Friday, May 29, 2009

Deja Dewar's

One of the fallouts of my mother selling her house was the mountain of my own papers and books that I had to go through and dispatch somewhere.

Much of the journals and early pieces of writing unearthed have been equal parts poignancy and hilarity read in the bright stark light of 2009.

One piece really took me by surprise. When I was 24, I wrote a Dewar’s Profile for myself.

I thought that the Dewar’s profiles were the most sophisticated, most wonderful snapshots of success in the world. I loved the interplay between the authoritative 3rd person statements and the 1st person quotes. They were always in my two favorite periodicals: New York Times Magazine section, and the New Yorker. I felt that if I ever became successful, I would have a Dewar’s profile. It’s one of the very few measures of success that I have ever thought about. Mercifully the ad campaign stopped before I had to face that music.

I couldn’t find many examples of old ads online. This one of Ola Hudson (mother of Slash) is from the seventies. It's unfamiliar to me because that was before my time for noticing such things. But the Henry Threadgill is from 1989, one of my prime viewing years.

The campaign began in 1969 with Jerry Orbach as the first profile of Dewar’s White Label brand. It was one of the ad agency Leo Burnett’s most successful campaigns ever.

Willy the Shake told us “To thine own self be true.” The depth of self-knowledge in my profile astounds me, if I may so say; I don’t remember being so self aware at such a young age. What a strange personal time capsule this was to find.

There were slight variations on the categories over time, but when I was 24, these were the ones in the ad I had torn out of the NY Magazine section.

M.A. Peel

New York, New York

AGE: 24

PROFESSION: Writer/Editor

HOBBY: Singing Renaissance Polyphony “Why have just melody and harmony when you can have 4 equal lines”

LAST BOOK READ: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E.Lawrence

Writing her way out of academia to the travel world then to Wall Street. “Actually, I used to be a schooner sailor, but I tired of the Tallulah Bankhead/Lifeboat impersonation. Now I write on land, even in offices.”

WHY I DO WHAT I DO: “They say the world comes to your doorstep when you read. What they neglect to mention is that it only makes sense when you write.”

PROFILE: Somewhat detached, blessed with curiosity. “It takes a lot of listening to write well. I’m a very good listener.”

GOAL: “To love, to sing, to write, and not to age.”

SCOTCH: Dewar’s White Label.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Star Trek: "That Which Survives"

I went to see Star Trek the other day at the Ziegfeld. What’s exciting about this rebooting of the franchise is that it calls to the front your own relationship to the series. Clearly there was something special about the original series that imprinted itself deeply on the first sixties prime-time generation, and then on an immediate second generation in syndication in the seventies. That was my time, those years that it played in the seventies EVERY DAY on WPIX (Channel 11, which our own Mr. Peel also remembers).

My brother and I watched it every day, during our parents’ cocktail hour before dinner at 7:00, with our own little ritual: he sat reading while I roller skated around the large playroom during the commercials. We did this for years, and along the way learned much of the dialogue of the original 79 episodes, as Dr. McCoy saw white rabbits and Charlie Evans crossed his eyes and Spock hung upside down on a tree. We played “name that episode” where we would shout out which story it was within 3 or 4 seconds of the pre-opening credits.

One day the rollerskating stopped, and so did my connection to Star Trek. I did not go on to TNG or Voyager; I liked The Wrath of Khan, but didn’t follow the other movies. But my knowledge and emotional connection to the original runs deep.

I Heart Captain Kirk

Yes, as a girl I was deeply in love with James T. Kirk. Too young to see the hyperbolic acting, I was attracted to the smile and sex appeal and power. I thought Spock was cool, but I loved Kirk. (Kirk, a man married to his job, emotionally unavailable. Hmm. Perhaps the origins of a dangerous pattern . . . )

I also loved the teamwork between the seven: Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and team leader Kirk. They were all smart and talented and really good at their jobs. (I didn’t learn until I was older that that was part of the fantasy of the series :)

But above all, I loved the friendship between Spock and Kirk, one of history’s all-time great couples. As Manohla Dargis says in her review: ““Star Trek” is fundamentally about two men engaged in a continuing conversation about civilizations and their discontents. Hot and cold, impulsive and tightly controlled, Kirk and Spock need each other to work, a dynamic Mr. Abrams captures with his two well-balanced leads.” Each man is more fully realized in apposition to the other, and happy to be so.

Star Trek a la Team Abrams

I loved the film.


I’m not interested in the issues raised by resetting the timeline by time travel. That’s for the fan boys to worry over.

What was so satisfying for me were the loving echoes in the writing and the acting, echoes that only a real fan of the series would create on the one side, and be recognized by on the other. For instance, fairly late into the film Spock says his first “fascinating,” in just that way. It sent shivers down my spine because it so beautifully captured something about Spock Prime that of course we know and love.

As written everywhere, the two leads, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, are fabulous. Again from Dargis, “Steering clear of outright imitation, the two instead distill the characters to capture their essence, their Kirk-ness and Spock-ness.” The precursors to the rest of the crew are equally good. The scenes on the bridge are filled with a knowing nostalgia combined with here-and-now energy. They had the right amount of humor and seriousness of purpose. (Very. Best. Line.: “Get out of the chair.”)

I’m not much of an action fan, so the big effects were lost on me, except for the forward momentum they added. I was on the edge of my chair toward the end--I did not expect Spock Prime was going to interact with Baby Spock. And it was around that time that I was aware that I kept waiting to hear an echo of the original theme music somewhere, and was disappointed that it hadn’t been integrated into the score.

Then the surprise! It was given a place of honor, at the end, straightout. The exact Alexander Courage rendition from the sixties cranked up in the Ziegfeld hyper sound system as Spock Prime narrates, “Space, the final frontier.”

I started tearing up. I was suddenly back in the playroom with my roller skates and my brother, the love of the childhood familiar welling up inside. Star Trek, that which survives in our own imaginations, is in great hands for the foreseeable future. How nice that one thing in this day and age of downward spirals is done well.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Moving on

"Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara, that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land's the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts."

"Oh Pa, You talk like an Irishman."

Home is where the heart is, without question. It’s the people, not the building or even the land that creates the soulful entity of “home.”

But there is a beautiful complement to the metaphysical idea of home that comes with knowing every inch, and board, and nail of the physical house. It’s a connection that my mother enjoyed with her house of 46 years and which I admire for the fullness of her relationship to a specific place.

My father did not tinker much around the house; it was my mother who had her hands on every wall of the 10 rooms to paint or to wallpaper, to hang pictures or curtains. There was many a day from kindergarten to high school that I would come home and the downstairs bathroom was newly wall papered or the fireplace had been painted a new color. It was a loving expression of creativity with an artful eye-—it made the house itself alive and flowing concurrent to our lives.

Curtain treatments were changed seasonally on curtain rods that were “up on a prayer” as Mom always said. She knew every one of the house’s idiosyncrasies—-which walls were true and which weren’t, which floors were level and which pitched—-and the meaning of every sound from the floorboard creaks to the radiator heat to the thud of a shoe falling out of a shoebag.

The house stood witness to the phases of our family: the nuclear 4 of us; my mother’s mother coming to live just as I left for college; my father dying just after I graduated college and moved into the city; my brother moving out to get married; my grandmother dying. Through it all my mother kept its décor fresh and the gardens thriving and attended to the bigger structural things of new roofs, new siding, new ceilings.

Now, after four and a half decades, my mother has sold the house to move into a lovely 2-bedroom condo. It’s the natural progression of life—-she has sold to a couple who are just starting out, even younger than she and my father were when they were the buyers from the original owners.

Her possessions of course move with her, and her flesh and blood (and Santa) will find her in the new place. But her years of physical work and tending and caring for the bricks and mortar are a gift to those who now follow. All that toil and attention to the building--It’s an honorable piece of a life’s work.

The closing was today. It’s quite the secular ritual: after countless documents were signed around the table, ownership transferred.

Afterward, I had a hankering for Chinese food, which was a little unusual. We went to a restaurant across from the train station for convenience. As I was getting ready to catch my train back to the city, I noticed that the restaurant Muzak was playing “Auld Lang Syne.” In May. Unbelievable. Surely it was the universe saying to my mother, 'how sweet are the memories of your family that made your house a home, at this special time of moving on.'

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Video, Cogito Ergo Sum

I’m a big fan of this week’s two-part season finale of House. Many others felt it was a retread of story ideas, but I disagree. It beautifully brought together the threads of House’s dependence on both vicodin and solving cases, Huddy, and his dark, closed-off nature. But more than that, it was a poetic depiction of the power and physiological importance of storytelling. Not bad for a prime-time drama.


The season shot into high gear when Kutner committed suicide four episodes ago. It was a complete surprise, unless you had read that Kal Penn had been offered a job in the Obama White House and wanted to go.

Then, at the end of “Saviors” House is playing “Georgia on My Mind” on the piano at home, when he looks up at sees Amber—Cutthroat Bitch, aka Wilson’s dead girlfriend—leaning on his piano.

It picks up in “A House Divided” with Amber sitting in House’s bedroom, having a conversation with him. He thinks he’s hallucinating because he hasn’t slept through the night since Kutner’s death.

Amber becomes his hallucinatory shadow, following and talking to him everywhere. He knows that she’s his projected subconscious and he starts to get comfortable talking to her/himself: “How do we get Foreman to sign off on this.” She verbalizes the things that House always “sees” subconsciously. It’s a fascinating dramatization of how the brain functions: it stores fact, data, in its banks—simplified, let’s say in the left brain—and then the right brain processes the facts into thoughts, ideas, and then actions. Anne Dudek is fabulously creepy, capturing all the subtle, cloaked darkness in House’s subconscious. She positively purrs when she says “To us. For figuring out MS.”

House knows that hallucinating to this degree is dangerous and he finally admits it to Wilson. He needs to diagnose it himself: infection, sleep apnea, schizophrenia or another mental illness, or vicodin poisoning.

In “Under My Skin” he tries an insulin coma to detox, thinking that if he detoxes then Amber will be gone. When he comes out of the coma, she’s still there. He then tries a more traditional detox, asking Cuddy to help. She does, and after a long, successful night, House kisses her and then they explode into a long-pent up passion.

The twist, in “Both Sides Now,” that is slowly revealed, is that Cuddy was a hallucination too. All day he thinks he is holding her lipstick that she left the night before, but small clues start to connect in his head, and he’s finally able to see that he’s been holding a pill bottle all day. It’s an elegant, visual device. Cuddy had actually walked out on him the day before because he insulted her baby.

What I like about the story is it illustrates how important storytelling is to the human condition. The brain is this amazing entity, with at least 2 at distinct hemispheres, and various levels of perception. Our thoughts are only whole when our consciousness–—whatever that is–-constructs a story that combines all the functions and impressions into a narrative. No wonder film, novels, and tv are so important to us: we recognize in them the narrative that is part of our own brain function.

Like voluntary and involuntary muscle function, there are narratives our brains construct as part of daily functioning, and there are stories we tell ourselves from a deeper psychological level. House told a story to himself that Cuddy cares about him enough to come to his call for help, leaving her child for the night, and then have sex with him. But that is not what happen. And that significant break from reality is what finally propels him to a psychiatric facility.

I have only had one hallucination my entire life. I was a kid, maybe 6 years old. I was in my bed, and I woke up and saw spiders all over my covers, and at the foot of my bed, our Christmas tin soldier from the lawn (maybe 3 feet tall) was walking back and forth, guarding the bed. I am 100% certain that I was awake—-it was not a dream. I laid there very still, because I didn’t want the spiders to come under the covers. I closed my eyes several times, and they were all still there. Finally, when I opened them, they were gone. Clearly I was disturbed about something, manifested by my arachnophobia, and I longed to be made safe. The incident never repeated, but it remains a deeply vivid memory.

Now daydreaming—that’s a whole other ball game.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Unconditional Surrender: May 8, 1945

It’s the anniversary of “Victory in Europe,” the day after the remnants of Hitler’s army in the person of Grand Admiral Doenitz signed an unconditional surrender to the Allies.

A defined enemy. A defined victory. Concepts that now seem lost to the ages.

The day has little cultural resonance, as the generations who witnessed this singular moment in history are slowing going into the west.

But one of the day’s witnesses is back in current conversation: Winston Churchill. In response to a question from ABC Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, President Obama cited a statement attributed to Churchill, “we don’t torture.” Tapper has followed that up with a very full post looking at conflicting indications of what Churchill’s actual torture policy was.

Churchill scholar Richard Langworth: "While it’s nice to hear the President invoke Sir Winston, the quotation is unattributed and almost certainly incorrect. While Churchill did express such sentiments with regard to prison inmates, he said no such thing about prisoners of war, enemy combatants or terrorists, who were in fact tortured by British interrogators during World War II.”

On the other hand, Carlo D’Este, author of Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1894-1945, writes that while "Churchill was ruthless in prosecuting the Second World War with strategic bombing of German cities...there is nothing in his behaviour or character to suggest that he would have condoned water boarding or other means of torture."

So we don’t know the precise means. But we know the precise end result. The Germans capitulated, and the fighting stopped. There is so little parallel to our world today. We are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it feels like it will never end.

Churchill’s impromptu speech on the balcony:

“God bless you all. This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the independent resolve of the British nation. God bless you.”