Hello! Thank you for stopping by. Today is the first day of the latest relaunch of my blog. It started pretty well several years ago but a combination of daily life commitments and multiple workloads slowed it down to a trickle. Finding things to talk about wasn’t the trouble. Part of it was time, true. But part of it, the larger part, had to do with this notion of “branding”. I am sure you have heard the concept out there. We can’t just do anything anymore. We have to “brand” ourselves, especially on social media. What “brand” are we presenting to the world? And, no matter what we do, we cannot deviate from that brand.
It all reminded me of the opening credits of this old TV western called Branded that was on back in the 1960s when I was a kid :
And it all somehow left me feeling like Chuck Connors in that opening. Sorry, but this is just how my mind works. (smile)
You see, I had really started this blog and this website to publicize my writing and create a place to share what was on my mind. To look back at how things were and to look forward to how things change. The more I teach, the more I realize how little young people know about how things used to be back in the 1960s or 1970s or, gasp, the 1980s. I am sure I am not the first person to discover this!
For as long as I can remember I have loved:
Not necessarily in that order.
I love to travel. I love to meet new people and see new places. I love the heritage and the people of Indiana and West Virginia where I grew up. I love to learn. At the moment, I make my living by writing, by teaching, by freelance editing, and by script reading. Call me the perfect Gemini but I don’t have one interest nor do I want to.
And the more I read up on operating a blog, the more I kept running into this notion of “branding”. How the only way to have a successful blog was to focus on only one thing and never stray from it. Every time someone came to my blog they should know what they were going to get. So I decided to try and figure out what that one thing would be. And the more I thought about it, the more I could not come up with it. And the more I could not come up with it, the fewer ideas I would find to write about. And in the end, I just stopped writing all together.
Not that I stopped writing outside the blog. I have in the last three years cranked out a James Bond-esque thriller that could be the beginning of a book series and a World War II thriller. Those who have read pages from them give them very high marks and I do believe they are among the best things I have ever done.
But even in my writing, I started getting fixated on this whole notion of “branding” and I became afraid that if I came out with the wrong kind of book in the wrong genre then I would be sentenced to writing that kind of book for the rest of my life. I found that just as paralyzing as trying to figure out the one subject I should be writing about in my blog. “Branding” myself was actually paralyzing me. And I finally just reached a point this summer where I said, to hell with all of that. I am just going to write what I write.
So I am back now, The Middle-Aged Reviewer, ready to take on the blog again.
The last year has been tough for a number of reasons. One of the things that sucks about getting older is that we start losing our idols and our mentors because they are even older than us. Last year, we lost one of my favorite writers, E.L. Doctorow, one of the men who made me want to write in the first place. And this summer saw the passing of filmmaker Michael Cimino, the man who pretty much single-handedly made me want to get into the movies. (More on both of these subjects in the coming weeks).
As many of you in my inner circle know, I have been spending the summer writing on a novel set back in my high school days (or at least a highly fictionalized version of high school days). This one has LONG been in the works. Truth be told, I started working on this while I was still in high school. My high school days were some of the best times of my life and I recognized that while they were happening and so I started writing down events we were participating in and conversations we were having and squirreling them away in notebooks and files. I clipped out newspaper articles and compiled lists of the popular music and television shows of the time. All before I ever got that diploma. I knew they were special days and I was determined to hang onto them. To quote a scene from Michael Cimino’s misunderstood western Heaven’s Gate (1980) whose time has come:
John Hurt: “Do you remember the good, gone days?”
Kris Kristofferson: “Clearer and better, every day I get older.”
And that is so true.
I wrote the first draft of the book right after graduating high school. And it sucked. It was not ready to be written and I was not ready to write it. I put it away for over two decades. Took it back out in 2005 following the death of my mother and wrote a fairly solid draft. I was very happy with it but there was a glut of those kinds of books on the market back then so it went back on the shelf. Now it is back on my desk and now it is ready to be finished. Its time has come. It is called Mountain Cross.
As fall begins again (my favorite time of year) it is also fall again in my book and the beginning of my characters’ senior year of high school. And the more I look back, the more I discover the seeds of where we are today were sown way back then.
So I am just going to write what I want – both in books and on this blog. I am me. I am Richard. I will leave everyone else to figure out what “brand” I am.
Welcome back! I will be posting new stuff on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Please stop by. And if you have any suggestions of what “brand” I am, I am more than happy to hear them!
See you Wednesday.
Finally back visiting the old blog. Sweeping things out. Freshening things up. And getting ready to get back in the swing of things on Monday.
Please stop back then!
It seems like the entire world is going to pause today so it can run out for the movie event millions of people have waited most of the year, if not most of their lives for: the release of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Advanced word has been good, unabashed fans have had their tickets for months, and many of them can be found on Facebook and other social media platforms counting down the days, hours, and minutes until they can finally sit in a darkened theater and see it. Most of them haven’t been this excited since their days of waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney.
Which is why I am going to a bit of an Ebenezer Scrooge here today as I come clean with a statement that has haunted me for most of my life. Are you ready?
I don’t get what the big deal is about STAR WARS.
There, I said it! I have been thinking it for most of my adult life. I just haven’t had the nerve to say it until now. What is it about this movie series that has made it the biggest thing across all entertainment platforms for the last forty years?
I have watched this entertaining but wildly uneven franchise come to dominate pop culture. I have watched my students (otherwise responsible adults) talk about the opening of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS with the same awed reverence on their faces usually reserved for people who have seen Jesus.
So what gives? Why is STAR WARS such a big deal???? Because I really don’t understand it.
It’s not like I dislike science fiction. Growing up, I read dozens of sci-fi novels. I loved Jules Verne. I was a dedicated follower of LOST IN SPACE. I enjoyed watching any kind of sci-fi TV program no matter how cheesy whether it be LAND OF THE GIANTS or VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA or THE FANTASTIC JOURNEY (anybody remember that one?).
I watched every iteration of STAR TREK from the original series (1966-1969) to the cartoon series on Saturday morning (1973-1975) to the movies (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN is still the best) to STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. I admit I jumped off the bandwagon at VOYAGER. But I still watch GALAXY QUEST (1999) every time it is on.
I loved every installment of PLANET OF THE APES whether it be the five movies, the TV show, the Saturday morning cartoon, or the many book tie-ins.
SILENT RUNNING, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and APOLLO 13 are still among my favorite films. You set a movie in space and I will watch it.
In the 1960s and 1970s, I was obsessed with the USA’s space program and watched every available hour of every mission from Gemini through Apollo and Skylab right up to the early Space Shuttle launches. I still dream of going into space.
It’s also not like I think George Lucas is/was a bad filmmaker. Without a doubt he is one of the most brilliant and influential filmmakers in movie history. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), his other 1970s blockbuster, is one of my Top 25 favorite films of all time.
And it is not that I dislike the STAR WARS movies at all. The original STAR WARS (1977) – sorry, but I refuse to call it by its new franchise name STAR WARS EP. IV: A NEW HOPE – is an exhilarating ride and one of the most entertaining movies ever made. I first saw it at the Capitol Theater in Charleston, West Virginia at age fifteen when it came out in the summer of 1977. It was fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But there was nothing about it that made me want to see it again. Certainly nothing on the order of TIME AFTER TIME (1979) which I managed to see four times in one week at the old Clarkston Cinema in Clarkston, Michigan. But then again I had a massive crush on Mary Steenburgen at the time. And, yes, I did fancy myself as the H.G. Wells type (brilliantly played by Malcolm McDowell). “To be quite candid”, I still use many of Wells’ lines from that movie in my everyday speech – the true sign of a movie that has changed your life.
In 1980, eighteen year old me saw THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) on a date at the Showcase Cinemas in Pontiac, Michigan. My date and I did not really hit it off that night but the movie was lots of fun. It was good seeing the characters back. In fact, watching a sequel those days was a rather novel experience because most movies then, no matter how big a hit they were, did not automatically generate a sequel. And the ones that did were usually decidedly worse than the original. Think SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II (1980), JAWS 2 (1978), or MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1979). So it was refreshing to see a sequel that was almost as good as the original. But, again, no desire to see it again. In contrast, I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) five times in theaters when it came out the following summer.
By the time RETURN OF THE JEDI came out in 1983, I was seeing it more out of obligation than anything because they were finally wrapping up the story and I was at least mildly interested in how it would end. But, for 21 year old me whatever magic or novelty the series had had evaporated by then. And I was more than happy to watch Luke and his friends defeat the Empire and close the book with a happy ending. And I had absolutely no desire to see the story picked up again and continued.
None of the original movies were my choice for best film of their years. For 1977, I chose Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. In 1980, it was David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN followed closely by Richard Rush’s THE STUNT MAN. The runaway winner for me in 1983 was TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (saw it about five times in the theater) followed closely by Bill Forsyth’s hilariously dry comedy LOCAL HERO.
When George Lucas made his prequel trilogy at the turn of the new century, I didn’t even bother seeing them in theaters. I was married and a working father by then and my much diminished spare time seem better spent elsewhere. I eventually ended up watching THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), and REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) on pay cable. And like most viewers, I was rather underwhelmed by what I saw. I would rather watch THE LORD OF THE RINGS director’s editions for the zillionth time than sit through those three movies again.
So when I see all the different editions and the toys and the books and the costumes and the games and the endless merchandising tie-ins for THE FORCE AWAKENS, I seriously don’t get it. To quote the late Alfred Hitchcock, “It’s just a movie.”
So my question for you today is this: What is it about STAR WARS that makes it one of the greatest movies ever made for you? What makes this film the pinnacle of your movie universe? What is it that makes George Lucas’s space fantasy the “be all, end all” of movie watching experiences? What is it about this movie that changed your life?
What is it that I am missing? I seriously want to know.
So, please, enlighten me.
And may the force be with you.
The movie JAWS turned 40 years old last week and I find that almost incomprehensible. Twenty years old maybe or 25 but certainly not 40. When my parents took us to see GONE WITH THE WIND back in 1969, that movie was 30 years old and even then GWTW, brilliant though it is, felt like something from a bygone era. But not JAWS.
Like most of us alive in the 1970s, our first exposure to JAWS was through the novel and not the movie. Peter Benchley’s debut book was everywhere in the summer of 1974 and selling like crazy. It was the HARRY POTTER and THE DA VINCI CODE of its year. I suspect it had something to do with that cover. Not the hard copy cover but the paperback one where the obviously naked woman swims along and the shark closes up from below. My 12 year old adolescent self was intrigued the moment I saw it. I suspect I was alone.
Despite repeated asking, my mother would not let me buy it. After all, it had THAT cover. So I did the next best thing: every time my parents made a shopping trip to Heck’s (the West Virginia K-mart of the 1970s), I went off on my own to the book section and I literally read JAWS a chapter or two each visit over the summer. Sure, I could have checked it out of the library but 1) I would have had to wait months because of the number of requests, and 2) it would have been the hardcover edition which did not have the same cover as the paperback. Hmmm, maybe my mother WAS smarter than I thought……
It came as no surprise when Universal announced JAWS was going to become a movie. What did surprise me was that I recognized the name of the director, Steven Spielberg, when it seemed that nobody else did. Four years earlier, I had watched the premiere of his first TV movie DUEL starring Dennis Weaver about a man traveling cross country pursued by a trucker bent on killing him. It had blown me away with its suspense and danger. It was also the first time I understood how a director was using the camera to accomplish this through shots, camera movement, and editing. To hear he was making JAWS made me even more eager to see it.
Flash forward to the summer of 1975. Gerald Ford was in the White House. My sister Pam was on her way to college in the fall. And you couldn’t have the radio on for five minutes without hearing one of three songs played over and over in heavy rotation: Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”, Paperlace’s one hit wonder “The Night Chicago Died”, and Paul McCartney and Wings' “Listen To What The Man Said.” (I was also suffering my first celebrity crush with Annette Funicello but that is a subject for another post). JAWS was coming into theaters. There was no way to escape the commercials on TV. And, no, I could not wait for it to open at the Capitol Theater in Charleston.
Unfortunately, to avoid a possible R rating, Universal Pictures released it as PG with the disclaimer “May Be Too Intense For Younger Children.” Well, that disclaimer was all my mother needed to decide that I was one of those “younger children” and I was forbidden to see JAWS. My father did not feel compelled to use one of his few yearly vetoes to override her. And so while JAWS broke box office records worldwide and went on to become the #1 hit of all time, I was on the outside looking in. My sisters went to see it. My cousins went to see it. But I had to stay home.
How scary and terrifying was JAWS?
A fellow classmate confessed to me that he and his buddies always went swimming at night when they vacationed at Myrtle Beach. They stopped doing that after JAWS.
One afternoon, my cousins and I went over to a friend’s house to swim in their pool and my cousin refused to go in the pool. She was too scared from JAWS.
While on vacation in Indiana, we all went over to the beach at Indiana Dunes. It was a glorious afternoon but nobody was going in the water. We were at Indiana Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan, people!!! Nobody going in. All because of a movie.
Four years later, Universal re-released JAWS into theaters for one week only. We were in Michigan by then and I was regularly driving myself to the movies. So I announced to Mom that I was going to see JAWS. She didn’t say a thing. I went over to the Keego Theater in Keego Harbor, sat in the theater which was about a third full, and enjoyed myself completely. I was ready to love it but it was even better than I had expected. I knew then without a doubt that Spielberg was brilliant. And this shark movie would remain one of my all time favorite films.
FYI, I currently own: 2 VHS copies of the movie, 3 laser disc copies, 2 DVD copies, 1 copy of the novel (paperback, of course), 1 CD soundtrack, 1 LP soundtrack, 3 books on the making of the film, and 2 books on Spielberg’s career.
Two weeks ago, JAWS returned to theaters for the first time since 1979. My family and I went to see it. The audience screamed in all the same places. They laughed at all the same jokes (it is amazing how funny the movie is). Spielberg’s directing is even more incredible up on the big screen. John Williams’ classic score sounds really good coming out of those speakers. But the first indicators that JAWS probably is 40 years old came from my 18 year old son:
He fell asleep in the movie. He said he liked it but thought it was “a bit too slow”.
Sigh. OK, everybody, “do The Hustle!”
My mother passed away on this day back in 2002 at the age of 69. Below is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral. You are gone but not forgotten, Mom.
One night back in 1984, Mom and I went to the movies and we saw the film PLACES IN THE HEART starring Sally Field. Mom really enjoyed that movie because she saw a lot of parallels between the story of Sally Field as a widow trying to get through the Depression, and her own childhood on the farm. And as we were driving home, Mom said, kind of out of nowhere (as we all know she had the habit of doing), "You know, if they ever make a movie of my life, I'd like Sally Field to play me."
And ever since then, I've had a very difficult time because every time I see Sally Field up there on the screen, I can't help thinking of her as Mom. And that connection was further cemented a couple years back when the movie FORREST GUMP came out, and there was Sally Field playing a spunky, resourceful mother, not unlike Mom. She even kind of looked like Mom. Now I don't know if that makes me Forrest Gump....Maybe in some ways it does.
All of us have phrases or sayings in times like this from which we draw comfort. Some of us find them in the Bible. I tend to find them in movies and, ironically, in FORREST GUMP particularly. And one of those phrases is spoken kind of late in the movie by Forrest shortly after his mother has passed. He says, "Momma always said dying was part of living. I sure wish it wasn't." But it is.....and we are here today to celebrate the life of our mother.
Each of us serves many different relations in the lives of the people around us. I have had the honor of being Dorothy's son. And as I look around the room today, I see friends and relatives to whom my mother served as sister, wife, mother, teacher and grandmother.
So many different images of my mother are coursing through my mind this morning:
I see a little farm girl shirking her chores and playing in the fields. A girl who spit in her brother's face, and tossed a cat in Stone Lake to see if it could swim or not. And then running all the way back home when she feared that the cat was going to get her.
I see a pretty teenage girl, whom I just found out yesterday was a cheerleader, and who once confessed that maybe she flirted "a little too much back then."
I see an 18 year old woman on the threshold of adulthood who went to see "Show Boat" over and over during the summer of 1951 and fantasized of meeting Howard Keel and sailing down the Mississippi River into the sunset.
I see a thirty year old mother in go-go boots & fishnet stockings playing Twister with her friends.
I see a mature woman sitting in a lawn chair - and proudly holding her first grandchild on her lap.
All of these images are facets of the jewel that was Dorothy Rothrock.
Without a doubt, she had her quirks and endearing qualities: just like all of us. If you don't think you have them, just ask your spouse, or your best friend. They'll be happy to tell you.
With Mom, there are 3 in particular which come to mind.
When Pat, Pam and I were children, we spent a lot of time with our Hagerty cousins, Scott and Terry and Kim, and we spent a lot of time going to amusement parks together. And all of us would ride just about anything: roller coasters and tilt-a-whirls and bumper cars. You name it, we rode it. But not Mom and not Aunt Donna. They spent a lot of time sitting on the benches, waiting for us to come back.
And they did this with such regularity that we took to calling them "The Chicken Sisters". And we even got to the point where, one year at Cedar Point, we even bought them matching plates with a chicken on it. And they each hung their plate in their kitchen as a proud member of "The Chicken Sisters".
The second one not a lot of people know about. When I was in high school, Pat and Pam were already grown and out on their own. We were living in West Virginia at the time but Dad had taken a job up in Michigan as we got ready to move up there. So during the week, Mom and I would be the only ones at home, and a lot of times, my day would start with the sound of Mom coming down the hall to my room, singing in that voice which you heard earlier, "School day, school day, good old golden rule day!"
I look back nostalgically on that now but when you're 17 years old, that's just about the last thing you want to hear.
And the last one I thought about yesterday because it would always happen at every funeral we attended. I would be standing there chatting with Tonya or some cousin that I hadn't seen in a long time. And Mom would come walking up with some elderly person on her arm. And she'd have that looked on her face. You know which one. And she'd say, "Do you remember this person?"
And we'd have to say, "No."
And then Mom would smile triumphantly as she delivered her zinger: "She used to change your diapers."
I really missed that yesterday. I guess now we'll have to continue those traditions with our kids.
But she had so many gifts and warmth and love that any quirks she may have had are overshadowed.
One thing for sure, She had a special kind of way with children.
She never spoke much about her job as a special education teacher at Will Rogers Elementary School in Pontiac MI, but I do know that she had a powerful influence on many of her students. Several of them came from broken homes and they gravitated toward her. Some even called her "the Mom they wish they'd had".
She never really understood irony or sarcasm, ever. Even in her final days, we'd be kidding her and she just wouldn't get it. She preferred everything simple and straight-forward and genuine.
She could be stubborn but you knew she was trying to do good. She could be exasperating but you always knew she was doing it out of love. Most of the time, she was simply looking out for you in the way she knew best because, more than anything else, family was the most important thing to her.
She was never happier than in the time right before someone was coming to visit. I remember being home and watching her speed around the house in the days before they arrived. She'd be cleaning and cooking and hurrying around getting everything ready. As you know, her house was never quite clean enough. But she'd be excited because family was coming soon.
And when everything was ready, she would literally stand at the window and watch until she saw the car turn in at the driveway, and she'd hurry down to the door so she'd be the first to give you a big hug when you walked in.
She loved being a wife. She loved being a mother. She loved being a grandmother. She reveled in all of these roles.
When my son Ben was born, and she was still living in Michigan, she'd drive down on Sunday afternoons just so she could sit in the rocker for hours and just hold him.
She loved the summers that her grandchildren, Jennifer and Chris, spent at her house back when they were little.
A few weeks ago, Jennifer and Chris reminded me about how in those summers, she'd give them an allowance and, to earn it, they'd be responsible for certain chores they had to do around the house, and if they didn't do one, she'd deduct a nickel for each one. So if she saw dirty dishes on the table, she'd say, "I see a nickel." And Jennifer and Chris would hurry to clean it up. And, of course, she never got around to deducting any nickels from that allowance.
She taught most of us, both the children and the grandchildren, how to ride a bike.
She taught us how to swing.
She taught us how to cook.
She taught my son Ben how to play hide and seek.
She taught us too much to summarize here.
The last few years, I've just sat back and smiled watching Ben. Because when he would hear that Grandma was coming to visit, he would hurry around the house and plan out all the things he wanted to do with Grandma and then watch for that moment when she would come up the driveway, so he could run to the door and wait for her hug.
Just two months ago, as Betsy and Ben and I were getting ready to travel down to spend Easter with her, Ben told me, "I love Grandma." and then he took me aside and said, "She's my girlfriend, you know."
One thing is for sure: she had a special kind of way with children.
And I know that those are the things that will live on as we continue our life's journey without her.
There's a scene late in "Forrest Gump" where Forrest is chatting with his girl Jenny, whom he's loved all his life but circumstances prevent them from getting together until late in the movie. And she's asking him about all the beautiful things he's seen in his life.
And Forrest talks about the stars in Vietnam, and the beauty of the sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico, and the sight of the dawn coming up in the western desert, and how it is so beautiful that he has a hard time trying to decide where Earth ends and Heaven begins.
And Jenny gets all wistful and sad and says, "I wish I could have been there."
And he looks at her with all this love and wonder on his face, then says simply, "You were."
And that's how I'm thinking about Mom today. She hasn't really gone away, because she's always going to be here in our minds and in our hearts.
She'll be there we when we think of home-made cookies and summers by the lake.
She'll be there in how we wake up in the morning.
She'll be there in the way we raise our children and our grandchildren.
And I have no doubt that, several years down the line, when Chris back there is raising his child, Mom's first great-grandchild, that he'll be halfway through saying something to his son, and then he'll realize that they are the same words that his grandma used to say to him when he was a boy. And which he SWORE he would never say to his child.
There are so many things to celebrate about my mother. And to thank her for......and so I want to stand up here today and thank you, Mom.......
......Thank you....... for letting Pat and Pam and I have cats when we knew she really couldn't stand the smell.
......Thank you....... for all the slipcovers and sewing and repair work you did on Puppy. My constant companion when I was Ben's age....and maybe a few years beyond that. I still remember the day Puppy fell in the toilet and Mom had to hand wash him. And all the anxious moments I had as he hung out there drying on the clothesline.
......Thank you......for letting me setup my Hot Wheels cars in the middle of the living room and the Major Matt Mason moon base on the stair landing, even though I knew that she preferred her houses to be neat and tidy.
......Thank you......for giving us strict bedtimes, but letting them slide when there was a show or movie on that we just HAD to see.
......Thank you......for family dinners around the table and insisting that we eat what you cooked, but always fixing me a separate meal when you realized just how much I hated ham pot pie.
......Thank you......for the warm cookies and the cold milk which would be waiting for us when we got home from school.
......Thank you......for Christmases where I didn't always get everything I wanted, but I always got the thing I most wanted that year.
......Thank you......for a terrific childhood. Sure I regret a couple things. The fights Pat and I used to get into each week when the new TV Guide arrived come to mind. And if it was the Fall Preview issue, man, fists flew. Mom's solution, by the way, was to have us get two subscriptions to TV Guide, one for each of us. But over all, our childhood was great.
......Thank you......for letting us be children as long as possible. When we became teenagers and we started asking if we could take summer jobs, she'd say, "You'll spend the rest of your life working. Enjoy yourself." And she was right. And those lazy summers when I was young keep looking better and better, the older that I get.
......Thank you......for the surprise party on my 17th birthday where you managed to get all my high school friends over shortly before we had to move away.
......Thank you......for that last 1986 vacation you and I took on Mackinac Island, where we biked and ate ice cream cones and sat out and watched the sunsets until it was dark.
......Thank you......for always having an open front door to your house so that when we were grown, no matter what had been the setback, whether it was financial or maybe we were just lonely at holiday-time, we could always come home again.
......Thank you......for my two sisters. Its true that we don't always see eye to eye, but today, right here, I do want to stand up and say that, whatever our disagreements in both the past and the future, that I do and always will love each of you.
........and lastly I thank Mom for my strong and vibrant faith in God and Jesus Christ, and the recognition of his continuing hand in our lives both here on Earth, and in the hereafter. Because it is the only thing that gets us through times like this.
And leaves me with no doubt that Mom may be gone from our lives right now but it is not a departure. It is just a vacation.
And wherever she is right now, I know Mom is cleaning and cooking and excited and hurrying around getting everything ready because family will be coming soon.
And I have no doubt that, when everything is ready, she will be watching at the window so she can hurry down to the door, ready to give us a big hug,
And welcome us home again.
Brad Bird’s TOMORROWLAND opens this Friday and it has got me thinking about the original Tomorrowland. No, not the section of Disney’s parks where you used to be able to catch glimpses of the future. I’m talking about EPCOT, the real EPCOT, not the Epcot amusement park in Walt Disney World. I am talking about the original EPCOT, Walt Disney’s city of the future – his real reason for building Disney World. (It only became Walt Disney World after he died).
I am just old enough to remember Walt Disney. He remains one of my personal heroes and I think one of the genuine geniuses of the 20th century. My earliest childhood memories are of watching him host his Sunday night TV show on NBC. I loved all the episodes but I particularly loved the episodes set in Disneyland. Walt's park seemed like a dreamland made real. When he announced plans to build a new park in Florida, I could not wait.
In the fall of 1966 Walt started talking about what he wanted to do in Disney World. Sure, there would be a Magic Kingdom theme park like Disneyland but the heart of his new Florida project was the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) where people could live and work in a city that would always be 20 years in the future. It would serve as a laboratory to solve the problems of society. The designs and the sketches looked amazing; the technology and plans appropriately futuristic. To a kid growing up in Michigan, it seemed the stuff of science fiction about to become reality. (Check out more details in my EPCOT essay at the bottom of the page).
People wondered if Walt had finally gone off the deep end. Model cities were always great on paper, not so much in execution. Their failures littered the 19th and 20th century landscape. And yet, when you heard Disney talk about it, it sound really exciting – and very possible. Especially in an era when we were regularly blasting off into space and aiming for the moon. When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) seemed a realistic prediction of where we would be in 35 years time. When we were living in an era when anything seemed possible – and our leaders encouraged us to believe. I only saw snippets of the complete EPCOT film as a child. You can watch the whole thing HERE. Walt hoped to break ground in 1967 and open the doors in 1969.
But then right before Christmas 1966, only a few weeks after he shared his dream, Walt Disney unexpectedly succumbed to lung cancer. The world went into mourning. His passing is one of the earliest bad memories that I have. I can still remember the shock. But I have never forgotten about EPCOT.
If I could choose to live anywhere in space and time, I would live in Walt Disney’s EPCOT. Work at home in one of those futuristic 1960s houses that still look cool. Take a walk or ride a bike in the neighborhood park.
Then take the People Mover into the internationally themed downtown. Maybe shop and have dinner. Thrill in the new advances whether they be at home, at work, or on the go.
Hop on the monorail and ride up to the Magic Kingdom park.
The Disney organization did build the Magic Kingdom but they never got around to building EPCOT. They did build something call Epcot on the very site Walt selected but that is where the similarity ends. Walt's EPCOT model became an unidentified display on the Disney World People Mover ride in Tomorrowland (see left).
And it has always seemed to me that that moment when Walt died and we all collectively turned away from EPCOT was a turning point in our expectations for the future. Over the next few years, we went to the moon then succumbed to the naysayers who wondered why we were wasting our money on space (as if the money has been better spent since here on earth).
The future stopped being about creating a “great big beautiful tomorrow” (the theme song of Disney’s “Carousel of Progress” ride) where life was always getting better and moving forward. It became instead more about the dark cynical dystopias of endless movies like SOYLENT GREEN (1973) and BLADE RUNNER (1982). “Making a change” got replaced by “nothing will ever change so why even try?”
Most of my adult life I have been listening to people telling me that the future will be worse than the past. And yet I have also lived long enough to know that you will have the future you dream. If you think it is going to suck, it will suck. If you think that anything is possible, it will be. That is true about both people and societies.
Which is why I am so excited about TOMORROWLAND (I suspect Brad Bird is an EPCOTer too!). Because it seems to me that what we need as a society is a capacity to believe again. To think we can make a change. That nothing is impossible. To believe again what we used to take for granted in our collective memory.
Which is why I choose to still believe in the possible. I cannot live in the real EPCOT but I try to live there every day in my mind. I prefer to believe in a “great big beautiful tomorrow.” Which is why I continue to say with great pride:
Ich bin ein EPCOTer -- I am an EPCOTer.
You can read more about EPCOT in these fabulous books:
Walt and the Promise of Progress City
By Sam Gennawey
Ayefour Publishing, 2011
Walt Disney and the Quest for Community
By Steve Mannheim
Ashgate Publishing, 2002
Read My 2008 EPCOT essay for Salem Press
I have been attending the Indianapolis 500 almost every year since 1977. It is THE sporting event in the world for me. The Super Bowl, World Series, and Olympics all rolled into one. It is the largest single day sporting event in the world. More people attend this event than anything else on planet Earth. How many? For the duration of the race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway becomes the 24th largest city in the USA. It is the ultimate expression of humans testing their limits with the ultimate price of risk and reward on the table. To quote Ernest Hemingway: "There are only two sports in the world: auto racing and bullfighting. The rest are just games."
This weekend, the Indy 500 will run for the 99th time. Below are the five best finishes I have personally witnessed:
Emerson Fittipaldi led almost all day but got held up by lapped cars in the final ten laps. Al Unser Jr. managed to pass him with 5 laps to go. They then engaged in one of the tightest dogfights in Speedway history. It ended with wheel to wheel contact right in front of us in Turn 3 with a little over a lap to go. Unser went into the wall and Fittipaldi took the checkered flag.
Sam Hornish stalled his car on his final pit stop. His chances of winning seemed over but he still managed to run down rookie Marco Andretti in the closing laps. It seemed impossible but Hornish managed to draw even with Andretti coming down for the checkered flag. No matter how long the odds, never give up!
Nobody remembers that Danica Patrick almost won that day (for the 2nd time) but she had to make a pit stop while leading with ten laps to go. That gave the lead to rookie J.R. Hildebrand who just had to bring it home. Instead, he hit the wall on the last turn of the last lap and Dan Wheldon came through to claim his second 500 win driving for a team that had never won a race before. It was a fairy tale finish for everyone but Hildebrand.
Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves went wheel to wheel over the final 6 laps, trading the lead back and forth and back and forth. Hunter-Reay just managed to hold him off at the finish line. It is now the second closest finish in history.
Michael Andretti dominated the day only to have his car break with 11 laps to go. That set up a dogfight between Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear (Goodyear had started 33th and last in the field). For 10 laps Goodyear tried everything he could to get around. He almost did it at the line but came up just short in a near photo finish. It remains the closest finish to date. FYI, that day was also the coldest 500 in history: only 38 degrees. We weren’t feeling the cold over those final ten laps!
Can't wait for Sunday!
This is a repost from two years ago.
I don’t have a brother. I have two older sisters. But today is the birthday of my unofficial brother, my cousin Terry. I’m not sure why but when we were kids, Terry took me under his wing and made it a point of exposing me to all kinds of things regarding life and the movies.
On his bedroom walls he had a King Kong poster (see above) that used to scared me at night when the lights were off, a Humphrey Bogart poster from Casablanca, and a W.C. Fields poster (on the left) with the quote: “Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and we had to live on nothing but food and water for several days.”
When we visited his house, Terry used to grab me and sit me down and say things like, “You need to watch this movie.” “You need to read this book.” When he started acting in community theater, he took me along and I used to hang out doing minor things with the crew while they rehearsed. He exposed me to sophistication and bawdy humor, to classic movies and European cool. Terry single-handedly turned me on to:
Acquire (board game)
Around the World In 80 Days
Clue (board game)
Cruising with the top down
Drive In Movies
Edgar Allan Poe
Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
Going to the Beach
Grand Prix racing
Herbie Goes Bananas
I Love Lucy
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Laurel & Hardy
Masterpiece (board game)
Mille Bornes (card game)
Mr. President (board game)
My Fair Lady
1776 (the movie, not the year)
Sunset Blvd (the street, not the movie)
The Addams Family
The Adventures of Superman
The Bozo Show
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Great Escape
The Guns of Navarone
The Maltese Falcon
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The Marx Brothers
The Mickey Mouse Club
The Wild Wild West
War and Peace (the Russian movie)
World War II
You Bet Your Life
I am sure I am missing a few but you get the idea.
I remember seeing him play a perfect Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He made a funny Barnaby in The Matchmaker. He wrote the funniest spec screenplay I’ve ever read, Joseph the Carpenter.
Because he wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a writer.
I would definitely not be the man I am today if not for him. And my life would be a lot sadder if I’d never been exposed to the things he shared. So thank you, Terry.
And Happy Birthday, cousin!
PS. While out in California last December visiting my gravely ill father, Terry put me up at his apartment, shared lots of TV and conversation at impossibly late hours, and exposed me to yet another film I had not yet seen: THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964) starring the late great James Garner & Julie Andrews and written by the brilliant Paddy Chayesfsky. See? He is still exposing me to new things.
By the early 1970s, my family had moved to Weirton, West Virginia. Dad was now Assistant Superintendent of Hancock County Schools. His office was located in the school system’s downtown warehouse. First floor had textbooks and supplies for all the grades for all the schools piled onto large pallets. The second floor contained district offices: personnel and data processing and financial. Dad’s office was in the back. His windows afforded a "breathtaking" view of the alley in back.
After dinner, I was still going to work with him. Sometimes, my sister Pam would come along. Often times, not. The Chevy Impala was long gone, replaced by a green four-door 1969 Pontiac Catalina sedan. Dad always parked at the loading dock in back and we entered through the back door. Since the place was dark, I stayed close to Dad as he walked around and turned on just the necessary amount of lights. Then he turned me loose to do what I wanted.
Many times, I would head straight down to the first floor. I was in elementary school by then and, being a first class nerd, I loved the fact that I could read through the textbooks for the grades ahead of mine. They were all piled up in a row so I just had to grab one, curl up in a corner, and start reading. Often, after a couple visits, I had read a whole year or two ahead. I remember Mom going to a parent teacher conference where my third grade teacher, Mrs. Obrysko, complained that I seemed bored and disinterested in the lessons. How could I tell her that I was disinterested because I had read these same books a year ago down at the warehouse?
When I wasn’t reading, I was checking out the cool machines in the offices. The personnel office had something called a Xerox copy machine. It was great for making copies of your hands and your face. Contrary to popular belief, it never occurred to me to make a copy of my butt.
The data processing office had an IBM punch card machine. That was a blast! I just loaded a dozen IBM punch cards into the machine and then typed whatever I wanted onto the card. I loved hitting the buttons and watching the machine do its thing. It was how I first learned to type. And I got to take the cards home with me at the end of the day!
When our Hagerty cousins Terry and Kim came to visit, they would join my sisters and I going with Dad to the warehouse. One of the TV shows all of us loved to watch then was the spy show THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (and its spin-off THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.). Like all 1960s spy shows, it was a James Bond rip off but still done with a lot of class. The title of each episode always ended with the word "affair": "The Vulcan Affair" or "The Mad Mad Mad Tea Party Affair." My sisters and cousins would take turns being the secret agents on the show: Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum – now playing Mallard on "NCIS"), April Dancer (Stefanie Powers), and Mark Slate (Noel Harrison).
Unfortunately, I was five years younger than the rest of them and often viewed as the little kid they were forced to take along by their parents. On the night of our most memorable visit to the warehouse, they decided that I would play the role of U.N.C.L.E. chief Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll). You know, the character who gave the agents their mission then waited for them to report back at the end of the show? It seemed like a promotion. I mean, after all, I was nine years old and now the head guy with an imaginary secretary!
Well, they got their mission and off they went. And I sat in my dad’s office (he was working downstairs in the computer room) and waited for my agents to return. And I waited. And I waited. And I waited. And waited. Nothing. And it finally dawned on me after a hour or so that my “promotion” was really just a way to cut me out of the action! Well, forget that!
I headed out of the office and went searching around the building for them. I found them hiding out in offices on the other side of the building. They immediately wanted to know what I was doing there threatening to ruin their stakeout. Not missing a beat, I replied that I had received no communications from them since they left so I had set out into the field to get an update. Now that I had found them, it was too dangerous to go back so I was staying with the team.
We ended up “chasing” enemy agents down to the main floor. A real life Weirton cop patrolling out on the sidewalk strolled by and we shadowed him, leaping from box to box and hiding from his view when he turned to look. I don’t think we would try that today!
But the moment that has lived in all our memories came when the pretend evil T.H.R.U.S.H. agents (U.N.C.L.E.’S nemesis) loaded us onto an actual conveyor belt running down into the basement. It was not turned on but once the collective weight of all five of us (between the ages of 16 and 9) were on the belt, it began turning on its own and the next thing we knew, we were all heading down into the dark dark basement. You’ve never seen five kids leap off a turning conveyor belt faster in your life!
When it was time to go, as usual, Dad would walk through the building yelling our names. That night, we were all a little shaken (not stirred) and more than happy to yell “U.N.C.L.E.” and head back home. It had proven to be the most “dangerous” mission of our pretend spy careers. Take that, ARGO!
I don’t have a lot of memories of kindergarten. I know I attended the morning session at Harrington Elementary School in Jackson, Michigan and my teacher was Miss Seward. The few things I remember about that year (1967-1968):
1) I had to ride the bus to school and back. I was fascinated by the bus’s manual stick shift and the way our female bus driver operated it. I made sure to sit on the aisle every morning so I could watch and I soon memorized the way she moved from first to second to third to fourth and the sound each gear made. When I rode in the family car, I pretended it was a stick and made the appropriate sounds when my parents drove.
2) We actually had nap time as part of the daily routine. Each student brought a rug from home and we rolled it up in our own cubbyhole. When nap time arrived, we took out our rugs, rolled them out on the floor, and lay down. Our teacher turned out the lights and we lay there till it was time to go. I kid you not!
3) My mother had to come in for a parent teacher conference because Miss Seward was concerned that I was not playing well with others. In fact, I wasn’t playing with anyone. When playtime came, I preferred to grab the toys that I liked (usually animals from Africa) and play alone in the corner. It wasn’t that I was anti-social. It was just that my classmates didn’t know how to play. They just wanted to run around and knock stuff over. They didn’t give a whit about story and characters. Yes, I kid you not: even then I had to have a storyline when I played.
4) I remember a field trip to a nearby farm where a baby horse had just been born. The local newspaper ran an article on it. I clipped it out and kept that article for years. For all I know, I might still have it buried in my archives somewhere.
5) As I wrote in a previous blog, one of my classmates died in a car crash that year, an event that has hung with me ever since and colored my view of the world. You can read about that HERE.
But the thing I most remember about kindergarten was receiving MY WEEKLY READER “SURPRISE!” starring Zip & Nip and pouring over its pages. Each week, the cover showed these two furry friends (one dog & one cat) engaged in some activity that looked so darn fun. I didn’t save every issue but I saved the ones I liked.
The April 10, 1968 issue had them painting Easter eggs under the Easter Bunny’s watchful eyes. According to the teacher guide at the bottom, the purpose is “to help children speak in sentences and relate a picture story to their own experiences.”
Inside, I learned what traffic signs meant. A special section chronicled life in Alaska. The science page portrayed mountains.
On the back was Zip’s Puzzle Page where we learned to identify letters of the alphabet.
The May 10 cover had Zip and Nip enjoying Spring and discovering a family of skunks.
The lesson is to “help children use gestures and exclamations in storytelling and to dramatize stories.”
Inside, we learned about being kind to animals and about plants.
Zip's Puzzle on the back helped us tell the difference between letters.
The May 15 issue was about Summer. Zip and Nip were shown camping with their family. The lesson was to "help children anticipate and tell about future fun, and to illustrate their ideas."
Inside, we learned about how Summer was about vacation and discovering new things.
Zip’s Puzzle taught us how to sound out words.
On the back, it says “Happy Summer! This is the last issue of WEEKLY READER for this school year. See you in September.”
Because none of us kindergarteners knew how to read yet (learning to read happened in 1st grade then), the stories were all told through pictures. Only now do I realize that this was the beginning of my learning visual storytelling, about how to communicate with others, and to share what was inside my head with the world. That dog and that cat opened up the world to me and made me see that it was a big beautiful and fascinating place. And they made me want to see it all!
Years later, when I was in elementary school, I used to gather all my stuffed animals together in my room and pretend I was teaching them. And our lesson always consisted of these yellowed issues of THE WEEKLY READER that I still hold in my hand. I had no idea I would end up as a teacher. There might even be a bit of Zip and Nip in my real life teaching today.
Do you have memories of THE WEEKLY READER and Zip & Nip?