Microfiction: “The Light Endures”

Siobhan plodded barefoot across the dark cabin’s earthen floor.

Last night’s embers still blushed amid the stove ash. Siobhan placed dried hay atop the amber mounds and blew until the bundle ignited. Liam would expect breakfast when he returned.

Siobhan sighed as she mixed the biscuits. This isn’t what she envisioned when Liam implored her to America: a sod-walled, grease paper-windowed, one-room shanty plopped on a frayed Nebraska plain.

She hurried outside to watch for him. The night sky was dissolving into a blotted, bruise-like dawn but one solitary, tenacious star still lingered, burning bright.

Siobhan made a wish.

(Image by Carol Highsmith.)

A ‘Medium’ Experiment

Just a heads up: I’m currently transitioning In Case You’re Interested over to Medium.

It will have the same historic and political slant as this version of the site, plus the addition of interviews, more comic book coverage, and potentially some short fiction. We’ll see. We’ll also see how long this move to Medium lasts – could be brief or could be forever. Only time will tell!

That said, please visit my new page over at Medium. I’m still moving content over and hope to have it all together by the end of the week. Again, we’ll see.

Thank you for your support so far!

Times Square at Night, 1908-2018

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I avoided Times Square when I lived in New York. Most of the city’s residents do – the Square’s too crowded; it’s too loud and bright and far too commercial. That was my general opinion for years, and still is, more or less. But right now I’m missing it.

I didn’t come to appreciate that garish tangle of streets until last year. I returned to the city for a work trip and was put up at a hotel on 46th street and 8th avenue, not far from an AA meeting I enjoy and a few doors down from the Scientology HQ, which I didn’t even know existed. Mel Brooks was performing two buildings further east, closer to 7th avenue and the runoff of Times Square proper.

It was the perfect summer night for a stroll. The Square was as white hot bright as ever; it was chaotic and cacophonous. A replica Back to the Future DeLorean drove by and life-sized cartoon characters jostled for change as a light drizzle fell. It was past 11, but despite the hour and weather, people were still everywhere, strolling, hustling, and gawking – thousands upon thousands of the reasons I once bypassed the so-called Crossroad of the World at all costs.

Today those crossroads are quiet as the Big Apple continues battling the pandemic. As my own lockdown continues I find myself wishing I could be back in the time before, right there in Times Square’s throbbing center – and I’m sure other people do, too, even New Yorkers.

Until we can be there, here are 23 images of Times Square at night, all taken between 1908 and 2018. A lot happened in those 110 years – two world wars, a Great Depression, some recessions, HIV, 9/11, the Great Recession, a super storm, and a whole lot of other shit – and Times Square stood strong: a tinsel testament to humankind’s tenacity and audacity; a glittering epicenter for all people. It will be so again, and will be for decades to come, come hell or high water, for better and for worse. And I look forward to being in the thick of it.

Scrollable version of the slideshow below.

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The Cat and The Corn Dog: A True Fable

 

Impatience is my most persistent character flaw. When I was younger, fantasizing about future successes, or even just eager for the latest Uncanny X-Men, my grandmother, in her no-nonsense Massachusetts accent, would advise, “Slow down, baby boy; enjoy your time now.” Her advice made me more aware of my impatience, but it didn’t diminish it; restiveness remains within me, nagging when inconvenience, real or imagined, arises.

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What Would EM Forster Say About Anonymous’ Warning?

EM Forster’s best known for novels like A Room with a View and Howard’s End, but the English author also wrote extensively about politics and civil society, including an essay called “Anonymity: An Enquiry.” Originally published in November 1925’s The Calendar of Modern Letters, Forster’s piece seems relevant today, ahead of A Warning, the forthcoming tell-all by the anonymous White House staffer who wrote last year’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” I expected freedom of speech-loving Forster to support anonymity, full stop, but his take’s more nuanced, though perhaps not nuanced enough.

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Found in the LOC: Spooky “Spirit” Photos

“Double exposure ‘spirit’  photograph of girl standing, holding flowers, surrounded by spectral figures of three people],” G.S. Smallwood, 1905.

To celebrate Halloween, here are eight “spirit photographs” straight from the Library of Congress’ deepest, darkest crypt. Or, rather, their very convenient online database.

As Wendi Maloney explains at the Library’s blog, the general public was mystified by photography when it debuted in the mid-to-late-1800s. This meant unscrupulous rapscallions could dupe them into ghosts actually photo bombed in the afterlife. And these weren’t just gullible rubes who bought into the supernatural hype: respected folk like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were about it, too.

All this hoopla outraged Harry Houdini. The magician had made it his life’s mission to debunk spiritualist charlatans, and took a hands-on approach to the matter. Maloney writes:

“To demonstrate how easy it was to fake a photograph, Houdini had an image made in the 1920s, showing himself talking with Abraham Lincoln. He even based entire shows around debunking the claims of mediums and the entire idea of spiritualism.”

That image is included in this gallery. It did not, however, completely debunk the spirit photo business.

Related: Check out a NY Times piece I wrote a long time ago about Memento Mori: turn of the century pics people took of dead loved ones.

Working Girl 9-5, Private!

Remember a few years ago, when the female-led Ghostbusters debuted, and critics asked sexist things like “Are women funny?” and “Can women carry the box office?” It was basically the same chorus of sexist garbage we hear whenever there’s a big comedy starring a woman or women.

In response, I planned on highlighting 80s-era female-led comedies that made mad bank — proof that, yes female-led comedies can carry the box office, and have been for decades.

Here are the movies I had in mind.

  • 9-5, 1980 – Budget: $10 million; Box office: $103.3 million
  • Private Benjamin, 1980 – Budget: $15 million; Box office $69,847,348
  • Terms of Endearment, 1983 – Budget: $8 million; Box office, $108.4 million
  • Baby Boom, 1987 – Budget: $15 million; Box Office: $26 million.
  • Working Girl, 1988 – Budget: $28.6 million; Box office: $102 million

My planned conclusion was going to be something like, “Regardless of the odd flop here and there, see: Big Business and Outrageous Fortune, women had the last laugh ages ago; too bad people didn’t get the joke.” I don’t know. Maybe. It never got past the idea phase.

But while working on that Macho Catchphrase piece, I realized that the movies bulleted above, and others, were counterpoints to those violent, male ego-driven characters. Just as 70s and 80s macho men reflected a broader male anxiety, female-starring movies of the 80s showed the empowered woman taking her place where she belonged, on her terms – of endearment and otherwise. Just as the macho men were a response to real-life women’s liberation, these movies were the antithesis: flicks that showed the trials, tribulations, and potential triumphs of women tackling patriarchal systems. This wasn’t just the zeitgeist picking up and depositing subtexts, as in the macho examples; these cinematic expressions were concerted efforts to change the conversation.*

Sure, that era’s macho men and their one-liners earned more money at the box office and more fully penetrated the zeitgeist, no pun intended, but the female-led flicks had more heart, something that beats a machine gun any day, both onscreen and off.

(*Tootsie and Mr. Mom get honorable mention for their respective takes on the misogynistic realities and double standards women face every day.)

Macho Catchphrases and Ascendant Feminism, 1971-1984

Hollywood circa the 1970s and early 80s spewed forth a slew of macho catchphrases. Here are a few examples; you’ll recognize every testosterone-laden specimen:

  • “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” – Harry Callahan, Dirty Harry, 1971
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Vito Corleone, The Godfather, 1972.
  • “You talkin’ to me?” – Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver, 1976
  • “Go ahead, make my day.” – Harry Callahan (again), Sudden Impact, 1983.
  • “Say hello to my little friend.” – Tony Montana, Scarface, 1983.
  • “I’ll be back.” – The Terminator, Terminator, 1984.

Swashbucklers, cowboys, and tough guys had been Hollywood heroes for decades: Errol Flynn and John Wayne’s stock of masculine icons come to mind. Many even uttered catchy one-liners that became cultural mainstays, i.e. Rhett Butler’s “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” And some of said phrases were as aggressive as those above, such as The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden’s persistent threat of domestic abuse, “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!” But the Me Decade saw an unprecedented ejaculation of terse, violence-tinged retorts.

What drove this trend toward curt fury? Was this celluloid rage a reflection of a real-world torn asunder by Vietnam-era chaos? Did jaded, shock-inured audiences just need to be jarred and awed? Was it that Hollywood writers of that era were informed by television, a pithier media than the radio that nursed earlier scribes?  All are plausible possibilities. Yet it’s just as likely these macho one-liners were a reply to the ascendant women’s liberation movement.

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How Writing is Like Acting

Writers and actors are a lot alike. Sure, the professions play different roles in the American imagination: actors are cast as sun-kissed faces of California dreams, and writers are portrayed as solitary, often curmudgeonly creatures; actors conjure ideas of red carpet wishes and designer-clad dreams, writers a wooly cardigan and a cozy cabin, or some similarly hermetic locale. But though actors peddle in scenes and writers work in syllables, the mechanics and business of these professions are very much the same.

And while the most obvious parallel is that actors and writers are both entertainers, which explains there are so many actors who are also writers — Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, and Jamie Lee Curtis, to name a few, there are more nuanced similarities, as well.

Preamble accomplished, here are 15.5 ways writers are like actors.

[Note, this is not an exhaustive list. If you have a suggestion, let me know in the comments.]

1. Proceed with Caution — There’s an old joke that every LA waiter has a headshot at the ready. The same could be said about New York baristas and novels. Yes, the waiter could have a novel and the barista a headshot, but you get the gist: Just as there are scads of young, bright-eyed ingenues vying for acting gigs, there are just as many young, bright-eyed literary types trying to get published – all absolutely sure they have “it.”

In other words, writing and acting are both crowded, competitive, and all together quixotic career paths. Success is rare, and so is financial payoff. Nantucket? More like a cramped apartment. Designer dreams? Try a thrift store knock-off.

Considering the odds of success or monetary security, it’s therefore best that aspiring writers, like their theatrical counterparts, find a plan B. Unless, of course, you want a lifetime of debt, deadlines, nary a retirement plan and, most terrifying of all, writer’s block!

2. Mission: Audition — The process is different, but actors and writers both audition for their roles/bylines, and I dare say writers’ pitches are more difficult. While actors must undergo the nerve-wracking experience of auditioning for a room full of strangers, they at least have outlets like Backstage or agents who can tell them more about the part, i.e. “Sally, a twenty-something waitress waiting for her big break after fleeing her alcoholic mother.”

Writers don’t have such luxuries. We do have Submittable, where editors post editorial asks, or maybe an outlet will announce a specific theme, but for the most part writers stumble around in the rhetorical dark, sending cold emails to editors and hoping against hope we get a reply — which is essentially an audition without the script, name recognition, or the benefit of a face-to-face meeting.

Even when you do have name recognition or a previous relationship with an editor, that’s no guarantee of publication — I was just rejected by two editors with whom I’ve worked for years.

On that note…

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Found in the LOC: Vintage Posters Celebrating Books

 

Tuesday is traditionally the day book publishers release their latest titles. No one knows why they do this on Tuesdays. Literally no one.  Some say believe it’s about optimizing best-seller results; some say that it’s to make life easy for distributors. But whatever the reason, I’m celebrating this week’s new book day with FIVE sets of vintage posters celebrating the written word, all sourced from the Library of Congress.

The first gallery is perhaps the most relevant to today: created between 1935 and 1942 by the government-backed Works Progress Administration, they urge patriotic Americans to embrace books as democratic tools. “To speak up for democracy, read up on democracy,” reads one, while another insists “Books are Weapons.”

In an era defined by a famously anti-intellectual president’s existential threat to our nation’s most storied institutions and norms, these are important reminders.

The second set of posters, born from a World War I collaboration between the Society of Illustrators and the Committee on Public Information, implores Americans to send books “over there” for our troops.

Third up: A circa 1936-1940 series of really fun WPA PSAs from the “Be Kind to Books Club.” One piece of advice: don’t gum it up!

Similarly, the fourth gallery celebrates Book Weeks from between 1949 and 1964. It’s fascinating to see the aesthetic shift over the years – and keep your eyes peeled for a piece by Maurice Sendak.

Meanwhile, the fifth and final collection, created by the National Association of Booksellers way back in the 1920s, suggests you buy books as gifts – advice I endorse any day of the week!

Read up on Democracy:

See the rest AFTER THE JUMP!

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