A Darker Side Of Anne

June 21, 2017

I started reading the “Anne of Green Gables” series as a child. The first five books took Anne from a spunky orphan of eleven years old, trying to settle into her first real home, to the early years of her marriage to longtime sweetheart Gilbert. My interest was revived as an adult when I came upon three additional books that cover the birth of her children, their growing up, and their eventual participation in World War One, with some tragic results.

Accordingly, I’ve never been able to resist any new rendition of the story that comes to the screen. To be honest, despite my fascination, some of the values that these books convey always gave me pause, even as a child. Of course, the early twentieth century was a different era from my own, and Canadian societal norms also differed in some ways from American ones. Now I find that the first season of a new Netflix series, “Anne with an E,” picks up on some of my reservations and sets out to address them.

I’m not sure I would have recognized a “nature versus nurture” debate when I was young, but ideas about that certainly pervade the story. Lucy Maud (L.M.) Montgomery drew from personal experience when she wrote about the loneliness and sorrow that orphans suffer. Although not technically one herself, she endured tough times while being raised by strict grandparents. That said, considering Anne’s troubled background, it stretches credulity to present her as a bright, sunny spirit who came to the Cuthberts, the brother and sister who adopted her, as a basically sound little girl who merely needed some training in certain social conventions. This is a child whose parents died when she was three months old, and who never heard a kind word from either of the two families who took her in. She was treated as a servant and threatened with beatings if she fell short. Further, she witnessed drunken and violent scenes that no child should be exposed to.

Granted, these books were written for young readers. That was probably the reason Montgomery never strayed far from the myth that once Anne was adopted, her troubles were mostly over, apart from a few scrapes now and then. In “Anne with an E,” the nightmares keep visiting her. At first they prevent Anne from making friends in school, other than her ever-sympathetic neighbor Diana. She is just too strange for most of the other girls. In the books, Montgomery seems to gloss over any damage done to Anne in early childhood, assuming that thanks to good genetics, she will be all right. Marilla Cuthbert, considering whether to adopt Anne, reflects that she talks too much but she’s never rude or slangy. “It’s likely her people were nice folks.”

Realistically, a girl like Anne would be a handful for someone like Marilla Cuthbert, who is portrayed in the books as fairly inexperienced in life outside the peaceful confines of her Prince Edward Island village. She is unsympathetic and impatient with Anne at first, but gradually unbends as the child’s charming personality exerts its influence. The new series, depicting as it does a more troubled Anne, seems to acknowledge that she would require careful handling from a woman who, unlike the original Marilla, approaches the task with a fairly broad mind and at least a few qualifying life experiences.

It struck me early on that in Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, the French-speaking population was a permanent underclass that existed mainly to serve the more exalted English-speaking community. Montgomery never seems to question the rightness of this system. However, in the television series, the French boy working for the Cuthberts is given an actual personality, a quick wit to match Anne’s, and ambitions of his own. There’s also an interesting twist on Diana’s great-aunt Josephine, who becomes Anne’s financial benefactor at a crucial time. In the books, she’s an old maid who has nothing else to do with her money. However, in the series, she confides to Anne the true reason why she never married. It seems she found all the contentment she needed with a female companion.

In the later books, certain things continued to jar me. The newlyweds Anne and Gilbert move to a seaside community, where Gilbert sets up a medical practice. The first neighbor they get acquainted with entertains them with her strong opinions. In this predominantly Presbyterian community, the woman nurses an implacable, largely unexplained hatred for Methodists. Montgomery treats this as a harmless eccentricity. Presumably, the village is such a homogeneous society that there is no real chance of this lady ever encountering someone really different, like a Catholic, a Jew, or a person of color. Likewise, I grappled with the only serious quarrel that ever troubles Anne and Gilbert’s marriage. This comes about when Anne opposes Gilbert’s efforts to treat a head injury that has rendered a neighbor mentally disabled. Anne objects to any treatment for this man on the grounds that he was a bad husband to one of her friends, and would presumably be so again if he were restored to health. I was appalled by Anne’s berating of poor Gilbert over his determination to do his job. Surely a doctor’s wife should be aware of the Hippocratic Oath.

The most compelling quality about Anne as both a child and a woman, in the books as well as the series, is her imagination. She makes up stories as easily as she breathes. At first she does this primarily to escape reality, which is too grim to bear. Later, she does it to entertain her schoolmates. It would strike anyone immediately that she is destined to be a writer, perhaps of the J.K. Rowling type. She pursues this goal for awhile as a college student and a schoolteacher, publishing some short fiction in magazines. Then she marries Gilbert, becomes a mother, and all but gives up writing, seemingly without a regret.

Granted, it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to raise six children, be a doctor’s wife, and write stories on the side. And yes, women of every era have had to make difficult choices along these lines. But shouldn’t Anne, who was a born writer if ever one was depicted in literature, miss the process at least a little? If writing is in your blood, can you ever suppress the urge entirely? One of Anne’s children does become a famous poet, but is that sufficient compensation?

Montgomery did not live in an era when people obsessed about “work-life balance” as they do now. Women were expected to become homemakers, and the author eventually did so herself, although not without considerable resistance. She reportedly suffered through a few failed romances in her early life, while she was still struggling to find herself as an author. Unfortunately, she failed to marry her true love (a mistake she didn’t allow Anne to make). She seems to have “settled” in her late thirties for a minister with whom she was not particularly compatible. By then, she was an established author, which perhaps made it relatively easy to keep churning out novels while raising two sons.

The Netflix series takes considerable liberties with the original story, more in tone and message than in narrative detail. It shows Anne beginning to question the limited roles of girls and women in her conservative community. I hope to find that in later seasons, as “Anne with an E” grows up, she will make choices that are not as automatic and unquestioned as in the original books. All in all, the “Anne of Green Gables” stories were entertaining, but even when I first encountered them, they did not always tell me what I wanted to hear.

My first self-published novel, Secretarial Wars, took forever to finish. I started working on it around 1990, before self-publishing became a real option, and I didn’t finally dispose of it until 2003. It was inspired by several awkward office experiences I lived through during my first full-time job after college. Considering how humble the job was, and how frustratingly long it took to get anywhere in my professional life, it seems incredible that a small slice of that story has now been dramatized in a short film called “The Investigation.”

Secretarial Wars was actually my third attempt at a novel. I had spent years struggling with two hot messes, a college story and its sequel, that were trying to become novels and not really succeeding. I finally reflected that I might do better by grounding a story in my more recent real-life experiences. So I conceived a tale based on my secretarial life at the quasi-government Fulbright grant program from 1974 to 1979.

Fulbright grants were awarded mostly to university professors and researchers with the goal of disseminating American ideals and values abroad. The viewpoint character in my story, Miriam, was a somewhat confused but ambitious young woman who chafed at the limits of her secretarial role. She had two best friends in the office, based on pals of mine who were nearly polar opposites in personality and worked for the organization at different times. One of these girlfriends was a dedicated secretary, and the other, to put it mildly, was not.

Since I started writing the novel before most offices had become high-tech, and it focused on a time when stone age instruments like electric typewriters were in use, I compromised by bringing it up to the early 1990s, when the Internet did exist but was not yet at every desktop, and the few cell phones in use were clunky by today’s standards.

I ground out three novels after Secretarial Wars, and paid to have all four converted to screenplays by professional screenwriters. I thought they all did a decent job of making the stories more cinematic than the originals. Secretarial Wars was the one I felt adhered most faithfully to the original novel. I lifted a few scenes from that screenplay and enhanced them for submission to a local outfit called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z. I called the short script “Secretarial Spy,” and centered it on a secretary’s travails at a Fulbright-like grant program. The heroine, Miriam, an aspiring investigative journalist, entertains two rather contradictory goals: to get a promotion, but also to investigate her boss for possible malfeasance in awarding grants.

The script underwent a thorough revision by a writer far more movie-savvy than me, and was renamed “The Investigation.” While the story ended up quite different from the original, I’m not inclined to complain about that. No doubt if the process had taken place in Hollywood, California instead of Bethesda, Maryland, the same wholesale changes would have occurred. The spark of the idea remains intact: a showdown between Miriam and a boss of questionable morals, Mrs. Broadwater. They work for an outfit called the Peace Council, which boasts an idealistic mission: to promote international cooperation through humanitarian projects. However, owing to the Council’s involvement in many political and financial deals overseas, it’s also vulnerable to corruption.

The film truly does bring back a humiliating episode. Fresh out of college, rather full of myself as a summa cum laude graduate, I was discontent with my secretarial position but didn’t realize that my disdain was obvious. I applied for a modest promotion, based on my ability to complete writing tasks. I was called into the office of the deputy director, a steely woman who really ran the place, and subjected to a painful interview. I didn’t have ready answers for her barrage of questions and observations. Do you like your job? All I could honestly reply was that I believed in the mission of the agency. You haven’t formed a real partnership with your immediate supervisor. I insinuated my supervisor might be partly to blame for that, while trying not to throw her totally under the bus. You never take initiative. But how, I wondered, is a lowly underling supposed to do that?

I tried to do better after that wretched interview. I was pursuing a master’s degree in political science in night school, and I decided to examine the nuts and bolts of the organization for a term paper. No real scandal turned up in the course of my research. Still, it set me thinking: what if something had looked fishy? What if grants were for sale to the highest bidder, or as a political reward? Maybe a secretary who aspired to be an investigative journalist would pursue such a theory. And maybe she’d establish contact with an underground newspaper editor who was looking for scandals, and also happened to be devastatingly handsome.

The boss who unwittingly served as the model for Mrs. Broadwater is now deceased. There’s no way of knowing how she would feel to be portrayed as a sourpuss, and possibly worse. Not that it’s a fair portrayal—she was actually a dedicated and accomplished official, who dealt with me as the child I still was. She may have looked like a witch to me all those years ago when I was her powerless employee, but the story demonstrates her growth as well as Miriam’s.

The young secretary in the film, after receiving a comeuppance much like the real-life one I endured, vows to improve her job performance. Concurrently, she picks up a habit of staying late in the office, poking around for secrets. The crusty boss nearly catches her in the act one night, but perhaps mistaking her nosiness for conscientiousness, unbends enough to offer her the long-sought promotion. When Miriam requests to be called an assistant instead of a secretary as part of that deal, Mrs. B approves of Miriam’s newfound spirit. There is even a suggestion that the boss has sniffed out Miriam’s investigatory plan, and doesn’t totally disapprove. She was once a young idealist herself.

Isn’t it amazing how re-imagining a painful situation or a troublesome person can give you a sense of power over them? When that process is aided by talented actors and filmmakers, it’s even more empowering. My (almost) fifteen minutes of fame can be viewed below:

I fell in love with baseball as a child. It’s been an enduring if uneasy relationship. My early associations with the sport were mostly joyful, win or lose … a good thing, since it was mostly about losing for my Washington Senators. Low expectations can make life easier sometimes. Even the Senators had their memorable moments, enough to provide an occasional lift for their long-suffering fans. But like most other relationships, my bond with baseball became more complicated as I grew up. When did I allow the love of the game to become sullied by anger and disappointment? Why did I begin to take losing too seriously? Was it because my new team, the Washington Nationals, has managed to raise expectations without totally fulfilling them?

The start of a new baseball season, being nearly synonymous with the beginning of spring, always brings an easing of the heart. I recall those Sunday mornings during the warm weather months when the anticipation of seeing a baseball game was as exciting as the reality. My dad often played golf on Sunday mornings, and I would get down in the dumps if it looked like he wouldn’t get back in time to go to the ballpark. But he usually did, and I was ecstatic. If it rained on a day when we had planned to go, I was inconsolable. My parents tried to dream up distractions, but nothing could really replace the game.

Maybe losses didn’t linger as much then because everything apart from the win-loss record fascinated me. I loved the ballpark atmosphere … and in those days, they were just ballparks, not amusement parks. That’s not to say I don’t think the Nationals are smart to try to draw in young fans by creating a carnival atmosphere on the ground floor of Nationals Park. Petco Park in San Diego, which I visited last summer, also features something of an amusement park, although it’s mainly outside the stadium. Still, I miss the simplicity of earlier times, when the green glow of an outfield underneath stadium lights had its own allure. Some of the vendors were entertainers who developed their own shtick. The phrases they used to pitch ice cream and peanuts would become so familiar that kids would start chanting the words as soon as the guys approached.

The capricious weather of spring and summer adds excitement, at least when the game is played outdoors as the baseball gods intended. Nowadays, teams can’t really afford to cancel games, so they play through or around bad weather as best they can. Rain delays must be handled strategically, since pitchers’ arms are particularly sensitive to being shut down and started up again. On summer evenings lightning often crackles in the distance, and the sound of thunder adds a sense of urgency. Certain cloud formations seem to occur only over a ballpark. And there are those sublime moments when a rainbow signals the resumption of play.

The romantic feelings I harbored as a child centered more strongly on some players than others. There was something mesmerizing about the look of strong, healthy young men in uniforms performing athletic feats. I wanted to know more about them, but there wasn’t much to know. In those days before social media exposed everything, often spreading tall tales in the process, the private lives of athletes weren’t discussed beyond the few basic facts they chose to reveal.  Besides that, baseball used to be more of a radio than a TV game, which required fans to exercise more imagination. Even games that were televised didn’t reveal every facial expression and nuance, with replays from every possible angle, the way they do now.

Maybe that’s what got me started making up baseball stories. My imagination concocted pennant races that never happened in real life. Nowadays, some of the romance disappears when you can plainly see the grimaces, pain, and occasional temper tantrums that the game brings about. Nationals fans knew that their fortunes were about to plummet when their young ace Stephen Strasburg blew out his elbow in 2010. His agony, matched by the genuine grief on the face of his pitching coach, was unforgettable. Toward the end of the Nationals’ disappointing 2015 campaign, their fans were treated to the sight of hotheaded closer Jonathan Papelbon losing his temper and putting a choke move on the equally hotheaded star Bryce Harper, who had objected to being criticized by the older player. Our dysfunctional baseball family was exposed in all its warts.

I’d like to reignite some of the old-time joy, if only because the current national mood is so grim, tense, and angry. We need distractions more than ever, and we need to genuinely enjoy them. We don’t need more anger and angst from sports, which are supposed to entertain us. If Nats fans must “hate” Mets fans, or vice versa, it should be a fun kind of hate. Sometimes I allow my dismay about other things, like the state of the country, to muddy life’s simpler pleasures, like watching a competitive game. But if we’re determined to take it seriously, we might as well learn one of the main lessons of baseball: it’s more real life than fantasy. It brings lots of pain to those who care. There is no time clock, which means that anything can happen in any given contest. You can lose a game that you led by ten runs. You can lose that game even if there were two outs in the ninth. These are not tragedies, although they sometimes feel like it.

Thomas Boswell, the superb columnist for the Washington Post, often lectures Nationals fans who devalue the team’s sustained excellence over the past several regular seasons because of their flame-outs in the playoffs. During a recent chat on the Post website, he wrote, “The first responsibility of a sports fan is to figure out: How can I get the most pleasure, the most fun, the most laughs and relaxation for my time and my dollar, for myself, my family and my friends as I possibly can while also being mature enough not to be bothered a great deal — or at least not for very long — by anything that goes wrong.” He sees this as a lack of perspective: “a kind of willful illness, a lack of basic wisdom and judgment about how to weigh our relative experiences, that troubles me and makes me wonder if we are seeing some distortion that is a characteristic of contemporary times.” Words to live by, from April to October.

250px-principal_cast_in_casablanca_trailer_cropI’m one of the luckier Feds, I guess. I retired from government service in 2014, well before the country elected a president who seems bent on establishing a dictatorship. An essential part of his plan is ravaging as many Federal agencies as he can and subverting their intended missions. All in all, I’m grateful not to be back in my old cubicle at the Department of Labor (OSHA), watching the effects of this first-hand, but it still makes my blood boil.

I wasn’t one of those aging employees who clung to my job once I sensed I was being pushed toward retirement. It was aggravating to see my substantive work start to disappear as my hair went gray. I saw younger employees awarded higher grades to do essentially the same work I used to do. They were pampered far too much with all-expenses-paid junkets, lunches, and “retreats,” and the more benefits they got, the more they complained. I honestly don’t mind seeing some of these high-priced whiners squirm a little in the Trump administration. But the essential, front-line work of agencies like OSHA, which relies on many truly dedicated and hard-working employees, is too important to minimize or discard just because managers have been known to make short-sighted decisions.

Trump is going after the most visible Feds first. These include Inspector Generals, who are supposed to be independent critics of agency practices. He’ll get rid of anyone brave enough to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. Hopefully, before mass firings at the IRS can be accomplished, someone will be brazen enough to leak Trump’s tax returns, which will probably tell us all we need to know about his ties to foreign governments, his corruption, and his phony charity. That bureaucrat will be both lauded and vilified, and may even go to prison, if Trump gets his way.

I was pretty much relegated to mundane tasks in my final years, but now that I look back, it wasn’t all that bad. It means I’m qualified to star in my own proposed non-action-packed movie, “Barricades of the Bureaucracy.” Grunt work is where the true resistance lies. By grunt work I mean everyday chores like running employment reports, taking head counts of various job classifications, gathering and analyzing performance data, and writing the budget narratives and reports that explain this data. Those are the facts upon which the agency’s work is based and its effectiveness is measured. It is the best possible resistance to “alternative facts.” By any objective measures, there is no doubt that OSHA has been a success since it was launched in 1971. Workplace injuries have gone down, even as employment in dangerous occupations has risen. Onsite inspections have been proven to make hazardous workplaces safer. If Trump decides he wants to abolish the agency, he will no doubt demand falsified statistics to prove his case. How long can the heroic budget analyst hold out, insisting on the truth?

It’s a shame that true courage is not usually cinematic. We can’t all be Victor Laszlo, or even Rick Blaine, the freedom fighters of “Casablanca” who happened to love the same woman. For them, the fight meant taking up arms. The necessity of that finally superseded everything else, even their love for the beautiful Ilsa. How can a mere bureaucrat equal that? It’s not likely many of them will be forced to choose between love and war. Refusing to lie to please a tyrant is a quiet pursuit–until it isn’t.

Can you envision a courageous budget analyst waterboarded until he or she gives in? Even Trump is probably not crazy enough to institute torture for pencil pushers, although the way things are going, you never know. Admittedly, there are not enough dramatic scenes in my theoretical movie to attract big crowds to the theater. However, one image persists in my mind. Even if Trump’s minions succeed in shutting down all the websites that contain data they don’t like, I doubt if they can track down and destroy every offensive document that remains on personal drives, and every hard copy report on which the data is based. I can just see a buxom bureaucrat sneaking out of her office with documents stuffed in her bra and panties, a latter-day Fawn Hall.

The most effective resistance has never been about throwing tomatoes or grenades. The best antidotes to Trump are truth, verifiable facts, and reason. Civil disobedience, in this day and age, means refusing to succumb to lies and doing everything possible to promote the truth. If the guardians of information do this in great enough numbers, victory will be ours.

Writers Of The Resistance

January 20, 2017

4b81149247ccf4548a3a29c1fcd82444It’s not exactly the Civil War all over again, with opposing homegrown armies battling one another to the death on battlegrounds like Antietam and Gettysburg. Still, with the political climate boiling and differences between factions looking intractable, a hot war isn’t as implausible as it once seemed. These days there seem to be fewer and fewer unthinkable possibilities. We don’t yet know how far President Trump will go in challenging the normal rules of society to enforce his authority. One thing is certain: he didn’t hesitate during the campaign to set his thugs on peaceful demonstrators.

Those of us with progressive beliefs are feeling beleaguered. We’re clinging to common sense in the face of a government in which facts and reason have no place. I believe there are few problems in our society that couldn’t be solved, or at least alleviated, if billionaires like Trump and his closest buddies were paying their fair share of taxes. Yet that is absolutely out of the question. To even argue the point is a waste of breath. A President who has been propelled into office on a movement depending on lies, conspiracy theories, and delusion can’t be reasoned with, and neither can his followers. He will never read reputable newspapers or listen to experts who say things he doesn’t want to hear. His only real belief is in his own greatness and his ability to do whatever he wants. The word for that is dictatorship.

With reason flying out the window, so has politics as usual. We once had two major political parties with a core of responsible leaders who saw the necessity of compromising on occasion to get things done. Now one of the parties has mastered every dirty trick in the book to keep itself in power. Thanks to innovations like Citizens United, gerrymandering, and voter suppression, and the tried-but-true Electoral College, the system is so rigged that dislodging the clowns will probably be impossible for years to come. A majority of citizens already opposes them, yet here they are in all their glory, claiming a “mandate.” Most people favor sensible gun control, Planned Parenthood, affordable health care, and clean energy, but those are looking like pipe dreams. We might as well call this system by its rightful name: Fascism.

Artists have a long history of standing up to Fascists. Art is only one weapon, but a necessary one. Political fiction has always pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible, but lately even the most innovative stories have been overtaken by events. I’ve been looking forward to the fifth season of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” but now the incredibly sleazy Underwood administration seems so tame compared to reality. Sleazy doesn’t necessarily equate to Fascist. True, Frank Underwood has murdered people who stood in his way, but he has some sensible ideas for running the country and has implemented a few policies that actually help ordinary people. He’s evil, but he’s smart enough to cover his tracks. His calculating nature and self-control tend to prove he’s not crazy. By contrast, many of Trump’s statements are utterly irrational, and he can’t seem to stop himself from uttering or tweeting them.

If the brutal election and its aftermath produce a Resistance movement, that could turn out to be a silver lining for writers. Many great stories came out of resistance to Nazism before and during World War Two. A truly creative writer could perhaps find a way to adapt one of my favorites, “Casablanca,” to the US landscape. It would involve a love triangle centered on a heroine who thinks her husband, a renowned freedom fighter, has perished in prison. She falls in love with another man, also a freedom fighter in his own more understated way, only to find out that her husband is still alive and is coming back. She must decide: which rebel does she love most?

Admittedly, it wouldn’t have quite the same punch unless there was a real war going on, with troops occupying Washington the way they did Paris. Maybe if Hillary Clinton had won the election, and Trump had instigated the violent insurrection he hinted at numerous times, that would have been the case. Or if he should lose a reelection bid four years from now, he might be unwilling to accept those results peaceably. Even in the absence of a hot war, I can envision one of my favorite scenes replicated: the singing of the Marseillaise at Rick’s café, which joyfully drowned out the German national anthem. To get the flavor of that scene, all we’d have to do is find the nearest gathering of Trumpsters, and blast it with Pete Seeger and other peace songs.

A Resistance story doesn’t necessarily involve actual combat. There are many World War Two-era stories that celebrate non-violent resistance to Nazism. A few examples include “The Book Thief” (which celebrates the reading and preservation of forbidden books during Nazi book-burning campaigns); “Rosenstrasse” (which portrays the silent protests by Christian women that resulted in getting their Jewish husbands released from prison); and “Sophie Scholl” (which depicts the White Rose student resistance movement that encouraged kids to spread leaflets and graffiti throughout Germany).

I was a bureaucrat for forty years in Federal government and quasi-government programs, and was never on the front lines of anything. So what kind of Resistance movie could I produce based on my own experiences? Many budget analysts like me are charged with producing head counts of employees in various job classifications. One of my responsibilities at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was maintaining lists of compliance safety and health officers, known as CSHOs. They were the front-line employees who performed safety and health inspections at worksites.

Now the Trump team has announced its intention to change civil service rules so that career Federal employees can be fired without cause. It can’t be a coincidence that they’ve demanded the names of Energy Department employees who have been involved in designing and implementing clean energy policies. So far, the department has denied the request. Will they be able to continue standing up to the science deniers? I envision a drama with a working title like “Barricades of the Bureaucracy.” Not exactly an action-packed thriller, it would instead be a tale of organized civil disobedience among pencil pushers.

A wide-scale resistance movement in the Federal bureaucracy could take the form of refusing to divulge the names of employees who are doing the regulatory and scientific jobs they were hired to do, such as establishing environmental protection laws and enforcing safety and health rules in hazardous workplaces. Presumably, if they can’t be identified, they can’t be fired. If their identities eventually come to light, human resources offices could refuse to do the paperwork required to terminate their employment. The prospect of firing whole departments might stump even the great and magnificent Donald Trump.

Nazi Germany was reputed to be a bureaucratic society, with the complicated administrative structure of the Third Reich existing parallel to and competitive with the Nazi Party. It seemed that everything, even genocide, had to be done by the book. Maybe it would be a good thing if the Trumpsters turned out to resemble the Nazis in that regard. We could build barricades with paperwork, and hopefully they’d smother in it.

Where’s The Glamour?

November 2, 2016

0620161545I’m a lifelong East Coast girl who finally got around to visiting California in June 2016. My previous travels took me as far east as central Europe, but I had somehow neglected to take the westward trek in my own country until a full two years after retirement. Los Angeles was an important goal on my bucket list, mainly because of my love for movies and my interest in the business aspects of movie-making. Also, I’ve been making a fairly desperate and pathetic effort to buy my way into the industry by paying professional screenwriters to convert my four novels into scripts. Having waited so long to see the city of my dreams, I went there with stars in my eyes, determined to soak up as much glamour and creative energy as I could.

Warner Bros and Paramount were major sites on my wish list, since they advertise themselves as working studios rather than mere theme parks. What struck me immediately was that they are, indeed, workplaces. You can tell that sound stages, when they’re not in use, are the province of crews. Highly skilled technicians are required to work all those overhead lights and wires and microphones. Besides the stages, there are rooms full of props that are being collected for possible use in upcoming films. Those that have already been earmarked for a project are tagged and copyright-protected from being photographed. Someone has to oversee these cavernous rooms, which were not well air-conditioned on a hot day. Overall, you get a feel not for glamour, but for the real labor behind the scenes. It hardly seems fair that the actors get to memorize their lines in the comfort of their palatial homes, and then swoop in at filming time to scoop up all the accolades and applause.

0620161022This feeling that LA is a hard-working city, and not just a partying hub, was enhanced by the fact that it was hovering around 100 degrees the day I hit the studios, easily the hottest day of the year there. Much of the tour is necessarily outside, as an open-air trolley is used to transport visitors in between lots. You’re not allowed to enter places where the “filming in progress” lights are on, which limits your options to get relief. Luckily, the tour directors had the foresight to set up free water at several stops.

It was not only a hot city that day, but a smoky one, with fire bellowing out of the nearby hills. A little smoke doesn’t bother the residents until it threatens to get out of hand, which tends to happen later in the summer. Likewise, the earthquake that hit San Diego a few days before I visited there didn’t cause much concern, although it was almost as strong as the one that set off major panic on the east coast about five years ago. It wasn’t the Big One, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. As for driving in LA, there are memorable songs about its roadways. I can’t vouch for everything in Sheryl Crow’s description of all-night partying in LA, which she tops off with the chorus, “All I wanna do is have some fun till the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.” But no driver in LA can deny that Burt Bacharach spoke the truth in his song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” when he proclaimed, “LA is a great big freeway.”

My trip also featured a tour of movie star homes, although most of them are hidden behind extremely tall hedges. Once in a while you can peek through the foliage and catch a glimpse of a landscaper or gardener. There’s no question Beverly Hills is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods I’ll ever see, yet it’s not all that different from the nicest parts of Bethesda, Maryland or McLean, Virginia. Somehow the east coast seems more modest, since the residents don’t go out of their way to hide from prying eyes, and can even on occasion be seen doing their own lawn work. To be fair, it must be much more difficult to keep up a huge lawn in that dry southern California climate at the height of summer, where the grass is practically tumbleweed.

I guess it all goes to prove that Hollywood is a vibrant place, but hardly magical. We idealize the people who work there without always considering how workaday their lives can be. For example, our young tour guide at Paramount Pictures, whom you might expect to be star struck, is working multiple jobs in order to pay off his humongous student loans. His long-range plan is to get involved in the business rather than the performing side of the industry. In the meantime, he conducts tours by day and reads screenplays for the studio by night. He doesn’t get to know many stars on the job, since they rarely have time to chat, so his stories about them are mostly hearsay.

Did I manage to glimpse any stars myself that day? Maybe future ones. Our tour guide pointed out the back door of a lot where a kid was being admitted to audition for a youth-oriented show. I could only imagine the striving that lays ahead for that ambitious youngster. If she manages to pass this first hurdle, there are so many more to come. All in all, I figure showbiz is a lot like writing, considering all the sweat it takes to make the end result look easy and fun.

My Classic Rock Soundtrack

October 1, 2016

rockstar_55-xlI’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.

Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.

Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.

Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”

Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”

The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).

Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.

NGC_4414_(NASA-med)Science fiction has never been my favorite genre. Not that I didn’t get a kick out of reading or watching fanciful space travel stuff and freaking out over invading aliens when I was a kid, but my main rap against it was that it didn’t try hard enough to be real. By definition, all fiction is unreal, but for me a novel or movie works best when it comes close enough to recognizable real life to allow for the willing suspension of disbelief. I’m not denying that the Star Wars and Star Trek movies are fun to watch and sometimes even insightful about the human condition. But if space travel is ever to be real, we must seriously question if and how these things can be done. We can’t build spaceships on current models that can accelerate to “warp light speed.” Never will we venture way out yonder to find human-like creatures populating galaxy after galaxy, speaking perfect English. When it comes to the “war” part of Star Wars, we will probably never develop an arsenal fearsome enough to make whole worlds explode at the push of a button. Special effects don’t add up to reality.

Lately, however, the genre has been expanding with the growing popularity of what we might call scientific science fiction. Movies like Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) push the edges of what is theoretically possible in space travel. The ordinary mind boggles at the concepts of theoretical physics and engineering feats that must be mastered to make these space forays possible. By “ordinary mind” I mean one like my own, lacking in scientific skills but greatly respectful of science. Yet our long-term survival as a species may depend on coming to grips with it all.

Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel, Contact, posited the idea of wormholes as a means of feasible space travel. A wormhole, if real, might enable us to defy the limitations imposed on us by relativity and gravity. These blips in time and space might allow for deep-space travel that could be completed within reasonable timeframes. One of Sagan’s scientific pursuits throughout his career was the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The scientist-heroine of his story, Eleanor Arroway, receives the signal from space that Sagan dreamed of finding himself. It’s a repeating message composed of prime numbers, presumed to be the universal language of mathematics. The message, once fully decoded, reveals a blueprint for building a spaceship that can make use of a wormhole. Plenty of Earthlings are skeptical of the discovery. Who’s to say these aliens aren’t evil and diabolical, intent on luring us to our doom? Sagan’s theory was that a highly technical society capable of sending such a message must have passed some threshold of survival. The aliens had evidently developed nuclear and every other form of energy without destroying themselves in the process. That could only mean that they had learned, somehow, to live peaceably among themselves. They sensed that we were on the precipice, flirting with self-destruction, so they reached out.

Interstellar borrows the wormhole concept. According to side notes in the Kindle version of the movie, these ideas were developed by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. “Based on warped space-time,” Dr. Thorne says, “the most exotic events in the universe suddenly becoming accessible to humans.” By contrast, The Martian seems tantalizingly close to present-day reality. We have already sent numerous unmanned probes to the red planet, and manned missions are on the drawing board. A proposed one-way trip is drawing plenty of applicants, despite the prospect of never returning home. NASA has a working prototype of the Mars Launcher Habitat used in the movie. The buried Pathfinder lander that figures in the story is an actual spacecraft built by NASA in the 1990s. One of the launches shown in the movie is actual footage of the Mars Science Laboratory launch.

The Martian isn’t about a one-way trip. On the contrary, its travelers hope to return to Earth to be welcomed back and lauded by their fellow citizens. The astronauts aboard the Hermes spacecraft mourn a crew member, Mark Watney, whom they had to leave behind after a catastrophic explosion apparently killed him. When they are informed that against all odds, he survived the incident, they return to rescue him, adding over 500 days to their mission.

The Martian is about adventure and exploration, however perilous. Interstellar, by contrast, is about desperation. The opening scenes show Earth in peril, with the crops dying, the air polluted, and water in short supply. It’s all too easy to believe this is an accurate snapshot of earth in coming decades. The need to escape this hellhole is urgent. Schools in these end days are training more farmers than engineers, but agriculture is still failing. They’re also teaching hopelessness, denying kids not only a future but rewriting history to deny that men ever walked on the moon.

A young girl, Murphy, feels haunted by a ghost in her bedroom. Her father, Cooper, an engineer who is also a pilot, shares her feeling that this apparition, whatever it is, has the answers. By taking a scientific rather than a mystical view of it, they discover a message leading to a facility where NASA scientists are working on the problem of human survival. There are all sorts of theories, problems, and equations that must be worked out. Gravity anomalies have been detected for the past 50 years, they say, but can an anomaly actually defy gravity? A possible wormhole has been detected near Saturn, a disturbance in space-time that might allow escape to another galaxy. Whoever is sending these messages must live in five dimensions, with a different conception of time than humans have. Can those of us limited to three dimensions ever understand them? Will humans ever be able to see into a black hole and uncover its mysteries? A space station has been built, based partly on the current International Space Station, but dependent on gravitational anomalies and a “mishmash of technologies.” A stash of fertilized eggs on board represents the only glimmer of hope.

Both movies have a lot to say about human emotions, which both help and hinder the fight for survival. “We must begin to think as a species, not as individuals,” declares the physicist who sends Cooper on his outer space mission, lying to him in the process. He believes he’s sending Cooper to colonize another planet, never to return. He can’t allow his true opinion of the mission to be known, because Cooper’s instincts as a parent would never allow him to undertake it if he believed it meant leaving his children and all the children of earth behind to starve. During the mission, one of Cooper’s colleagues risks everything by advocating colonization of a planet that is obviously an inferior choice. She’s in search of the man who explored it previously, who might still be alive, although it seems unlikely. Maybe, she declares, her love for him is a powerful force beyond human understanding, one she shouldn’t be expected to resist.

The Martian is more optimistic about present-day humanity than Interstellar. When Mark Watney is rescued and brought back to Earth, he lectures astronauts in training about the perilous life they have chosen. The fear and possibility of death will be close and constant, since outer space is cold and stark and does not cooperate with humanity. Only if they solve all the problems that come their way will they get to go home. That’s how Watney finally gets home—by solving one practical problem after another, against terrible odds, aided by a sense of humor. He knows his food rations won’t last long enough, so he must grow his own potatoes. “Luckily, I’m a botanist.” When this crop is destroyed in an unexpected mishap, he needs to create a source of water to prepare more soil. He knows water can be created by lighting up hydrogen, a prohibitively dangerous process but the only one available. So is digging up a radioactive energy source that was buried on a previous mission and remains deadly. At every step, he says he must “science the shit out of this.” A hundred different hazards could kill him, including the boring disco music collection that the commander of the mission left behind.

When the problems seem insurmountable, and death seems all but certain, Mark passes on a message to his parents: if he perishes, he did it for something big and beautiful. He didn’t do it because it was a choice between exploring new worlds and dying out as a species, as in Interstellar. He did it for curiosity, a love of learning, and the spirit of exploration, human traits that are probably just as essential to survival as food, water, and oxygen.

MV5BMTMyNjM0MjIxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTc1OTc3MQ@@__V1_UX128_CR0,0,128,190_AL_I first became acquainted with George Orwell’s 1984 when I was in high school during the LBJ and Nixon eras. Although first published in 1949, the book resonated with us baby boomers because of our generational grievances and distrust of authority. It resonated all the more because it was not a mere political treatise. At the center of it was an illicit, passionate love affair, something that our adolescent hormonal selves could relate to.

The question that each succeeding generation has to ask itself anew is whether the horrors of 1984 could happen here and now. Orwell’s world was divided into three regions, and Oceania, which included the former England, had become a marriage of high technology and totalitarianism. Now that we’re living in a high tech world that few could have foreseen a generation ago, does it make us more or less likely to succumb to dictators?

LBJ and Nixon engendered plenty of mistrust, but we now have a presidential candidate who leaves them in the dust. Not only is he impervious to facts and reason, a trait which many ideological politicians share, but he gets many of his “facts” from the least reliable and most easily inflamed social media outlets. Furthermore, he insists that whatever he proclaims to be a fact is irrefutable, even if our own observations tell us otherwise. On his say-so, he expects us to deny the evidence of our own senses, a concept called “denial of objective reality” in Orwell’s world. As Winston Smith wailed to his overseer O’Brien while in prison, “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.” Not always, O’Brien replies. Sometimes they are three and sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are all of them at once.

In the end, Nixon couldn’t get beyond the evidence that was preserved on his Oval Office tapes. What we heard couldn’t be unheard. That doesn’t seem to matter to Donald Trump. He has left a long, irrefutable record of unbelievably stupid statements and provocations, but if any of them become inconvenient to his election chances, he simply denies them. If he says something didn’t happen, it literally didn’t happen. He claims to have evidence that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and that thousands of Muslims celebrated on 9-11. So where is this evidence? We just have to trust that his investigators found some fantastic stuff along these lines. If he denies that one of his goons assaulted a reporter, the video of that event must be lying. Just throw it down the memory hole. He’s also mastered the art of taking contradictory positions at the same time: classic doublethink. He whips his followers into a Two Minutes Hate, so that they never have the time or inclination to think for themselves.

It’s worth considering what happened to art and literature in Orwell’s 1984. As in all totalitarian societies, it still has its uses, but only for purposes that serve the Party. Winston Smith is an intellectual, buttoned-down type who can’t wait to get his hands on a forbidden book that will explain how and why the society he’s living in came about, and how it might be destroyed. His lover, Julia, is a much younger, more sensuous person who only cares about sleeping with him, not probing his mind or considering the political ramifications of their lovemaking. Winston’s job involves rewriting and falsifying the public record when necessary to make the Party look good. Julia works in the Fiction Department, but her skills are best suited to the non-literary part of the job, servicing the machinery used to mass-produce books. She describes the process of composing a novel: “from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the final product … books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.” There is also a subsection of the Fiction Department that produces pornography, based on six recurring plots. The sealed booklets are targeted to proletarian youths (the “poorly educated” in Trump’s endearing terminology), to give them the illusion that they are doing something slightly illegal.

Our country is in danger of casting aside its precious, hard-won democracy and embracing a real-life Big Brother. Donald Trump has already demonstrated his dictatorial bent. He responds to any hint of criticism with threats, insults, and tantrums. In fact, he expects nothing short of nonstop adulation. Could such a president seriously compromise our freedom to read and write what we choose? His threats to “loosen up” existing libel laws, so that he can sue media outlets that are mean to him, is already having a chilling effect. We can only hope it will prove more difficult than he expects to remake America into a place he can rule with an iron fist, but there is no doubt he intends to try. It’s the responsibility of rational people to do everything legally possible to stop him. America is not a place where the Thought Police should hold sway.