Catch me at my 2014 blog.
Sunday, December 22, 2013
My priest once asked, "Are you doing what God wants you to do?"
'The term to "break bad" is American Southeast slang meaning to turn against one's previously lawful lifestyle for one of criminal acts, usually at the cost of someone else's life or well-being.' -- Wikiquote
What could go wrong?
I didn't want to watch Breaking Bad because we're conditioned to bond with the protagonist, and I did not want to bond with someone who purposely chooses evil. I didn't want to root for the dealer of death to avoid detection. I feared it might poison my soul. But my friend Aaron so wanted me to watch the show that he sent me the first season on DVD, and once I watched it I was committed. Cautious, but definitely committed.
Nobody is pure of character here. Certainly not Walter White who didn't even aspire to be good. Regardless of his reasons, he used his family as an excuse to cook meth and commit heinous crimes. In the end, as he stood before Skyler knowing he'd be dead before the day was through, he finally, finally!, admitted the truth.
"I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive."
I didn't like Skyler. I couldn't relate to her, not as a wife, not as a mother. True, Walt did set things in motion, and I did empathize with her predicament, up to a point. It's just that once she discovered the money, she crossed a boundary. Like Walt, she used her children to rationalize her actions and told lies as easily as he did. She should have packed up the kids and left for good when she learned the truth. Instead, she resorted to wine by the bottle while sliding into depression and praying for Walt to die. Yeah, that's how a parent loves and protects their children. And what was she thinking by attacking Walt with a knife in front of the children? Walt wasn't actively threatening anyone, so why slash their father in front of them?
One of my favorite scenes in The Sopranos was when Carmela Soprano sought a second opinion from a therapist about leaving Tony. She summoned the courage to tell the doctor about Tony's "organized crimes," but it was the therapist who actually said the word 'Mafia.' Like Skyler, the money mattered to Carmela.
Dr. Krakower: Take only the children - what's left of them - and go.
Carmela Soprano: I would have to get a lawyer, find an apartment, arrange for child support...
Dr. Krakower: You're not listening. I'm not charging you because I won't take blood money, and you can't, either. One thing you can never say is that you haven't been told.
Much to my surprise, Hank turned out to be a decent guy. In the beginning he was disgusting and obnoxious. But after having almost died, he eventually found purpose in his life and became a better man and husband. In the end, he was as devoted to Marie as she was to him. And he was a better father figure to Walt Jr. than Walt ever was, which is probably why Jr. was so utterly devastated and angry when he thought his own father had killed his beloved Uncle Hank. Speaking of Marie... I found her shallow, annoying and meddlesome at first. She irked me to no end. I was shouting right along with Skyler: SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! And yet, like Hank, she came through for everyone when needed. She protected Hank when he was recuperating and patiently nursed him back to health, and she opened their home to Skyler and the children. Even when Marie thought it was Skyler's husband who had made her a widow, she was still there for her sister and children.
I have ambiguous feelings for Jesse. He was as deep into the meth-death business as was Walt, his crimes just as heinous. And yet, Jesse was generous and engaging with endless compassion for children, whereas Walt had rigged his humanity with an on/off switch. Jesse opened his wallet and his heart to Andrea and Brock, and his heartfelt concern for the grubby Peek-a-boo toddler choked me up. Poor Jesse, he looked upon Mr. White as his mentor and just wanted Walt to appreciate him. If Walt had only shown a bit of the 'respect' to Jesse that he showed Todd... siiiigh ... Todd was everything Walt wanted Jesse to be: an attentive student who idolized Walt and didn't antagonize him. But Todd was also an "Opie-faced sociopath" who didn't think twice about shooting a kid point blank. Plus, Todd's Uncle Jack was the leader of the "psycho f--ks." So it's safe to say that Walt's respect towards Todd was more fear than approval.
My friend Aaron believes that "everything that went wrong was because of Jesse," that Walt had to "clean up after Jesse's mistakes" all too often. The latter may be true; I honestly can't recall. But I disagree that Jesse was to blame for everything. Let's face it; although Walt was genuinely protective of Jesse at times -- humanity switched ON -- he was more often a bastard towards him. I don't know why he told the Nazi psycho f--ks where Jesse was hiding, especially after pleading for Hank's life -- because "he's family" -- then viciously tell Jesse about Jane before they dragged him away to be their slave and punching bag while Walt was free to go. That was as vile as Walt had ever been to Jesse. Neither man can blame the other for their own bad choices.
The most memorable scene for me in the whole series featured "Crystal Blue Persuasion," the 1969 psychedelic drug-era song with Biblical origins. As Walt and Todd are efficiently cooking up big batches of blue death in the shiny new lab, and amassing mountains of money in the process, Tommy James and the Shondells are singing this gentle, upbeat song about "peace and good and brotherhood." Cooking meth is a job. They suit up and work a full day then go home and relax, only to repeat the process the next day. The feel-good melody renders an almost dream-like quality to the evil process, rather like watching WWII Nazis preparing gas to exterminate the Jews to the accompaniment of "The Blue Danube." Normalizing the unthinkable. Sadly, aside from Walt's praying the truck would start in his snow-bound New Hampshire hideaway, no one ever turns to God for help.
In the end, Walt finally tries to become a man and do what he could, with the limited time he had left, to right some wrongs in the only way he knew how. I looked at Walt and Skyler during their last minutes together and thought what a waste. Look at what they had wrought: They had everything and together they destroyed their lives and that of their children. It wasn't a happy ending because Walt and Skyler made certain a happy ending was never an option.
As much as I didn't want to watch this series (all within several weeks this fall), I'm very grateful Aaron sent that first season to me. No doubt about it, Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV dramas ever. Absolutely everything about it -- writing, acting, directing, you name it -- was the best. I was riveted right through to the end. If nothing else, Breaking Bad serves as a cautionary tale about allowing evil into your life.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Back in 2004, I read an article about the late-great actor/comedian/writer, Ronny Graham. I remembered Ronny from a commercial for car oil -- 1960s, 1970s vintage -- in which he crawled out from under the hood of a car and said in his gravely voice, "They call me Mr. Dirt." The article, however, was about Ronny Graham's work on the show M*A*S*H and how he tried to mentor a young writer named Rodger Jacobs. I left a comment saying how I remembered Graham, and I quickly received an e-mail reply from Rodger. That was how I 'met' Rodger Jacobs, and I've been reading his work ever since.
Rodger is a gifted writer; his style is minimalist and his voice is honest. He began self-publishing his work with a collection of flash fiction stories called Christopher Walken and the Tuna Fish Sandwich and Other L.A. Stories. The first thing I noticed were the hilarious titles: "Winona Ryder Suffers For Your Sins"; "Striking Johnny Depp's Dog With A Bible"; and a boozy Jessica in "The Lange Goodybye."
Over the years, Rodger had a number of blogs where he posted his stories, most of them about his alter ego, Trace. He's published his Trace stories in a book called The Furthest Palm. I'm half-way through the book now, having started it yesterday. Like most of his writing, they're a little gritty and a little witty and thoroughly enjoyable.
I learned a lot about writing by reading Rodger's stories. Back in 2005, I wrote a piece of flash fan-fiction after having read one of his Trace stories called "A Sexual Obsession With Soup Pots" (included in "The Furthest Palm" collection). I had asked Rodger if his personal life affected his writing. Can you write when you're involved? Can you write if you've been dumped? He replied that he can write any time, whether involved or not. However, I pictured a writer, not unlike Rodger/Trace, who could only write when he had been dumped. My story is called
Quid Pro Quo, Nick
Nick had met me at his hotel room door with his newest pet, his System Automatic 9mm revolver, while his other pet was sprawled naked upon the unmade bed watching Brady Bunch reruns.
“What’s the matter, Doll, had a quiet night?”
I'm Nick’s agent, Tess Fidelio, but he calls me Doll.
“Nick, where are the stories?”
“Isn’t she a beauty?” he asked holding the revolver up for my approval.
“Have you written anything?”
Well into his mid-forties, Nick had finally found his niche. He is the best of the new breed of noir fiction writers. Although the genre doesn’t pay well, he has developed quite a cult following with his stories. At long last he is making a name for himself. Under ideal conditions, he could crank out a story a day. Ideal conditions, like when his ex-wife mangled his heart before she took a powder. With a bottle of Potter’s at one elbow and an ashtray at the other, he opened his veins and the stories flowed.
“Don’t you like my gun?”
“Yeah, swell. Now, where are the stories?”
I had finally inked a deal with a small press to publish a book of his short fiction. There was even talk of doing a book tour, which really excited him. No doubt about it, he’d be a natural. Wearing his vintage tailored suit, once worn by Bogart in The Big Sleep, and his Montecristi Classic Fedora, Nick would only have to show up to sell books. But then Blondie jiggled into his life, happiness settled in and the stories stopped flowing.
“Have you written anything at all in the past month?”
“You worry too much, Doll. Have I ever stiffed a publisher before?”
“Nick, listen to me. The publisher isn’t going to wait while you entertain company.”
“Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls.”
Oh, God, Blondie was singing along to the theme music, bobbing her head from side to side, as yet another episode began in what must have been a Brady Bunch marathon. “Ooo, I love this one! Hurry up, Nicky. This is the one where Marcia and Greg have to babysit their brothers and sisters!”
“Doesn’t she have a Brownie meeting to go to?”
“She moved in.”
“She moved in last week. It’s the real thing this time, Doll.” Then he flashed his pearly whites and said, “Trust me.”
“Nick, you poor sonofabitch, your dick is in lust again.”
He set his revolver on the desk and snuggled up next to Blondie. He patted the bed and asked, with his naughty boy grin, “Wanna join us?”
Poor Nick couldn’t see that Blondie was like all the others, that sooner or later she’d move on leaving his heart feeling as though she had forced it through a garlic press. When that time came, the only weapons I wanted near him were his Potter’s Vodka, his cigarettes and his computer. So I snatched the revolver and stuffed it into my purse before he could react.
“What the hell are you doing, Doll?”
“I’m holding on to it, Nick,” I said as I patted my purse, “until you come up with the stories. Give me the stories and I’ll give you the gun.”
As I walked out the door, I turned and said, “Quid pro quo, Nick, quid pro quo.”
I hadn’t heard from Nick in a week, so I stopped by his place and Blondie answered the door, wearing something more than just Nick’s soft brown sheets for a change. I squeezed past her silicone hills and into his room to find Nick wearing a big-ass grin.
“You’re jealous of me, aren’t you,” she shot back.
I turned to look at her. “Say what?”
“That’s right, jealous. You’re jealous because Nick chose me and not you.”
“You poor thing, Nick chose me long before you had ever seen your first Brady Bunch rerun.”
“Girls, girls, you shouldn’t fight over me.”
“Can it, Nick!” I snapped.
It was worse than I had anticipated. He was far too blissful to have accomplished any writing in the past week, but the publisher was hounding me to see something from him, and it was my job to deliver. Before I could ask my question, he asked his. “Did you bring my revolver?”
“No. Why, have you got some stories for me?”
He very proudly handed me three scripts. “You’re going to love them, Doll. They’re some of my best work.”
We walked down the street to the corner bar and slid into our usual booth where we always discussed his work. At about a thousand words apiece, Nick’s stories are quick reads. He leaned back and relaxed with a cigarette and a half-empty bottle of Potter’s Vodka while waiting for me to finish reading.
“You know, Nick, this is the first time you’ve actually written something while you’ve been otherwise engaged.”
“You can see it in my writing, huh.”
“I can see it all right.”
“They’re great, aren’t they, Doll. I knew it. Boy, once I started writing the juices just flowed. It was great.”
I placed the scripts neatly in front of me and asked, “Nick, how do you really feel about Blondie?”
“I think she’s the one.” Christ, he was giddy.
“You say that about all your women.”
“But this one is different.”
“You say that, too.”
“Enough about Blondie. What about the stories?”
“I am talking about the stories.”
“Whadda y’mean, Doll?”
I’m basically a teetotaler, but this was one of those rare occasions when I needed some bottled backbone, so I poured myself a stiff one. As Nick watched me kick back the shot, his ain’t-love-swell face dissolved into concern.
“C’mon, Doll, you do love them, right?”
I squeezed my eyes shut as the vodka blazed a trail causing me to gasp. I took a deep, slow breath to regain my composure and calmly replied, “They’re awful.”
I couldn’t have dealt a more solid blow if I had slugged him in the gut with the buisness end of a two-by-four. But he had to hear it straight and he had to hear it from me. I looked him in the eye and said, “They’re not you, Nick. These are romance stories; they’re not your trademark hardboiled vignettes. And they’re certainly not what the publisher is expecting or wants.”
“I thought I’d try something different.”
“Nick, you’ve been down that road before.”
He threw back a shot and fired up another cigarette. The smoke plumed lazily up around his head. I’ve never had to tell him that his work was bad, so I wasn’t quite sure how he’d react. I could handle his anger, I just didn’t want to pity him. As the silence in the bar was becoming dead weight, Carmine, the bartender, pumped some quarters into the 1947 Wurlitzer and Sinatra’s velvety voice, singing I’ve Got A Crush On You, filled the empty spaces. We sat listening for a while, grateful for the diversion, and then Nick’s strained face eased as he said, “Hey, Doll, remember that song?”
I smiled and said, “You tried to pick me up with that song.”
“You were sitting right over there,” he said, pointing to another booth. “You weren’t blonde and you weren’t leggy, but boy you were gorgeous. So I played that song and asked you to dance.” He took another shot of Potter’s and a long pull on his cigarette.
“You’re a great dancer, Nick, and a pretty good singer, too.”
That made him laugh. “But I couldn’t get into your panties, could I.”
“You sure did try, though.”
Leaning forward over the table and looking directly at me he said, “You can’t deny that you were tempted.”
We’d always had a chemistry between us, even now.
“We would have been outstanding together, no doubt about it, but it would have eventually doomed our relationship. I chose to be your agent, Nick, and your friend rather than your lover.”
He pushed back in his seat and sighed. “You’re right again, Doll … as usual.”
“What’s her real name, Nick?”
“Whose? Y’mean Blondie’s?” He furrowed his brow as he concentrated. The answer became painfully obvious as the seconds dragged on.
“You don’t know her name, do you,” I said. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“Jesus, Doll, sometimes you can be such a bitch.”
We stayed until the Potter’s was finished, and then I guided Nick back to his hotel.
I took one look at him, with his drained pallor and raw eyes, and knew Blondie was history. He sat across from me in our usual booth looking as haggard and as empty as the bar. It had been a little more than a week since we had last met when Nick had called. He calmly nursed his bottle of Potter’s as I skimmed through his six manuscripts.
“They’re great, Nick. Classics. The publisher will love them.” He nodded knowingly, as though he had been confident of my answer.
“How long has she been gone?”
He polished off his vodka, stubbed out his cigarette, and as he rose to go he said, “Tell the publisher he’ll have the rest before the end of the month.”
He left without ever asking for his revolver.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
For the best first-hand, woman-on-the-street account of what it was like to live through 9/11 up-close and personal, Lucianne's Short Cuts (now known as Must Reads) were the best reporting anywhere.
Below are excerpts from those first days.
She was always up before dawn, so the planes had not struck the towers when she posted on 9/11/01. Yet the first item is still chilling in retrospect.
Short Cuts, Tuesday, Sept. 11th, 2001:
Troubled Skies: We begin the morning with one of our spy planes shot down over Iraq and Russian war planes buzzing our planes over the Pacific.
By Wednesday, the Short Cuts had changed.
Lucianne's caption: "Steel heroes hardened by fire. 200 may be dead. Our entire elite NYPD Bomb Squad is dead. God help us all."
Wednesday, Sept. 12th, 2001:
AN HOUR BEFORE DAWN and this gigantic engine of a city that never sleeps is trying to. It has never been so quiet here. There is no traffic. We are sealed off from the world. The tunnels and bridges are closed. People streamed out of the city yesterday and today will not be permitted back in while workers try to determined the enormity of what has happened. The death and suffering has just begun.
Thursday, Sept. 13th, 2001:
[The previous night] At 10 o'clock, Josh calls to say he is "standing in front of the hole" at ground zero and will be going in shortly. He has been asked to help search for bodies. He's phoning to say we won't see him until sometime today. This does not ease the heart. Two more buildings are creaking and ready to collapse. Late, they report there are asbestos particles in the smoke.
I finally shut things down. I am afraid to turn off the phone as I usually do. The last thing I hear is that Al Gore is "stranded in Austria" and Bill Clinton is "under protective guard in a resort in Australia." For the first time in a long, long day there is some good news.
Friday, Sept. 14th, 2001:
The nightly news showed Clinton on the street here in New York. He was in front of Curry in the Hurry on Lexington Avenue miles from the scene or carnage. He had his arms around a comely, crying brunette holding a picture of a missing loved one. He was feeling her .....pain. Doing something for himself, not New York. Sorry, that may be crass but my loathing for his man requires medication. What, dear God, is he doing here in the first place?
I got through those first couple of weeks reading Lucianne's Short Cuts before anything else. They were so good that I made a copy of them. Thank God I did because even though for years Lucianne kept an archive of her Short Cuts, dating back to the day terrorists attacked us on 9-11-2001, they are no longer available.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Gnat Grudge here, reporting for the Stars and Stripes. I’m here at the 44th Medical Unit Hospital in Sa Dec talking with Majors Margaret Houlihan and Frank Burns who treated Lt. Kerry on Christmas Eve.
Q: Is it true that Lt. Kerry was unconscious when he arrived at the 44th?
FB: Yes, Lt. Kerry had suffered a concussion when he was thrown from his vehicle.
Q: Did his swift boat hit a mine?
FB: No, he was riding his bike and lost control.
Q: Lt. Kerry was riding a bike?
MH: Yes, a Serotta … an Italian bike.
Q: Was his injury serious?
MH: No, he regained consciousness as soon as he arrived at the 44th.
Q: Major Burns, what about the shell fragment?
FB: So what if it was an eggshell? It could have blinded me! I won that Purple Heart fair and square.
MH: Not you, Frank, Lt. Kerry!
FB: Oh, him.
Q: Did you operate on Lt. Kerry to remove the fragment?
FB: Well, I would have if the fragment hadn’t fallen off his arm.
Q: Where is Lt. Kerry now?
MH: On his rounds.
Q: His rounds?
FB: Yes, every day he visits each soldier’s bedside and reassures them that he’s fine and not to worry about him.
MH: He’s wonderful! My nurses and I call him Big John.
FB: Margaret, you promised me you wouldn’t look!
MH: I’m a nurse, Frank! It’s my job to look.
Q: Then Lt. Kerry is well liked here by the other soldiers.
FB: Wellllll … Ho-Jon, the camp houseboy, did give him that floppy green hat he had found.
Q: When will Lt. Kerry be well enough to leave the 44th ?
FB: Oh, he’s not still here because of his injuries.
Q: Then why is he here?
This is Gnat Grudge, here at the 44th, signing off for now.
Originally written August 17, 2004
Saturday, March 16, 2013
One year for Christmas I decided to give my mother a book of my short stories. I had blogged a book, titled Briefs and Other Unmentionables, of ten short stories, none of which was over 2,500 words. This was the book I wanted to give to my mother for Christmas. I knew I could never find a publisher to publish this book in the traditional way, and I couldn't afford to self-pub. So, I decided to print it myself using my computer.
I searched everywhere until I found a 5x8" notepad of plain, white paper. Page by page, I printed the stories on my computer. I illustrated each story with pictures I found online. Using a heavy card stock, I created front and back covers and a title spine. I gave the book a table of contents, and I wrote an author bio with a picture of me when I was three, a picture my mother had taken. I meticulously stacked the pages, including the covers, and created a binding by gluing the edges using a baby's toothbrush and Tacky glue. Then I pressed them beneath a stack of heavy objects and let the book dry on the radiator for 24 hours. I did the title spine next, and then it was back on the radiator, beneath the weights, for several more days.
The entire process made me feel a little bit like Diane in Cheers. She had given Sam a scarf for Christmas, one she had knitted herself. All he saw was a scarf; he couldn't appreciate what the scarf entailed until she told him as only Diane could: I wanted to match the blue of your eyes exactly, so I consulted a colorist. I took classes to learn how to knit. I dyed and spun the raw wool myself. I turned down every holiday party invitation to finish it on time!
I was very proud of my finished product. It looked like a book in a bookstore. I inscribed it to my mother -- Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your love and encouragement. -- and wrapped it in gold Christmas paper.
Before I could mail the book to her, my mother had a heart attack, so I personally gave it to her in the hospital. Her face lit up when she unwrapped it. Unfortunately, she thought I was giving her a published book of my stories. When I said no, and explained what I had done, her face fell.
I thought reading the stories would take her mind off of her health for a while. I never asked her what she thought of my stories, or even if she had read them. The weeks dragged on with no comment from her, not so much as a single word. Needless to say, I was very anxious to know if she had read the stories and what she thought.
About a month later, she mentioned The Book. Of the ten stories, she made just one comment on the story about a woman who chose desperate measures when faced with being blackmailed by a truly revolting man:
"Well, I was shocked that you wrote about a woman prostituting herself! Where on earth would you ever get such an idea?"
Prostituting herself wasn't even the worst thing the woman did; she committed murder, too, but apparently that didn't bother my mother. Only the prostitution.
It turned out to be my mother's last Christmas. Her health deteriorated after that, and she died of cancer nine months to the day after her heart attack. She never mentioned the book again. Whatever she thought of it, I'll never know because she took her opinion to her grave. I have the book now, and I still laugh when I think of her comment.
Friday, March 15, 2013
While March 15th was not a great day for Julius Caesar, it did inspire this short piece of fiction, which is not totally fiction but somewhat autobiographical. You may have read it on another one of my blogs, although I doubt it from the looks of my hit meter. But I like it -- enough to re-post it here, so here goes...
I took Latin in the ninth grade, and I loved it. I learned more about English by taking Latin than I did when I took three years of French later on. It was common for my class to begin with Latin, or possibly Spanish, and then to progress to the rigors of the regent's classes in high school. (Ninth grade in my school was still considered middle school.) Years later, when I began writing, I dipped into those memories to write this piece of fiction:
March 15th always reminds me of my Latin teacher, the gawky Mrs. Griswald. She would drape her bony body with bed sheets and flounce about the classroom giving her own melodramatic interpretation of Caesar’s doom, always ending with the foreboding, "BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH!" She fancied herself Sarah Bernhardt, yet she was hopelessly Lucille Ball. There she stood, arms stretched heavenward, waiting for a standing O, while the class sat there repulsed by the sight of her hairy pits.
I always wondered if Grandmother was fluent in Latin. I asked Mother but she didn’t know. If I had asked Grandmother, she probably would have smiled and said nothing. This was when I still possessed a healthy intimidation of authority, so I never tested her with mistakes. Instead, I was always prepared and, as a result, I was Mrs. Griswald’s prize student, the nerd of the nerds....