I think it’s Time for a Change

I started this blog years ago because I had a story to tell. A story about how two irreconcilable sisters learned to work together. Somebody told me before I could publish my book, I had to have readers which meant I needed to write a blog. When they asked what I could write a lot about, I replied, “Stories.”

Why Stories?

See, I think stories are the most powerful magic we wield. You can change a person’s future with a story. Think of all those people who started working toward law school once they read about Atticus Finch. The veterinarians who followed James Herriot into the profession. Think of the destruction caused by Mein Kamp.

But stories can change history as well. For centuries, Richard III has been vilified, not from the facts but because the next king spread nasty stories about him. And those stories made it into a great play. Sometimes the fictional story is so engaging, that we forget what really happened. Or a well-told story can rescue the truth from obscurity.

The thing is, stories, good stories, can undermine all our defenses. They let us see connections we were blind to before. They find the fear hiding deep in our hearts and linger in the corners of memory. They won’t let us go. Those are the tales I like to describe as “The Ones that Follow Us Home.

So What Will Change?

Well, I’ve spent 4 years writing (mostly) about stories other people have published and I think it’s time for a change. I still love taking about good books and I’ll continue to talk about some of those. But I want to change things up a bit.

I want to tell you some tales I care about that other folks haven’t written down. Ideas that have meaning for me. Stories that followed me home.

Like the tale of two little girls who believed they had nothing in common beyond a timeline and DNA. That’s a story still waiting to be told…some other day.

A Story of Auld Lang Syne

Ever since Thanksgiving, I’ve looked for a story that’s based on the end of a year. I couldn’t find one. There are stories about beginnings and seasons and other holidays but nothing for the end of a year. Instead of reading or writing about New Years, I believe we sing.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot-

And never brought to mind?”

Like the character in “When Harry Met Sally” I used to wonder, what does that lyric mean? Are we supposed to forget those we knew long ago? Are we benefited somehow by releasing what become just the memory of memories? And, if someone has slipped beyond recall, what use is it to try and remember them now? It was all very confusing.

But confusing or not, Auld Lang Syne is as much a part of New Year’s Eve as the line at the bottom of a math problem.  We sing it to say farewell to a year that is ending and the people we’ve left behind in our pasts. This year, that song’s personal to me.

Why It’s Personal

This year I lost one of the best friends I’ve ever made, someone who taught me how to be a friend. We met when we were two weirdos made of nothing but potential and hope. Luckily, we both liked the same “weirdo” things, like folk music, liberal politics, and theatre. (Three subjects guaranteed to get you killed in small-town high school) We laughed at the same silly jokes. I think we were both still a bit scared about boys; both of us had impossible crushes. She yearned for a fellow in the town she’d left while I crushed on a transient teacher. So, we kept each other talking and laughing and company through two trying years of adolescence. Then, at graduation, we let go of the friendship with a wave. But neither let go of the memories.

My Auld Lang Syne
(photo credit: KHS yearbook)

The internet reconnected us decades later but, from the way we behaved, you’d think no time had passed. We still talked for hours at a time and laughed at the same silly things. But, instead of adolescent crushes, we got each other through harder experiences: illness, death, and real heartbreak. We had each others’ backs, at least we did until January 8th of this year. Ever since that day I’ve been learning to live with just the memory of her in my head.

I’ve shed many a tear since the day Lisa died and I doubt if my weeping is done. Our friendship helped me build a life that I love and it feels like part of my foundation is gone. But at least this year since her death has resolved my confusion about That Song.

For Auld Lang Syne

Should Old acquaintances be forgot? Can we forget them, really?  We drink to their memories at New Years, not because we memorized every detail of their existence,  but because they helped make us the people we became. And, although facts or faces can get hazy with time, their influence remains. They are in the jokes we enjoy and the songs we sing. They visit, at times, in our dreams. In our deepest memory of memories, we carry our Auld Acquaintances with us, defining us now by their absence as they did when they stood beside us. We never really leave them behind.

So this is for you, Lisa, on this last day of the year. I wish you hadn’t left the party so quickly. If I catch up with you somewhere down the line, you can be sure I’ll fill you in on what you missed. Because I won’t forget you. I didn’t after high school and I won’t after death. I can’t. You are my Auld Lang Syne.

Albert, the holiday Cold

So, are you enjoying the holiday season? Did you get the gifts you expected to get? Where did you go, what did you do, who shared your seasonal joys? I really want to know. Because my holiday was spent with Albert, the Christmas Cold.Display, pre Albert

Holiday display before the arrival of Albert

Why Albert?

It’s a reasonable question. First, I don’t get normal, every day Colds, never have. While other people’s colds stay 3 days or a week, mine move in for a season or more. And if anything sticks around that long I have to give it a name. My Colds get names I don’t like because I don’t want to being sick anymore than anybody else does. So, in the past, I’ve hosted colds named Harvey and George (which was really difficult since my boss at that time was named George and You can imagine the mix-ups… it wasn’t pretty and I don’t work there anymore.). Anyway, I’ve learned a lot of our Christmas traditions started in Victoria’s England, by way of her husband, Prince Albert ( who really enjoyed keeping Christmas). So, given the timing of this upper respiratory infection, I’d say he’s Albert, the Cold who came for Christmas.

The best laid plans

Display post Albert

Holiday display since the arrival of Albert

Thing is, I had other plans for this season. I had four days off in a row and I was going to do things. I was going to clean my house, take long walks, exercise, bake, go to movies, or the theatre, I’d study and write. I was going to make good use of my time. Then, along came Albert. Albert, with his head-heavy, joint-achy, pain and his mucus that runs like an Olympic sprinter. Only backwards. Albert, with the IQ-lowering congestion and the sore throat. Thanks to Albert, I didn’t have the energy or concentration for anything further than the drugstore. So, I got nothing accomplished over the holiday beyond building a mountain of used paper — Kleenex.

Life on life’s terms

But, how often do our dreams and schemes work out as planned? Rarely to never, from what I see. So, I spent the holiday germ-ridden and confined to the couch, so what? The world didn’t end. The holidays still came. And, if I didn’t write the world’s greatest novel (or even a decent blog post) I did get some much needed rest. And, now I’m hopefully past the worst of this, I learned that even An Upper Respiratory Infection like Albert is temporary. I suppose you could call him my Holiday Guest. A guest that wore out his welcome.

So I hope you had a lovely December and your every wish came true. But whatever comes your way, I hope you find some good in it, even if “it” is a Holiday Cold. Then move on to whatever story life brings you. Tomorrow.

The Autumn of Our Regret: Something Wicked This Way Comes

There’s no doubt about it anymore, this year has grown old.  We’ve gone through the frigid days of winter and the balm of summer and spring. Then we sailed through the most colorful parts of fall and now the world’s turned cold again.  It’s hard not to look at the shortening days and the denuded tree branches without feeling a little regret over the closing of the year. A holiday season is great but there’s nothing like a change of season to make you think about opportunities missed.

I think that’s one reason why Ray Bradbury set his haunting fantasy, “Something Wicked This way Comes” during the later part of the year.  Of course, it’s tied to Halloween – show me a good scary story that isn’t – but this tale is bound less to the ghouls and goblins and more to the real demons that bedevil our lives: fear, regret, isolation, and sorrow.

The Story

Longing and Age are the obsessions running through this dark fantasy: Jim Nightshade, just shy of fourteen wants to grow up and leave childhood, and his friend Will, behind.  What adults do behind window shades intrigues him.  Will’s father, Charles Halloway, has the opposite problem. He suffers the nightmares of middle-age, seeing the windows of his life beginning to close and aware he’s too old to relate to an adolescent son.  Between these two stands Will Halloway, who has pain and longings of his own that can’t be shared.  These three are the only souls to recognize the latent evil in the Autumn carnival that’s come to town.

Carnivals are perfect for a small-town’s thrills.  They’re gaudy, gauzy, visitors that arrive and entertain, then leave before they wear out their welcome.  But the rewards they promise customers are usually more than they deliver.  This carnival, the Autumn Carnival, promises whatever anyone’s longed for or lost and the townspeople are eager to pay the initial price of admission.   But the rides in the Autumn Carnival take more than the coins traded for a ticket.  And finally, only Jim Nightshade, William, and Charles Halloway stand between the town and damnation.

Why read this?

Bradbury delivers, in lyrical lush prose, this story of temptation and accepting the changing seasons of life.  It’s been praised and adapted for film, radio, and stage but the book (as usual) beats all adaptations.  Reading it’s a good way to remember the past and move forward into the present.  And that’s a good thing to do, even at the near of a year.  Better to enjoy each short  day of December than suffer through a long Autumn of Regrets,

The Unseen Connections that Bind: Lethal White

There are unseen connections in this world.

I’m not (necessarily) talking about back-channel diplomatic communication lines or conspiracies here.  No, I’m talking about the ties between people. We’re all connected by friendships, family, work or some interest.  We’re bound to events and people in our pasts, as well.  These connections are invisible when we walk down the street but they impact every move that we make.

Cormoran Strike, hero of Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)’s mystery series, knows how the past still connects with the present.  After all, his military injury affects his everyday life even though the accident happened years ago.  But, in Lethal White, those unseen connections not only affect his missing leg.  They string together secrets and murder.

Secrets, Secrets

First, there’s the mentally-ill man who wanders into Strike’s office.  Is this poor man crazy to think he witnessed a murder as a child or did witnessing a murder help drive the poor lad insane?  Is he connected to the government official who wants Strike to stop a blackmailing scheme?  The official won’t explain who the blackmailers are or what he’s being blackmailed about.  He just insists “it was legal in the past.” Strike’s junior partner, Robin Ellacot, goes undercover in the minister’s office and finds more connections and schemes instead of the extortionists. And the secrets continue to multiply and spread until one of the secret-keepers turns up dead.

Then, it’s up to Strike and Ellacott to untwist the lies and excavate the connections. That’s no easy task, for clients who want leverage, not the truth.  The search is even harder because of the ties and secrets both detectives are trying to keep from themselves.

Followers of this series have known for years that Strike and Ellacot belong together, personally as well as professionally.  They share core values and have complementary skills.  They bring out the best in each other.  But both have ties to their pasts that keep them from acting on this mutual attraction.  This conflict often makes communication difficult.  It deepens their unspoken romantic feelings for each other.  And it drives both of them into dangerous places.

Changes & Connections

This unacknowledged passion often echoes in the epigraphs of Lethal White’s chapters, all of which come from Ibsen’s play, Rosmerholm. Because the theme of Rosermerholm is that while progress means change, it conflicts with the immutable past.  See, people change as they age They either continue to learn and grown or they stultify.  They become more or less tolerant with time.  And none of us are exactly alike, to begin with.  So change drives formerly close friends apart, even as their history and affection bind them.  And that creates conflict.  This conflict between changing outlooks and unchanging ties can fuel a lot of misery and drama.  And, as entertaining as those fights can be, they can also harbor a lethal distraction.  Because, when we’re being whipsawed by change and conflict, we may not see the puppetmaster manipulating us through our connections. The shadowy one who trades in secrets.  The bad guy who smiles and smiles and still remains a villain.

Lethal White has a large cast of characters, layers of story, and a definite point of view.  It’s not a quick read but it is entertaining.  It’s worth re-reading too, just to sort out the ties and the secrets.  And discover the smiling villain.

The Odd Kid On the Block

Whatever happened to the Odd Kid on your block?  Everybody grew up with at least one; I’m talking about those kids who seem to be born outsiders, who say and do unpredictable things and never fit in well with the rest. The kids that even surprise the adults when they talk. You know the ones I mean.  And if you don’t have one of these kids in your memory, you might have been the class misfit. God knows I was one.

So what? I can verify that most of us card-carrying weirdos eventually discover friends of our own.  We become reasonably functional adults.  But time has stood still for Eleanor Oliphant.  At thirty, she’s still the Odd Kid on The Block, although now she’s an Oddball at Work.  She doesn’t have any friends (unless you count Vodka and Mummy). And, despite the title of Gayle Honeyman’s brilliant first novel, Eleanor Oliphant is NOT Completely Fine,

Stuck in a Rut

Eleanor is, if anything, stuck in a rut, one she’s carefully constructed.  Every morning, she dons black pants, white shirt.  She does (and eats) the same thing each day on her lunch break.  Eleanor always takes the same bus.  She talks to Mummy on the same day of every week and drinks from Friday night until well into Sunday.  Part of this is a habit, but part is how Eleanor copes with the world, a place that has rarely been kind.  She’s constructed routines for protection.  But even Eleanor doesn’t realize all the things she’s hiding from or how much good there is in life to uncover.  And it’s a joy to discover it with her.

No Filter/No-Nonsense Girl

Listening to Eleanor describe her own life is by turn hilarious or incredibly painful as she is the original No-Filter-Girl.  She describes some horrors from her past with such emotional detachment that you wonder what ails the poor girl.  Anyone else recounting this kind of personal experience would be sobbing all over themselves.  But Eleanor reports her history with such matter-of-fact acceptance that many readers debate whether her response is due to Autism or the profound abuse she’s endured.  Whatever the reason, we become mesmerized by her voice.

For Eleanor does have a voice, stunningly original and perceptive about the human condition. “These days, loneliness is the new Cancer” she observes, “a shameful, embarrassing thing.” And for all of her independence, Eleanor is a lonely woman.  But the story of how this unusual woman starts breaking her self-imposed isolation is the hit of the year.  Eleanor can make you laugh and cry but most of all she makes you glad you’ve found her. Eleanor Oliphant may be the Odd Kid on the Block but she’s also a good person and friend.

 

Remembrance of Playwright Past

Everyone remembers people and events that shaped and changed their lives.  Long after they leave the world’s stage, these individuals and events inform and direct us through memory.  That’s how I feel about Neil Simon’s plays; they are touchstones from my childhood. That’s reasonable: when I was young he was the King of Broadway. His movies set some of my first standards for comedy.  But, that was a long time ago and Mr. Simon hasn’t had a hit play in years. So, I’ve been reading plays by other authors.  Still, when I heard of his death, I did something I haven’t done for a while: I read something Neil Simon wrote.  Not his plays this time, but his memoirs.  And I’m still thinking about what I read.

Rewrites

Rewrites is Simon’s memoir of the first half of his life, and to some extent, it’s like his early plays.  This book covered his early, energetic years as a writer when hope was built on promise and potential.  The book is a charmer, and it confirmed two things I guessed but didn’t know before.  First, Simon’s stories all have strong autobiographical elements and that the art of plays is in the re-writing.

According to Mr. Simon, the tradition of opening a new play out of town is part of the alchemy that creates a show.  Responses from Out-of-town audiences tell the cast and creative team what works and doesn’t work in the show.  And Simon rewrote the show after each early performance making the show tighter and funnier. Like Moss Hart’s Act One, Rewrites is a master-class in the art of playwrighting as well as a glimpse of American Theatre in the 60’s and 70’s.  But it’s also the story of a young, hopeful man

 

The Marrying Man

In “The Play Goes On”, Simon’s sequel to “Rewrites”, one thing becomes clear:  Mr. Simon never escaped from his past.  After a childhood in an insecure, chaotic family, he tried to create a different life as an adult. Still, he never trusted the good times when they came.  And the early death of his first wife left a man who wanted to love again but couldn’t keep her ghost from haunting his later relationships.  It’s not surprising Simon remarried four more times.  It’s sad how his pursuit of happiness was often undermined by remembered joy.  This is the mature, tempered Neil Simon, less charming, less hopeful, a bit more self-serving. But whatever his shortcomings, the man possessed a work ethic and talent. And those things are why he’s remembered.

The Constant Writer

Celebrated or panned, joyful or depressed, married or single, Neil Simon remained one thing: a constant writer.  For more than 50 years he churned out at least that many plays and screenplays (as well as these Memoirs). His quick-fire wit and urban “comedy-dramedy” forms are imitated today.  And, if some of his jokes became horribly dated or if his last plays were less hit than miss, he still taught us a lot.   Simon wielded humor as a weapon as well as a shield and he showed us that, even in the middle of the worst time of your life, the right joke can still keep you going. And Laughter will help you prevail. Now, that’s a memory worth keeping.

Into the Woods

The first time my Dad saw my adult home, he muttered, “I don’t know why you and your sister moved back into the woods.” Although I hadn’t realized before, I instantly knew what he meant. Although we grew up on the plains, both my sister and I chose homes in densly forested areas. I can’t speak for my sister, but I must say that I do love living surrounded by trees.

The Woods Behind my House
My woodsy back view

The Forest Primeval

Then again, I’m not Sayward Luckett. Sayward is the central voice of Conrad Richter’s novel, The Trees, and she has good reason to hate the forest.  It’s the late 1700’s and her father’s transplanted their family from a village in Pennsylvania to the endless woods of the Ohio Valley. The tree trunks (or Butts, as Sayward calls them) hem them in wherever they turn. High branches shut out the sunlight. No sunlight means it’s impossible for the settlers to grow crops. The forest isolates them from other pioneers and it’s an easy place for little children to get lost. Too easy. The woods are not a safe place to be.

Still, Sayward is the sympathetic, tough, resilient person needed to make a home from the wilderness.  She tells her story in a matter-of-factly in the settler’s dialect and rhythms that author, Conrad Richter discovered researching this novel. Her common-sense voice leaps off the page.

“Whether you liked it or not, Death was something you had to go through life with.  Plenty times you would meet up with it if you lived long enough, and you might as well get used to it as you could.”– The Trees, Conrad Richter

Everything happens to Sayward and her family as they carve a life out of the forest. Good and Bad both come their way, joyful moments and terrible loss. And her family’s story parallels the story of America’s development. Sayward and some settlers who live long enough even learn to appreciate the world they’ve known and seen.

THE TREES (Awakening Land)

Even a world filled with trees.

Partners in Business and Art

Let’s tell the truth about Creative Artists; we already know the myths:

Myths About Creative Types

  1. All Creative Artists are right-brain, impractical people,
  2. Given a choice, creative people tend to wear shabby clothes and messy hairstyles.
  3. Creative people all keep odd hours and disorganized lives.
  4. Artists are profligate, spendthrifts who don’t understand the value of money, and;
  5. Damn few artists have enough sense to run a successful business.

The Truth

Anyone who believes these stereotypes needs a copy of Something Wonderful, the new biography of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Not only does it recount the history of a creative partnership, it shows the practical businessmen that created that art.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were both successful men of the theatre before they teamed up together.  They’d both written hits and flops. And they’d both worked with other partners before so they knew how to give and take.  Neither man felt like he knew the other.  But neither of them let that get in the way of creating great songs together.

In Something Wonderful, Todd Purdum reveals how the R&H songs we know, the ones where words and music fall so naturally together that they almost seem inevitable, were the results of lengthy revision and multi-stage efforts.  Hammerstein agonized over each word and phrase, spending weeks to craft the right lyrics.  Then Rodgers, in a separate time and place, would sweep in a lyrical melody, so quickly it infuriated the lyricist. Sometimes they’d debate, very politely, over details in the work.  And, outside of business, the two men tended to lead separate lives.

But, inside of the theatrical business, they were indivisible partners.  They forged and reigned over the Rodgers and Hammerstein empire, creating and casting tours of past successful shows while they created and produced new ones each season.  And, despite all assumptions about artists, both men kept tight hold of the money.

If you’re a theatre geek or a  musical freak, you’ve probably already read this book.  If not, pick up a copy anyway.  You should know the truth about artists.  Sometimes the truth can be Something Wonderful.

 

A Modern Irish Murder

Fact: Ireland is a Modern Country

Sad Fact: Few people outside of Ireland realize this.

Thanks to the impressions of popular culture, many Americans still tend to think of bombs, booze or leprechauns when they hear the worlds “Irish” or “Ireland”.  Those who read, remember Yeats or the Potato Famine.  Movie-fans recall Darby O’Gill or The Quiet Man.  Few of either group think of murder.

Yet, Murder in a very modern context is the background of Tana French’s brilliant debut, In the Woods.  It’s the story of Irish police working a contemporary crime site that, unfortunately, has ties to the past.  It also has one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in several years.  Rob Ryan tells the story of when past and present collide in the head of a traumatized survivor and the damage that radiates from that impact.  And he tells it in a beautiful, lyrical voice that hints but never tells you what’s what.

In the Woods is also the brilliant first novel of what is known as the “Dublin Murder Squad” series.  So far, each story is told by one detective on the Squad who may (or may not) appear in later tales.  Each character is brilliantly developed in their own stories so we get to see how different people view the same incidents.  And we also see the toll this job takes on detectives.  Thankfully, we also get to see Ireland, complete with cell phones, office buildings and the concerns and issues facing contemporary society.

Along with murder, that most ancient of crimes.  Because some things, it seems, never change.

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