Friday, December 7, 2018

More To The Story Than Adrian

A lot can be said about Sylvester Stallone. He's an actor, choreographer, producer, and writer -- like most people he does some things good and others badly. The one thing he must be given absolute laudatory credit for is the ability to tell a story and to make the audience invest themselves in the hero. No better place in cinema is this shown than in the Rocky series of movies. I was reminded of this when I went and saw Creed II last weekend.

The movie is not a Rocky movie per se, but it is built inside the Rocky universe, and the main focus of the film is a character from that universe, Apollo's Creed's son Adonis. If you are not familiar with Rocky or the personalities in the movie series, it really doesn't matter because my focus is on the type of story Sylvester Stallone tells. Since the very first Rocky movie, his story formula has been straightforward but done so well you are willing to watch movie after movie just to root for the hero even though you know he's going to win in the last 10 minutes of the film.

He uses the essential elements of any story.  He introduces a hero and allows him to be an underdog against seemingly insurmountable odds. The hero is likable and has a persona the average moviegoer can identify with, either personally or through life experience. The hero goes through various trials and tribulations, ending with a sudden epiphany or realization of reality which will allow him to enter into battle against a seemingly insurmountable foe. By the way, the adversary does not always have to be an evil person – – Apollo Creed, introduced in the first Rocky movie, was not a bad guy, Apollo was just surrounded by bad people. Creed and Rocky eventually become good friends.

Everyone in the audience is rooting for the hero as he enters the ring for the primary battle of the story. Anyone who has seen any of these films knows the hero, in the end, will win. It just doesn't matter. It is too much fun rooting for the underdog, the hero you've come to identify with and in some ways admire. A hero who was overcome adversity to finally stand toe to toe against his nemesis.

The fight itself will go back-and-forth, with the hero almost losing several times before mentally grabbing hold of words spoken earlier which will allow him to win. The audience’s emotions are building during all of this, and they cheer when the known element is discovered and used to bring the champ to a win -- while the familiar Rocky theme crescendos in the background. For most Hollywood movies with the expected happy ending, this is where the film ends. It is also where Sly is smart enough to use the emotional high he has given to the audience to make that high last a little longer.

Unlike the Marvel superhero movies, which feature a sneak peek trailer at the end to fuel the audience forward, Sylvester Stallone realizes the audience is on a high for the hero and other characters in the movie. Rather than wasting the emotional investment, he gives the audience one more hurrah in a final scene which provides them with a lasting memory to carry out of the theater beyond the battle of good and evil. 

I don't want to give away the end of any movie in case a reader hasn't seen them. Instead, I invite you to watch any of the Rocky movies to see what I'm talking about. But please, don't watch the film with a jaundiced eye, instead watch it through the eyes of an audience who has come to be told a story. Watch the story for the enjoyment of it.

Note: For those who will say the first Creed movie departed from this formula, I agree. However, the feature was not written by Sylvester Stallone. The only writing credit he received in Creed was for the characters he created not the story.


Monday, November 12, 2018

RIP Storyteller Stan Lee -- Excelsior!

As a writer, I am often asked what novelists are my favorites or provide me with inspiration.  I've written about it at length when discussing self-publishing and once specifically about PJ O'Rourke. But as much as I get asked about writers, I never get asked about people I consider great storytellers. I was saddened today to hear of the passing of one of the great ones: Stan Lee.

I was told that as you get older, the first thing you do when you hear someone has died is to subtract their rage from yours. Considering Stan's age, those numbers are not much of a concern since it is still a two-digit number representing over three decades. So, after a bit of math, my thoughts moved on to the things which most impressed me about the man and his storytelling. In the end, I came up with three things, in particular, the man did which will forever impress me. Allowing the hero to be flawed, providing a satisfying ending to each story while allowing the universe to exist forever, and having fun in the world you created.

Stan created or helped to create a zillion or so superheroes. The primary signature of Stan's creations is that every hero, no matter how powerful, is somehow flawed and very human. From Peter Parker's (Spiderman) insecurities and the pain of his uncle's death to Wade Wilson (Dead Pool) who is entirely ruthless-- each and every hero will ultimately have to face and overcome their own flaws. To me, it was one of the greatest gifts a storyteller could ever give an audience. After all, we all have our own shortcomings, and Stan gave us heroes just like us-- flawed.

I'll be the first to admit at first read some of his stories ended in less than satisfying ways.  However, because he made his universe endless, the next story would always provide the answers which were missing from the first and gave a plausible way for things to go on. This serialized method of storytelling is not new, but Stan took the time to perfect the craft. He could leave you hanging, but you let him because you knew eventually you would get a satisfying payoff.

Stan made cameo appearances in every superhero movie made from his stories. Fans would spend the entire film waiting for his arrival and more than a few tried to piece the cameos together to create a new story. He also appeared as himself on many TV shows, hosted a game show for people who wanted to create their own superhero, and an extensive social media presence. In almost every instance, he was visibly having fun being there. After all who wouldn't have fun being Stan Lee?

As with the passing of anyone worthy of admiration, I found myself considering the main regret I had which was that I never met the man. Of course, spending three seconds shaking hands of someone who inspired you and maybe getting a picture seems trivial. But as I pondered that thought, it occurred to me that I had met Stan-  many, many times. I met him through all of my favorite Marvel characters: Capt. America, Spider-Man, Drax, Iron Man, Dead Pool, Star-Lord, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Loki, Groot, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, … with my introduction of these characters to my grandchildren, Stan Lee will be telling stories forever.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Life Goes On, With Pauses Here & There

I've always tried to create at least one entry every two weeks, with the goal being to write one every week. I guess my reason is twofold, I want to have some sort of discipline to what I'm doing, and I'm following a model that was given to me by my 10th grade English teacher of trying to write something original every week. Additionally, I feel like if I don't share a particular idea, thought, or memory that occurred to me I might lose the spirit and meaningfulness of it if I wait too long to capture it in written words. This is a goal I don't always meet, in fact back in 2014 I only wrote two entries for the entire year, choosing to blame Mark Zuckerberg for my lack of discipline.

Anyway, for the past year, I've been dealing with something in my personal life that has pulled me away from writing regularly. That means not only writing in this blog but also getting my latest book finished. I'm facing something that a lot of people of my age group are starting to have to deal with: an aging parent. Without going into a lot of details, his situation has changed over the past year, and it requires more and more time on my part, as well as my brother’s. We are continually adjusting our thinking and adapting to the amount of time spent interceding to ensure that he is safe, everyone who encounters him is safe, and that he is happy. I often speak of the benefits of being a military brat, but there is one severe downfall in that because of the distance between you and your extended family you seldom see someone age nor what is required as they get older. Therefore, a lot of what I'm seeing and doing is brand-new to me.

It is the love of my father keeps me motivated and contributes to my willingness to give up my time to ensure he has proper care. I am by no means claiming anything close to sainthood, there are plenty of times when his deliberate actions are frustrating to me and cause me to question if this is the same man who raised me since he seems to be breaking every rule of life he ever gave me. I'm continually reminding myself that he is indeed the same man and that with the passage of time his perception of the world is changing and causing him a significant amount of frustration as well.

But alas, I find that I’ve allowed myself to create another entry that attempts to explain and address a situation that I neither want to explain nor address. My intent when sitting down today was to write an entry about Sock Science, instead of discussing why the clock stops for no man.  It just didn't work out that way. So, I will close this for now and ask for your understanding and patience as I try to adapt to this new normal and still find some way of sharing my thoughts, musings, and something about Sock Science.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Still At It

Nine years ago, I sat down at my keyboard and wrote this.  That first entry was not an earth-shattering epiphany of the need to collect and record my priceless thoughts and philosophy.  It was more like a subsurface urge to capture my musings when I noticed calendar reached a particular date.  

Now, nine years later, I'm still at it and covering a wide range of thoughts, observations, and opinions.  Except for one entry, I wrote on November 3, 2012.  I have avoided politics and politicians.  

The idea for an entry usually starts when somehting crosses my mind then gets stuck rather than moving on.  Due to my persona, lots of varied things seem to wander through my brain.  I started out writing about riding and my dog MacBeth,  you will notice many entries feature both MacBeth and Falkor.

I also went to Kuwait for 18 months and talked a lot about living there,  I was even there for one of the worst rains in recent memory.  But then the next year, I spent distracted -- damn you, Mark Zuckerberg.

I discussed my Dad, adventrues in mail order, and the dawning of home voice devices.

Over the years, I reviewed movies, talked about TV shows and tons of concerts including finally getting to see Lynyrd Skynyrd live.  I also talked about new music I discovered and great comedy too. I spoke about music’s effect on me and even though Linda remains one of my favorites,  why Joan and I will always be a thing.

After taking some time off to finish writing it, I talked about my latest novel, to include details on the cover design

I talked about teachers good and bad 

Lots of entries -- almost 300,  lots of readers --over 168K from all over the world, lots of words from lots of thoughts.

Proud to say my blog continues to be 

The thoughts and musings of a man at the precipice of middle age, starting from his 50th birthday.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Year In Live Music 2018, Act IV: Thomas Bailey

When I buy a concert ticket, it is usually because I'm a fan of the headliner.  The investment in a ticket something that requires a bit of consideration, given the price of current concert tickets, it can be a significant investment. Recently, I bought tickets to a show because the three acts performed 80s era music. Each of the three had songs that I really enjoyed and that I looked forward to hearing performed live.

Due to various issues, I have not attended as many shows this summer as I did last year. So, when I bought tickets for the show, I splurged and bought good seats – – even though I was stuck playing the seat roulette game of the Ticketmaster monopoly process. With tickets in hand, I set off hopeful for a show that would be both memorable and full of memories.  

The first act of the evening, was Tom Bailey, formerly of the Thompson Twins. Of the many bands that I listen to in the 80s, the Thompson Twins seemed to be omnipresent. When I was researching songs to use for my concert prep playlist, I discovered they performed a lot of songs that I loved. That made Tom’s appearance more anticipated.

Tom’s current band lineup features a trio of dynamite backing musicians. I was surprised when they walked on stage, and I saw an all-female band was backing him.  Being a big fan of Joan Jett, Nina Strauss, and Ann Wilson, I can appreciate talent regardless of gender. But this was the first band I had seen where the male was the solitary minority as opposed to the other way around. Another surprise was that they were all wearing white outfits which gave them a more formal and cohesive look.  Aside from the Temptations, it has been a while since I saw a band have that level of disciplined professionalism.

But I was there for the music, and the performers did not disappoint. Tom deftly moved from one instrument to another back and forth across the stage as the band treated us to a blend of both old songs and new songs from his recently released album. 

Vicky Warkwick provided solid basslines for each song, and if you're familiar with Thompson Twins music that bass is essential to drive the music forward. She also played keyboards from time to time which added to the fullness of the music when one keyboard simply wasn't enough.   

In almost every concert I find myself concentrating on the motions, or antics of one musician in the band. For this act, it was Amanda Kramer who provided background vocals and keyboards. She was fully engaged and having a great time. She had a wonderful smile and invited the audience to join her in clapping along or raising their arms in the air. I always love it when I find that one musician who seems like they are having the best night of their life.  It looked to me like she was. Aside from the spirit she brought to the music, her playing and singing were on point. 

Paulina Szczepaniak kept the rhythm flowing with her work on the drums. I hated the way the stage layout hid her behind other equipment and prevented me from seeing her perform, but the sound of her expert drumming drove the entire performance forward.

As I mentioned, the performance was a blend of both old and new songs. The newer songs came from the album Science Fiction which Tom had recently released. When I go to concerts to hear the older music, I dread it when an artist tries to re-imagine their hits or tries to introduce a new album that lacks the power and vitality of their original music. Tom Bailey broke that paradigm.

While his Science Fiction album has a similar style and feel as his earlier music, it is not a copy or an attempt to recapture the older style. Instead, he somehow manages to allow the original spirit to flow through the new work without it being a copy or cheap duplication.  Yes, it is the first time that I have ever picked up a freshly released album on my way out of the concert venue.

There were two other acts that night, but in my mind, both of them failed to capture the way they were then or the way they should be now. I have been disappointed by concerts in the past, and I've reviewed them here. I'm not doing it this time, because the entire night was not a loss and I would rather concentrate on the good time and enjoyment of Tom Bailey's music over those who failed.  

If the Thompson Twin's Tom Bailey is coming to a venue near you, buy tickets, and go --  Enjoy it for all it is worth. Likewise, any band that includes Vicky Warkwick, Amanda Kramer or Paulina Szczepaniak  Is likely worth seeing – – (Amanda also plays with the Psychedelic Furs).

Long live 80s Rock!


Monday, August 6, 2018

Bang a Gong and Watch Some Stuff

Chuck Barris -- The Gong Master
Back in the late 70s, if you were lucky enough to be home from school sick or on a holiday, you might have been lucky enough to see a master craftsman at work.  On June 14, 1976, Chuck Barris stepped in front of the camera-- Almost Live --as the host of The Gong Show.  Until then he had been a behind the scenes game show creator, one hit song composer (Palisades Park) and possibly trained CIA assassin.  But on that day, Johnny Jacobs announced Chuck as the show’s host and he walked on stage into a role he was born for: Ringmaster of strange and unusual talent.  

The show was on around noonish, but kept getting moved around.  Since this was before VCR/DVR time-shifting, if you did not catch it when it showed live, you did not see it.  I happened into it by chance, home with strep throat and flipping the channels looking for a Gilligan’s Island rerun, or anything besides a soap opera. The show was billed as a game show, but it was indeed a throwback to a burlesque performance.

In addition to Chuck as host, the show featured three celebrity judges, Milton DeLugg and his Band with the Thug, the acts - some decent, some not so decent, some just plain weird.  The basic concept was, the performer had two minutes to impress the judges, and if they failed to do so, after 30 seconds any one of the three judges could bang the gong and immediately terminate the performance.  If they survived the two minutes, the judges gave them a score between one and ten. Winner for the day got a check for $516.32.  Righteous bucks in the 70s for a two-minute act by an unknown.

Rumor had it Chuck was tremendously anxious about appearing on camera and one of the ways he would deal with it was to clap his hands at the end of every sentence. Pretty soon, the audience picked up on it and was copying his claps. He also wore a variety of hats which he pulled down in front over his eyes so he couldn’t even see what was going on. It was also rumored he was drunk or stoned, but he later denied it and said both booze and drugs or forbidden on stage.  One thing was sure, he was having fun, and he was enjoying each act for all it was worth.  His exuberance was contagious and fun to watch.

The acts were—well as bizarre as the show. What other show featured a guy who juggled ping-pong balls by putting them in his mouth and blowing them skyward only to catch them again? Or a woman who spun plates on sticks? A girl who stuffed 30 marshmallows into her mouth? How about a trained hamster? Not to mentions more sane acts like a guy who burped songs, a contortionist and even a few folks who later made it big (Pee Wee Herman, Andrea McArdle, and Cheryl Lynn).  The acts on the show were something between the Ed Sullivan Show and carnival midway, but that’s what made the show the crazed insanity it was and fun to watch.

My favorite judge was Jaye P. Morgan.  She was the first female comedian I ever saw to not only talk in double entendre but also make herself the subject of sleazy jokes. Until then, I had seen men do it but had never seen a woman who took the step. She did, and it was hilarious. Unlike most of the judges, who I had seen on other TV shows or on Laugh-In reruns, I had never heard of or seen Morgan before the show or after. 

Just like a burlesque show, there were running gags.  My favorite two were Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic. Gene’s appearance would cause the entire show to stop until he finished his dance, of course, Chuck would also dance while the music was playing. Later, they started throwing balls and other items on stage while Jean was dancing.  The Unknown Comic appeared wearing a grocery bag over his head and would tell jokes which were usually at Chuck’s expense. I recall a rather in-depth and spirited conversation with friends about the Unknown Comic identity. I found out it wasn’t Dan Aykroyd but a comedian named Murray Langston (sorry, Tom).

There were also many memorable events which occurred on the show which are now urban legend. I was fortunate to see some of these when broadcast. One entire show featured nothing but people singing the song Feelings – – badly.  Have You Got a Nickel aka The Popsicle Twins featured two girls dressed in shorts, who took a seat on stage and then suggestively ate popsicles. I missed the one where Jaye P. Morgan, in the middle of Gene Gene’s dancing, opened her shirt toward the cameras but I heard about it. 

Thanks to the Internet, a lot of these memorable moments are out there to still be enjoyed, even if they are a little blurry.

During the show’s run, many local communities held their own version of the show. When Ft. Eustis held their version, I had to enter, I had an act sure to get Gonged. My act was to play and sing an original Eddie Cochransque song about love, loss, and undergarments -- She Stole My Underwear. I had only written a chorus and 1.5 verses -- but it was OK because I was going to get gonged.  When I walked on stage and started to perform the song, I was shocked and disappointed to not hear the Gong.  So, I improvised a third verse on the fly and won 2nd place.

My costume? Boxers, t-shirt, combat boots, a silver fox fur pimp hat and a pair of mirrored shades Not sure why I had all that stuff, maybe I knew the need would eventually arise.

Never understood why I was not gonged – the judges must have felt empathy for a poor guy who was heartbroken over having his favorite pair of underwear stolen. I was a strange kid in High School, luckily, I never grew out of it.

On July 21, 1978, the first incarnation of the show came to an end, and during the episode, Chuck Barris sang Take This Job and Shove It.  The Gong Show went on for another two years in syndication before it completely vanished.

As I write this, I have just viewed a few episodes of what is now being billed as The Gong Show, and it is closer to what it was than any other incarnation to have appeared between the original and now. The show is hosted by British personality Tommy Maitland (an uncredited Mike Myers).  None of the acts have risen to the level of absurdity or risqué of the original, but if we give it a few months, it’ll get there.  While Tommy wears many hats during his performance, he has yet to clap his hands together or use any of Chuck’s catchphrases. I think it is an even more sincere form of flattery than if Tommy had imitated Chuck. A show of respect.

I have many good memories of watching Chuck Barris, doing his weird little dances – – clapping his hands – – and wondering what new hat he might be wearing today as he pointed into the camera and promised us he would be back with more STUFF.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Learnt As Bestest Could Be

One of the most oft-heard phrases of my adult life has been "Well, I still haven't used the insert subject here I learned in school for daily life." To a certain point, I agree. I do use algebra when I'm coding and also in and trying to figure out a calculation where I'm unsure of one of the numbers. But mostly, I don't use it to any significant degree. Paul Simon spoke the truth: "all the crap I learned in High School."

There are numerous things I learned in school I don't use in daily life. Some have been taken over by today's technology like how to calculate my taxes manually, and other things would only be necessary if I were in a particular line work, like using an architect's conversion ruler. I really don't think specific lessons where the point of school, but beyond reading, writing, and basic math the purpose was to teach you how to learn for the day when you got to college or trade school.

I admit when I graduated high school the one thing I was reasonably sure I would never use again was my pre-college, required, three years of a foreign language:  Latin.  However, later when I started globe-hopping, I found Latin was invaluable.  It gave me at least a cursory understanding of many other languages. Also, if I were completely lost and did not speak the local language, I would use some of the base elements of the way Latin was constructed to translate signs and other written advice.  The only place this didn't work was the Middle East. But that was trivial compared to the one incident which happened, in the fall of 1982.

I was in the Air Force, assigned in Frankfurt Germany, and had gone to the train station on a Friday afternoon to catch a train out for a weekend of camping.  I was standing in the ticket line with about 10 other folks impatiently waiting to purchase a ticket. There was only one ticket window open and the longer I stood there, the more I began to pay attention to what was going on with the one customer at the ticket window who seemed to be taking forever.

With all the noise around me, it took a minute for me to figure out the man was speaking to the ticket agent in one language while the ticket agent was demanding the conversation take place in German. I noticed the customer was wearing a long black coat and at one point when he turned, I saw a Catholic priest’s collar. I made the bold decision to thrust myself into this situation to try and help. Usually, when I was off base, I decided to stay out of other people's business, but this instance would not allow me to do so. No, I was not entirely selfless, I figured it would help me get out of the train station more quickly.

I went directly to the window and then tapped the priest on the shoulder.  Then I asked him in Latin if I could help. Now, my Latin -- even after years of taking it high school, was not great but it was functional. The priest's entire face lit up as he smiled and responded to me in Latin he was trying to buy a ticket but needed to trade in an unused ticket to have the full fare.  
I turned to the ticket agent who looked at me with a rather dour expression and using my best German, explained the problem as best I could.  The German then also smiled and responded to me, a little too quickly, what was needed to get the priest to where he wanted to go. After trading several phrases back and forth with the ticketing agent I finally understood what was necessary and then in the best broken Latin I could muster, I told priest the steps needed for him to get re-ticketed.  I continued to act as a translator between the two until the transaction was complete and then I walked the priest to the correct track so he could catch his train out.

He handed me his business card, but then flipped it over and handed me a pen motioning for me to give him my information - - which I did. This was before e-mail and cell phones so what I gave them was a mailing address to an APO. He took the card and waved energetically at me as he boarded the train, wishing me peace and prosperity-- at least I think that is what it was. Then, I went back to the ticketing window, got my ticket, and took off for a weekend camping in the mountains of southern Germany without giving it much more thought.

Several months later, just before Christmas, I received a Christmas card from the Punjab Province, India wishing me a Merry Christmas from the Archbishop of the diocese there. At the bottom of the card, was the handwritten phrase gratias ago vos pro succurro in meus iter itineris. Roughly translated: Thank you for your assistance on my travels. Who said Latin was a dead language?

Thank you Ms. Charlotte Naffin, my high school Latin teacher.  Apparently, I took from your class more than the memory of your beautiful blue eyes --. Yeah, aside from being a great teacher, she was young and kinda hot.

Quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum sonatur