Happy Birthday, James Baldwin!

Had he lived, today would have been author James Baldwin’s 95th birthday. If you’ve never read Baldwin, do yourself a favor and pick up the short story, “Sonny’s Blues. If you’d like to read it online, take a look at this website. The story is annotated, but still well worth reading.

My favorite passage in the story takes place at the end. The narrator is at a club watching his brother, Sonny, play piano in a band. The gig, like the story itself, starts out slow, and then builds little by little, finally reaching it’s crescendo as the story ends.

Here’s a bit of “Sonny’s Blues” from the annotated version:

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumphs, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them all on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing–he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, his instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.

Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with his life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what we had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his; that long line, of which we only knew Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Then it was over, Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then, he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again. It glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”

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My 20 All-Time Favorite TV Shows

After writing a recent post about Deadwood, I started thinking about my favorite TV shows of all time. I know this is hard to believe, but there was once a world with no Netflix, no Hulu, and no Amazon Prime. And HBO and Showtime were only in their infancy. That’s the world I grew up in. It was a hard scrabble life. As a result, my list may be skewed toward older, network shows. Even so, these were great shows and deserve some recognition.

The flip side of that is that there are a lot of shows I’ve never seen. I never watched The Wire or The Sopranos or Game of Thrones (all on HBO), The Man in the High Castle (Amazon), Shameless (Showtime), Justified (FX) or The West Wing (NBC), all of which I’ve heard are really good. Also, I never really got into Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, or Mad Men (AMC), The Blacklist (NBC), or The Commish (ABC), which, although highly rated, never really appealed to me.

Having said all of this, here is the list of my favorite twenty TV shows  of all time (with a couple of ties):

  1. Bob Newhart Show #2 (CBS) – People under the age of 40 or so probably don’t even know who Bob Newhart is. But for those of us who do, we remember him as one of the funniest men in the world. So funny, in fact, that he has two shows in my all-time favorite top twenty. The second Bob Newhart Show wasn’t quite as funny as the first, but it was still hilariously funny. And if you ever want to see a finale show done right, check out the final episode of the second Bob Newhart Show.
  1. Bewitched (ABC) – Bewitched ran from 1964 to 1972, and was so good that the show switched out Samantha’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) husband, Darrin Stephens (Dick York, then Dick Sargent) in 1969 and everyone just accepted the change. To be honest, I was most acquainted with Bewitched through reruns. I was pretty young when the show first aired, and I have to admit, I may feel a little nostalgia when it comes to Bewitched. It might not really be as good as I remember. Regardless, Bewitched is in my top twenty. And I still have the same question today I had when I used to watch the show: Why would anyone with the type of powers Samantha had want to be a normal human being? I still don’t have a good answer.
  1. Frasier (NBC) – Frasier was smart and funny, and at times, completely over the top. It was a spin-off of Cheers, starring Kelsey Grammar as Doctor Frasier Crane, a psychiatrist who gives up his practice in Boston (where Cheers took place) to move back to Seattle where he hosts a radio self-help show. All of the actors on Frasier did a terrific job, including my fellow WIU-alum John Mahoney, who played Frasier’s father.
  1. Taxi (NBC) – In a way, Taxi was Friends before Friends was created. Taxi was a true assemble show featuring Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Carol Kane, Jeff Conaway, and the great Andy Kauffman. The shows were well written, well executed, and at a time before so many cable channels (1978-1982), Taxi was a tiny bit risqué. Even when it was airing, I always felt Taxi was a little ahead of its time. The scripts were smarter and more complicated than many of the other shows running at the time.
  1. Get Smart (NBC 1965-69, CBS 1969-70) – Get Smart is another show that I experienced mostly through reruns. It starred a very funny Don Adams as secret agent Max Smart, and a beautiful Barbara Feldon as Agent 99. Like many shows on this list, the writing was smart and funny. Of course, considering that Get Smart was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, that shouldn’t be surprising.
  1. Arrested Development (Fox 2003-2006, Netflix 2013-Present) – Hands down, Arrested Development is one of the funniest TV shows I’ve ever seen. The first few seasons on Fox were absolutely hilarious, and they contained some of Jason Bateman’s best work, which is really saying something. Arrested Development would be much higher on this list if the show hadn’t fallen off a cliff once Netflix took it over in 2013. I wanted to like the Netflix episodes. I still do. But they pale in comparison to the Fox years.
  1. Green Acres (CBS) – As with a few other shows on the list, I know Green Acres best through reruns. It originally ran from 1965-1971, and was a spin-off of Petticoat Junction. I enjoyed Petticoat Junction, but Green Acres was much funnier. Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor were the stars of the show, but for my money, the funniest actor was Tom Lester, who played Eb Dawson. He was an innocent, wide-eyed farm hand who delivered some of the shows funniest and most striking lines.
  1. Cheers (NBC) – I think I was just the right age when Cheers premiered in 1982. I was a junior in college and my friends and I used to get together on Thursday nights to watch NBC’s “Must See” lineup. Cheers was one of our favorites. I’m not sure any other sitcom has ever had so many beloved characters. Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the former baseball player and alcoholic led the way, with Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) and Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) right behind. But there were so many more, like Norm Peterson (George Wendt), Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson), Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar), Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), and so many others.
  1. ER (NBC) – ER was created by Michael Crichton and was set in a hospital in Chicago, two reasons I was bound to love this show. The show also introduced such stars as George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Noah Wylie, Julianna Margulies, Maura Tierney, and many others to the world. ER was another very strong ensemble show that made stars out of several of the actors. It ran an incredible 15 seasons (1994-2009) and garnered 124 Emmy nominations, including 116 wins. Although ER was very popular, I always felt that it was underrated. It garnered a lot of attention, but it probably deserved even more.
  1. Carol Burnett Show (CBS) – The Carol Burnett Show ran from 1967-1978. If you’re not familiar with Carol Burnett, do yourself a favor and surf through Youtube videos of the show. They are hilarious. Carol Burnett is a comedic genius, and she was backed up by two other geniuses, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. One of my joys was watching the show to see each of the main characters try (and often succeed) to crack the other ones up. But the biggest joy I got out of the Carol Burnett Show was watching my dad laugh at it. My dad was not always the happiest guy in the world, but when Carol Burnett came on, his worries disappeared and he allowed himself to laugh. What a joy that was.
  1. Westworld (HBO) – Here’s the idea behind Westworld: A giant corporation develops a Western-themed resort where guests can go to live out their grandest fantasies. Westworld is populated by robots who are programmed to cater to the guests’ needs, but there’s a problem. When the robots get tired of being killed and screwed, they realize that they can act out in any way they choose. Soon, robots are killing humans and angling to leave the resort to take over the outside world. What a great and interesting premise. I binge-watched Westworld long after it originally aired and just loved it.
  1. Bob Newhart Show #1 (CBS) – This is the original Bob Newhart Show that ran from 1972-1978, and starred Bob Newhart, Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Daley, Marcia Wallace, and Peter Bonerz. The show was hilarious, and the characters were quirky and complicated. Even now as I write this, I think I may be ranking the Bob Newhart Show #1 too low. It was innovative, and like many great shows, ahead of its time.
  1. M*A*S*H (CBS) – For a lot of people, M*A*S*H was the greatest television show of all time. It’s hard not to agree that it was a really great show. There were a lot of great actors that were part of the show at one time or another. Alan Alda was the one constant, gracing the show from start to finish. There was also Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Jamie Farr, Henry Morgan, and a bunch of others. Although my vote for the best finale in history goes to the Bob Newhart Show #2 (Mary Tyler Moore Show is right there too), a lot of people feel the M*A*S*H finale was the best ever. The show ran from 1972 until 1983, and can still be found in heavy rotation in reruns.
  1. (tie) The Simpsons (FOX) – There was a time, not that long ago, that I wanted to write for The Simpsons. Actually, to put a little finer point on it, I wanted to be witty and smart enough to write for The Simpsons. Alas, I am not witty and smart enough, and The Simpsons never came calling. Even without me, The Simpsons (somehow) became one of the smartest, funniest shows on TV. The biting humor on the show is spoken through characters who are often lovable despite themselves. I would also argue that The Simpsons did a better job than any other show of addressing the political issues of the day. They did so subtly, often with self-deprecating humor, attacking their opponent as hard as they attacked their own position.
  1. (tie) Moonlighting (ABC) – It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Bruce Willis wasn’t a big movie star. In fact, before Moonlighting, he was bartending in LA. And paired with the luscious (there, I said it) Cybil Shepard, Moonlighting was the hottest show going. I haven’t seen it in years (it ran from 1985-1989), but during it’s time, Moonlighting was great TV. It was smart and funny and romantic, with surprisingly deep characters, interesting storylines, and great music, including the show’s theme by Al Jarreau. It was also one of the pioneers in the dramedy (comedy + drama) genre, which is a staple of TV today.
  1. (tie) Ally McBeal (Fox) – In my memory, I think of shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place as shows aimed at women. As a result, I never watched either show much. Ally McBeal kind of falls in that same genre (at least in my mind), but I watched it and thought it was great. The show ran from 1997 to 2002 and starred Calista Flockhart, an actress I had never heard of previously, and haven’t heard much about since. Ally McBeal was a great ensemble show that paired several little-known actors to create something really special. The plots and the characters were quirky and well-developed, and the music was outstanding, earning the show two Emmys for music.
  1. (tie) LA Law (NBC) – LA Law was created by Steven Bochco (remember that name) and Terry Louise Fisher, and ran from 1986 to 1994. It was another ensemble show about a fictitious law firm in Los Angeles. The thing that always struck me about LA Law was the way the show, a drama, was infused with just enough comedy. The show also was unflinching in tackling controversial issues such as racism, gay rights, AIDS, and domestic violence. Stars like Harry Hamlin, Corbin Bernsen, and Jimmy Smits got their start on the show, but as it turned out, the show kind of became the farewell project for Susan Dey, formerly of The Partridge Family. She was great on the show, but wasn’t heard from much after it.
  1. Sherlock (BBC/Netflix) – In recent years, I’ve watched a lot of great TV from the BBC. Two of my favorites are The Bodyguard and Luther. But my number one favorite BBC show is Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show ran on the BBC from 2010 to 2017 and puts a modern spin on the traditional Sherlock Holmes stories. I watched the show more recently on Netflix, and I have to admit, I liked the earlier episodes more than the later ones, mostly because it seemed to me that the producers were relying on slick technical wizardry in the later episodes rather than concentrating on the excellent writing that was the hallmark of the early years. Even so, the show remains one of my all-time favorites.
  1. Seinfeld (NBC) – The great show about nothing, but, of course, it wasn’t about nothing. In the very least, it was about the wacky lives of four friends living in New York. The characters—including the ancillary characters—were offbeat, but lovable, and the story lines were always unusual, if not absurd. NBC’s Thursday night “Must Watch” lineup just wouldn’t have been the same without Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. In the years since Seinfeld ran (1989-1998), I’ve been surprised by the number of people who didn’t like the show. I guess it just didn’t speak to their since of humor (assuming they had a sense of humor). And, although I can’t say it was one of the best, the Seinfeld finale was memorable.
  1. Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS) – For me, the Mary Tyler Moore Show was the funniest sitcom of all time. My guess is that I’m in the minority on this question, but you can’t deny that Mary Tyler Moore, along with Ed Asner (Lou Grant), Valerie Harper (Rhoda Morganstern), Gavin MacLeod (Murray Slaughter), Betty White (Sue Ann Givens), Georgie Engel (Georgette Franklin Baxter), and Ted Knight (Ted Baxter) were absolutely hilarious together. One of the things I always appreciated about the show was the way the writers pointed out gender inequalities in the workplace and in society. They did it in very smart, subtle ways, which to me, was much more effective than hitting the audience over the head with the issue (ala Murphy Brown). Mary was an unmarried, independent, career-oriented woman living in Minneapolis. The show likely would have been different, and the gender equality issues likely would have been handled differently, if the show had taken place in New York. But in Minneapolis, the heartland, where such issues are handled with more tact and humor, they could be served up to an audience looking for laughs first and lessons on social justice second. For my money, the Mary Tyler Moore Show provided both the humor and the civics lesson more effectively than any show before or since.
  1. Deadwood (HBO) – I’ve written previously about my love for Deadwood (you can read my thoughts here). The show was gritty and filthy and violent and hopeful and inspiring. The writing was some of the best I have ever experienced on TV. The show was created by David Milch, an innovative writer and thinker who also co-created NYPD Blue (a groundbreaking network cop drama) and wrote on another cutting-edge cop drama, Hill Street Blues. Sadly, Deadwood only ran for three years (2004-2006). Despite its popularity, HBO and the production company had a falling out over money, and the show was taken off the air following the third season. Earlier this year, Milch got the band back together and made a Deadwood movie. It doesn’t wrap up the show so much as it continues the story ten years after the series ended. I really liked and appreciate the movie (I almost loved it), but it left me wanting even more Deadwood.
  1. Hill Street Blues (NBC) – When Hill Street Blues premiered in 1981, it was the most realistic cop show ever. It was gritty, and focused not only on case work, but also on the interpersonal relationships inside the squad room and after hours. As a result, unlike other cop shows, viewers were every bit as interested in the characters as they were in the cases that came about each week. I haven’t watched the show in thirty or more years, but I still remember the characters vividly, and I remember feeling at the time that the writing and the acting I was witnessing on Hill Street Blues was better than anything I had seen up until then. That’s thanks in part to the show’s creator, Steven Bochco (along with Michael Kozoll), the same man who came up with LA Law and NYPD Blue. For whatever reason, when the show ended in 1987, it kind of disappeared. I assume it was available in reruns at some point, but it was not as available as shows like Barney Miller, Law & Order, CSI, or other popular cop shows. That’s too bad. If it came back on reruns now, I’d be watching it.

To learn more about Hill Street Blues, check out this admittedly low-budget retrospective, Life on the Hill.

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The Latest on “The Ones That Got Away”

Just a quick post to give you an update on my next book. It’s tentative title is The Ones That Got Away and it’s about a guy who’s stuck in an unhappy marriage. He thinks he married the wrong woman and, through a little bit of time travel, he gets the chance to build a life with each of his previous three serious girlfriends (i.e., the ones that got away).

The novel was supposed to be done by the end of March 2019, but I had a computer snafu and ended up losing the entire book. At that point, I had written about 40% of the first draft. So, when I lost it, I had to start again from scratch. It wasn’t fun to lose all that hard work, but honestly, I think it was for the best. It gave me a chance to rethink parts of the plot, and as a result, I think it’s going to be a much better book.

At this point, I’m thirty days or less away from completing the first draft. Once that’s done, it will take me a month or two to revise the manuscript, then it will go to my editor, who will give me even more work to do. My goal at this point is to have The Ones That Got Away ready for publication by the end of October.

Thanks for following along. I appreciate your support.

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In Praise of Deadwood

 

“I come to praise Deadwood, not to bury it.” – with apologies to William Shakespeare

 

 

 

Deadwood, the HBO show about the early days of Deadwood, SD, may have been the best television show I’ve ever watched. It was gritty and filthy and dark and violent, but it was also humorous and hopeful and endlessly entertaining. The characters were serious people who never took themselves too seriously, except, perhaps, Timothy Olyphant’s character, Seth Bullock. But even then, the other characters were sure to knock him down a peg or two when he became too serious.

The show ran on HBO from 2004-2006. A full-length Deadwood movie brought the series to a close in May 2019. Deadwood was created by David Milch, who also wrote several of the episodes. As I understand it, Deadwood was supposed to run a fourth season, but due to a dispute between HBO and the production company, the fourth season was never produced and the series became history.

Over the years, Deadwood’s popularity has grown. Fans clamored for another season. Producers were interested in doing another season, but the cast had gone their separate ways. Finally, Milch had the idea to produce a movie rather than another season of the show. His reasoning was, if he could bring the original cast back together (no small feat), it would be easier and less time consuming to produce a movie rather than a ten- or twelve-episode season. He also felt that if he couldn’t reunite the original cast, he wasn’t interested in re-visiting the show at all.

Let me digress here for a second to talk about David Milch. He started his career as a writer on Hill Street Blues, one of my all-time favorite shows. He co-created NYPD Blue with Steven Bochco, then went on to create two short-lived network cop dramas before creating Deadwood. I’m pre-disposed to like Milch because he has an MFA (University of Iowa) and he has published both fiction and poetry, but I’m blown away by the fact that he’s been involved in so many excellent, ground-breaking television shows.

In a moment, I’m going to be critical of Deadwood—both the series and the movie. But first, let me reiterate the fact that I loved the show, couldn’t wait to see either the next episode or (once it was announced) the movie, and I list it at or near the top of my list of favorite TV shows of all time. Deadwood is fantastic! But, I do have a couple quibbles with the show that I’d like to talk about.

During the third season, the writers introduced Jack Langrishe (played by Brian Cox), an actor and theater company owner. His troupe consisted of himself, two actresses, and one other actor who played a rather small role in the show. In addition, the troupe included an older, sickly gentleman who, when he was introduced to us, was on the verge of death, and who, in fact, died a short time later in a touching scene.

Jack was an old pal of Al Swearengen’s (played brilliantly by Ian McShane), and the writers had the two men spend some time together, reminiscing, but also planning to undermine George Hearst (Gerald McRainey). Another storyline involved the troupe buying Joanie Stubb’s (Kim Dickens) former brothel/schoolhouse, but truthfully, neither Jack’s friendship with Al nor his purchase of Joanie’s building was very important to the series.

The point I’m making is, I don’t understand why Jack and the theater troupe were ever brought into the show. They took up a considerable amount of screen time, but brought very little to the series. In fact, had they never been introduced, the show would have barely skipped a beat.

In hindsight, bringing this unimportant storyline into the show was a misstep by the writers. I get the sense that the characters were introduced, then the writers didn’t know what to do with them. They were moved around and given things to do, but almost without exception, their actions were inconsequential.

At one point, Jack meets George Hearst, who is suffering from a bad back. Jack tells George he knows a method that can ease George’s pain. George is interested, and Jack ends up working his magic on George. Jack is a bit of a charlatan, but George believes that his pain has been lessened. He’s interested in more treatments, but then that storyline goes by the wayside, never to be revisited. It’s not clear why Jack meets George or why Jack works on George’s back. My guess is that the writers had an idea, started to follow that idea, and then forgot that idea in the next episode.

To be fair, it is possible that this exchange between Jack and George was going to lead to something significant in the fourth season, but the fourth season never happened. I say “it’s possible,” but I don’t find it very likely. At the end of the third season, George leaves camp, so I’m not sure how he would interact with Jack during the fourth season. Despite my doubts, it is still possible.

Another storyline I felt was unnecessary was the introduction of Aunt Lou’s (Cleo King) son, Odell (Omar Gooding). The storyline surrounding Odell was that he had been sent away years earlier to live in Liberia, a country in Africa originally created for former slaves and free blacks. He comes back to the U.S (there seems to be some doubt that he ever left) and tracks down his mother in Deadwood. But it appears that he’s there less to see his mother than he is to interest her boss, George Hearst, in gold mining claims in Liberia. George appears interested and the two agree to meet up in New York to discuss it further. But on his way to New York, Odell is killed. It’s never clear if Hearst has him killed or not, but either way, he’s dead. Thus ends another seemingly unimportant storyline that has very little—if any—impact on the series.

A storyline I thought was a mistake was the love affair between Joanie Stubbs and “Calamity” Jane Canary (Robin Weigert). I don’t think a lesbian love affair was a mistake, but the way the affair was handled felt completely wrong. Deadwood takes place in the 1870s, a time when, to put it mildly, attitudes toward same-sex love affairs were not as advanced as they are today. Even so, everyone in the show seems to be completely accepting of the same-sex couple. The only rebuke I remember ever being made toward Joanie and Jane is made by Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), Joanie’s former boss, and presumably, former lover. His rebuke is mild and is the result of his own feelings for Joanie, not any ill feelings toward same-sex couples. Other than Cy, no one ever says anything to Joanie or Jane, despite the fact that they are at least semi-open about the affair.

Almost every facet of the series felt real, from the scenery to the characters to the language to the violence. But Joanie and Jane’s relationship—or rather, the other character’s reaction to their relationship—never felt real. It was one of the small black marks on an otherwise wonderfully written series.

That brings us to Deadwood: The Movie. I was slightly disappointed in the movie, but to be fair, my expectations were sky high, so, no matter how good the movie turned out, there was a good chance it wouldn’t live up to my unrealistically lofty expectations.

The movie takes place in 1889, ten years after the original series, and South Dakota is on the verge of statehood. Deadwood is going to be part of the new state (there were rumblings early on that Montana might annex Deadwood). George Hearst, now a US Senator from California, comes to town to welcome the area into statehood. While in Deadwood, he also wants to increase his land holdings. Hearst has invested in the installation of telephone lines, and he needs to get his hands on a piece of property owned by Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Wild Bill Hickok’s old friend, to complete the installation.

Meanwhile, Sol Starr (John Hawkes) and Trixie (Paula Malcomson) have a baby; old feelings return to Seth Bullock when Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) returns to town for the statehood festivities; Cy Tolliver dies (it’s never revealed how he dies) and leaves the Bella Union to Joanie, who re-kindles her affair with Jane; and Al Swearengen, who is still running The Gem, is in poor health and apparently dying.

I won’t ruin the movie for you, but there is one (okay, maybe three or four) things I’d like to discuss. In the opening scenes of the movie, Alma Garret and her daughter, Sofia (Lily Keene) get off the train in Deadwood along with a mysterious young woman. They are not together, but when two ruffians, who turn out to be guns hired by Hearst, proposition the young woman, Sofia comes to the girl’s rescue and whisks her away.

The young girl, Caroline Woolgarden (Jade Pettyjohn), turns out to be a prostitute who goes to work at The Gem. Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers) takes a shine to her, and Trixie has a short interaction with her. Otherwise, her character adds very little to the film. I’m not sure why she is introduced or what function she’s supposed to play. Maybe the writers had an idea for her and it never panned out, but if that’s the case, why keep her character in the film? She turned out to be more of a distraction than an integral character.

Let me also say that as an avid viewer, I wanted to see Al Swearengen one last time at the height of his powers. I admit, it was a selfish wish on my part, but after waiting thirteen years for the film, I wanted to experience the crude, ruthless, funny, and in-control Al. I think a lot of fans of the series wanted to see that. What we got was a diminished Al, sick with an unknown ailment and barely able to get up and down the stairs at The Gem. Sure, he’s ten years older and, after living a hard life killing rivals and swilling whiskey day and night, it’s bound to take its toll. Hurray for realism! Forgive me for calling BS on the reaction to the Joanie-Jane relationship as unrealistic, and then doing the exact opposite with how Al’s character was handled, but when it comes to Al, Swearengen a character that was always larger than life, to hell with realism. I wanted the old, not the elderly, Al.

On a related note, why did Dan Dougherty (W. Earl Brown) play such a small role in the movie? As Al’s number one henchman, Dan played a big part in the first three seasons of the show. In the movie, did he ever move out from behind the bar? I don’t remember for sure, but I do know that he played a very small role in the movie. That’s disappointing. Dan was a colorful character who could have added a lot to the movie. As an example, since the writers decided for Al to play a reduced role due to his illness, Dan could have stepped forward to fill his boss’ shoes. Instead, he retreated into the background.

Finally, in season three, Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is deathly ill. He presumably has tuberculosis, as evidenced by uncontrollable coughing spells and spitting up blood. But ten years later, when the movie takes place, Doc Cochran is alive and well. What happened? How did he go from being on death’s doorstep to ten years later being healthier than ever?

I admit, it’s unrealistic for all of these questions and complaints to be addressed in a ninety minute movie, but I wanted so much more from the film. I wanted to relive the glory days of Deadwood, to see Al and Seth fight, then work together for the good of the town. I wanted some sort of closure to the various storylines. But the movie didn’t provide any closure. It was just another chapter in a great show, leaving open many questions and answering very few.

The movie may not have been quite satisfying, but it was still great to spend some time with these foul-mouthed characters in this dirty old town. I wanted more. But, regardless of my niggling complaints, what I got was still great.

God, I miss Deadwood.

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Back to the Woods

Up until a year or so ago, I used to go hiking a lot. It was not unusual for me to be tromping out in the woods three or four days a week. When I’d travel, I’d often set aside a day to hike. Although the exercise was good, the results when on these unfamiliar trails was not always what I had planned.

For instance, while hiking a new (to me) trail in Wisconsin a couple of years ago, I got lost and ended up hiking nine miles instead of the four I had planned to hike. Another time, in Smoky Mountain National Park, I hiked a four mile-long loop trail that I swear went straight up for three of the four miles. At one point, I had resigned myself to living out my final hours sitting on a log rather than continuing the uphill slog. It was during that hike that I realized I mostly like leisurely walks through the woods over death-defying hikes that cause more stress than they relieve.

This last point is an important one, and one I was reminded of today when I hiked four miles on the Cedar Forest Trail in Cedars of Lebanon State Park in Wilson County, Tennessee. For me, hiking has always been a way to get some exercise while also addressing the stresses of everyday life. The problem is that I often allow those stresses to stop, rather than motivate, me from going out into the woods to hike. I use things like relationship issues, career headaches, money problems, etc. to keep me out of the woods. Instead, these are the very things that should drive me to hike more. Every time I hit the trail, I can feel whatever stresses I’m experiencing lift and lessen. The solitude of the woods helps to clear my head and gives me a new perspective. In other words, hiking in the woods is a prescription to combat everyday stresses, not a luxury that can be avoided due to those stresses.

In her book, The 3-Day Effect, author Florence Williams makes the case that time spent in the wild not only can help us relieve stress, but can also fortify us against future stress. Williams conducted outdoor, “in the wild,” experiments with veterans suffering from PTSD, female victims of physical and sexual abuse, and, in an unusual but very personal experiment, herself, while she was going through an unexpected and unwanted divorce. In each case, the subjects of the experiments found that their time in the outdoors relieved their stress (whatever their particular stress might have been), and it also helped them to deal with the cause of their stress when they returned back to their lives.

I like to go out into the woods for a couple of hours and just walk. I find the time relaxing, invigorating, and recharging. But to get maximum benefit from being out in nature, Williams suggests spending a minimum of three days in the wild. Staying out even longer can be even more beneficial, but there are diminishing returns the longer you stay out.

I have a bad habit of staying cooped up in the house. It’s where I write, and I’m committed to spending more time writing in the future. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t be just as committed to spending time outdoors, hiking, walking, or even just sitting. If Williams’ 3-Day Effect theory is right (and I believe it is), being out in nature will be good for my health and for my writing.

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I Miss The Most Interesting Man in the World

The Dos Equis Beer commercials that featured Jonathan Goldsmith as The Most Interesting Man in the World were brilliant. They were smart and funny, and always left me hoping that they would make more. Unfortunately, in 2016, Jonathan Goldsmith made his last Dos Equis commercial, and the beer-maker replaced him with Augustin Legrand, a tall and perfectly capable actor, but not the Most Interesting Man in the World. Dos Equis tried to prop up Legrand in the commercials by adding comic actor Rob Riggle, but it wasn’t enough. The Most Interesting Man in the World died a sad and unnecessary death as the commercials faded into history.

I was reminded of how great the original Most Interesting Man in the World commercials were when I saw the latest Dos Equis commercial. The commercial is good, and actually pretty funny, but it’s not up to the standards of the Most Interesting Man in the World. Take a look.

Seeing the new commercial made me think about the original Most Interesting Man in the World commercials, which then sent me down a rabbit hole of research (If I call it “research,” it doesn’t seem like such a waste of time). I always thought that the writing on the commercials was terrific, so I began collecting some of it. The more I found, the more I collected. Here’s where my collection stands at the moment:

  • If he were to pat you on the back, you would list it on your resume.
  • Both sides of his pillow are cool.
  • When in Rome, they do as he does.
  • In a past life, he was himself.
  • If opportunity knocks and he’s not home, opportunity waits.
  • He gave his father ‘the talk’.
  • His fortune cookies simply read “Congratulations”.
  • Skinny dipping was his idea.
  • He can slam a revolving door.
  • He is the life of parties he has never attended.
  • If he were to punch you in the face, you would have to fight off the strong urge to thank him.
  • Sharks have a week dedicated to him.
  • He has inside jokes with complete strangers.
  • Cuba imports cigars from him.
  • Mosquitoes refuse to bite him purely out of respect.
  • He wouldn’t be afraid to show his feminine side, if he had one.
  • His mother has a tattoo that reads ‘Son’.
  • At museums, he’s allowed to touch the art.
  • The last time he flirted with danger, danger got clingy.
  • He once received a standing ovation from a juror’s box.
  • His thank you cards have prompted you’re welcome cards.
  • His small talk has altered foreign policy.
  • He once ran a marathon because it was on his way.
  • Sasquatch has taken a photograph of him.
  • His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man’s jaw.
  • He’s won trophies for his game face alone.
  • He bowls overhand.
  • He once parallel parked a train.
  • His two cents is worth thirty-seven dollars and change.
  • It has never been “his bad”.
  • He once gave a pep talk so compelling, both teams won.
  • Your guess is as good as his. On second thought, no it’s not.
  • When he whispers to a horse, it whispers back.
  • If he were to mispronounce your name, you’d feel compelled to change it.
  • Therapists open up to him.
  • He skips the first date.
  • His reputation is expanding faster than the universe.
  • He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.
  • He lives vicariously through himself.
  • People hang on his every word, even the prepositions.
  • He could disarm you with his looks. Or his hands. Either way.
  • He can speak French in Russian.
  • The police often question him, just because they find him interesting.
  • His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.
  • His blood smells like cologne.
  • His personality is so magnetic, he is unable to carry credit cards.
  • Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact number.
  • He never says something tastes like chicken. Not even chicken.
  • When he has a 50-50 shot, the odds are 80-20 in his favor.
  • He imagines himself in his own shoes.
  • Steak and lobster is his bread and butter.
  • Locals ask him for directions.
  • The Aztec Calendar has his Cinco de Mayo party chiseled in.
  • The front of his house looks like it was built by the Mayans. Because it was.
  • The contents of his tacos refuse to fall from the shell.
  • He can open a pinata with a wink and a smile.
  • If you were to see him walking a chihuahua, it would still look masculine.
  • Several saints share his likeness, or vice versa, depending on who you ask.
  • Dicing onions doesn’t make him cry. It only makes him stronger.
  • He has never filled up on chips.
  • He can line dance in a circle.

Know of any others? If so, let me know.

Stay thirsty, my friends!

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Longmire and the Problem with Tortured Plots

SPOILER ALERT This post contains spoilers for the book Gone Girl and the Netflix show Longmire.

My son tells me that I’m not much fun to watch a movie with because I tend to pick apart the plot. I understand what he’s saying, but I hate watching a movie or TV show, or read a book, where the characters have to do something completely illogical, often against their own interest, in order for the story to ultimately reach its pre-determined conclusion.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was an extremely popular book (and later, a movie) that, to me, is exhibit one when it comes to tortured plots. I don’t remember all of the silly things that happened to continue the story, but two things come to mind.

First, Nick Dunne, the protagonist in the book, is suspected in the disappearance of his wife, Amy. Police are closing in on Nick, so he hires an attorney. But he’s not just an attorney. He’s a super-attorney. One of the best defense lawyers in the country. He’s well-known and well-respected. Why he took a relatively low-profile case in Carthage, Missouri is anyone’s guess.

So, the first thing the attorney does is schedule Nick for a TV interview, something no defense attorney would do. The idea is for the TV interview to rehabilitate Nick’s reputation in the public ahead of his potential arrest. I know that doesn’t make sense and is completely unnecessary. Nick is neither famous nor infamous. Generally speaking, people don’t know who he is. He really doesn’t have a reputation to rehabilitate. But it gets worse. When the interviewer starts questioning Nick about new evidence that his attorney is unaware of, chaos ensues. Nick is like a deer in the headlights and his attorney has no idea what to do. The entire exercise makes Nick look guilty. This is why no attorney would have arranged such an interview. It’s ridiculous, but it’s necessary for the story to continue down the path the writer is paving.

Another example occurs at the end of the book. Amy is afraid Nick is going to leave her and expose her self-kidnapping, so she threatens him with some of her own vomit that is laced with antifreeze. Amy saved her vomit (Who among us hasn’t done that?) and froze it just in case she ever needs to use it against Nick. She tells Nick that if he ever leaves her or exposes her actions, she’ll go to the police with the vomit, which she says she’ll claim is evidence that Nick tried to poison her. In order for the reader to believe this, they have to believe not only that Amy is some sort of criminal mastermind with unbelievable foresight, but also that the police are idiots and can’t see through her silly ploy. Regardless, Nick caves to her threats and agrees not to leave her. What a happy couple.

All of this is prelude to the TV show plot I’d really like to complain about. For the past few weeks I’ve been watching the Netflix series Longmire. The series is a western-themed crime drama that takes place in Absaroka County, Wyoming and is based on the Walt Longmire mysteries written by Craig Johnson.  The first three seasons of the show were broadcast on A&E, but after being cancelled, Netflix picked it up and produced seasons four, five, and six.

The early seasons were pretty good. I found some plot points to take issue with, but overall, they were pretty solid. But as the seasons went on, reality became more and more of a victim. The writers of Longmire would have you believe that this tiny police department (only four or five cops for an entire county the size of Delaware) with a sheriff who refuses to carry a cell phone, can get phone records, ping a cell phone, and get up-to-date credit card records with nothing but a phone call and a smile. No warrant needed. Okay, lots of crime-dramas play fast and loose with police procedures, but in the last couple of seasons of the show, the warrantless records requests were constant. Even when the cops had no contact with a suspect, they somehow had access to all of the suspect’s credit cards and bank records. It was crazy.

But things went completely off the rails in the final season. Walt Longmire learns that Barlow Connally, the wealthiest guy in the county, has killed his own son (one of Walt’s deputies) and is behind the murder of Walt’s wife. Barlow comes over to Walt’s house to confess, then pulls a gun on Walt forcing Walt to shoot him (Barlow’s gun is unloaded). When the bullets aren’t enough to kill him, Barlow grabs Walt’s knife and stabs himself, finally ending his life.

This is a little convoluted, but stick with me. Barlow had Walt’s wife killed because she was leading the charge against a proposed Casino in the county. Barlow needed the Casino in the county to further his business interests, so he has her killed. His son, Branch (The Connallys have some crazy names), the sheriff’s deputy, figured out that Barlow had Walt’s wife killed. Branch confronts Barlow and Barlow kills him, but makes it look like a suicide. That begs the question, why did Barlow kill his own son to cover up his involvement in Walt’s wife’s murder only to turn around and confess the whole thing to Walt?

It’s unclear, although there was a suggestion that Barlow simply couldn’t live with himself after shooting Branch. I’m not buying that theory, but it’s possible. Another possibility is that Barlow wants Walt’s land to build a golf course, and the only way he can get it for his company is to force Walt to shoot him, then file a wrongful death lawsuit to get the land. I admit, this is far-fetched, but it seems to be what the writers were thinking. But to believe this, viewers have to believe that Barlow wants Walt’s land so bad that he is willing to die for it. That’s a tough proposition to accept, but there it is.

That brings us to the lawsuit, which is the piece de resistance of tortured plot lines. Tucker Baggett, the late-Barlow Connally’s theatrical attorney and successor as CEO of Connally Enterprises (or whatever it’s called), brings a wrongful death case against Walt. Oddly, the county is not involved in the lawsuit and Walt has to find his own attorney. That’s unrealistic, but it’s such a comparatively small plot problem that it’s relatively easy to overlook. It appears that the judge is in Tucker’s pocket and orders the case to court sooner than expected. Walt barely participates in his own defense. In fact, although it seems important to his case that Barlow Connally shot his own son and paid to have Walt’s wife killed, Walt never mentions it to his attorney. The attorney seems blissfully ignorant of the facts that led up to Walt shooting Barlow.

At the beginning of the case, Tucker is having his way. Walt looks horrible in the eyes of the jurors, so he decides to settle for the $250,000 insurance policy the county carries, although neither the insurance company nor the county are ever involved in the settlement negotiations. Tucker declines Walt’s settlement offer, saying that he doesn’t want the money, he wants Walt’s land and he wants to ruin Walt. So, the case proceeds.

Then, coincidentally, Tucker is killed and Walt is the main suspect. The judge refuses to declare a mistrial, and Barlow’s estate brings in another prosecutor. Yes, you read that right. They called the plaintiff attorney a prosecutor. Throughout the final episode, the terminology used by the people involved in the case goes back and forth between criminal and civil. They talked about the possibility of Walt being convicted of the murder of Barlow even though he hasn’t been charged with murder. It’s a wrongful death lawsuit. It’s as if the writers had no knowledge—not even the most rudimentary knowledge—of the legal system. I wanted to follow along. I wanted to accept what was happening during the final episode (really, the final season), but it was all too much. I yelled at the TV. I said things like “That’s unrealistic” or “That would never happen” or, when things got particularly bad, “Bullshit.” When I yelled, my dog just stared at me and didn’t comment one way or the other.

Once the trial is over and Connally Enterprises drops the lawsuit, there are about nine minutes left in the show. During those nine minutes, Walt and Vic cement their romance (Something I was NOT cheering for), Walt offers to retire and give his job to his daughter, Cady (It doesn’t work that way), Henry takes over operation of the Casino (But what about The Red Pony and Continual Soiree?), Ferg dresses up in a tux to win back his love, Meg, (although it isn’t clear if Meg is even at work when Ferg shows up at the hospital), and Lucien, Malachi, Branch, Barlow, Tucker, and a host of other good citizens remain dead. All in the final nine minutes.

There are other ridiculous plot points as well. For instance, Walt, a throwback to be sure, but still living in the twenty-first century, keeps his money in glass jars hidden around his house. When it appears he may lose the wrongful death case, he digs a hole on his land and buries the money. As the trial is proceeding, his attorney suggests that he transfer all of his assets to someone else, something that no self-respecting attorney would do at that late date. Even so, Walt tries to sign over his land to his daughter, Cady, also an attorney. She refuses to accept the land, not because it’s probably illegal and, at that point, ineffective, but because she wants Walt to fight to clear his name.

Throughout the show, cops (particularly Walt) break into houses to obtain evidence (which would be excluded if the case ever went to trial in real life), and they act irresponsibly, often in an over-the-top fashion, when the stakes are the highest. For instance, when Walt travels to Denver to track down and kill the guy who killed his wife, or when he goes to Tucker’s house after Tucker is murdered even though he (Walt) is the number one suspect and he’s been temporarily relieved of his duties as sheriff. It’s as if the writers had Walt and the other characters act in the exact opposite way a reasonable, well-constructed character would act.

Is it too much to ask that a show or book make sense, and that the characters act within their character? I think not.

Note: Despite my irritation with these plot problems, I have to say, I enjoyed Longmire. One thing that made the series enjoyable for me was the music. It was terrific, as evidenced by this trailer:

 

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The Great LA Fitness Cancellation Scam

Generally speaking, I’m not one to go online to complain about things going on in my life. There’s enough negativity in the world. I’d prefer not to add to it. Even so, I’ve run into a problem I’d like others to know about. It’s a ridiculously unnecessary situation that a big corporation is using to unethically siphon money from its own customers.

Our story begins in 2018 when I joined LA Fitness. I wanted to start working out again, and I also thought I might start playing racquetball, a sport I hadn’t played in nearly 30 years, but which I used to really enjoy.

Signing up was easy. I just gave the staff at LA Fitness my information (including a credit card), and just like that, I was a dues paying member at one of the countries biggest training facilities. At the time, I was told that there was no contract and I could cancel my membership at any time.

I used my membership infrequently. I worked out a few times, and I played racquetball a dozen or so times over the course of 12-18 months. Even so, the payments kept coming out of my back account, including a $41 charge six months after I joined that I was never told about. I’ve since learned that the charge is an annual fee, but no one has been able to explain why I’m being charged an annual fee or what benefit it provides me. It appears to just be a money grab on the part of LA Fitness.

Fast forward to April, 2019. I had been thinking about cancelling my membership for a few months, but hadn’t done anything about it. Then, my debit card information—the card I used to pay the LA Fitness membership—was stolen as part of a data breach at another company. As a result, my bank had to issue a new card. So, on May 5, when LA Fitness tried to run my old card, it was declined. The troops at LA Fitness went into Defcon 5 mode. They began calling on May 3 (They must try to run the card a day or two before the payment is due), and continued to call three to five times a day, including on evenings and weekends. They were desperate to get my May payment. Over the course of the next week, they called a total of twenty-four times.

During one of the early calls, I spoke to a staff member from my home club and told her I was traveling, but would take care of the payment as soon as I returned home. I actually could have given her my new card number right then, but I wanted to review my bank account first to see when the $41 was deducted so I could discuss it with her. At the time, I didn’t know it was an annual fee. I also wanted to talk to her about cancelling my membership, since I rarely use it, and I’m getting ready to move away from my home club.

Despite my discussion with the staff member from my home club, the calls continued. Today, I called LA Fitness and was told that the $41 I was charged (in addition to my monthly membership fee) was for the annual fee. She could not explain the annual fee other than to say it’s charged annually on all memberships.

I wasn’t going to argue. If every member is charged an annual membership fee, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be. I wish the staff person that signed me up would have been up front with me about the charge, but I didn’t see any reason to bring that up during my phone call.

Then I said I wanted to cancel my membership. This is where things really started to unravel. I was told that, “for security purposes”, I couldn’t cancel my membership over the phone. I was told I would either need to come into the club to fill out a cancellation form or I could complete the form on-line. In either case, the form would need to be mailed to California, and my membership (along with the associated charges) would continue until the LA Fitness corporate office saw fit to officially cancel my membership.

It’s important to point out that LA Fitness has a very nice website where, with the click of a button, you can join the club, reserve a racquetball court, sign up for hot yoga, or join a Pilates class. It’s a very user-friendly site with tons of functionality, and apparently no security concerns. What you can’t do on the website is cancel your membership. You can only do that by sending a hard copy of a cancellation form to a P.O. Box in Irvine, CA. And, as I’ve found out from reading other complaints on the Interwebs, LA Fitness has one of the worst mail handling operations in all of corporatedom. They tend to lose mail at an alarming rate. And that lost mail is primarily cancellation forms.

To be sure, the cancellation process at LA Fitness is a con job. It is designed to unnecessarily delay membership cancellations in order to continue charging customers another month or two (or more). It’s designed to put total control of membership cancellations in the hands of LA Fitness, not the customers who use the facilities and pay the membership dues. In a word, it’s a scam.

Even so, I mailed my membership cancellation today. My guess is that my membership will not be cancelled for a couple of months, but LA Fitness promises that they will email me when it is cancelled. In the meantime, I will continue to be charged a monthly membership fee, as well as a late fee since they don’t have my new card number and can’t successfully charge me. We’ll see where this goes, but my guess is my membership cancellation isn’t the end of this story.

If you’re interested in reading about others who have been scammed by LA Fitness, Google “LA Fitness Cancellation Fraud” or simply take a look at these websites:

The Scam That Is LA Fitness

LA Fitness Membership Cancellation Cheating

How to Cancel LA Fitness Out of Your Life Forever!

 

Update (5/17/19) — The cancellation form I sent to LA Fitness was printed and mailed in an envelope. However, the form is designed to be folded and mailed without an envelope. So, I printed off another copy of the completed form and mailed it yesterday. I don’t want to give LA Fitness any excuse to delay the cancellation of my membership.

Update #2 (5/20/19) — As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait an outrageous amount of time for my LA Fitness membership to be cancelled. I received an email from LA Fitness today letting me know that they received me cancellation request and my membership will be cancelled effective May 31, 2019. I still owe $23.53 for the month of May, but that’s a small price to pay to be done with LA Fitness.

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The Best Books I Read in 2018

 

It’s that time again when I look back on the books I read the previous year and rank the top ten. It’s a silly exercise on my part, yet I enjoy it. I like reviewing what I read the previous year, reliving the experience of reading the great books, and even remembering those that didn’t live up to expectations.

This year’s list includes eight works of fiction and two nonfiction books. I read primarily fiction, so the split between fiction and nonfiction really shouldn’t be a surprise. As in past years, I’m ranking books I read during the year, not books that were published during the year. I’d love to be so caught up on my reading that I could limit myself to only books recently published. There were a lot of great books published in 2018, but since I’m still trying to work my way through books from previous years (even previous decades), I likely won’t get to them all for a while.

I read a lot of really good books in 2018. When I compiled my list, I had too many books to choose from, so I had to whittle the list down to just ten. But they are ten really good books.

As in previous years, there were a few books that disappointed. And sadly, two of the three disappointments were from authors I admire and normally like to read.

I should point out that these books I’m listing as disappointments were not necessarily bad books. In fact, all were okay, three stars out of five. But I had very high expectations of all three, and they all disappointed. Having said that, let’s get to the disappointments.

The first is The Keep by Jennifer Egan. I love Jennifer Egan’s writing. Her book, Manhatten Beach made last year’s list. A Visit From the Good Squad is one of my all-time favorites, and she has another book on this year’s list. But The Keep just fell flat for me. It’s characters were unlikable, the plot was contrived, and it left me disappointed. Make no mistake about it, Jennifer Egan is a great writer, but even great writers sometimes produce a dud. For me, The Keep was a dud.

Rachel Kuschner also hit a sour note with her latest, The Mars Room. The story was too slow, the stakes too inconsequential, and the characters were often too cliched. Rachel wrote one of my all-time favorites, The Flamethrowers, so I know what a capable writer she can be. Unfortunately, The Mars Room didn’t display her wonderful skill as a storyteller.

Finally, I was really looking forward to reading Jason Mott’s The Returned. It has a great plot idea: people who died years earlier begin returning to life. They aren’t ghosts or zombies. They are the same people they were when they died. And when they return, they have no memory of their death or where they have been in the intervening years. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, Mott’s execution on the idea leaves a lot to be desired. Some characters accept the returned. Some reject them, even resorting to violence. But what the characters don’t do nearly enough of is question where the returned have been or why they’ve returned. In fact, the returned don’t really question how they died, where they’ve been, or how the world has changed in the years since they died. It seems only natural that everyone involved would want these answers, but Mott just glosses over it. The Returned could have been a great book, but it turned out just okay.

Now to the top ten books (I read) of 2018:

10. Paris Trout by Pete Dexter – Pete Dexter is a terrific writer. In addition to Paris Trout, I read Brotherly Love ,which just missed making this year’s top ten list. Dexter also wrote one of my all-time favorites, Deadwood. Paris Trout was published in 1989 and takes place just after World War II. It deals with the murder of a young African-American woman in a small Georgia town, and includes all of the racial prejudice and hatred you’d expect. What I didn’t expect was how much these racial feelings from more than seventy years ago still feel fresh and raw today. Dexter’s writing, as always, is straight forward and unadorned, but powerful and compelling. It took me twenty-nine years after publication to read Paris Trout, but it was worth the wait.

 

9. A Filthy Business by William Lashner – When I choose a book to read, it usually is recommended to me by a friend, is talked about on social media, or is written about in an article. I don’t have any memory of how I came to know about William Lashner’s A Filthy Business. To the best of my knowledge, I had never previously heard of William Lashner (a former attorney and graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop), nor had I heard anything about A Filthy Business or any of Lashner’s other books. How I came upon the book is a mystery. Even so, I’m glad I did. A Filthy Business tells the story of Phil Kubiak, a sociopath who questions his actions, even as he kills, cheats, and steals. The story is told from the prospective of Phil as he is giving an interview to a journalist. The writing is gritty, the characters are complex (although sometimes over the top), and the story keeps urging the reader forward. I have a few qualms with A Filthy Business, but it still makes this year’s top ten list.

8. Down the River Unto the Sea by William Mosely – Walter Mosely is an incredibly accomplished writer. His books and short stories have earned him an O. Henry Award, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Pen-America Lifetime Achievement Award, and for good measure, he’s also won a Grammy Award. Down the River Unto the Sea is a crime drama written with a literary eye. It tells the story of a former NYPD cop, Joe King Oliver, who was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, spent time in prison, and is back on the streets working as a private detective. He’s trying to earn a buck while looking out for his daughter and re-married ex-wife when he receives a letter from the woman who framed him. She admits she lied, but all Oliver wants to know is, who put her up to it. As he works to clear his name, he’s also fighting to prove that a young journalist isn’t the one who killed two on-duty cops. Down the River Unto the Sea is not a perfect book, but it’s well worth the read.

7. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe – I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I didn’t read The Right Stuff until 2018, thirty-nine years after it was first published. The Right Stuff tells the story of the first Apollo astronauts, and some of the characters that worked in and around NASA (and the military) during those early days of the space program. Wolfe is a master storyteller, weaving the tales of several different people as they march toward a career in NASA, and when they come together as astronauts and friends. Wolfe’s book is different than the movie that was made from it (which was fantastic). The movie is a straight forward chronological telling of the early days of the Apollo program. Wolfe’s book jumps around more, goes on more tangents, and tells more about the danger and deaths faced by the early astronauts. At times, the book is darker, less optimistic and more personal than the movie. Both are great. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it. Nearly four decades after it was published, The Right Stuff is still a great read.

6.  A Thousand Acres by Jane SmileyA Thousand Acres was first published in 1991 and was awarded The Pulitzer Prize for Literature the following year. It tells the story of Larry Cook, an aging Iowa farmer who turns control of his farm over to his three daughters, none of whom particularly want the farm. The gift creates a rift between the father and daughters, between the daughters and their husbands, and between the sister themselves. Smiley does a terrific job of contrasting the beauty and starkness of the land and the lifestyles led by farmers. Ninety percent of the book is fantastic, but there’s one plot point that I have to discuss. The three sisters are typical Iowa farm daughters. One enjoys the farm (or so it seems), one hates the farm, and one has moved away from the farm to the big city (Des Moines) to practice law. These three woman are people you know, maybe even people you are. So it is jolting when one of the women decides to kill her sister. This revelation came out of left field and was completely out of character for the woman. I’m not sure why Smiley decided to turn this woman from mild-manner and people-pleasing to homicidal, but it went over like a lead balloon. Obviously, the Pulitzer committee felt otherwise, but for me, this small part of the story (and to be sure, it is just a small part of the story) stuck out and tainted the book. Even so, A Thousand Acres is still a terrific read.


5. Island by Thomas Perry – Island is a Carl Hiaasen-like romp through the Caribbean. At least, that’s how the book is promoted. I didn’t know about the promotional tagline when I started reading. In fact, I didn’t know anything about the book when I started reading other than that it took place in the Caribbean. And oddly, after reading the book, I didn’t think of it as a Hiaasen-like story, although I now see the resemblance. The characters are a bit wacky and the situations a little out there. But unlike Hiaasen, the characters are not over-the-top wacky, the situations are not way, way, way out there, and maybe best of all, the writing is not frenetic. When I read Hiaasen, I feel a bit like I’m being assaulted. Everything is too much, and it’s all coming too fast. With Island, I could enjoy the story, allow the characters to be a little wacky, but still root for them. And best of all, I could enjoy the story without feeling like I had to completely lose my grip on reality. Island was originally published in 1987, but to me, it didn’t feel dated or of a different time. The characters were fresh and well-rounded, and the story walked the edge of belief without crossing over the line.

4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Jojo is a thirteen-year-old boy growing into a man. His father is white and in prison. His mother is black and puts her need for drugs ahead of Jojo’s and his sister’s needs. His white grandfather won’t acknowledge his existence, and he is tormented by his black uncle’s death as a teenager. When his father is released from prison, Jojo’s mother takes him and his sister to Parchman Prison in Mississippi to retrieve a father they barely know. There, Jojo meets the ghost of a thirteen-year-old boy who died in the prison and carries much of the ugliness of the south in him. The writing in Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautiful. Ward tells a great story, but also excels on the sentence level. I enjoyed this book very much, but I have to admit that the introduction of the ghost lessened my enjoyment. I found the ghost to be a bit of a gimmick, and at times, the characters became a bit cliched. Even so, Ward’s writing was strong enough to keep me engaged. In the hands of a lesser writer, Sing, Unburied, Sing could have turned into a train wreck, but Ward was able to bring it home in good shape.

3. Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy– This book won’t appeal to most readers. It’s a craft book on writing. But for me, it was fantastic. In it, Percy details his philosophy on fiction writing. He discusses the difference (or lack of difference) between commercial fiction and literary fiction (one of my favorite topics) and writes about the importance (or necessity) of literary fiction accepting and adopting some of the plot devices common to commercial fiction. In particular, Percy says that literary fiction needs to get off it’s high horse and accept that readers want suspense and intrigue and thrills in the books and stories they read. This is something I have campaigned for for a long time (which is one reason I think Percy’s ideas are genius). As literary writers, we need to understand that readers don’t want to read a slow moving story where the stakes are low. They want to be pulled through the book by the story AND the writing. Pretty writing isn’t enough. Literary writers need to pay attention to plot and story. In the immortal words of author Bret Anthony Johnston, if you want to write a book without a plot, you might as well write a poem. (I’m paraphrasing)

2. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan – Originally published in 1994, The Invisible Circus tells the story of Phoebe, a young woman haunted by the death of her popular and free-spirited sister. Phoebe is the product of a dysfunctional family. She lives with her mother, a divorced woman trying to make it on her own. Her father is only a memory, and her wealthy brother, an inconsistent and misunderstood presence in her life. Then there’s her sister, the beautiful hippie girl that everybody loved, but who disappeared to Europe and wound up dead. Phoebe ventures to Europe to find out the truth about her sister, falls in love with her sister’s former boyfriend, and ultimately learns a truth she’d rather not know. Egan is brilliant in this book. Her writing is as good as it gets. Her characters are insightful and nuanced, and her story is compelling. This is the Jennifer Egan I came to know in A Visit from the Goon Squad and Manhatten Beach. The writing is tight and full of humor and suspense. Definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

1. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford – For Christmas 2017, my friend, Beth Ramsay, gave me Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In exchange, I bought her dinner. I got the better end of that deal. Jamie Ford has crafted a brilliant debut novel in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In it, he tells the story of Henry Lee, a Chinese-American living in Seattle. When the old Panama Hotel, which has been boarded up for years, is sold and about to re-open, workers find the belongings of several Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II inside. Henry was once very close with the daughter of one of those families, the Okabes. Henry makes it his mission to return the belongings to his friend, a woman he still has feeling for. But where is she? Is she still alive? And how will she react when she sees Henry? All questions are answered in this fantastic book. Thank you for the gift, Beth. It was wonderful.

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Remembering Bill

This is an unusually long and personal post. I normally don’t include much about my life outside of writing, but I recently lost a very dear friend, and I felt compelled to put some thoughts together, not only to honor his memory, but also to clarify my own jumbled thinking at this difficult time.

When I started out, I wanted to write a long, hopefully eloquent, essay describing my relationship with Bill and how much his friendship meant to me. But for some reason, my memories came out in little bursts, like self-contained snapshots that were not particularly connected. Maybe that’s the nature of grief and memory. In any case, here’s my tribute to my friend, Bill Breeden.

Bill Never Met A Stranger

I met Bill in 1978. He was a freshman at Western Illinois University and he lived in Henninger Hall next door to my good friends Ken and Keith. I didn’t attend WIU at that time, but when I’d visit Ken and Keith, I’d also hang out with Bill. We quickly became friends.

The thing about Bill is that he never met a stranger. He befriended everyone he met. During his sophomore year at WIU, Bill’s roommate was a guy named Rhett. Bill didn’t know him. The school paired them randomly to room together.

Rhett was an odd guy. He came from a wealthy family and was older than the rest of us by five or six years. Where he had been before he landed at Western was a bit of a mystery. It seemed to involve heavy drug use and perhaps some jail time. It really wasn’t clear. Even though Rhett was very different from us, Bill always made sure that he was invited to hang out with us. Rhett and Bill had very little in common, but that didn’t stop them from becoming friends. That was just Bill’s way.

Sleeping with a Laundry Basket

My first year at WIU, Bill and I lived on the same floor in Henninger Hall (That was the year Rhett was Bill’s roommate). A couple of years later, Bill, Ken, Keith, our friend Brett, and I lived together in a house on East Murray Street in Macomb. What a year that was. A couple of years after that, Bill and I were both in grad school and we shared an apartment together. With the exception of my family, I lived with Bill more than any other person.

Bill was a great guy, but he wasn’t always the most organized or tidy guy. His room in our house on East Murray was a disaster.  There was stuff scattered everywhere. You couldn’t even see the floor because of the clothes, books, papers, and food wrappers lying around.

One time after doing laundry (which was a rarity), Bill threw his clothes into a laundry basket and put the basket on his bed. He pulled clothes out of the basket as needed, and at night, he somehow contorted his body in his tiny, single bed so he could sleep around the basket. After several days, Keith and I noticed that the basket hadn’t moved from his bed, so we kept an eye on it. The laundry basket stayed in place for weeks before Bill ran out of clothes and the process started all over again.

Bill and “Stoney” Al

Things weren’t always easy for Bill. As far as I know, Bill’s father was never much of a presence in his life, and his mom struggled to provide for the family. When Bill was in high school, his mom moved the family to Galesburg from their home in Momence, a small town near Kankakee, IL. Things didn’t work out as planned in Galesburg, and Bill’s mom decided to return to Momence. But Bill had become established in Galesburg, and their local minister volunteered to let Bill stay with his family so Bill could finish high school.

Also living with the minister was a guy by the name of Alan Bryan. I seem to remember that Al had been adopted by the minister and his family, but I’m not sure. Al and Bill were the same age, and they became like brothers. They graduated together from high school, then went off to WIU together where they were roommates their freshman year.

Al was the most straight-laced guy we knew. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and didn’t do drugs, so naturally, we called him “Stoney” Al. I guess we thought the irony made us seem clever. After that first year at WIU, Bill and Al went their separate ways. Al eventually joined the Marines (Correction: Al was in the Air Force) and served his country for several years. In fact, he still works as a civilian at the Pentagon. But despite their different paths in life, Al and Bill remained close. That shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the kind of guy Bill was.

A Passion and A Purpose

Bill loved his job as a teacher at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Illinois. I knew he liked his job, and I knew his students and co-workers were very fond of him. But what surprised me after Bill’s heart attack and passing was how many lives he touched, and the depth of the love and respect others felt for him.

After Bill’s heart attack, both current and former students posted on Facebook talking about how much Bill meant to them. They talked about his willingness to listen, his sage advice, his corny jokes, and how he had changed their lives. Fellow teachers wrote about their appreciation for Bill, how he had helped them, supported them, and mentored them.

After Bill had his heart attack, but before he died, one of his students wrote: “Finding out my all-time favorite teacher isn’t in a good place right now is super heartbreaking. I met Mr. Breeden when I was just a sophomore, from that day on my life changed forever. Mr. Breeden believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have even graduated high school. I remember always looking forward to seeing him every single day, he could brighten up anyone’s day. He’s such a funny person with such a big heart and lots of love to give. I remember him always helping me in the mornings with my math work. He gave such great insightful advice. I could literally talk to him about any and everything. I’m so grateful to have the privilege to even know him.

Another of Bill’s students said: “Getting off of work to hear that the best teacher I’ve ever [had] has passed away is the most heartbreaking thing ever. Bill Breeden, you were what other teachers should strive to be. You gave me confidence in school, which is something I never thought I would have and you constantly made everyone around you smile and laugh. I’m so lucky to have had you as a teacher. You’re greatness will be missed.

And yet another student wrote: “RIP to someone who left [too] soon and one of the best teachers I ever had. [T]hank you for being someone I could look up to and go to if I needed help with something or just to talk.

One of Bill’s fellow teachers wrote: “Today was my first day back to school without working with Bill Breeden. To say it was hard walking in where he should have been is an understatement…He was a great inspiration to many, fun to be around, an amazing teacher, and just an all around great guy! I feel honored to say I knew him and worked with him…He will be greatly missed.

Another one wrote: “Bill was one of a kind! He was a good friend and mentor. As I was finishing up my master’s degree and would often sub in special ed, he would request me as his sub. The irony is, Bill knew math was my worst subject and I was terrified of teaching his classes. He would go the extra mile and make me an answer key, work out all the problems for me, so that I and the students would be successful. He told me, ‘Ange, it’s ok to not know all of this, you know the kids, do your best and you’ll be fine.’ Knowing Bill had your back was a true blessing. He was loved by many, touched the hearts of all who knew him and will be missed.”

And a teacher shared this story that captured Bill’s personality beautifully: “One of my favorite Bill Breeden memories was when I was his assistant basketball coach back in 2007-2008. He put me in charge of calling an out of bounds play after a timeout. I told the girls what to do, then sent them on the floor. After it was too late, I noticed we had 6 girls on the court. I realized it, Bill realized it, but the ref did not. We passed the ball in bounds, ran the play, scored, then he quickly called a timeout before anyone knew what happened. He just looked at me and shook his head and said “Really, Gamble???” while trying not to laugh. It was the last out of bounds play I called that season, but it was the start of years of ridicule.

The amazing thing to me is these are just a few of the many posts people have made for Bill. The one common thread in all of them is that Bill was kind, he cared, he listened, he supported. When you’ve known someone a long time, you can forget what makes them special. Thank you to Bill’s students and co-workers for reminding me of things about Bill that I’ve known for a long time, but maybe took for granted.

An Ugly Sport Coat and a Little Italian Porn Music

One thing that I loved and appreciated about Bill was his eclectic taste in music and fashion. His taste in fashion was, quite honestly, odd, and his taste in music was constantly changing.

Bill loved strange looking sport coats, although I suspect he didn’t view them as all that strange. Almost anything unusual was to his liking, the louder and more garish, the better.

A few years ago he picked up a kitschy (His principle called it “hideous.”) red, white, and blue plaid sport coat and wore it to school on the day yearbook pictures were being taken (See the photo above). He complimented the sport coat with a white shirt and blue bow tie. Rumor has it he was also wearing Bermuda shorts, but the photo doesn’t include his lower body. The photo was a hit, and Bill repeated the same look every year afterwards.

Bill and I were once having a conversation about what music we had on our iPods. My taste in music is pretty conventional. Most of what I listen to comes from the 70s and 80’s, with a few newer bands thrown in.

Bill’s iPod was all over the board. At the moment, Bill explained, he was really into music from 1980’s Italian porn movies. When he said that, I laughed. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He had actually downloaded 1980’s Italian porn music (Where would you even get that?). He had been listening to it for a while, and he really liked it. That was pretty typical of Bill.

A Kind Word and A Smile

Bill believed that small gestures could have a big and meaningful impact. In addition to teaching, Bill was the head high school golf coach. At the last golf match of the season, Bill walked the course with the seniors. It was a chance for him to discuss the golf season, share some thoughts and memories, and let the senior players know that, although they might be moving on with life, away from high school, he’d always be there for them. It was just one of the many ways Bill showed his students that he had their back, that he’d lend an ear if they ever needed to talk, and that he believed in their ability to do great things.

When one of Bill’s co-workers announced that she was pregnant with a boy, Bill wrote a letter to the teacher’s unborn child. He wanted to let the boy know that he had a great and talented mother. Bill realized he could have a positive impact on the lives of other people, so he put in a little extra time and effort to do so. That was Bill’s way.

Packers vs Bears

Bill was a fan of the Green Bay Packers. I’m not sure how that happened. He was raised in Chicago Bears country but came away cheering for the Packers. And he was always more than happy to remind anyone of his fandom if they ever forgot, although it would have been hard to forget considering the ugly green and gold Packers sweater he often wore.

Bill loved to point out the Packers recent (And by recent, I mean the last thirty years) dominance over the Bears. He was heartless and relentless in his support of the Packers, especially when they played the Bears. But in recent years, something changed. He toned down the rhetoric a little. There were even times that I didn’t get a message from Bill when the Packers humiliated the Bears.

It could be that Bill was getting soft in his old age. I think even Bill, the ultimate Packers fan, was beginning to feel a little mercy toward his friends who were Bears fans. I could be wrong, but when it came to the Packers-Bears rivalry, it was almost like Bill was beginning to feel something akin to compassion. He wanted the Packers to destroy the Bears. He wanted the Bears to walk away humbled and emasculated. But he didn’t want to see his friends suffer anymore. Or maybe I’m just trying to ascribe human emotions to Bill when it comes to his Packers fandom. I don’t know. That seems unlikely. Like I say, I could be wrong.

I Hope It’s Not Too Late

I loved Bill Breeden. He was a wonderful husband to Sierra, a great and supportive friend, a talented and passionate teacher, and an all around good guy. I was proud to know him, proud of the career he built for himself, and proud of the man he had become. The sad part is, I never told him. I didn’t tell him I loved him. Guys just don’t do that. I didn’t tell him how proud I was of him for the job he had done as a teacher and a coach, or how impressed I was of the way he handled the role of husband, father, and friend. Why didn’t I tell him?

I don’t think I’m unique in this regard. It’s not unusual for any of us to compliment a stranger on a job well done, but never tell those closest to us how much they mean to us. And I don’t think it’s only men who withhold thoughts and emotions, although I think it’s fair to say that guys are probably worse about this than women. The point is, we’re all guilty.

Telling someone you are close to that you love, respect, and appreciate them can be hard. It carries risk. What if they reject you? What if you embarrass them? What if they don’t feel the same about you? So we hold back, we don’t put ourselves out there, we play it safe. But just think about what we’re losing by keeping our feelings to ourselves.

One of the biggest things I regret as I say goodbye to Bill is that we didn’t open up to each other more. We were both products of the macho Western male mentality that requires men to be strong and reign in their emotions. I get that. But I still wish I had told Bill that I loved him. I wish I had told him how much his friendship meant to me. I wish I would have shared how happy I was for him for his professional successes and his personal triumphs. I wish I had told him how proud I was of the life he had built for himself, a life that included a wife he adored, a son he loved, friends he treasured, and a work family he cherished. I wish I had shared how impressed I was with the way he related to his students, the way they confided in him, and the way he listened, motivated, and supported them. I wish I had said all of this because it was important to me for Bill to know how I felt. How I still feel.

I hope, in some cosmic way, that it’s not too late. That, somehow, Bill knows.Facebooktwitter