Capturing the Mood of a Moody People

Or: After 10 years, “Untitled” has a name

 

I don’t remember how long it was after 9/11 that I first I saw Richard Drew’s “Falling Man,” the stark, frightening image of a single individual plummeting down the face of the World Trade Center. What I do remember is how remarkably this one image captured the mood of the country — the whole world, in fact — in those days after the towers came down.

That mood was hopelessness. If this could happen in New York, the crown jewel of American cities, the capitol of the world — arguably quite literally, given that the United Nations is just a dozen or so blocks from Ground Zero — then I could be that falling man at any given moment in any given place on no particular day.

To put it the way a frosh philosophy student might: Drew captured the zeitgeist of the day.

Zeitgeist is one of those big “SAT 800” words — the kind of term that rarely finds its way outside of that frosh philosophy class. All things being equal, though, it’s a word that doesn’t have a “dumber” version. Here’s what Messrs. Merriam and Webster have to say about this German word:

zeitgeist  \ˈtsīt-ˌgīst, ˈzīt-\

n. the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

For the past however many years, I’ve blogged about pop culture, politics, religion, Comcast (numerous times), writing, movies, major news events…the list goes on and on. Moving beyond the blog and ignoring social media, which is itself quite a barometer of zeitgeist, my books touch on zeitgeist, culminating most recently with The Patriot Joe Morton, the theme of which might be summed up, “the high prices of change for change’s sake and doggedly adhering to the status quo at all costs.” Joe Morton is, itself, a book about the zeitgeist of the  late-Bush, early-Obama era.

All of this is a round about way to come to the point. Looking at where I am, where we are as a country, and what I have a penchant for talking about in this space, I’ve finally settled on a name for this blog, and as you may have gathered, I’ve titled it Zeitgeist.

I doubt this title is that original, question my own qualifications for even attempting to capture such a broad stroke of society, or even whether or not it’s possible to gauge zeitgeist in the moment. But I’m certainly going to give it a try.

 

Godspeed, Captain Apollo

The first time I spoke to Richard Hatch, he was moderating a press junket at the Hilton Americas hotel in Houston as one of the headliners of Galacticon 3. For more than thirty years, Richard had been the standard bearer for the Battlestar Galactica universe, and more than a few press write-ups gave him credit for single-handedly — and doggedly — pursuing the critically acclaimed SyFy reboot of the series.

At the time, I was a staff writer for BayouLife Magazine, and I was on assignment to cover geek culture’s explosive intrusion into every nook and cranny of society. I also happened to be one of just two print journalists at the convention — the rest of my colleagues coming by way of blogs and YouTube channels.

“Richard, this question is for Mr. Olmos, Mr. Hogan and yourself,” I began my second round of questions. “Could you discuss how the story lines on Battlestar Galactica moved beyond imitating typical sci-fi tropes and into the realm of an almost cinéma vérité style of art imitating life? I’m specifically referring to the New Caprica Captivity and how that relates to what is happening today in places like Gaza and Darfur.”

He paused, glanced down at me, and winked. “You’re good.”

The audience laughed, I blushed, and then I quipped, “Yeah. You should see me with the real president.”

He passed the mic around and, one by one, each of the three men addressed the points of my question. Later that night, as I was sitting in the bar discussing the finer points of Atlas Shrugged over a Dos Equis, Richard wandered in. He stopped at my table and shook my hand. That he shook my hand first was notable only because I was sitting with Esai Morales.

“What are you gentlemen discussing so earnestly?” he asked. Esai shared with him the subject and he asked if he could join us.

“What are you drinking?” I asked, flagging down the waiter. By the time his drink arrived, Richard had not only brought the conversation about Ayn Rand to a suitable and eloquently final punctuation, but he’d steered the conversation into the next topic, and what was about to happen would place me, my traveling companion, Hailey, and our tiny table in the Hilton Americas bar firmly in convention history.

“Esai, someone told me you’re the biggest Beatles fan in the world,” he said. “I would like to disagree.”

Not one to shirk a challenge — and his ego lubricated by several Dos Equis — Esai shook his head. “I can sing every single Beatles song every recorded in the order they were recorded.”

“So can I,” Richard replied. It was 9:40 p.m.

At 1:30 a.m., a very drunk reporter slinked away from the table and back to his hotel room, leaving behind more than 1,400 people to the care of Richard Hatch, Esai Morales, and a handful of Houston’s finest.

I saw him again a year later at Dragon*Con (this was before the asterisk vanished) and he immediately recalled both my name and that night — which is more than many in attendance can say.

That was Richard.

Or maybe Richard was the guy who, at Galacticon 3, witnessed the first moments of a beautiful relationship between two of my best friends, Loribeth and Steve. But that’s their story to share.

Or maybe Richard was the guy who, at every convention, prided himself on pulling together a diverse cross section of actors, convention staff, volunteers and fans and, after reserving at least two, if not three, tables in the nearest Benihana (it had to be Benihana, and we once drove for more than 45 minutes to get to one) to break bread.

Or maybe Richard was the guy who always won at thumbwar. Always. Guy never lost! His Twitter handle was @thumbfighter, for Christ’s sake!

Or maybe Richard was the guy who, after learning he might not get paid for an appearance because ticket sales were collapsing, bought his own flight, reserved a hotel room, and flew half-way across the country to show up at Galacticon 4 because he refused to disappoint his fans. He brought with him Anne Lockhart, Terry Carter, Jack Stauffer, Herb Jefferson, and dear, sweet Sarah Rush.

“I wasn’t going to come,” Anne told me at that show, “But Richard called and said he was coming. We couldn’t let the fans down. He was right.”

I last saw Richard at DragonCon in 2016. He was at his usual table in the corner, and as always, he smiled, and we immediately began sharing stories. He told me about how much fun he was having teaching his acting classes and surfing Pacific Coast waves with his son. I filled him in about this project and that kid’s accomplishment. After we’d finished our chat, he took my hand and pulled me in for a big, loud hug.

I wouldn’t be making Benihana, I said, but I promised him I’d be at the next one.

…And, Richard, I will.

So say we all.

Our People’s Princess

I was seven years old the first time I saw a movie without adult supervision. Lee Inabnet dropped her son, Byron, and me off at the Cinema III on Louisville Avenue in Monroe. To this day, I remember almost every single moment of that experience, from the smells of the popcorn and butter to the feel of the red-on-burgundy paisley carpets.

That Byron and I were barely seven and eight years old underscores just how different a time the early 1980s were. We bounced into the theatre, all excitement and energy, bought our own snacks, and made our way down to Theatre Two, where we eagerly awaited the showing of Return of the Jedi.

It’s a strange twist of fate that, three decades later, I’d be an avid trekker and, while I’ve seen each and every Star Wars film in the theatre (and all of the films since Return of the Jedi during their first runs), I’ve never been much of a ‘wars fan, preferring as I do the more “sciencey” Star Trek.

But…

Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia.

I was born in 1977 — the same year Star Wars debuted. There literally has not been a moment in my life that Carrie Fisher wasn’t Princess Leia, wasn’t engrained in the consciousness of everyone and everything around me, whether it’s white-nun-robes-and-braided-earmuffs Leia or inexplicably-bikini-clad-slave-princess Leia.

And Leia was something of a national treasure, too. If Diana was the United Kingdom’s people’s princess, Leia was everyone else’s.

But Carrie Fisher wasn’t just Leia. She was an actress of incredible talents who, like so many of her contemporaries in the pre-Patrick-Stewart world of sci-fi, found herself hamstrung by typecasting in an iconic role, struggling to find parts where she could stand out and eclipse her Leia. To be fair, as an actress, Fisher was prolific — but the kind of prolific that underscores her fame as Princess Leia. She landed parts in Hannah and Her SistersThe Burbs, and When Harry Met Sally. Many might argue, though, that she didn’t come fully into her own as an actress until well-past the Star Wars years, with roles in Fanboys and guest slots as herself. Ever so cruelly, she was traveling back from the U.K. filming Catastrophe when she suffered her heart attack, a job in which Fisher’s acting chops were truly shining.

If I’m waxing a bit eloquent about Carrie Fisher, please indulge this writer just a little longer. For if Princess Leia was where I developed a crush on her, it was her equally prolific and much grander careers offscreen that made me love her.

Carrie Fisher was a writer.

In fact, she wrote one of my all-time favorite films, Postcards from the Edge, and the book that inspired it. Drawing heavily on her own life in the shadow of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, Postcards recounts the story of an actress who would be a singer. It also happens to feature one of the earliest on-screen instances of Meryl Streep singing.

Carrie Fisher was a script doctor.

Though the records of her efforts to fix scripts are closed-hole secrets, she was known as one of the best script doctors in Hollywood, and numerous directors, writers and producers have called her the best at taking stories and fixing them.

At the heart of it all, Carrie Fisher was a storyteller, whether she was telling her own story through a memoir or shaded behind a novel, helping someone else find their voice as a writer, or bringing someone else’s characters to life.

That we lost her suddenly, without warning, and far far too soon just underscores how shit of a year 2016 has been.

Godspeed, Carrie Fisher. I can only hope Bowie and Prince are there for your welcome party.

Butterfly Leaves

Or: On the joys of having four distinct seasons

 

Growing up in Louisiana, I never experienced the slow march of the seasons. In Louisiana, there’s Summer, and then there are about two months of this slightly less warm, wet thing called Winter, during which once every two or three years we experience a good solid icing. Rain falls from the skies, hits the cold ground, solidifies into a sheet of ice, and shuts the state down for weeks on end.

Moving to Tennessee, I experienced my first Fall, but only after arriving in Summer. So the full effect of the transition was lost on me until I had made my way through that first winter, to the first hints of snow, then into spring and the verdant burst of green through the gray, and finally, that glorious moment when Summer yields to the cooler temperatures of Fall.

In late November, it’s easy to develop an appreciation of that New England tradition of leaf peeping while you drive south out of Nashville, especially once you pass through the last of the Nashville basin and into the hilly curves that mark the lower Cumberland Valley, start that slow descent then climb back up through the rocky outcroppings near Chattanooga that form, in part, Rock City and Missionary Ridge.

Fall is kind of like the middle age of a year. It comes on slowly, and really you don’t see it coming. The first hints are a striking, red tree in a sea of green, not unlike that first shock of white at the temples. But it’s too easy to dismiss this single anomaly in a forest of verdant oaks. It’s not until the patch of trees are a Van Gogh that you begin to grasp the full — and fleeting — extent of Fall.

It’s the kind of season that catches you unaware, surprises you, and just as you grow accustomed to it, it’s gone.

Today was such a day, as I made my way south to Atlanta for a convention.

Over the years, my time in the car has become those solitary moments when, thanks to Steve Jobs and a bit of bluetooth tech, I can catch up with family. So I called my daughter back home in Louisiana.

Normally, I expect it to ring to voicemail. Sometimes, those lucky times when the Fates align, she answers with an exasperated, “Hello?” after more than a few rings. Today, though, she answered on the first ring. And, as I drove across the Cumberland Valley and back up the Fall-burnt ridges of the middle aged 2016, she and I spent a glorious hour and twenty minutes on the phone.

Sometime shortly before or immediately after I called her, I saw a beech tree hugged too close to the interstate, its leaves a vibrant yellow. A stiff breeze whipping around an outcropping of rocks had whisked a handful of the gold-yellow leaves off their branches and into the air, where for just a few minutes they flitted about in the wind, carrying the promise of butterflies instead of winter.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Red State Blue State, the State, Our State

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been accused of being a Clintonista leftist and a Trump-loving hatemonger, of being a sexist and a racist and of basking in my white privilege, of being a bleeding heart social justice crusader and wallowing in my victimhood. I’ve been told “that’s why you voted for Trump!” for stating something that, in the very same conversation, led someone else to inform me “that’s why you voted for Clinton!”

Along the way, I’ve fallen prey to the same trap so many others have: I’ve spent too much time attacking the character of this politician or that, while not focusing any energy whatsoever on stating what it is I, myself, believe. Somewhere, I allowed myself to start ascribing to people the Gollum of their chosen candidate’s positions, without taking a moment to consider whether or not that person has or could articulate what beliefs it was that drove them to chose that particular candidate in the first place.

Then, I had a slightly arresting realization: while I’m pretty good with words, of attacking the positions of others, and of deconstructing arguments from both sides, I haven’t arrived at my own positions. Might I not be very good at stating what it is I believe–because I haven’t been practicing that. Have I thought about how to best articulate the principles behind what it is I think on any given issue? I’m thought it would be interesting to, instead of trying to tear down this position or that based solely on someone’s expressed political candidate or notion, focus instead on practicing saying what *I* believe, and letting that drive my actions and thoughts. So, here’s my list so far, and my conclusions at the end:

  • I believe everyone is created equal, that no one should receive special privileges or restrictions because of who they were born as or where they were born.
  • I believe hard work should be rewarded with fair wages in a consensual relationship between an employer and the employee.
  • I believe people should be free to say what they want, do to them selves as they want, and go where they want, so long as they don’t harm others while doing so.
  • I believe government is, frequently, well-intentioned but ill-equipped to deal with problems it takes on, that the solutions to many of those problems would arise naturally from pure hearts and right action left to its own, and that too often, even good intentions lead to bad outcomes, often making the problems worse, not better.
  • I believe people — all people — have a right to express their beliefs however they see fit, so long as they don’t violate the rights of others in doing so.
  • I believe that people have the right to ignore the statements of others any time they choose. Just because you have a right to say something doesn’t mean you have a right to be *heard*.
  • I believe there are despicable people in this world, that evil exists, that bad things happen. But I also believe that these people, this evil, and these events are rarities, the outliers, not the norm.
  • I believe we’re far too afraid, and that many of the fears we have are unfounded and based in our own insecurities, not in reality of our situations.
  • I believe in helping my fellow man, lending a hand to those in need, offering assistance to those less fortunate.
  • I believe to whom and how I express my help should be my decision and mine alone. I believe neither the government nor society have no moral authority to dictate to me how I help those around me.
  • I believe in promoting peace through encouraging engagement first, formidable strength second, that a strong military doesn’t require committing an ever-spiralling amount of money to achieve.
  • I believe in a safety net to catch people when they fall, but that net should have a bounce to it, not a hole in the middle that people get trapped under for the rest of their lives.
  • I believe social justice begins and ends at home, with parents and children, and that any attempts to enforce social justice by a government will do little more than institutionalize and crystalize opposition.
  • I believe love trumps hate every time, but that too often, we let our self-love turn into hatred of others.
  • I believe facts matter before beliefs.
  • I believe the power of an argument, not a letter behind my name on a card, should drive my decisions at the ballot box.
  • I believe that most people who spend their lives in public service have pure motives, that the impulse behind their drive is good, but that sometimes their plans are bad.
  • I believe that some people, far fewer than most, but far more than I’d like, are evil and should be opposed.
  • I believe in turning the other cheek, and I believe in just war — and I believe that those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • I believe in freedom of religion and freedom from religions, and that most people are smart enough to understand the difference.
  • I believe that zero-tolerance policies of any stripe for anything are almost always ill-advised, if only because there are almost always exceptions to a rule, no matter how just, moral, or ethical, and that those exceptions will always manifest themselves when we have zero tolerance for an act, a belief, or an individual.
  • I believe it’s possible to be a member of a group — even a political party — without granting sanction to each and every one of a party’s goals or platform planks.
  • I believe when we join a group or party we have a responsibility to make sure that that party’s goals and planks are just, not just popular.
  • I believe Karma isn’t for the next life, that Karma about the here and now, and I believe in Dharma–right action, even when that action is dangerous, unpopular, or difficult.
  • I believe in speaking truth to power.
  • I believe that silence is simply silence, not consent.
  • I believe opposition should be based on ethics and philosophy, not group membership or personalities.
  • I believe society is its strongest when vociferous, boisterous discourse between opposed  groups produces teamwork, not gridlock.
  • I believe society is weakest when we fight about personalities and policies, not ideas.

This is where I’m starting my list. I’m sure there will be others I come up with, but I’m surprised how difficult it is to state affirmatives rather than negatives.

That being said, please stay safe, stay engaged, and God Bless America, the president-elect, and Secretary Clinton.

The Horsemen Saga – Dawn of the Age of Man, Pt. 1

Just minutes into his presidency, Stephen Kirksey learns the world is coming to an end — unless the world can do something about it. Kirksey reconnects with the enigmatic billionaire Parks Coover, an old college rival, to marshal the forces necessary for a roll-of-the-dice effort to save the world. Coover and Kirksey race against time to unite the world and to secure a future for humanity before the earth succumbs to the four horsemen.

Part 1 – Dawn of the Age of Man

Chapter Two

Parks Coover leaned close, his nose almost touching the jagged edge of the metal carcass. He could still smell the toasted almond of the blown circuit boards. “You know what you did wrong, yes?” he said, his voice betraying only the slightest hint of accent.

“Yes,” came the response. Coover stood, dusted his knees, and ruffled the boy’s hair.

“Anybody else know what Andy got wrong?” he asked to the twelve other children huddled around the model rocket remains on the hangar floor. Every hand went up.

He singled out an eleven-year-old with a point. “Jennifer.”

“He got the mix wrong,” she said.

Coover tossed up both arms and grinned. “Touchdown! He got the mix wrong.”

Everyone laughed, including Andy.

“What do you think you need to do next time?”

“Measure better,” Andy said.

“Yep. And what do we say when we blow things up?” he asked to no one in particular.

“Sometimes things blow up before they go up!”

“Okay. So let’s see if we can’t put this bad boy into–”

“Parks?” his secretary interrupted.

He sighed and turned.

“Sir, there are two men here from Edwards. They say it’s urgent,” she said. His head slumped melodramatically and the kids giggled.

“It’s always urgent, isn’t it?” he said to them. They nodded agreement. This, he thought, was why he had started a STEM school at a rocket factory.

“We’re almost done here, Meg. Please–”

“They need you immediately, sir. I can take over here,” she said.

He winked at Andy. “Always do what the ladies in your life tell you, son, and you’ll get along just fine.”

Two at a time, Coover mounted the stairs to the loft of offices over the hangar. He took a minute to rinse his hands and check for grease on his face or rocket bits in his hair. At forty-two, his most frequently mentioned trait was youthful vigor. He hoped it would hold out for a few more years, and so far it had. But he had long thought any perceived eternal youth owed more to the first billion dollars he put in the bank while still a student at MIT than it did to superior genetics. But he knew better than to suggest such. He was drying his hands when he entered his office, expecting to find a couple of airmen with a colonel. These visits were coming with increasing regularity as his neighbor stepped up drone test flights. At least once a month, the Air Force showed up to ask permission to retrieve a lost parcel from his property. What met him inside almost caused him to stumble, and he hoped the two generals didn’t notice.

“Gentlemen, how may I help you?”

“Dr. Coover?” the general closest to him said.

“Mr. Coover,” he said, almost automatically.

“Excuse me?” the second general said.

“Mister. I don’t have a doctorate.”

“Mr. Coover, we need you to come with us,” the first said.

This was a surprise and a not all together unpleasant turn, Coover thought, his mind bouncing through a host of scenarios about this lost gadget or that broken toy over on the base. Normally, they just handed him a form, asked for his signature, and then went about their day. This was something different, and he was intrigued. He had heard the rumors about the new spy plane they were testing, and catching a glimpse of that could be fun.

“Give me about a half hour to–”

The second general interrupted. “Sir, now.”

The general’s words carried just a slight hint of an order, and Coover’s excitement cooled. He didn’t take orders from the military, didn’t play well with taking orders, and he wasn’t about to be ordered out of his own office. So, instead, he sat down.

“General, you’re forgetting something,” he said. “I don’t work for you.”

The first general stepped closer to his desk and between Coover and his colleague. “Mr. Coover, I need you to come with me. You’re getting on a plane right now.”

“And going where?” he asked. “Again, general, I’m not–”

“Son, the president has sent for you, and if I have to drag you across the desert by your collar, you’re coming with us. Understood?” The look in the general’s eye told Coover that this man was neither joking nor hesitant. He pressed a button to call Meg, who showed up within seconds.

“Yes, Parks?” she said.

“Could you call over and have the boys get my plane ready? I’m going to Washington,” he said. He could tell the generals didn’t like this decision, and the first bristled.

“Sir, we have a plane waiting–”

“–and the president waiting on the other side. Unless you’re putting me on an SR-71, I’ll get there faster on my plane. So how about you boys just accept the ride?”

Meg cleared her throat. “Parks, the plane is ready.”

“Are we good?” he said to the generals. They exchanged glances without replying. “Good. Let’s not keep the president waiting. Meg, could you grab my bag, please? And make sure the uplink to Ollie is online.”

Less than five minutes later, Parks Coover’s private jet winged its way over the hangar and made a sharp turn east, with clear air space and permission to land at Andrews where, the generals assured him, a chopper awaited to ferry him to the White House.

-#-

Chapter One

Chapter One

Tony had told him that the best leadership happened in silence. At some point early on, you won’t know what to say, Tony had told him. Just sit there and someone will fill the silence. For his own sake, Stephen Kirksey hoped to hell his mentor and predecessor had not just been blowing smoke up his ass.

He had been sitting in silence for more than a minute.

Just a half hour ago, he was walking up Pennsylvania Avenue, waving and chatting with Clara. He expected to arrive to an empty Oval Office, but NASA Administrator Ryan Aaronson had been waiting in ambush with an emergency briefing, a briefing that Kirksey wished had gone to the other fella. A lifetime of celebrity golf challenge would have afforded ignorance of the misery that was headed this way.

“Sir?” one of the young scientists said. When he didn’t reply, the next voice he heard was Robert Flemming, his chief of staff, who had been standing over his shoulder for the whole briefing.

“Mr. President?”

Kirksey looked up. “I’ve been president for–” he checked his watch, then continued. “–two hours and twenty one minutes and this is what you tell me? The world is ending and…what?”

Now it was their turn to sit in silence until someone came up with an answer. He waited thirty seconds, each one marked off by the grandfather clock near the door to his private study. In the silence that was the Oval Office, the ticking became an almost tactile thud. Aaronson cleared his throat, and Kirksey trained his eyes on the NASA administrator.

“Mr. President, sir. We just…There is nothing we can add,” he said. “I just found out about this two days ago.”

“What were President Dalton’s thoughts on this?”

“Uh–we did not brief the former president,” Aaronson said. The president knew his raised eyebrows would convey well enough his next question, so more silence. “Sir, with the transition coming and the new administration, we thought…”

Kirksey still hadn’t formulated the appropriate response, but he could at least keep the focus off of himself and his sudden lack of words. It wasn’t that he was inept or even unprepared for potential disasters. One doesn’t decide to run for president unless he’s ready to lead the world, after all. Instead, Kirksey’s inability to come up with words stemmed from the magnitude of what he had just been told. The NASA chief was still droning on, justifying why he had kept the most important discovery in the history of the world from his previous boss, but it occurred to Kirksey what his first move needed to be.

“…if we had informed him, there was no guarantee we could maintain secrecy and–”

“Secrecy?” the president interrupted. “Secrecy? First of all, you’re NASA. You don’t get to classify things. These pictures were taken when? Four days ago? Which means you’re two days past the legally required point of releasing them.”

“But–”

“No buts. Let’s move past the fact that you didn’t tell President Dalton onto the point that you didn’t tell me, Sammy. I was the vice president, the president-elect, and still the sitting chairman of the National Science and Technology Council. Could you remind me where NASA is on the organizational chart, Robert?”

“The National Science and Technology Council, Mr. President.”

“That’s right. The National Science and Technology Council,” the president said. He let the words hang in the air for a moment. Over the years, as he had spent time in Asia and Europe in the service and then in Washington, a hard Tennessee drawl had softened into a barely detectable hint of the South. Only in moments of anger did his roots show, and he had learned to wield the accent as a weapon. For going on five days, the director of NASA had withheld knowledge that three asteroids would wipe the planet out, could even name the day, and he had the balls to do it with a straight face.

“Sir–”

“Save it, Ryan. You’re done.”

“Sir?”

“Gentlemen, thank you for the briefing,” Robert said. He pointed in turn at each of the three scientists. “You three wait outside, please. Leave the displays. Ryan, hang back a second.”

When the scientists had made their exits, the president stood, staring down Aaronson as he made his way around the Resolute desk. He leaned against the desk, still leering at the man.

“Robert,” the president asked. “Is President Dalton wheels up yet?”

“Yes sir, Mr. President.”

“Get on the horn and turn that plane around. The last thing I want the poor bastard walking into when he gets back from Europe next week is a bunch of questions about what he knew when.” As Robert frantically sent a flurry of text messages, the president’s gaze did not leave Aaronson, and in that time, Kirksey was sure the man shrank a suit size. When he heard Robert’s phone slip almost silently back into a suit pocket, the president smiled. “And what about you, Ryan?”

“I don’t–” he stammered.

“No, I don’t suppose you do,” the president said. Kirksey arrived at what should have been from the beginning an inevitable decision, glanced at Robert with a nod, and sighed. “Look, Ryan. I know you think you did the best thing, and I’m going to make this easy for you. You’ve decided you want to spend time with your family, that this isn’t the right mission for you, that there are better men for the job at hand. You’ll get with my people. They’ll come up with something appropriate to say.”

“I don’t understand, Mr. President.”

Robert answered for him. “The president thanks you for your service, Dr. Aaronson. And he accepts your resignation. If you would, please wait in my office and we’ll walk through the next steps together.”

With the NASA administrator dispatched, the president returned to his chair. Robert took a seat opposite him. For a few minutes, they let the room sink into them, envelop their thoughts. Finally, the president slapped his hand lightly onto the desk. “Well then.”

“What do we do, sir?” Robert asked. Kirksey almost shrugged but stopped. Instead, he took a moment to calm himself and breathe.

“I would like, in this order, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a meeting with the Senate Select Committee on intelligence. Preferably today. Then, I want to speak to the heads of state.”

“Which ones?” The president’s blank stare answered Robert’s question and garnered a terse nod. Robert turned to leave, but the president stopped him.

“Robert, how quickly can we get Parks Coover to Washington?”

-#-

 

 

 

 

Brutalist Birthing Center

Or: How I learned to stop looking to live with reusable project pieces

For a time, my daughter issued an edict: I could no longer say “mid-century modern” or any permutation thereof, including but not limited to MidCentury, MCM, or the diminutive “mid-mod.” She had grown tired of hearing me gush about this warehouse find or that junk shop purchase.

Growing up in my grandparents’ house on Forsythe Avenue was a mid-century fan’s dream. My grandfather was a designer by trade, and like pretty much everyone else drawing house plans or designing office parks from 1955-1970, he favored the clean, simple lines, the low-slung roofs, and the high, thin windows made so famous by designers with  names like Neutra, Saarinen, and Niemeyer. A good friend calls them “Brady Bunch Houses.”

I’m an unabashed fan of all things MidCentury, from coffee tables (I have a Dutch-teak with pencil legs and gull wing edges) to art. (A recent prized find is a 40-year-old knock off of a Rothko I found at Goodwill for $15. It’s hanging in the dining room.) Even the cars get my motor running, and I’d consider killing for a 1967 Lincoln Continental — the one with suicide doors. I spent seven years rescuing credenzas from dumpsters and refinishing a Red Lion table, and I was forever sending everything on the back seat — and more than a few times an unwittingly unbuckled passenger in the front — sailing to the floorboard for an emergency breaking after seeing a Pearsal lamp or George Nelson chair in a junk shop window. One of the biggest mistakes of my life came when I sold everything to move to Nashville.

Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the strange temporal anomaly that allowed Nashville to escape pretty much all design choices from c.1950-1970. In other words: there is precious little of my beloved Mid-Mod. One curious exclusion to this Whovianesque escapement of bright colors and roman brick seems to be Nashville’s West End neighborhood–where row after row of massive concrete hulks sit nestled in a city park.

The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer's offices lie.
The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer’s offices lie.

The particular school of architecture — brutalism — relies greatly on clean lines, poured concrete and, well, a brutal adherence to a design motif. My day job takes me to one such brutalist masterpiece (pictured LEFT) each day. Cool, subterranean parking beneath a five-story mass of poured concrete, complete with the signature, exposed anchor bolt holes and tell-tale 4×8 squares of the old plywood forms greet me each morning as I wheel my car into a parking spot.

Interestingly, this building has been the home to a number of businesses over the years–from lawyers to music industry professionals. These days, there’s a dentist, another ad agency and a record label on our floor. One of the stranger tenants, though, is the birthing center on the ground floor.

Before we go any further, I think it’s important to note that I’ve witnessed the miracle of childbirth twice. It’s an amazing, albeit somewhat messy, experience, watching a new life enter this world. Childbirth is a beautiful occurrence, and it in no way gives me the willies. On the other hand, knowing that the McHipster Family is downstairs in suite three of a decidedly not medical facility squeezing out Sporty McHipster Jr. is just a little much for me, and so usually, I ignore the birth center’s presence, and it only registers on my radar on those rare occasions when I happen through the lobby to walk to Dose or Tzaziki’s for lunch.

My biggest problem isn’t the birthing center per se, but where the birthing center is in relation to my beautiful, brutalist haven. More precisely, how the birthing center’s location itself came to be–and what it used to be before it was what it was before the birthing center.

When the building opened in the 1960s, the entryway over the parking deck was a wide terrace, railed and, presumably decked with tables and chairs and ashtrays. This is, after all, the era of Donald Draper we’re talking about. But as West End became more dual-use (apartments and houses edged up to the busy business district), restaurants came in. Sometime in the early 1990s, this happened:

The terrace was built out into a copper-roofed, large windowed and–most inexplicably–a clapboard sided restaurant location for an Outback Steakhouse. Overlooking for a moment the somewhat disturbing notion that a birthing center exists in a steakhouse, this architectural aberration infuriates the purist in me, and occasionally when I do notice the place, I find myself wondering if the architect lived long enough to see this abomination explode from the side of his masterpiece of brutalist form. What did he think when he saw “Outback Steakhouse” emblazoned upon the sleek lines he spent so much time and effort perfecting and unifying?

Then, I remember that I use a gutted 1959 Saba cabinet to house my media center and a 1960 Philco Television cabinet is the wet bar, and I wonder about reuse and how we become so comfortable with certain forms of reuse but other upcycling efforts irk us. Sure it’s okay that I stripped the innards out of a T.V. set for a place to keep the bourbon. But the outside remained unchanged. Slap a coat of paint on that sucker, though, and now it’s fighting time. This touch of internal inconsistency bothers me, and it makes me consider the other things we repurpose in life.

Think about our kids. From the beginning, we pour ourselves literally and figuratively into making these little facsimiles of ourselves. We raise them up by staking them to a pole with discipline and instruction, guiding them, we hope, into fully realized humans. In essence, we’re designing the idealized versions of ourselves. Then, sometime in their teenaged years, they discover hormones and sexual attraction, their brains shrink by half, and they start globbing on new bits to the lovely façade of civil perfection we parents have created. Roof-top Rock-n-Roll delivered courtesy of Dr. Dre’s multi-colored plastic bits and a too-tight teeshirt showing off this muscle group or that set of curves we may kind of prefer not be there at all. Girls slap on a new coat of paint, coloring their eyes and lips, and boys move away from seersucker shorts and cute bib-shirts with Pokemon characters on it to shirts featuring what you hope is the name of a band but secretly suspect might be the name of a new terrorist cell instead.

Organic growth drives modifications to our handiwork, and in the end, we’re little more than that architect, driving down West End and trying to ignore the scores of people filing in and out of the post-modern Outback Birthhouse.

At least we have grandkids to look forward to.

Mojo Binders

Or: Fetish and the Art of Writing

I remember reading, where I don’t know, that Hemingway used pencils to write in his notebooks. It must have been in A Moveable Feast, because I remember it was in his own voice, so strong, authoritative, and direct. The comment was almost a throwaway, the kind of detail a writer uses to bridge the space between two competing actions. Yet it stood out, because he described sharpening the pencil with a penknife and jotting a few notes in a Parisienne café.

The humble pencil, two slivers of wood glued around a slender needle of graphite, a little metal cap — it’s called the ferrule — a little tin bridge between the commission of the act and its reversal. You see, I’m one of a rare breed of individuals who, in dark corners of coffee shops and commiserate about  lead viscosity, body weight and heft, and rubber densities. Yes, I’m a pencil worshipper.

My pencil of preference, in fact the only pencil I’ll use, is the Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2.

Absent my trusty Ticonderogas, I default to a pen, sometimes a fountain pen or a ballpoint, and in each instance I have preferred models. I write longhand on AmPad’s Dual-Pad evidence model, because I enjoy the weight of the paper and the way in which it soaks the words in so effortlessly while the tip of the instrument floats across the surface nearly free of friction, providing just enough resistance to make me pause and think about the next word, but not so long as to break my concentration.

I’m hardly the first writer to fetishize the pencil, much less any other of a few hundred other, equally ridiculous aspects of committing words to the page. Poet Nikky Finney uses Blackfeet Indian pencils in her writings, which presents a special challenge as the Blackfeet Indians ceased making pencils in 1992. Yet, devoted is she to those pencils, and who can blame her? How the poet justifies her obsession, too! A YouTube video (below) highlights her love of this particular anachronism, and before you judge any fetishization of a tool offered up by writers, remember this: Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for Poetry–three years after this video was made.

There are other fetishes we writers fall into, at varying degrees over the long process of beginning, working on, and completing any particular book.  Sometime after I begin to fill pages of an AmPad with character sketches, outlines of scenes, or notes about the semiotics of rhythm, and right before I begin the second or third chapter, I go on a hunt for the Mojo Binder. This is the implement in which I will compile those pages of notes, printed Wikipedia entries on some historical figure or obscure arcania of music, and the news stories that inspire me to plod onward. There is nothing outwardly special about the Mojo Binder, and this binder looks (and in fact is) just like any other binder. It might be plucked off the shelf at Staples or rescued from a trash box at the school. I’ve even found a Mojo Binder at Goodwill on occasion.

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Photo Credit: Frances Micklow/The Star Ledger

The act of finding the Mojo Binder takes me on a journey. Once, as I stood in an Office Depot, a helpful clerk circled around three times to find out if I needed help as I stood in front of a 12′-tall display filled with 1 1/2″ binders.

“Are you looking for something?” he asked helpfully.

“Yes, a binder.”

“Well, you’re in the right place,” he said on the first pass. A few minutes later, he circled back again. “Is there something in particular you’re looking for?”

“Yep. I need a particular binder.”

He glanced at the wall and then back at me, wandering off. A couple of minutes later, and now quite concerned, he returned a third time. “Maybe I can help you. What features are you looking for?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” I said. He began, helpfully, attempting to demonstrate the angled rings of one binder and the subtle double-click of another.  This binder had a window on the spine for helpful filing later, and that one has the sheet lifters. There’s even one over here that has specially shaped rings with ribbing to deter paper tearing and pulling.

I eventually bought a binder at a garage sale the next Saturday.

The book that particular implement assisted in producing went on to be the first runner up for a Faulkner Medal. Once “The End” was committed to the final page, the hundreds of sheets of canary paper, the countless magazine ads, and more than a few beer napkins, were removed, unceremoniously shoved into a large manilla envelope, and filed away. The Mojo Binder, its job done, was retired to the pile, ready to be given to some student or other when they need one, sent off to college with my daughter, or left to collect dust in the box in the back of the closet.

I can’t tell you which of the dozen or so binders I still own helped me produce The Patriot Joe Morton, but I know one of them did. That’s the nature of writing, though. It’s not just a craft. It’s a ritual. And in that rite of committing the words to the page, we hope we find something worth reading. Otherwise, we’re wasting binders with Mojo and Blackfeet Indian pencils.