailing. That wasn’t the problem.

The sun was just starting to set as we motored slowly through the forest of anchored boats in New Harbor on the way to Payne’s dock. I am standing in the bow, holding the bowline to throw, as Rob--

[I Interrupt This Story for Several Important Notes: Everything on a schooner is supersized. Even a fairly small amount of line on a schooner is very heavy. Lines are usually thrown overhand, to get the distance needed between ship and dock. I, alas, did not yet have much upper body strength, being fresh from two years of English majorness, compounded by sophmore mono. George and Bobby always do this part. Narrative resumes. . . ]

bie is piloting the 86-foot schooner toward the dock under a low engine. He brings the ship in at an angle, to get me as close to the dock as possible before he has to straighten it out. And in that flow of motion, I throw the dock line with as much might as I have. But---SPLAT!!!—--right into the water. Without the bowline to anchor us, Robbie has to swing away from the dock, and I have to haul the now wet, heavier, line back into the ship.

Robbie circles us around in as tight a radius as the size of the ship will allow, and we are headed again straight for Payne’s.

The Appledore coming into port is a majestic sight—it often attracts a crowd. Chug, chug, chug--we are close again---again I pick up the line, and throoooooow it with all my might.

OHHHHHHHHH the crowd roars, as the line once again falls into the water, and Robbie has to peel off, again.

I was horrified. I was exhausted. I was scared. What if I can’t get this line onto land? Isn’t this how the Ancient Mariner’s world went horribly wrong?

I can barely write this, but my throw fell short a third time. We were entering Monty Python territory now. (I built a castle, but it fell in. So I built another castle, and it fell…), but it wasn’t funny.

For insurance reasons, the guests are not allowed in the bow during docking, so even though there are some good sized guys with the guests, I am on my own. Once again, I coil the evil line. Robbie shouts that he is going to come in even more slowly, which means he can get even closer to the dock.

Chug-chug–chug. There is now a very large crowd gathered, many rows deep, waving, shouting, pointing to our ship. Mercifully, they are a blur to me. (I should have never left the safety of the library.)

Several resourceful, Frat-looking guys are forming a human chain to hang out as far as possible over the dock. Someone yells at me, “Throw it underhand.”

We are now close enough that I can lob 2 feet of this cursed line to the guy at the end of the human chain. He cleats us, Robbie goes into reverse, cuts the engine, and we are home.

I didn’t have time to be too mortified at that moment. I help the passengers off the boat, dress the deck as usual, and go into town.

After dinner I go to Captains Nick’s, a friendly place where the sailing crowd dances.

I am relaxing at the bar, when a very good-looking man starts the “what brings you here” conversation with me. Now, during this summer, I was not above aggrandizing my job a little--tall tales are the way of the world on the water--but that night, I say, “I’m an apprentice sailor, learning big-boat sailing.”

He looks straight at me and smiles and says, “I know.”


“I tried to catch one of your dock lines today.”

At the public dock in Sag Harbor

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Agatha Christie and Our Independence Day

I recently saw the hashtag #125stories on Twitter, and landed on the hub that the Christie Estate created as lead-up to the celebration of Agatha's Christie's 125th birthday in September.

"Whilst digging through the Agatha Christie archive we stumbled upon something quite special – a huge box full of old fan letters addressed to Agatha Christie. Their envelopes were decorated with stamps from exotic locations from every corner of the world, and their contents was even more diverse. Some even had replies from Christie herself."

The Estate decided to ask we current readers to share our stories.

I thought Independence Day would a fine day to share mine. Sure, we threw off their Imperialist rule, but the cultural bonds between the US and the UK would not be severed. Not even by my Irish-American grandmother, who had no use for the English, but was not so hard-line to forsake being a huge Christie fan.

Another lovely crossover to July 4th is this: Christie wrote a fascinating memoir entitled Come, Tell Me How You Live, which I wrote about last year. Her title is a quote from verse three of the White Knight's poem, Haddocks' Eyes, from chapter eight of Through the Looking-Glass (1871). And it was on July 4, 1862, that Lewis Carroll rowed upon the Isis of Oxford University with Reverend Duckworth and the three daughters of Henry Liddell, including Alice, which lead to the much-loved Adventures in Wonderland (which I wrote about here).

My #125Story for Agatha Christie

The skulls. Those perfect, bright red, cloned-like skulls, all sitting in a row. They fascinated me, tantalized me as a young child.

You know, the ones on the side of mystery novels. 

In my local library they were the only books with symbols on the spine. The other books all had dull Dewey decimal numbers. But the mysteries . . . they got the ominous skulls.

I got focused on the skulls because of my Irish-American grandmother, Mary Walsh O'Neill. She was a voracious reader of mysteries and my father, her son, went to the library every week to pick out books for her. I went with him, and that's when I first saw them. The rows upon rows of the red skulls on the shelf, and then the stack of six or eight my dad would carry out, and off to Grandma's.  It was a  lovely ritual.

Grammy read a wide range of authors, but Agatha Christie was first among equals. My first direct encounter with Christie was the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express, although I couldn't really follow it. But once I got to college, I was reading through the canon and enjoying every moment of it.

Most recently, I read her fascinating memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live, engaging travel writing of her time on archaeological digs with her second husband, Max Mallowan. What an extraordinary woman to get to know. Thanks for the early introduction, Grandma.

Oh Frabjous Day: Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Alice, Who Was "Born" on the Fourth of July!

Happy Birthday, Alice! Joining in the worldwide celebration for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland.

I wrote this look at Alice through the ages after seeing the 2010 Tim Burton film.  Bringing it up from the archive today because she was "born" on the 4th of July: 

"The famous story is said to have been told during a boating trip on July 4 [1862, while we were quite busy with the Civil War], when Charles, his friend Duckworth and the three Liddell girls rowed to the village of Godstow. " From The Public Domain Review.

What a wonderful intersection of American/British culture. Lewis Carroll published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland three years later in 1865, hence the 150th anniversary this year.

From 2010:

I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland at the IMAX the other day, although it’s neither the story Alice in Wonderland, nor Burton’s. It’s imaginative fanfic from screenwriter Linda Woolverton.

Wiki tells us that fan fiction “began at least as early as the 17th century, with unauthorized published sequels to such works as Don Quixote.” That book was so beloved that people just wanted the story to keep going, they wanted more of Quixote and Sancho. That to me is at the heart of fanfic-—you love certain characters and their fictional universe so much that you spin out tales of your own. The modern genre took off following Star Trek, and the fans who just had to have more of Spock and Kirk (from every angle).

And so Alice in Wonderland really should have been called something different. It’s a completely original story, some are calling a sequel. Alice is now 19, and her mother is pushing her into a marriage with a lord, who has red hair like the Hatter, but none of his charm.

She sees the White Rabbit at the garden party that is meant to be her engagement party, and just after the Lord has gotten on bended knee to ask her hand, she says she needs a moment and chases after the rabbit, who inevitably leads her to the rabbit hole.

Down we all go in a fairly violent fall. Besides all the characters, pieces of the original story poke through this fanfic, including “drink me” to shrink and “eat me” to grow. What’s funny is early on the Dormouse and the Rabbit have an omniscient voice-over dialogue while Alice is trying to figure out how to get through the tiny door, saying “gee, you’d think she would remember this from the first time.” It’s a cute, somewhat lazy, covers-all way to acknowledge the original story and forestall any logic issues with the new story. You really do think Alice would say something like, “Wow, this happened to me when I was a kid.”

The Tea Party Is Mad, NOT the Hatter

Well, he might be crazy, it’s just that Lewis Carroll never called him the Mad Hatter, in all the pages of Alice in Wonderland, just the Hatter. The name of the chapter is "The Mad Tea Party," but it’s popular usage that elided the “Mad” to the oft-referred character, with a back story of its own. “Mad as a hatter” is an old expression, derived from the mercury used to cure hatbands. It’s just not an association that is Carroll’s. The Disney movie posters got it wrong, but Woolverton had that detail right: Depp is only called “the Hatter.”

“Really, now you ask me, “ said Alice, very much confused, “l don’t think—“

“Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

“It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life.”

As a child I had a classic Crown edition of the book, with colorized John Tenniel drawings, but it was the one book on the shelf that frightened me. I would flip through the pages and Alice was ALWAYS scowling, looking angry and mad in his illustrations. First she is stretched out, then she is huge, stuffed into a small house. Playing cards attack her, the Red Queen is shrieking “Off with her head.”  I looked a bit like Tenniel’s Alice at the time (being a natural towhead then, and a chemically assisted one now), and I didn't find her very appealing. In face I thought she was scary looking.

As an adult it is a good read. There is a charming playfulness to the dialogue overstuffed with puns:

“What a curious plan! exclaimed Alice
“That’s the reason they’re called lessens,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”

But what struck me is how much Alice is put down as stupid by almost everyone/creature she meets:

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle. “Really you are very dull.”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,” added the Gryphon.

“You don’t know very much,” said the Duchess; “and that’s a fact.”

Woolverton reclaims Alice from this sort of humiliation. Alice expresses confusion about what’s going on, but she reasons out each step, and ends up in Joan of Arc armor to battle the Jabberwocky. Take that, Mr. Carroll. This is the 21st century, and girls/young women will not be put down. We have the power to tell our own stories, and we use it.

Alice Through the Years

Maxim de Winter: “Will you be Alice in Wonderland, with that ribbon in your hair?” from DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

Mia Wasikowska has no ribbon in her hair. There is a strange enervated quality to her Alice. I don’t know if she’s trying to seem blasé, or modern, or cool, but a little more personality would have given the film more of a lift.

Underland is a dark place ruled by the evil Red Queen/Queen of Hearts mashedup character, given lots of personality by Helena Bonhem Carter. I liked the use of 3-D, with the screen overfilling the viewer’s senses. Johnny Depp is more than the sum of ghoulish makeup and spikey orange hair. His fanfic Hatter is a good friend to Alice.

Lewis Carroll tapped into extremely primordial, collective unconscious feelings with his tale. The metaphor of ‘falling down the rabbit hole’ is a universal motif for the many instances in life where we go from knowing who and where we are, to the next minute being

someplace strange, either physically or psychological, and then not knowing who we are.  It's why Alice has been reinterpreted countless times for countless reasons since she first appeared,  from being a brunette for a book jacket and as a screen siren on the sheet music for the 1933 Hollywood version starring Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and W.C.Fields to being a roadster for a Ford print ad.

Alice: “I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?'"

Apparently, you are whomever humankind needs you to be at different eras in time. Thanks Alice.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

RIP Patrick Macnee: British Agent John Steed Has Left His Earthly Ministry

What an eventful week: the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was laid to rest—after being murdered in his own church—with a deeply moving funeral service in Charleston, where Brother Obama gave a lovely eulogy, which was quite literally while the news of the Supreme Court upholding Marriage Equality in all fifty states was announced and filled social media.

And in other news, Patrick Mcnee died at 93 at his home in California on Thursday, June 25.

It turns out that the last two items are connected. And you know how I love connections.

Patrick Macnee of course created John Steed, the top British spy of the English TV series The Avengers who had vague professional allegiances (MI5? MI6? There are only occasional mentions of even a minister.)

Macnee was born in London in 1922. His father trained racehorses and drank, and his mother

"took refuge in a circle of friends that included Tallulah Bankhead and the madam Mrs Meyrick, before absconding with a wealthy lesbian, Evelyn. Young Patrick was brought up by the pair and was instructed to call Evelyn “Uncle."

From the Telegraph obit. [Bucket list confession: I want to do something in my life that merits me a Telegraph obituary. They are the most beautifully written of all obituaries.)

Uncle Evelyn paid for Macnee's education at Summer Fields, and Eton, which of course gave him the RL experience to infuse his spy with such panache. And so we all say, "Thank you Uncle Evelyn."

See, that's the thing about Marriage Equality: people have FOREVER found their way to loving and dealing with who they truly are. Now it's more institutionally fair, no small thing.

Why The Avengers . . . Still
Each generation . . .around the world . . . finds and loves this early TV show. It has an exquisite combination of style, dialogue, wit, and chemistry between John Steed and Mrs. Peel. (Cathy Gale and Tara King have their own fans, but I am not among them).

I first saw the series in reruns on Sunday afternoon when I was very young and my father was watching. Details are vague, but I remember that checkerboard filmed for the American audience to help us understand. Not sure what the exact correlation is there, but it t dazzled me.

"Extraordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers."

When I later watched reruns as a teen, it was the unique and appealing relationship between a worldly man and an independent, braniac woman who happens to be stunning that kept me watching.  Mrs. Peel is a scientist, something played out more explicitly in the black and white season than the color.

Patrick Macnee had the unique professional opportunity of projecting his own creativity into the character he was hired to play: the journey started as a very shadowy, poorly limned second banana to Ian Hendry in the earliest series called The Avengers. When Hendry left, the show focused on Steed and his "secret agentness" and a civilian partner, Cathy Gale, was introduced.

When Honor Blackman left the series, Diana Rigg stepped in after a big search and a short, false start with Elizabeth Shepherd, who did not have much on screen chemistry with Macnee.

It's the chemistry between Macnee and Rigg that allowed the production team, including Brian Clemens, Julian Wintle, and Albert Fennell to let Steed & Mrs. Peel bring a very special élan to the TV landscape along with that partnership, first messaged meeting up on the chessboard, and then so simply with legs up on a desk.

There is a delicious sexual tension between the duo, with hints that they may have been lovers in the past before Mrs. Peel married, and that they are FOBs while Peter Peel is lost in the jungle from a plane crash.

Emma Peel: You know my wavelength.
John Steed: I do indeed.

That Hour That Never Was

A Touch of Brimstone

How to Succeed . . .at Murder

Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Station
Who's Who????

The Winged Avenger

Steed has impeccable manners, a ruthless streak, English reserve, a Bentley, Savile Row then Pierre Cardin suits, the perfect incarnation of an umbrella: he was the ideal of "English to the core" for post-War TV culture. 

The stories are imaginative and sometimes crazy, tiptoeing into science fiction in The Man-Eater of Surrey Green, mind control in Too Many Christmas Trees, and a villain who wants to drown the world with a rain-making machine in Surfeit of H20 (which was the basis for the "film which will not be named.") It's the total package for a fan.

When Diana Rigg left the series, her last line of dialogue as Mrs. Peel to Steed is

"Always keep your bowler on in time of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds."

Sweet advice, which I hope also served Macnee well over his long life. 

Fan Tributes
This is a short, poetic look at the duo, set to Norah Jones singing "The Nearness of You."

And this is a great look at Mrs. Peel, set to The Kinks.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Man on Wire" Becomes "Men with Parachutes": I'm Sad They Are on Trial

Update: The trial for the 3 young men who BASE-jumped from 1 WTC last year is underway. I still cannot believe the charges. From the Assistant DA's opening statement reported in the Daily News:

“This case is about the defendants' decision to exploit a New York City monument for their own selfish thrill and to turn the Freedom Tower into a crime scene before its doors were even open,” Assistant District Attorney Joseph Giovannetti.

It is exactly NOT that. They did not do it to exploit, or endanger. They did it because they are young and free. Our enemies convince teens to strap-on bombs on and blow people up. These guys CELEBRATE life by having the spirit to do something a little crazy, but harmless, if you read about their preparation. Watch the video below from the helmet-cam of one of the jumpers. You will see expert skill, and an empty roadway, as they knew it would be.

I pray that the jury embraces them, as they should. And give them community service to teach kids to always wear helmets . . . whenever they BASE-jump.

My original post:

 "The Port Authority joins the NYPD in condemning this lawless and selfish act that clearly endangered the public," Port Authority Chief Security Officer Joseph Dunne said in a statement. "It should be clear that the PAPD and NYPD will go to any length to bring those who defile the WTC site to justice."

Joseph Dunne's statement on the three men who BASE-jumped from One World Trade Center is one of the most depressing things I've read in a long time.

And competition for 'most sad and depressing things' is pretty high right now. 239 people vanish in a jumbo airplane that went wildly off course into the devouring expanse of the Indian Ocean--one of the closest realizations we have for "the middle of no where." 14 people have died horrific deaths in a mudslide in Washington, and 179 are still missing. Russia is trying to annex Crimea as though we were in the 19th century. And yet, the official condemnation of the jump from 1 World Trade Center ranks right up there.

September 2013
The topping off ceremony for 1WTC was on May 10, 2013. Four months after that, on September 30, at 3:00 am, four young guys climbed through a hole in a fence, made their way to the top of One World Trade Center, and three of them base jumped onto the West Side Highway. It was a caper. They admit to being thrill seekers, who saw a challenge.

‘It's a fair amount of free-fall time,’ said Andrew Rossig, one of the jumpers. ‘You really get to enjoy the view of the city and see it from a different perspective.’

They filmed the event, but as a private moment. At 3:00 in the morning, they knew there was almost no traffic on the West Side Highway, and as expert jumpers, no one was really endangered.

'Our intent was never for this to go public. We never posted the video footage. People didn’t know about it. We kept things quiet. As far as we were concerned, no one ever needed to know,' he added

They only posted their video after the police arrested them on Monday—six months after the jump—a week after the 16-year old kid from Jersey made his way to the top of the building too. So security is definitely something that the authorities need to look into. Right now. No question.

August 1974 . . . An Earlier Crime
On August 4, 1974, Phillipe Petite, a French high-wire artist, pulled off a stunt to walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Since he first read about the building of the towers at 17 he was obsessed with the idea of walking between them, and for 45 minutes, just before his 25th birthday, he did it.

He called it "the artistic crime of the century." And yes, it was a crime. No question. He trespassed, endangered others, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The title of the documentary Man on Wire that tells the story of how he did it comes from the police report that was filed: it was the best way the cop could think of at that moment to describe the crime. Yup, a man was on a wire.

And then people started marveling. What beauty. What positive imagination. What spirit of soul. What skill.

Ultimately the district attorney dropped all formal charges of trespassing and other items relating to his walk. In exchange, Petite was required to give a free aerial show for children in Central Park and other acts of community service.

And then the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey gave Petit a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck. Of course they thought it would be Petite's lifetime, not the towers.

Back to the Present
And now we have a new caper. Same beauty. Same inspiration, Same positive imagination. Same spirit of soul. Same crazy amount of skill. It's still a crime. And of course the site is changed forever since Phillipe's crime by the victims of the terrorist attacks.

These guys were not out to make a grand statement. They are thrill seekers. But life and spirit and imagination are the BEST weapons against the nihilism and death and hatred of terrorists. And to reclaim a site of such horrific death by something that makes the spirit smile is the best we who continue can do.

I LOVE seeing their film.  I love experiencing the fall vicariously, seeing the moment when the parachute opens. Seeing the landing, and running away to hide the parachute. I am so happy to have had this tiny little experience.

And this feeling of admiration sits along side the current day Port Authority guy calls it "defiling" the WTC.

So make the guys teach safe bicycling, or skateboarding, whatever to children, insisting that they wear helmets. And show them that there are consequences to actions.

But most importantly: show them that their spirits can never be destroyed by others who hate, and that they will be fine as long as they have friends who have their back.

(top photo: my copy of The New Yorker from 2006 with one of its all-time great covers.)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Happy 150 B-day, William Butler Yeats

Of all the poets I love, Yeats is first among equals in my heart. His sensibility, the imagery, the unrequited love of Maude Gonne, founding of the Abbey Theatre, the Irish Republic Nationalism coming from a scion of the Protestant Ascendancy: Yeats is simply magical from every angle. Wiki tells us that the Nobel Prize Committee described his work as "inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."

His phrases and imagery are instantly recognized and much beloved around the world: that "pilgrim soul" and he who "hid this face amid a crowd of stars; that is no country for old men; an aged man is but a paltry thing/a tattered coat upon a stick; wings have memory of wings; tread softly; a terrible beauty is born; I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above; Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love; nearly every line of The Second Coming: Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity. . . And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I studied Yeats quite a bit in college and grad school, but there was one poem I had not read until a psychiatrist I was going to brought it up in a session. I never understood the dear doc's point, but I love that Yeats had some thoughts specifically for blondes.  "For Anne Gregory"

NEVER shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.'

'But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.'

'I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.

Monday, June 8, 2015

TV Board Games 101: Dan Harmon Is Community's Old Soul

For some reason I started watching Community back in the day, Anno Domini 2009, aka season 1, and I was hooked. The repartee of the study group at Greendale Community College was some of the wittiest to be found. The pop culture references resonated strongly with me, making me part of its "cult following," and I was not afraid.

I will not try to summarize the élan of a series, you have to experience it for itself (try Hulu, Netflix).

But I must celebrate the tag scene of the season 6 finale--the season that streams on Yahoo--as a beautiful revelation of the old soul of Dan Harmon.


As of this writing it is not known whether the season 6 finale "Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television" is the series finale, or if there will be a season 7 on Yahoo or some other streaming service.

Dan Harmon wrote the episode with the characters pitching what could happen in a season 7. And that was fun.  But it's a fake TV commerical for the Community board game, with a family playing it on the dining room table, that is one of the all-time smartest endings of a series.

Yes. A board game. Based on a TV show.

They were a staple of my childhood. But I would think the whole phenomenon was about 10 years before Harmon's time: he was born in 1973. He wouldn't have first-hand attachment to this early merchandising.

But it's as though Dan Harmon was hovering over my girlhood birthdays (and my older brother's) and our Christmas mornings and learning what these games meant to us. From a crass perspective it was all the beginnings of the movie/TV tie-in merchandizing—sometimes officially counted from the Star Wars product juggernaut that started in 1977—but for a child these Milton Bradley/Ideal games were the first real-world extension of the TV show bond.

TV watching for me as a child was family time together, either the whole family, or just with my older brother in our playroom. I didn't really follow the shows we watched in the late sixties/early seventies, but that wasn't the point. It was time together around something as powerful as narrative.

Land of the Giants; The Time Tunnel; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Get Smart; the Saturday morning game show Shenanigans.

And then, when either my brother or I would get the board game as a present, it was exciting. We could use our imagination and  play at being the characters in Land of the Giants: I remember that safety pin circle card as though it were yesterday. And for Shenanigans it was like being in the TV game: I remember the Pie Eye and the tiddlywinks SO vividly. We played these games for hours and hours, and I played them with my friends for more hours and hours.

Community: the Board Game

For Harmon to end Community with a board game—a nondigital, noninteractive game— in 2015 is absolutely hysterical. The usual Community attention to the details of an homage is top-notch: the board pieces, the spinner, the action cards are all spot on.  It all works beautifully and harkens back to my childhood's simpler TV time, when the beloved tropes and semiotics of TV programming were just crawling their way out of the primordial soup. 

And then Harmon introduces the twist: the Son plays the script for Community as a ploy to take his Dad's pieces. But Dad realizes that if there's a script, then "they" don't exist. "We haven't been created by God, but by a joke."

Dad then plays the trump "snow globe" card: "We're all just a part of the universe in here."
(That's the Tommy Westphall Universe of course). This brings the family into sadness, as they contemplate their non-existence.

And so the ad voice-over comes in, as it does, with the details.

"Dice not included. Some assembly required."

(The dice were always included, so maybe it's a nod to "Remedial Chaos Theory" and the role of the die that lead to the darkest timeline?)

And then Harmon gives the perfect summation of his show, read quickly in his own"fine print don't pay attention to this" voice.

Lines between perception, desire and reality may become blurred, redundant or interchangeable.

Characters may hook up with no regard for your emotional investment. Some episodes too conceptual to be funny, some too funny to be immersive and some so immersive they still aren't funny.

Consistency between seasons may vary.

Viewers may be measured by a secretive, obsolete system based on selected participants keeping hand written journals of what they watch.

Show may be cancelled and moved to the internet where it turns out tens of millions were watching the whole time. May not matter.

Fake commercial may end with disclaimer gag which may descend into vain, Chuck Lorre-esque rant by narcissistic creator.

Creator may be unstable. Therapist may have told creator this is not how you make yourself a good person. Life may pass by while we ignore and mistreat those close to us. Those close to us may be those watching. Those people may want to know I love them but I may be incapable of saying it.

Contains pieces the size of a child's esophagus.

To capture entire imaginary worlds and systems of media in a minute ad takes a lot of talent. To also evoke an emotional component is the work of an old soul. I hope Harmon turns down any opportunity to continue on to a season 7. I don't think the fans would be well served, and it would ruin this perfect closure.  But I'm all for #andamovie.