Monday, November 5, 2018

Wouldst Thou Like To Live Deliciously?

I watched the movie “The Witch” on Netflix last week as part of my Halloween horror flick viewing. I had seen it a couple of years ago when it came out on DVD, but we were having trouble with the contrast on the TV back then and parts of the film, which is rather darkly shot to begin with, were just shadows moving across the screen, and it was difficult at times to understand the context of the dialog.
Okay, now I get it. Thomasin was talking to a goat. Somehow that is significantly more frightening than just the disembodied voice of Satan. And the goat following her as she walks naked though the forest toward the caterwauling of the coven is even creepier.
Sometimes the details make all the difference.
I am frequently asked during my book readings and signings where I get my ideas. The truth is, I don’t really know. They just... happen. I am completely unable to draw, and think the talent to take what one sees and convey it into a two dimensional representation is nothing short of miraculous. But when I ask artists how they do it, I always get the same answer... I don’t know, I just draw.
I get ideas in one of two ways. The first, and most common, is what I call “rearrangement.” Rearrangement is taking a basic idea found in some other work and asking myself, “how would I have written that?” My unpublished short story “Blue Ruin” is an example. It takes place in the same universe as "The Walking Dead," but posits the question; how would survivors living on the coast with easy access to the relative safety of the seas handle a zombie apocalypse. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when the "Fear The Walking Dead" spinoff tackled the same question. I disagreed with their sea-going storyline - I still believe a boat is the safest place to be - but I get why finding a safe place and continuing a horror story are two different goals.
The short story “Uncle Augie’s Blind” from my latest book, Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, was similarly inspired by an obscure Stephen King story, “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” I read in Yankee Magazine when I was in college. The plots are completely different, but the setup and style of storytelling is similar.
I call the other way I get ideas the Eureka! Moment. In this scenario, something new, and often nonsensical, comes to me out of nowhere. I was hiking in the mountains yesterday, for instance, and the phrase, “ring me up for souse” popped into my head. Now, I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard that anywhere else, and I’m equally sure it’s of no practical value, except as the punchline of a joke or maybe the topic of a blog post, but there you have it. These Eureka! Moments are usually not fully realized concepts, but often just a title or a name. The title of the book I am currently working on, Craven Fork, came to me that way, as did the name of the main character, Owen Sinclair. The rest of the characters and the plot just sort of “unfolded” as I thought more about them.
Circling back to "The Witch," I have always liked the scenario of a colonial family scratching a living from of a plot of ground on the fringes of a great and mysterious forest, but I’ve never discovered the story or the voice to tell it. Maybe someday.

Monday, October 29, 2018

How The 2015 NFL Season May Have Ruined Sports

The factoid flashed across the bottom of the screen: “The last time the Red Sox won the World Series a loaf of bread was 7 cents.” It was a cool fall night in 1986 at my apartment in suburban Perrysburg, Ohio and the Mets were coming to bat in the bottom of the 10th. The Red Sox had scored two in the top of the frame for what appeared to be a comfortable lead. If you’ve read this far, you likely know what happened next, so I won’t dwell on the details. Let’s just say that the price of bread would go up by a few more cents before Boston would win a World Series.

The thing that is often lost in the “Curse of the Bambino” discussion is that Boston did not put many good teams on the field between 1918 and 2004. The Red Sox teams that did manage to make it to the World Series during that period were fluky, not overly talented pennant winners who always seemed to go up against much better teams in the postseason; a Gibson-led Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, and the 108 win Mets. That Boston was able to take those series to seven games was itself a minor miracle that only intensified the feeling that they were ultimately cursed.

The 2018 Red Sox, like the 2013 and 2007 editions, however, were not underdogs putting up the good fight against superior competition. They were, far and away, the better teams in those series, and that creates its own sort of pressure. After winning 108 games in the regular season and cruising through the AL playoffs, there was a sense of inevitability to Boston’s World Series push, but I’ve experienced that feeling before and frankly it may have ruined sports for me forever.  

After a choppy start to the 2015 season, the Carolina Panthers hit their stride and won 15 of 16 games, losing only to the Atlanta Falcons by a touchdown in week 15. In the playoffs, they steamrolled the powerful Seahawks and Cardinals and were prohibitive Super Bowl favorites against a Denver Broncos team that had looked inept on offense for much of the season before riding a strong defensive performance to an AFC Championship game win against the New England Patriots.

The 2015 Panthers had a modus operendi that year of getting out to large first half leads and then nearly blowing them in the second half. While that’s a dangerous recipe for winning, their two losses actually came in hard fought, low-scoring affairs that found them with the ball and a chance to go ahead in the closing minutes.

I thought the bad feelings about Super Bowl 50 would subside after a few months, but they never really did. I thought the excitement of remembering that magical 15-win season and those awesome playoff wins would one day add balance to the disappointing way the season ended, but to date it hasn’t. It’s HARD to make it to a Super Bowl. You need a really good team and a few breaks along the way. That a team, a very good team, could get so close, then fall to a lesser team is depressing. The Panthers also made it to the Super Bowl in 2004, a game against the Patriots in which they were huge underdogs. They played admirably, though and actually led briefly in the 4th quarter. In the end, Tom Brady orchestrated a short drive to get New England into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri, who coincidentally set the NFL total points record on Sunday, pushed through a kick as time expired. That loss, while painful for a few days, felt okay once the confetti settled. The Panthers had put up a good fight against one of the great football dynasties ever. They were, for practical purposes, all those Red Sox teams that somehow managed to keep it close against better players. The 2015 team was more like these Red Sox; anything short of a championship would forever taint their memory.

And that’s why I’m really glad the Red Sox put an end to the Series Sunday night. I’ve come to the point in my sports experience where the agony of defeat is starting to outweigh the thrill of victory. The Panthers are having another good season, winning Sunday afternoon to push their record to 5-2 and keep them firmly in the playoff conversation. I'd love for them to win a Super Bowl one day, but I'm not getting any younger.


Chappaquicick Will Leave You Frustrated, And That’s A Good Thing: Plus Three Conspiracy Theories

My father was an avid reader, but his choice of reading material often left something to be desired. He especilly enjoyed reading the “tabloids,” so there was always a Weekly World News or National Enquirer around the house for an “inquiring mind” like mine to leaf through. The stock-and-trade of those publications was reporting of semi-fictitious news stories, often with just a hint of truth to make their outlandish conspiracy theories seem plausible. It is no surprise, then, that I have a decent knowledge of Chappaquiddick and the various conspiracy theories surrounding it. That story dominated the tabloids for years, supplanted only half a decade later by the death (and possible resurrection?) of Elvis.

The movie Chappaquiddick tackles the story of that warm summer night in 1969 head on, but leaves the viewer with as many, maybe more, questions at its conclusion than they likely had heading in to the theater. Rather than attach themselves to one theory or another about the tragic events of that night, the filmmakers are content to stick to the official story, along with all the confounding ambiguity and significant gaps it offers. The end result is a film in which the actions of many of the prime characters make little to no sense. If it were a fictional story, this would be a fatal flaw, but the fact that these people actually acted that way makes it fascinating, if frustrating.

The facts of the story are such: Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, a rising star in the Democratic Party and the last surviving Kennedy “brother,” attended a get-together of staffers who had worked for his deceased brother Bobby. The party was held on the tiny Martha’s Vineyard island of Chappaquiddick. The exact nature of this event is open to speculation, but the guests were male Kennedy associates and female staffers in their late-20s, so draw your own conclusions. Around midnight, Kennedy left the party with a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. Some time later a car driven by Kennedy ran off a small bridge and plunged upside down into the relatively shallow water. Kennedy escaped the wreck, but his passenger did not. After that, things get fuzzy, but the one undeniable fact is that Kennedy waited nine or ten hours before reporting the accident to authorities, and in fact did so only after the car was discovered by two boys out fishing and reported to the police.

All this took place at the same time as the Apollo 11 moon landing, so it understandably got pushed below the fold, but it was still a big story. A week after the incident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended. He went on television and expressed his regrets for his role in the accident, while telling a highly suspicious story with a lot of holes. A largely sympathetic nation (he had lost his brothers to assassination) was willing to overlook the inconsistencies of the story, and Kennedy went on to be one of the longest-serving U.S. Senators.

When you actually see this story played out in real time on the screen, however, it becomes very obvious very quickly that something is not right. There are massive holes which the movie simply leaves as holes: What were the two doing in his car at midnight? How did Kennedy escape an overturned, flooded car without breaking a window or opening a door? What happened in the nine or ten hours between the time the car entered the water and Kennedy reported the accident? These are not insignificant questions and the lack of resolution will frustrate the viewer, but any attempt by the filmmakers to fill in the blank spaces with conjecture or theory would be a disservice to Kennedy and/or Kopechne.

It is worth noting that a review of the movie in The New York Times calls the film a right-wing scree aimed at denigrating the memory of Senator Kennedy. While I have never been a particularly big fan of the Senator and am probably not the most impartial voice in the matter, that’s bunk. Yes, certain aspects of the film cast Kennedy in an unflattering light, but that will happen when you leave the scene of a fatal accident, can’t remember what happened and fail to report it to the authorities. The Times problem with the film is  apparently that it doesn’t go out if its way to exonerate Kennedy. Let's be clear here, even taken at his word, Kennedy is not a hero or martyr, and the film's suggestion that some political spin and outright lies may have taken place are hardly out of bounds given the circumstances.

There is a conspiracy theory that casts Kennedy in a slightly better light, the so-called “backseat” theory. This theory postulates that Kopechne left the party after having a couple of drinks and fell asleep in the backseat of Kennedy’s car. Kennedy, not knowing anyone was in the car with him, was simply relieved to have survived the accident and figured no harm could come of sleeping it off before reporting the accident to the authorities. But if this was the case, then why not say so. It’s arguably a more plausible story than the one told. Well, that leaves to another conspiracy...

A purse belonging to another staffer named Rosemary Keough was found in the submerged car. In fact, based on this purse, the victim was originally misidentified. The Keough conspiracy theory suggests that Kennedy did indeed leave the party for a tryst, but that it was with Keough, not Kopechne. Kopechne was merely asleep in the backseat, and Kennedy and Keough had no idea she was there until the news hit the next morning that there was a body in the car. While this theory does close a hole or two, it also suggests that two people could enter a car without noticing there was someone asleep in the backseat and that two people could escape a sunken car neatly closing the doors behind them.

A more outlandish conspiracy theory states that none of it was an accident and that it was effectively a “hit” on Kopechne who had some dirt on the Kennedys and in one variation was carrying Ted's baby. This outlandish theory says that Kennedy was never in the car and the whole thing was planned and executed by a team of Kennedy operatives who somehow botched what was supposed to look like an innocent accident. The problem with that theory is that if the intent was to kill Kopechne without raising suspicion, there were much simpler ways to accomplish that which did not implicate the Kennedys; have her “mugged” one night while walking home, for instance.

With the passing of Senator Kennedy in 2009 and most of the eye witnesses either dead or in their latter years, the Chappaquiddick incident will likely go down with the Jonbenet Ramsey murder and the Lindbergh Kidnapping as mysterious tabloid fodder that are never quite resolved.

Wouldst Thou Like To Live Deliciously?

I watched the movie “The Witch” on Netflix last week as part of my Halloween horror flick viewing. I had seen it a couple of years ago w...