Jeremy was seven years old when his father brought the painting home and hung it on the living room wall.
“Wouldja look at that!” his father had exclaimed, hammer in one hand and a fresh beer in the other, “That’s a real piece of art hanging in our house! You see what that is right there? That’s art!”
But Jeremy viewed the painting with an instinctive distrust from the moment it entered the house. There was something about it that was just wrong, something that he knew before his dad had even taken it out of the brown Sears paper bag. Something nasty, something dark. read more…
The final episode of Breaking Bad aired this past Sunday night, and I haven’t been able to get it off my mind ever since. I think we were all (those of us who watched it, at least) witness at the creation of one of the great works of modern art, and I’m still processing the intricacies of it.
I’ve also been reading a lot of theories about it online, particularly at my favorite online hangout, the erudite community blog Metafilter, and I’m struck by the breadth of ideas and messages people have been able to glean from this show. And it occurs to me that Breaking Bad is nothing less than a Rorschach inkblot test, and like the Bible or the Constitution or any other creative work this multifaceted, you can approach it with virtually any narrative of your own and find that narrative within.
This should go without saying, but here I go saying it: Spoilers within. read more…
This is something I’ve been thinking about and planning for years, and now it is a thing that is happening. And if you’re so inclined and are one of the right persons for the task, you can experience it with me. We are going to restore to its rightful glory the magnificent thing that is radio theater.
Do you see these people? This is Orson Welles and his wonderful Mercury Theatre, rehearsing for their 1938 production of “Treasure Island.” They were at the absolute top of their game, telling stories using only their voices and a few sound effects, and they had people on the edge of their seats, week to week. Several weeks later, this group of people would cause the listening audience to collectively wet themselves when their little production of “The War of the Worlds” was perhaps too convincing, and Mr. and Mrs. North America really thought the Martians had landed.
Radio used to be the killer delivery system for great storytelling. And I think it can be again. I believe, that in a society saturated with screens and tablets and 3D this and IMAX that, the sound of human voices can tell a story better than anything else. I have had this thought banging about in my head for years now, and it’s finally time for me to do something about it. It’s time for kids to beg to stay home on Sunday evenings, decoder rings at the ready. It’s time for adults to sit back and close their eyes and listen to an amazing story. It’s time to make radio theater again.
So, with all that lovely fanfare, the O.S.T. Repertory Theatre is now accepting applications for players. We are looking for a diverse batch of voices, and although acting experience is desirable, it is not required. What is required is a passion for storytelling. Also required: The commitment to rehearsals one night per week, time and location to be determined. Our finished product will take a couple of forms: There will be live performances, but there will also be recordings, podcasts, and other things that are also to be determined.
If you’re interested, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Let’s make radio magic.
For the past week or so, I’ve spent an awful lot of time laying on my couch, with a bag of frozen peas on my belly. You see, for the past two years or so, my body decided that it wanted to grow a golfball-sized rock in my gut, so it helpfully did, perhaps thinking it was giving me some of the joy I would never experience since I had not been born a woman who could grow a child instead in that near vicinity. Helpful. But the rock (and the gall bladder that birthed it) came out several days ago, and I’ve been laying around ever since.
During this time, I got to watch a fair amount of television. With some great recommendations from friends, I discovered some new favorites: I’m one-third through an amazing Canadian TV show from 2003 called “Slings & Arrows,” notable for being a very early role for Rachel McAdams, who had to be written out of the show because she hit the big time. It’s some seriously great television, in that sweet spot that is funny and poignant and sad, all at the same time.
But I also watched the 1986 BBC miniseries “The Singing Detective” during this time, and it was a deeply memorable experience. It washed over me like a six-hour fever dream, spread out over several days, and I still find myself thinking back on it.
Here I find myself challenged with how to describe this miniseries. I don’t want to tell you very much about it. I want you to have the experience I had. I watched it with zero expectations and next-to-zero knowledge. I knew that it was considered one of the great achievements in British television. I knew that people within the television industry considered its writer, Dennis Potter, to be a storytelling visionary. I knew that it starred a young Michael Gambon (Dumbledore the Second). And I knew that it was, as the title suggests, a musical.
It is indeed a musical, but there are no singing cats or lions or French people. It created a genre that is woefully under-used, the television musical. If “The Singing Detective” didn’t exist, then neither would “Blackpool” or “Cop Rock,” and that would be a terrible shame. Nor would there be a thing called “Glee.” I understand that one is quite popular with the kids these days.
It is a somewhat hallucinatory story, told backward for most of its length and revealing its secrets slowly. It has bits of film noir and it has dance numbers and it has wonderful music from Cole Porter and The Ink Spots and Bing Crosby and Vera Lynn (does anybody here remember her?). And at its core, it is a profoundly sad story of a father and a son, and maybe that’s why it resonated so strongly with me.
I don’t want to say any more about it, I just want to implore you to watch it, if you are at all intrigued by this little tease. It is currently not available on any on-demand services that I know of, but the discs are in the Netflix by-mail inventory, and it is of course available on Amazon. Would love to hear what you think of it.
One of the benefits of being a radio DJ is that I get to routinely expose my young kids to music, great and otherwise. Our house is, organically, a hotbed of music, everything from old Louis Armstrong records to 90s grunge to Enya. It’s all good, and it’s all beautiful and part of the harmony of life.
And one of the cool things is watching your kids hook up with certain songs, bands, movements, ideas, sounds. My oldest boy went through a hardcore Beatles phase a few years ago, and there was nothing better. My daughter gets equal doses of Taylor Swift and Josh Ritter, and she is the better for it. My youngest can belt out “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” and Andrew W.K.’s “It’s Time to Party” in equal measure. It is all good.
Recently, my youngest son has fixated on the song “The Final Countdown,” by the 80s hair metal band Europe. I don’t know what the specific appeal is, anymore than I know what the appeal was for me when I heard the song the first time back in high school – it is a very catchy synth riff, it’s a fun song to sing along with, and there’s a vague notion hovering in the background that it’s a Very. Serious. Song. About real things that grown-ups care about.
But listening to it again in 2013, there is an undercurrent of sadness that wasn’t there when I was screaming along with it in my Mercury Zephyr in the parking lot of Bullitt Central in 1987; an undercurrent that is underscored by the fact that my little boy is sitting on my lap and watching the video, and I am watching the world and wondering what things will be like for him when he is my age. And it is hardly optimistic.
I am a lyrics person. I always fixate on lyrics more so than music. (This is probably one of the main reasons I am a die-hard Rush fan.) Every now and then, a lyric jumps out at me, and pokes me in the ribs really hard and goddammit, that hurt. That really hurt.
This really hurt, while watching “The Final Countdown” with my boy tonight:
“I’m sure that we’ll all miss her so.”
Maybe it was obvious at the time the song came out, but the Her in this lyric appears to be our sweet Mother Earth, not some girl you were hoping to feel up in your Mercury Zephyr in the school parking lot in 1987. It was not obvious to me at the time.
We have bigger concerns now, as adults. Things have more scope.
I am beginning the transition from What Am I Going to Do With My Life to What Am I Going To Help My Kids Do With Their Lives. Let me tell you something, this is the biggest transition that any human being ever goes through. It is beautiful and a privilege and I love nothing more, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the goddamned scariest thing ever. And it is scarier still because I don’t know what kind of world these kids of mine are going to be handed.
We will all miss her so.
Here’s where we make the transition in the story from wishing I had a girlfriend in high school, to fearing for the safety of my great-grandchildren. Please pay careful attention. This part is crucial. It is real, and if you really thought it through, you wouldn’t sleep at night. I am sorry.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide recently crossed the 400 parts per million line. This was the first time this line has been crossed in all of human history. The temperature of our earthly home is slowly rising, and on the surface it seems trivial – a degree? Two degrees? As I’ve said before, these seem like meaningless events, but they are not. Consider this possible scenario, trigged by 2-3 degrees of increased global temperature:
To find anything comparable we have to go back to the Pliocene – last epoch of the Tertiary period, 3m years ago. There were no continental glaciers in the northern hemisphere (trees grew in the Arctic), and sea levels were 25 metres higher than today’s. In this kind of heat, the death of the Amazon is as inevitable as the melting of Greenland. The paper spelling it out is the very one whose apocalyptic message so shocked in 2000. Scientists at the Hadley centre feared that earlier climate models, which showed global warming as a straightforward linear progression, were too simplistic in their assumption that land and the oceans would remain inert as their temperatures rose. Correctly as it would turn out, they predicted positive feedback.
Warmer seas absorb less carbon dioxide, leaving more to accumulate in the atmosphere and intensify global warming. On land, matters would be even worse. Huge amounts of carbon are stored in the soil, the half-rotted remains of dead vegetation. The generally accepted estimate is that the soil carbon reservoir contains some 1600 gigatonnes, more than double the entire carbon content of the atmosphere. As soil warms, bacteria accelerate the breakdown of this stored carbon, releasing it into the atmosphere.
The end of the world is nigh. A three-degree increase in global temperature – possible as early as 2050 – would throw the carbon cycle into reverse. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, vegetation and soils start to release it. So much carbon pours into the atmosphere that it pumps up atmospheric concentrations by 250 parts per million by 2100, boosting global warming by another 1.5C. In other words, the Hadley team had discovered that carbon-cycle feedbacks could tip the planet into runaway global warming by the middle of this century – much earlier than anyone had expected.
“Possible as early as 2050.” That’s not that far from now. I hope to be alive then. I hope to have walked my daughter down the aisle by then and have handed her off to the next chapter of her life. I hope to have eased all three of my babies into adulthood by then, and I hope in that year to spend nights holding Nancy’s hand as tightly as I do today. But I am scared. I think any smart, honest person is scared.
Now, this is one possible scenario spelled out by one theorist, but don’t kid yourself into thinking nothing is happening. I don’t care which news channel you trust or which party line you buy into. I don’t care whether your nighttime reading is Ayn Rand or Bill Maher or Milton Friedman or Stephen Colbert. Something is happening, and we are causing it, and things are going to get very bad in large parts of our world in the next few years, and nobody seems to care.
I care. Goddammit, I care, because my kids have to live here. And their kids. And I hope to meet most of them. Your kids too. How do you feel about all of this? We are leaving together, but still, it’s farewell.
Several years ago, when I hosted an afternoon jazz radio show, Dave Brubeck came to town to do some concerts at the university. As a result of my job, I got to spend the better part of a day with him – we hung out at a fancy party one evening, and then the next day he came into the station and co-hosted my show with me.
My hand to god, this was a transformative experience for me, because he was so … kind. Just utterly human and sweet and kind. I’ve been around plenty of famous musicians, but I have never had this experience, where someone so famous and so big was just another guy, asking me questions about my family and genuinely listening to the answers, having a two-way conversation. He was nice to me.
When he left that day, it dawned on me: Dave Brubeck was kind to me. Here is a man who stared down racism in the 1950s; club owners told him that only his white musicians were welcome, and he replied, to hell with you, you either take my whole band or you don’t get any of us. He stared down racism and racism blinked. This man is a giant. He is a hero, and a national treasure. And his music? My god, there has never been anything better. And he was kind to me.
And that’s when I decided, damnit, if Dave Brubeck can be genuinely kind to me, a total stranger working at a Kentucky radio station, nobody has an excuse to not be kind. From that day forward, I stopped accepting attitude from people. I am worthy of basic human decency, and so are all the other people around me. You deserve it as well.
I will forever be grateful for that lesson that he taught me. I have thought about that day many, many times in the years since.
And then there is this remarkable thing. In the very coldest days of the cold war, Dave played a show for students in Moscow. Watch what happens when a young Russian man stands up and starts playing violin. Watch the sheer joy on the master’s face. Music can bridge any divide.
Now, I’m off to the basement to put on some records. Thank you for everything, Mr. Brubeck.
Is it possible to feel nostalgic about something you’ve never actually experienced first-hand? Can you rue the loss of something you never really had?
I think you can. When I put a Vera Lynn or a Benny Goodman record on my turntable, I find myself wistful for a period of American history that probably never really existed, but one that to my mind, feels innocent and wide-eyed and filled with possibility and very, very real. It was pre-war and post-war at the same time, idealistic men and women standing up to some outside evil and through the sheer force of their moxy and their belief in one another and the cause that united them, they triumphed over that evil. They shut it down. It was no longer a threat to the good people of the world.
As a people, we saw a very bad thing looming on the horizon. As a people, we fought back, and made the necessary sacrifices, and stopped that Very Bad Thing from being something that our children and our grandchildren would have to live with.
With each passing day, I am becoming more and more pessimistic (which is not my nature, you should know), because there is another Very Bad Thing on the horizon – far worse, frankly, than any that we have encountered so far – and we are meeting it with indifference. And I am finding myself nostalgic for a time (imagined, perhaps) when the people of our country would unite and triumph over such an evil. read more…
My novella, “A Plague Among Children,” will be available for download this December. In the meantime, please, um, “enjoy” the first chapter … read more…
My fellow Whovians, a little reason to celebrate … remember the book that the Doctor was reading in the park during the wonderful mid-season finale, “The Angels Take Manhattan”? The one that turned out to be written by River Song, filled with dangerously accurate information about things that were about to take place, information that could either save or doom our heroes once and for all?
Umm … well, that book doesn’t exist. It still doesn’t. Of course not, and stop being silly.
HOWEVER, there is now an e-book called “The Angel’s Kiss,” and it looks much like the book you see Amy Pond reading in that there picture. But unlike the book in the episode, this one contains no supernatural foreknowledge of things that are about to happen to you. It does not tell you what you are having for lunch tomorrow, or whether or not your Yorkshire pudding will be so tough that you will break your wrist trying to cut through it.
HOWEVER ONCE AGAIN, this e-book is a charming novella (so far, at least, I’ve only just started it) that serves as a prequel to the episode. Even better news is that it is written by Justin Richards, who has written some of the very best Who novels. So if you’re a fan of the show, this is well worth the few quid they are asking.
Bonus challenge: I dare you to read this book and NOT hear it in your head in the voice of Alex Kingston. You can’t do it! Nor should you want to.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading this wonderful book by Gary Taubes, titled “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It.” If Taubes’ name sounds familiar, it might be because of a provocative book he published a few years ago, called “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” a science-heavy volume that set out to explain why most of our modern health problems are caused by our consumption of carbohydrates.
Well, evidently the science in that volume was too heavy, and it indeed was a bit of a dry read. “Why We Get Fat” is his version of the “carbs are bad” story, aimed at a more popular audience and written in layman’s language. But having read both, I can tell you that the message is the same: carbohydrates are bad for us, and the science is there to back that up.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense. When you look at the grand timeline that is human history, and then you look at the period of time that encompasses modern agriculture, well … the latter is a tiny subset of the former. Most of our biological history has nothing to do with grains or corn or any view of starch and sugar as something that we ought to be eating. We ate the things that we caught/killed, and we ate the green leafy things and the berries and nuts that we could find.
But now, we are eating things that come from a box in the middle of a grocery store aisle, things that our grandparents would not recognize as food. (Thought experiment: Try to introduce your beloved great-grandmother to a Hot Pocket without withering scorn.) We are eating things that have brought incredible levels of obesity, disease and unhappiness. As Taubes points out, this modern “American diet” has led to something that has never happened before in human history: a situation in which a person can be simultaneously obese and malnourished. read more…