snoopytypeI love to write or I wouldn’t be doing this. Even if no one read my scribblings, I suppose I’d scribble them anyway. That’s a recurring theme from writers. We write because we have no other choice. It’s not like we don’t have any other skills, we simply have the overwhelming need, passion, desire, yearning – call it what you will – to write.

Still, it’s gratifying to have others read what I write. Getting my words to an audience beyond immediate family and friends takes a lot of self-promotion, networking, schmoozing, and building of a platform. None of that comes easily to the average writer. They tend to be introverts. I have the advantage of being an extrovert, but promoting myself remains a chore. To improve my lot, I’ve decided I need to take a drastic next step:

I need a title.

Adding a title to a name immediately increases its credibility. Where would “Cedric the Entertainer” be without “the Entertainer”? Many of us wouldn’t know what to make of him absent the built-in endorsement; at least we know what he’s supposed to be. Which would get more press, King Richard I or “Richard the Lionheart”? No contest. Numbers get confused or forgotten. Lionheart will live on forever.

So a title would be a big boost, but the choice is a dilemma. It should be influential without being obnoxious, positive without being presumptuous. You can’t undersell yourself. Seriously, would you remember a ruler called Alexander the Adequate?

weegeeThere’s no guarantee that adopting such an appellation will work, however. Photographer Arthur Fellig was more commonly known as Weegee. Somewhere along the line, he gave himself the title “Weegee the Famous”. He even marked all his photos with a stamp bearing his title as shown on the right. Have you heard of him? I rest my case.

Some titles could be misunderstood. I fancy myself a relatively humorous person. “Rick the Humorous” is too understated, but “Rick the Hysterical” could get me in trouble.

It’s also a good defensive move to assign a title to yourself. Otherwise, you could end up with something less desirable than you might like. Jack the Ripper, Ivan the Terrible, and Mack the Knife probably didn’t choose those labels. If they’d been more proactive, who knows? Maybe we could look back fondly on Jack the Repairer, Ivan the Tender, and Mack the Spoon.

I’ve yet to home in on just the right title. As of now, I have only this list of unsuitable candidates:

Rick the …

  • …Writer (trite)
  • …Blogger (too on-the-nose)
  • …Wicked Awesome (too pompous)
  • …Storyteller (I kinda like that one – hey, I can dream)
  • …Ridiculous (a quality alliteration, but nothing I want to advertise)

So the jury is still out. If anything strikes me soon, I’ll have to give it serious consideration. Too much is at stake.

Suggestions are welcome… within reason.

Dickens and Christmas

ChristmasCarolBookThere are plenty of folks out there crediting Charles Dickens with “inventing” Christmas. That’s a pretty drastic overstatement, but there’s a grain of truth to it. At least one author posits that, with the publication of “A Christmas Carol”, Dickens rescued his own career and shaped the celebration of Christmas as we know it today. For those who wish to pursue the matter, an intelligent refutation of that premise can be found here.

For the record, as much as a lot of people would prefer otherwise, Christmas is in fact the celebration of the birth of Christ. In our pluralistic society, people are free to ignore that fact, just as they ignore the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. You don’t have to celebrate it as such, but that’s the way it is.

The mode of that celebration, however, is quite a different matter. For example, the December date is well known to have been a later invention. Reindeer, Christmas trees, gift giving, and wassailing – not to mention Santa himself – are all among the pieces of extraneous baggage that have been heaped mercilessly on what is a simple observance of a historical and spiritual event of significance to a huge percentage of the world’s population.

Neither Dickens nor his masterpiece needs the superfluous acclaim. “A Christmas Carol” is as brilliant as it is timeless. It honors what people call the “spirit of Christmas” with only a slight nod to the religious aspect of the holiday. As such, it tends to be tolerable to all stripes. Yet the theme of repentance and transformation conforms perfectly with Christian orthodoxy. In the grand tradition of great art, it works equally well as edification and entertainment.

XmasCarolI just watched my favorite filmed rendition of the story, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott. It edges out the surprisingly high quality animated Mr. Magoo musical version.

(One reason I prefer that version to any other is the supporting cast, which includes several performers from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Dickens’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”. In a previous post, I made no bones about my tremendous admiration for that production.)

Some of the scenes and lines of dialog in the book are as fresh and meaningful today as they’ve ever been. The poor still struggle, barely noticed, at the feet of the rich. Dickens’s bleak portrayal of that situation is neglected in many dramatic presentations of the story.

I reproduce the exchange between Scrooge and The Spirit of Christmas Present below. Now as it was then, the prose is rich and evocative, the message relevant and convicting.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

It makes me wonder what the bell strikes today.

NB: As I’ve noted elsewhere, the lesson of Scrooge and other Yuletide scoundrels has been lost on us today, to our shame.

TV full circle

[No time for a long post today. Life takes up all my time. Weird about that, huh?]

magni-tvIt occurred to me recently that a lot about television, in spite of its rapid evolution, is coming full circle. For a long time, in the early days of TV (no, I don’t remember them) interest seemed to focus more on the newfangled technology than on the admittedly skimpy and weak content.

Today, although the content is more sophisticated than ever, talk is still mostly about technological innovations in things like screen size, type, and resolution, sound, source (cable, satellite, Internet), 3-D, and other novelties.

A big topic is resolution: What used to pass for HD is already old hat. 4K is hot. Great if you have a nice big screen at home. Not such a big deal if you’re watching on your phone or tablet, which everyone seems to be doing. As the screens get smaller, seeing anything at all is a challenge for some of us.

I see us going back to TV’s nascent days, when families would put some kind of magnifying device (including fishbowls!) in front of the tiny screens so the whole family could sit brasiltvaround to watch. I’m not alone in this outlook. According to Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film “Brazil” that’s what our future holds, along with a lot of other nasty stuff. His vision wasn’t meant to be realistic, but it turns out he wasn’t far off the mark in more ways than one.

Other “cutting edge” improvements:

Curved screens will soon appear on virtual store shelves. What’s the big deal? My old Zenith had a significant convex curve to it. Didn’t make “Lost in Space” any more credible.

3-D, which for my money adds no real value to any medium except View-Master, refuses to go away.

The worst new feature for televisions has to be “3-D multi-view”. This allows two people, both wearing geeky glasses with built-in ear buds, to watch two different shows on the same TV at the same time. Could we possibly make an isolating activity more isolating? Why would we want to?

Besides visual changes, sound is also important. HD sound is great. Unfortunately, I have low-def (closer to high-deaf) hearing.

Here’s hoping Santa brings you a fishbowl to put in front of your Android.

Peace on Earth

I’m old enough to remember the 60’s and, unlike some of my contemporaries who find the era’s fashions, language, and music a bit dated, I have no desire to distance myself from that connection. It was a great time. We’d run around in our tie-dyes and bell bottoms waving protest banners with what now seem to be quaint phrases such as:


Perhaps the most naive of them all was this one:

whatifwarThis is the one most likely to make people cringe. On the surface, it’s seems so naive, almost childishly optimistic. It sounds so crazy. To quote Steely Dan, “Only a fool would say that.”

But what if it really happened?

It did.

For a very short span of time during World War I (the conflict ironically called “the war to end all wars” – talk about naive optimism!) both sides refused to play the game of killing each other for the benefit of absentee generals and politicians.

Over the years, I’d heard stories about the so-called “Christmas Truce” of 1914. This past week I read a thorough history of the events in a book called “Silent Night” by Stanley Weintraub. A movie about the truce was made in 2005. “Joyeux Noel” creates a compelling composite of the actual events by centering on a single group of combatants on the Western Front.

Both book and movie are excellent works, but the truce itself is the amazing tale. Bands of enemies mingled with each other, singing Christmas carols, playing soccer, burying their dead, trading keepsakes, sharing food and drink, and generally getting to know one another. Guns were laid down and differences forgotten. Nearly a million people had already given up their lives for this mindless standoff. Beginning on Christmas Eve that year, a hundred thousand suddenly came to their senses and grasped at the outrageous opportunity to celebrate Christmas with Peace on Earth, if only for a couple of days.

When word of the impromptu truce got back to the powers-that-were-but-no-longer-are, all ensconced in luxurious digs and downing fine food and drink for the holidays, they were incensed. Threats of transfers, court-martials, and even firing squads were brought down on the lowly servicemen who were bogged down in frozen or muddy trenches.

The high ranking officers and politicians thought it insane for the soldiers to drop their weapons and spend Christmas getting to know the enemy who had been painted by each opposing nation as barbaric, evil, less-than-humans who deserved to be and must be eradicated. Those same elites saw nothing crazy about throwing young lives at each other in a futile attempt to move their lines a few yards either way in the pointless and protracted conflict. After all, they were out of harm’s way themselves. Some things never change.

As the groups of enemies fraternized on the few hundred feet of No Man’s Land that separated them, they actually became friends, sometimes making plans to get together after the war. By meeting their foes, British and French troops came to realize that Germans weren’t monsters who crucified children as they had been told. The Germans learned that their foes were just like them, with the same dreams and desires, most with families they missed.

Some people objected. One member of the German army who was alarmed by the actions of the soldiers said:

Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?

If you find this man’s opinion resonates with yours, be aware that his name was Cpl. Adolf Hitler.

In 1914, everyone thought the end of the war was imminent. It ended up dragging on for another four years, causing millions of casualties. Worse yet, it planted the seeds that grew into the next and even greater conflict, World War II. Author Weintraub in his book makes the compelling case that, had the perpetrators of the war followed the lead of its victims toward peace, we might have not only avoided the second Great War, but the Bolshevik Revolution might never have occurred, thus eliminating more conflict from the world in ensuing years.

Today, armed conflicts seem to be ubiquitous. Once more, it’s not quite clear what people are fighting about, but it’s usually the same thing: enemies are demonized as evil fundamentalist (or atheist – take your pick) demons who want to take away our precious way of life. If you were to talk to most of those enemies, you’d find, just like those men in the trenches in 1914, that they are human beings like ourselves who only want to live their lives in peace.

In the next war, could we have all the leaders – political, military, and religious – slug it out among themselves while the rank-and-file watch from a safe distance? It would make great reality TV.

The more common motivation for war today is to give the big weapons manufacturers an opportunity to showcase and sell their wares. If a few thousand kids are killed in the process, that’s a price the stockholders of said companies are willing to pay. I’m reminded of the opening scenes of a rare good superhero movie, “Iron Man”, when Tony Stark, between bedding women and sipping champagne, sells a gazillion dollars worth of killing machinery to everyone in sight but misses the downside until he becomes a victim of his own products.

Jesus – He’s the guy that started this whole Christmas thing – says, “Love your enemies.” I’m pretty sure, as the saying goes, killing them isn’t what He meant. Is there a better way to celebrate the day than to refuse to kill the people Jesus said we should love?

That is what would happen if they gave a war and nobody came. Maybe it’s not so childish after all.

(For more reading, here’s a fascinating article from nine years ago.)

Pop the thought stack!

think2muchI’ve said it before and I’m likely to say it again. I think too much.

I’d be aware of this fact even if the people around me didn’t regularly remind me. (Yeah, it’s that obvious.) Thinking too much is way-wicked better, though, than the more typical American attitude of thinking too little or the almost pandemic not-thinking-at-all. Thinking is Good.

Still, thinking too much has its own set of drawbacks.

One negative is that I get stacks and stacks of ideas to write about for blogs, articles, fiction, and scripts – more than I’d ever be able to get around to in this lifetime.

pop1To cut down on that pile, allow me to pop the stack with a random dump of topics here. With sufficient thought (of which, as I’ve mentioned, I have an overabundance) and time (of which I have precious little) some of these might justify an entire post of their own. Who’s got time for that? I’m too busy thinkin’.

Have you noticed that, as movies get shorter*, credits get longer? You’d think the equation “shorter movies = less to do = less credit” would apply, but you’d be wrong. There are more people getting credit for doing whatever they do. It bucks the whole business trend of “doing more with less.”

IAWLcreditsLook at a classic film like the seasonally appropriate “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The credits list only the major acting roles, director, screenwriter, costume designer, and a few others. Buried in the eight or nine minutes of credits today, you’ll find the insurance company underwriting the movie, five drivers, the caterer(s), several assistant background colorists, and a seemingly infinite number of other obscure jobs. (Key grip, lock grip, best boy, worst girl, mediocre pet.) No exaggeration: Today’s trailers list more credits than did entire films from the 40’s.

[*They are getting shorter in general, with the obvious exception of “Interstellar“. If movie length affected credit length, the credits for that epic-in-its-own-mind would roll longer than an average romantic comedy runs in its entirety.]

Speaking of classic movies, does anyone else see a problem with the current practice of labeling a newly released film an “instant classic”? Is that legit? It seems to me that a little passing of time is required to test whether something is truly classic. Otherwise, why not have brand new antiques? Anyone who can explain all this will become an instant legend.

gershwinWhen Robin Williams died before his time, it reminded me how much I grieve when an artist dies, not only for the loss of life, but at the loss of the great works that will never be. My most painful example is George Gershwin, possibly the greatest musical genius in American history, who died at age 38. Those first 38 years produced a wealth of memorable music. How many more great musical creations went to his grave with him? Another “Porgy and Bess” perhaps? An entire rainbow of Rhapsody’s? That’s something to mourn.

I called the doctor the other day and was greeted with a recording that said, “If this is a life-threatening medical emergency, hang up and dial 911.” I don’t even know where to begin on that one. First of all, do we need to say “hang up”? That would seem obvious. Anyone who calls the main switchboard of a hospital during a “life-threatening emergency” does indeed have serious problems, but even 911 won’t help. I seem to get this same message no matter what kind of medical practice I call. Do you suppose there are a lot of people with life-threatening emergencies calling their optometrist?

The good news: Black Friday sales were down 7%. The bad (actually, tragic) news: Sales on Thanksgiving Day were up 24%. It’s official. America has completely lost its sense and moral compass.

watchesThere’s a watch store at the mall. Are enough people still buying watches to justify dedicated stores? Why is anyone buying a watch? Everyone and their pets carry cell phones that prominently display the time. Besides, clocks are everywhere now, in everything. From where I sit, I can see the time on a radio, cable box, toaster, TV, DVD player, microwave, and phone. The bathroom is the only safe place from the invasion of the timepieces. Maybe that’s where people need their watches. I hope not. To paraphrase Brian Regan, if you gotta check your watch in the john, you’re booking yourself too tight.

And in spite of all those clocks, most people are still late.

I keep hearing people complain about getting phone spam even though they’re on the do-not-call list. What do these folks think, criminals check the DNC list before making their illegal robo-calls? Do they suppose murders would cease overnight if we had a do-not-kill list? Heck, let’s give it a try. I’d sign up.

Have you been in a sporting goods store lately? The floor space in these places is taken up by about 5% sports equipment and 95% clothes. It appears that no one is actually playing any sports these days, but if one breaks out, we’ll be ready.

Back here, I listed some things that have disappeared in my lifetime. I keep thinking of new ones:

  • searsCRTs
  • Fotomat (Remember those short-lived dinosaurs?)
  • film
  • All-encompassing catalogs such as Sears, JC Penney, and Montgomery Wards

Actually, all catalogs have outlived their usefulness as much as slide rules, Yellow Pages, and unfoldable road maps, but the individual retailers keep sending them out, especially around Christmas. I’m getting catalogs from companies I last did business with over ten years ago. Others are from companies I never even heard of. My recycling bin could have a field day if it had an internet connection.

Driving down the road recently, I was cut off by a guy whose car sported a “coexist” bumper sticker. He wants all races and religions to coexist peacefully but he can’t even coexist with the next car.

That’s a load off…