Five Years On

Carrie Fisher died five years ago today. I still mourn for her, still get teary-eyed when this day rolls around and I read her daughter Billie’s annual tributes, and on some level, I know it’s crazy because I didn’t really know her. I met her once and spoke with her for about 90 seconds. I had a boyhood crush that became a middle-aged-manhood crush when she flashed those deep brown eyes at me across a book-signing table. But… it feels like I knew her. It feels like we all did. And how could we not? We grew up with her. Princess Leia was our big sister, our first crush, our hero. General Leia was our mom… and our hero… and maybe our continuing crush, too. And figuring out where Leia stopped and Carrie began was very, very difficult, even for Carrie. Maybe especially for Carrie.

I’ve written a lot of dead-celebrity posts on this blog over the years. Some of them have been quite good, if I say so myself. And they’ve all been from the heart; I always feel genuine emotion about the loss of the people whose work matters to me. But not like Carrie. Not like her. I’m not ashamed to say that when Carrie Fisher died, a big part of me went with her. A part that came from childhood and from adolescence, from my imagination since I was seven years old, and from the reality of the woman I once met and wished I could’ve spent more time with and really gotten to know as a friend. I don’t know how I could’ve loved her any more if I’d actually known her.

Here’s a photo of her that I particularly like.


The Town Christmas Tree

There used to be a mansion down the street from my house when I was a boy.

Well, it seemed like a mansion to me. Really, it was just a large, old two-story home that stood in a prominent location near the main intersection in town, back when there was only one intersection in this town that really counted for anything, the one everybody referred to as “the red light.” The red light, the only one in town, the traffic semaphore that switched to a flashing mode late at night instead of cycling through the green-yellow-red sequence for an empty street. When giving directions, you’d say things like, “Go down to the red light and hang a left… ” I still remember what a big deal it was when the town’s second traffic light was installed a half-mile to the east. That happened when I was ten or twelve maybe, and it felt like a seismic change. Yeah, I really did grow up in a small town. Me and John Mellencamp.

That old house, though… it was grander and showier than the humble bungalow where I lived, or any of the other assorted bungalows and farmhouses on the street, so naturally I thought it must be some kind of mansion. It had a short wrought-iron fence out in front, more decorative than functional as you could hop over it easily enough, but you had to be careful of the spikes on top. None of the other houses I was familiar with had one of those. More evidence of mansionhood. And then there was the tree in the front yard. An immense pine tree, taller than the house itself and probably as old. A century tree, surely, one of those serene giants that you wish could tell stories of all the history it had witnessed.

The house and its great tree were surrounded by the town’s business district, such as it was back in the 1970s and ’80s: a bank with multiple drive-through lanes to the north, a mansard-roofed single-story commercial building to the south, a rock-clad dentist’s office and grocery store behind it, to the west. Across the street to the east, a row of brick buildings that looked like places Bonnie and Clyde might once have robbed if their reign of terror had extended to Utah.

I don’t remember anyone living in the house even when I was very young. At some point in the ’80s, it was converted into a restaurant space, first a fine-dining establishment that didn’t last long — a misjudgment of the market — and then a Chinese takeout that did considerably better. Or maybe the Chinese place came first? I honestly can’t recall anymore. Eventually, I think it became a realtor’s office for a few years. I think. It irritates me that I no longer have perfect recall of this stuff. But I clearly remember the tree… in a sense, that tree was the town’s mascot, visible from the intersection no matter which direction you were coming from. It was also the town’s communal Christmas tree.

Every December, a truck with a cherry picker would snuggle up alongside it and workers would hang strands of big light bulbs vertically down the tree’s body, surrounding the evergreen in stripes of color. I’ve never seen another tree in another town festooned in quite the same way. It was ours, that tree, our town’s, a point of civic pride. It was like an old friend, the first thing you saw that welcomed you home after you’d been away. And it was beautiful. I loved that old tree, especially in snowy years when the branches would become caked in white and the bulbs glowed beneath, suffusing the snow with soft color.

There was one night in particular… I was in my twenties, driving home from my movie theater job. I was running projectors by then, so my nights were late, late enough that I had the intersection all to myself. Conditions were bad. It’d been snowing for hours, the roads were packed and slick, and a fierce wind was hurling flumes of snow past my windshield. They looked more like ragged puffs of smoke than collections of distinct snowflakes. The old tree was mostly invisible in the storm, just a dark mass obscured by all the blowing white, but the light strands were still visible, the points of color glowing defiantly, the vertical lines of them rippling in that wind as if they were underwater, as if they were tall columns of sea weed being stirred by an churning current.

My long-time readers know I’m not especially fond of Christmas, not since my teens anyway. It was different when I was a little kid. But once I grew up past a certain point, the season started tending to fill me more with anxiety than any sort of contentment. Right then, though, at that moment, sitting alone in a chilly car with all the sounds of the outside world muffled except the whooshing of the implacable wind, watching the sea-weed strands of colored lights, I had a rare moment of peace. I might have even smile a bit.

I sat and watched that hypnotic motion of the lights for a long time, long enough that someone behind me would’ve started honking if anyone else had been stupid enough to be driving in that mess. But there was no one there but me. Me and the lights and the snow and that old tree in the middle of those old commercial buildings. As Springsteen once declared in a pensive growl, my home town… this is my home town. Mellencamp and Springsteen in one essay. Who saw that coming?

Then came another evening evening when I was driving home and the tree was gone.

It was removed without any announcement, cut down by unsentimental workmen, chopped up, run through the chipper, and trucked away in the course of a single day. It had been there that morning, and by evening there was only a pile of mulch and a depression in the ground to suggest it had ever existed. A hundred years of life, of witnessing the lives around it, gone in a single day. My heartbreak was as keen as if I’d lost a relative. Something died that day besides just a tree. My home town was never the same again.

The old house I used to think was a mansion still exists, but not in that location any longer. It was moved some years ago… sawed free of its foundation, jacked up and placed on a trailer, hauled a mile or so away. It’s on a quiet cross-street now, alongside the town’s old cemetery — as opposed to the new one on the other side of town — and after all that effort to save it for posterity, it’s now serving as a Montessori school. They put a Taco Bell on the site it used to occupy, over there in the center of the old business district. The Taco Bell didn’t last; the building is still a Mexican fast-food place, but now it’s a local chain.

All the commercial buildings that used to surround the old mansion are gone, replaced by different commercial buildings and a much enlarged intersection. The two-lane road that used to run past the town Christmas tree is now a full seven-lane highway. Surprisingly enough, the Chinese takeout that started in that old house with the giant pine tree in front is still around. It’s situated in a strip mall on the other side of the red light where it’s been for 30 years.

And of course… I’m still here too.

It’s raining, not snowing, as I write this on the night before Christmas Eve. And there’s precious little left of the town I grew up in. Nothing looks remotely the same anymore. But as the traffic has died down tonight and the house has grown quiet around me and I’ve started to feel the solitude pressing in against the windows, I’ve found myself feeling something like the way I did that other night so many years gone when I sat at the red light and watched the town Christmas tree dance with the wind. I miss that time, all those simpler, smaller, quainter times. Those ghosts of Christmas (and summer and fall and all the other times of year) past. I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing them.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


The Original Trilogy Gets Preserved… Kind of…

Every year, the Library of Congress selects 25 films to add to its National Film Registry, acknowledging those movies that are of “cultural, historic or aesthetic importance.” In other words, these are the movies that are deemed worthy of saving for posterity. As a lover of old movies, film preservation has been an interest of mine for a long time, and I always look forward to seeing which titles get selected every year. Naturally, it’s especially pleasing when those selections are films I happen to like. This year’s batch, which was announced today, includes quite a few of those:

  • Strangers on a Train, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 thriller
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the batshit-insane pairing of real-world rivals Bette David and Joan Crawford
  • Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, still one of the funniest comedy concert films ever, in my opinion
  • Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, a GenX horror classic
  • The Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense, which I fondly remember dancing along to one night at the University of Utah’s student union
  • Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring
  • And Wall-E, an animated delight that plays like a silent romance for something like half of its runtime

But of course the one I’m most enthused about making the cut is Return of the Jedi.

With Jedi‘s selection, all three parts of the “Holy Trilogy” are now present on the Registry — Star Wars was inducted in 1989 as part of the Registry’s “first class,” and The Empire Strikes Back in 2010 — and that means that Mrs Davis, my third-grade teacher who once snarled so nastily at me that Star Wars was a trashy waste of time has been overruled by our nation’s arbiters of culture. And yes, I do feel vindicated by that, thank you for asking!

It’s just too bad that Lucasfilm isn’t cooperating with the Registry’s mission.

You see, the Library of Congress archives a 35mm print of each inductee for future preservation efforts, and the last I heard, Lucasfilm has refused to provide the Library with prints of the original original trilogy, the unaltered pre-1997 editions that we grew up with, which are of course the versions that made the actual impact on our culture.

Long-time readers of this blog just rolled their eyes, I’m sure. “Oh no, he’s on about this again.” Well, yeah, I am. And no, I will never stop tilting at this particular windmill. Because it’s one thing to withhold the pre-97 editions from home video release or even to block them from public screenings — that’s aggravating, but there are workarounds, as most hardcore fans now know — but to deny the Library of Congress access to the specific version of a work that has been deemed significant… well, it’s a slap in the face of the very concept of the Registry, isn’t it? A Registry that exists in part, ironically, because of George Lucas’ passionate lobbying for it back in the 1980s. But of course, if you look closely at what he said back then, he was concerned with saving films from corporate tampering and neglect, not from his own. George has stubbornly maintained since the mid 1990s that the versions we grew up on were really only rough drafts that ought to be forgotten, and that the Special Editions (or whatever the latest home-video releases with subsequent tinkering are called) are the “real” trilogy.

When Disney acquired the franchise a few years back, I hoped that they would see the value of doing a modern restoration and transfer of the originals. I envisioned them releasing a box set containing all the versions of these films in modern-quality presentations so that the consumer could ultimately decide which version they preferred to watch. There is precedent for this: The Godfather trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apocalypse Now, and most notably — because it’s the most comprehensive — Blade Runner have all been handled in this way. But evidently George made it a condition of his deal with the Mouse that his preferred version was going to be the only version. Either that, or Disney doesn’t think the originals would sell, which I’m convinced is untrue.

Ultimately, it’s no longer that big a deal for resourceful fans. In the past 20 years, an underground culture has developed that’s dedicated to preserving and distributing the versions of these films that we old farts remember. As a result, there is now a bewildering array of bootlegs floating around out there, including a couple that were sourced and scanned from actual film prints that are in private hands (which puts the lie to George’s insistence that these films “no longer exist” and could never be reconstituted). The so-called “Despecialized Editions” are probably the best-known of the boots, and it seems like everyone has a copy of those. I’d still prefer to have an officially sanctioned restoration and release — what can I say, I crave validation of my tastes — but in the meantime, there are options for home viewing, and I’m glad of that.

This situation with the Film Registry, though… that’s a whole other outrage, on a whole other order of magnitude. It’s not right that all Lucasfilm is willing to provide them is the 1997 edition. It’s just not right. Until and unless someone gets a 35mm print of the original, historically important, real Star Wars films to the Library of Congress, placing the trilogy on the Registry is little more than lip service. I may have won my remembered beef with Mrs. Davis, but in light of the details where the devil dwells, it feels like something of a Pyrrhic victory.




Republicans vs Democrats

“Republicans largely feel like they’re an insurrectionary force fighting an unscrupulous liberal establishment. Democrats, by contrast, feel like they’re a fundamentally admirable establishment being pecked to death by an insurrection of reactionary zealots—and they don’t know what to do about it.”

— Kevin Drum, “Why are Democrats so downbeat these days?

I have no real point to make here, I just thought this was an interesting (and largely accurate) way of framing the current mood in the country.


A Gen Xer’s Lament

There was a meme floating around Facebook earlier today that said something to the effect of “I was born in the 1900s, I’ve seen some things.” Leaving aside the depressing connotations of coming from “the 1900s,” as if I used to wear a straw boater and a fur coat while I motored about in my flivver, I was inspired to have a bit of fun with Rutger Hauer’s famous “tears in the rain” monologue from Blade Runner. I’m rather proud of the result… and a bit wistful about that vanished world where everything was harvest-gold and wood-paneled…

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… television consoles the size of sofas… I’ve stood in shag carpeting and breathed secondhand smoke in public spaces… all these moments will be lost in time… like… dimes in broken payphones…



Words to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

In the never-ending stream-of-consciousness that is Twitter, a hypothetical was proposed: “You meet 16-year-old you. You have 10 seconds only. What do you say?

And here is my wistful response, speaking as a white-bearded middle-aged man who can look backward on more than a few regrets (just imagine me studying the light shining through a glass of single-malt as my words slowly unwind in a Harrison Ford-style grumble):

Don’t be so afraid of making the wrong choice. Take the risk. If it doesn’t work out, don’t sulk, move on. Travel more. Write more. Give more serious thought to moving away for college. And above all, don’t just assume you’ll “get around to it someday.”

Why are these things so clear in hindsight?


Music for the Times

Sometime last year, when we were all hunkered down in our bunkers made of hoarded toilet paper and existential dread was creeping through the streets like the green-mist curse of Egypt in The Ten Commandments, I discovered a gentleman called Patrick Dexter. He’s a cellist who lives in a bucolic cottage somewhere in the west of Ireland. Every few days throughout the long, dark Lost Year of the Plague, he posted a video to social media of himself, sitting outside in the clean sunshine, playing for us while the Irish breeze ruffled the grass and his dog roamed the grounds behind him. His musical selections cover the gamut from traditional Irish songs to classical pieces to covers of popular hits, and just last week he released his first original composition, written for his niece who was born during the height of the pandemic. I’ve enjoyed all of his videos — as I tweeted to him at some point, they’re refreshing moments of grace in a dark world, affirmations of life and beauty that came along just when I needed them most. But there’s one in particular that I keep going back to. I’ve listened to it a number of times over the past few days…

An affirmation of life and beauty… just when I need it. It’s been a hell of a week.



Don’t Come Around Here No More

There are multiple reasons why this blog has kind of petered out, but this is a big one:

You can write the most interesting stuff, make the most beautiful music, perform the most incredible entertainment, but if there’s no audience to receive it, it starts to feel a little pointless. Facebook is where the people are, and something I post there is seen by hundreds of thousands of people, while something I post here is seen by a few thousand at best. Facebook is also where the conversation seems to have moved, and I genuinely enjoy the conversation that used to happen in blog comments, way back in the before times.

Wil Wheaton

Now, obviously I do not and never have had the kind of reach Mr Wheaton does, even in the most rollicking heyday of this blog and even with a few hundred contacts on FB. But the principle applies. I’ve felt for a long time that my writing here was just shouting into a void. Mental masturbation. And there are other contributing factors as well <gestures at… everything…>. I don’t want to shut this place down entirely, but I no longer feel much compulsion to write on it either. And so it goes…


It’s That Season Again…

Somehow this time of year, when the clouds snuggle down against the rain-slicked earth and the yellow lantern lights start to glimmer from shadowy front porches at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, somehow that seems to call for something more… lo-fi… than all that high-definition digital stuff. Or maybe it’s just me…


Twenty Years On

I slept late this morning and awoke to the milky grey light that hints of a rainy day ahead. I got up, checked my blood sugar, fed the cat. I pondered whether I wanted to go to the trouble of making waffles for breakfast or just pour a bowl of cereal.

Glancing out the window, I noted there was a group of people with garbage bags and work gloves spread out along the road, pulling weeds from the park strip that no government agency seems to want to maintain. Probably a church volunteer group, I thought. Good for them.

My mom and dad are out of town at the moment, so I walked out to their house to feed their cats and their horses. The rain started while I was out there, so I sat under their covered patio for a while, watching it pelt down. It’s been a long, hot summer; it feels good to sense moisture in the air again. I reveled in the low rumbling of thunder.

It never even occurred to me that this was the anniversary of 9/11 until I hopped on Facebook and saw all the posts that begin with “I remember… ”

I remember where I was too, the day the towers fell. Anyone who was alive and old enough to be aware of what was happening that day remembers. But as I’ve written a number of times, I honestly think it would do this nation good to remember it a little less. I’m sure that sounds disrespectful to many, if not outright blasphemous. But tell me: What purpose does it serve to wave the bloody shirt every September and insist that we “never forget” (as if we ever could)? What comfort is it for those who lost someone and those who were near the attacks to see the horrific photos all over again? To read the transcript of Todd Beamer’s final phone call from doomed Flight 93 (which seems to be the social media meme of choice this year)? For traumatized people, surely all this “never forgetting” just reopens old wounds and stirs up the PTSD. And what about the rest of us, like those of us here in Utah, 4000 miles removed from the scenes of the crime, where the “healing fields” of American flags start popping up in mid-August every year as predictably as Spirit Halloween stores opening in the shells of defunct Kmarts? I’m sorry if those displays are meaningful to you, but it’s hard for me to see that stuff as anything other than nationalistic chest-thumping, and haven’t we had quite enough of that over the last 20 years?

Well… maybe we have. Today, a generation after that other September morning, it seems to me that the commemorations are less fervent somehow. Oh, the websites for CNN and NPR are covered in the expected retrospective headlines, and many of my friends are posting their usual patriotic and religious stuff on Facebook. There’s the ceremony happening in Pennsylvania with Presidents Biden, Obama, Bush and Clinton. But scanning through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’m seeing lots of other things too… completely unrelated things like jokes and gripes, birthday celebrations, hype for the upcoming Dune movie and discussions about Shang-Chi and the current state of Star Trek. One of my writer friends has written a nice remembrance of that time his dad introduced him to a particular Steely Dan album. Another friend is sharing photos of his Funko Pop collection. Just ordinary, everyday life. Life going on. As it should.

It’s good to see that. Finally.

I think maybe I will make waffles today. And just enjoy the sound and smell of the rain.