Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Sad Passing of Friends

It's the middle of June and, as summer heads towards us with a vengeance, I say goodbye to familiar faces and dear friends. This has happened in previous Junes, but for some reason this year it's more difficult for me.

The gloom set in last Sunday night. I had to bid adieu to Don Draper, Peggy Olsen, Joan "Our Lady of the Large Ta-Ta's" Harris, and of course that final goodbye of Lane "Always Leave 'em Hangin'" Pryce. I know these people well, I love them all, I even worked with some of them back in the '60's, and now my Sunday nights feel cold and empty. Like I was just taken off a big account. I was left with only a quick turn of Don's head when a babe at the bar asked him, "Are you alone?" Now that is a deep, metaphysical question, one that went to the core of Don's being. And my being, as well. I won't know his answer until October or November or whenever the hell Matt Weiner decides to bring back his "Mad Men."

Other friends left last Sunday, as well. That surly, swaggering, ragged, foul-mouthed, over-sexed, violent, duplicitous, power hungry, never-take-a-bath, valiant band of men and women who populate the worlds of "Game of Thrones." No, don't ask me what's going on. I am not sure who's doing what to who. Only that I can't take my eyes off the screen. If I had a tee shirt that said "Winterfell" I would proudly wear it to the finest restaurant. I never thought I'd admit to this, but one of my favorite characters is a dwarf. Yep, like Sneezy and Doc and Happy. This one's name is Tyrion Lannister (I had to Google for that) and the actor's name is Peter Dinklage. 

Here's a touching footnote to Peter's Golden Globe Award last January. He dedicated it to a victim of a dwarf tossing incident. No, I'm not kidding. Could I make this up? A very short man, aka dwarf, was standing outside a bar in England, smoking a cigarette, when some drunken stranger came up to him, picked him up, and tossed him. Far. The dwarf - an aspiring actor, just to add depth to the story - fell on his back, and now he is partially paralyzed. This is the blackest sort of humor. And I feel desperately sorry for the little fellow. I guess Peter D. must be on some kind of internet group for dwarves. 

Anyway, "Game of Thrones" departed last Sunday with the introduction of some walking dead people in a winter storm led by a frost monster of sorts with Paul Newman blue eyes, on horseback. I know there's some bad stuff coming. When? I don't know. HBO will tell me.

And finally, not to drag this out: I'm dreading tomorrow night. It's the season ender for "The Killing." I hope to hell we find out who killed Rosie Larsen. This case has been going on for two years now. I really know these people. I care about them all, even the ones I hate. Sarah and Holder and Stan and Richmond (the guy in the wheelchair) and Jamie, who I didn't trust from day one and still don't. What I will not miss is the endless rain. Every day, every night, it rains. The show is shot in Vancouver, as a stand-in for Seattle. My impression of the entire Northwest is that of one sodden mass covered in mold. 
I just hope the murder case is solved tomorrow night, and that all or most of those unforgettable people will return to me soon.

No, I don't watch a lot of TV. But the shows I watch receive my undivided attention. I connect with those people, thanks to strong writing and excellent casting. I know them. I will miss them. To admit something to you that I don't tell everyone: I still miss Tony Soprano and the Fishers - Nate, David, Ruth and Claire - from "Six Feet Under" and even Al Swearengen, the most foul-mouthed character ever to walk the dirt streets of "Deadwood." He didn't even get to say goodbye. But I miss them all.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hey, Watermelon Man

I've got watermelon on my mind. Thanks to my friend Linda O'Connell, a superb writer who's been published in just about everything except the Book of Mormon. She wrote about watermelon on her blog a week ago. Here's part of what she said.

" ...Sam the Watermelon Man. He had a watermelon stand on Natural Bridge in North St. Louis when I was a kid. He hung a string of bare light bulbs that auto dealers used to have on their lots. He sliced those oversized oval shaped melons into eighths and sold them 50 cents a slice to families who sat at old wooden picnic tables. That was the sweetest, ice cold  watermelon."

So Linda made me think about Sam and those great, ice cold watermelons he sold. They were Black Diamonds. You don't see them very often now. As a guy at Kirkwood Market told me, "They don't travel well." One of the best parts was the seeds. Big, black seeds that you could spit on the dirt floor in his stand. (Sidenote: I used to have a parrot that sat on my shoulder when I ate watermelon. She waited for the seeds.) Those watermelons were real watermelons. Not like that seedless variety today that is an abomination of nature. Jerry Seinfeld once asked, "What do you think they plant to get seedless watermelons?"

Back to Sam. Dad would take my brother and me to Sam's during the summer, and watch them cut into the thick, dark green skin, reveal that beautiful red flesh, while pieces of ice and cold water ran down the sides. Then slapped onto a paper plate, which we carried to a table and dug in. It was just as special as sitting in the family car parked around Pevely's fountain in Clayton, eating a gold brick sundae. But Sam was unique. His was the only watermelon stand I was aware of, at least in my world. Sam's last name was Zvibleman. I know that because I went to high school with his son, Irv. He was a year ahead of me, graduated U. City in 1952. As I remember him.... and this was a long time ago ...Irv was not a big guy physically, had kind of a "tough guy" attitude, stocky, a somewhat cocky look on his face, hair over his eyes. If he had been an actor, he would've been cast as one of Tony Soprano's hit men with a ten-word vocabulary. I'm sure I've characterized him all wrong. But he was the son of Sam the Watermelon Man. And that elevated him. Nobody else had a dad who could slice a watermelon like Sam. Maybe Irv could too. I don't know. I never saw him do it. I don't even know if he's still alive, or if he's walking through that Great Watermelon Patch in the Sky.

I still love watermelon. I thank Linda for reminding I we need to get one, as soon as we finish our cantaloupe and honeydew. Maybe sooner. See you at the stand. 

By the way, if you want to read some excellent writing, check out Linda's blog, Write From the Heart

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Me and Ray

He took me by the hand and led me to strange and wonderful worlds. He taught me that time does not necessarily move forward, that the past surrounds us, that living on Mars might be preferable to living on Earth. He introduced me to the Golden Apples of the Sun and The Illustrated Man and The Fog Horn and even a middle-of-the-night return of Laurel and Hardy as they moved the piano up that long flight of steps.
His name was Ray Bradbury and he wrote his final sentence last Tuesday.
I knew he was old (91), in poor health; still, he found the words and ideas to write an essay for last week’s New Yorker magazine, a special issue on Science-Fiction. The title of his essay? "Take Me Home." I guess not even this magnificent writer could find an alternate ending, a way to slip past the encroachment of time. 
Really, though, is any writer ever dead? His stories and books rest on my bookshelves and speak in my imagination. I see myself at the age of 14 or 15, lying in bed at night by the lamp, totally lost in one of Ray’s worlds. His choice of words, his phrases, his ideas were like music and poetry to me. I still can see the large spread in a 1952 Collier’s Magazine, featuring his story “A Sound of Thunder.” It boggled (love that word) my mind. There’s a line in that story that showed how changing the past, even minutely, can have shattering effect in the present. A traveler to the past comes back to the present, to a world that has changed drastically. He discovers one of his boots is covered with mud. He looks at his boot.
“Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.” 
I still have “The Big Book of Science Fiction,” edited by Groff Conklin, published in 1950, signed by Ray on Nov. 14, 1996. I bought that book when it was new, read the stories by Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Lester del Rey, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein. But the master, for me, was Ray Bradbury. I saw him on two occasions, when he was in St. Louis for book signings. 1990 and 1996. I stood there with my books, making dumb conversation, trying to prolong the moment as long as possible before the line behind me got impatient.
In our digital age of Kindle and Nook, Twitter and Facebook, emails and blogs, a time when publishers are fearful and anybody can publish a manuscript quite easily....In this age, it’s comforting to know that some things remain. I can walk by my book shelves, stop and look at Ray’s books, touch the cover as I would touch a friend on the shoulder. 

I can say, “Good to see you, Ray. Glad you’re here.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Past Is Not Past

I’ve been to France but didn't get to Normandy. I’ve never stood on Omaha Beach, stared up at the intimidating cliffs and wondered how men accomplished this impossible mission.
“D-Day” is one of those links to the past that trigger images of an old war with black and white photos of the Normandy invasion in 1944. It is remembered by aged men, most of them frail and fading. You see them interviewed on TV occasionally, their memories of those awful days 68 years ago as fresh and painful as though it happened just last week. Men whose number dwindles sadly with each passing day. You see their names in the obits with little American flags next to them.
I have nothing to add to their story, to this day of tribute. I’ve seen the movies, read the books, attended lectures. I was 9 years old when “our boys” landed. To me, it was adventure of the highest order. The stuff of comic books and movies and newspaper headlines and stories in Life magazine. I don’t recall seeing many pictures of dead, dying, wounded, maimed, suffering. 
About 4 years ago I interviewed a man, then in his mid-80’s, who was there. At Omaha Beach. His name was Charles and he had lived a productive, happy life since the end of the war, raised a family, was still married and owned his own modest home. He and I were doing a video for his kids and grandkids. About his life. He talked about the war, the landing, the hard road across France.
We got near the end of our conversation. He returned to one memory of D-Day, nothing deep or revealing, just a thought about being so thirsty. He paused. I asked him, “Are you a hero, Charles?” He looked at me, then looked away for a long time. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard the question. Then I saw tears in his eyes. It was the first time in the 2 hours we had been talking I had seen such depth of pain and feeling. Charles turned back to me and struggled to say, “The heroes are buried over there. Or they’re at the bottom of the ocean. I’m not a hero.”
Maybe that’s what D-Day means to me. Sure, part of it is the amazing bravery shown on all the beaches during those days. But the other part is the pain that continues decades later, the memories that remain buried. Or almost buried, only to resurface at the most unexpected moments. 
To me, they were all heroes. And I pause to think of them them today.

Photo by Susan Manlin Katzman, taken at
Normany in May, 2012.