Monthly Archives: August 2014

All the Time in the World

I took the day off yesterday, largely so I could run some errands that never seem to get accomplished on my weekends, and also just because I could. I slept an hour later than usual, spent some quality time with my last surviving kitty boy, Evinrude, and watched a movie over breakfast. A real breakfast, not a hastily cooked (and hastily gobbled) bowl of five-minute oatmeal or a smoothie. And then I took care of my errands — inspections and renewing the registration on my car, if you really must know! And then in the afternoon, I even found time to take a leisurely walk.

It was a beautiful day, one of those late-summer afternoons when knots of slate-colored clouds roll along the edges of the valley, but don’t seem too interested in closing in overhead, and the mild quality of the air makes me feel like I ought to be getting ready to go back to school, even though I finished with that almost 25 years ago. Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again” started playing on my iPod, something in my chest unclenched, and I realized I don’t have enough days like this. Days with no sense of urgency, no clock ticking away in the back of my head telling me I only have this window of 90 minutes to do what I want, that I only have an hour before I have to be somewhere, that I really shouldn’t be wasting this handful of free minutes because there are chores that need to be done. The type of days I took for granted when I was young and had all the time in the world.

Feeling nostalgic is nothing unusual for me…. readers of this blog know that very well. I am captivated by so many elements of my own past. But I think the thing I miss most of all is not a hair style (or even hair, for that matter!) or parachute pants or a certain kind of music or a television show. It’s time. Specifically that sense you have when you’re young that there’s an endless supply of it, and you don’t have very many demands upon it, and the afternoons are going to stretch on forever because you have no particular place you need to be…





Rocket Raccoon and Bill Mantlo

Incidentally, if you’re wondering which of the Guardians of the Galaxy was my favorite, it turned out to be the one I was initially the most uncertain about:


I’ll be the first to admit that a computer-generated talking raccoon with a badass attitude and a fetish for large, complicated weapons is pretty damn ridiculous, even in the best-case scenario. There’s a thousand reasons why such a character could turn out to be really, really lame (not least of which is that his voice is provided by Bradley Cooper, an actor I find very, very difficult to like). Happily, though, he works. He works very well, stealing nearly every scene he’s in, and he even gets a couple of sensitive, introspective moments that will break your heart. As unlikely as it sounds, this guy is the new Han Solo. Seriously.

But here’s something interesting I learned about old Rocket Raccoon the other day: he was created in 1976 by a comic-book writer named Bill Mantlo. My ears immediately pricked up when I ran across that little factoid, because Mantlo was also the guy behind one of my favorite comic titles when I was a kid, a trippy series based on a line of popular toys (but oh, so much better than that implies!) called The Micronauts. I’ve written before on this blog about The Micronauts and Bill Mantlo… and the sad story of what happened to him. (The short version, if you don’t feel like clicking the link, is that he was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 1992 and suffered severe brain damage. He now lives in an assisted-care facility and requires constant, around-the-clock attention.)

Well, there’s a heartwarming sidebar to the success of the Guardians movie. Even though Mantlo’s contribution was work-for-hire, meaning he doesn’t own Rocket, Disney and Marvel Studios made sure he got namechecked in the film’s closing credits. And in a show of good old-fashioned human decency, they even arranged for a private screening of the movie for him. According to his brother and legal guardian Michael:

Bill thoroughly enjoyed it, giving it his HIGHEST COMPLIMENT (the BIG “THUMB’S UP!”), and when the credits rolled, his face was locked into the HUGEST SMILE I HAVE EVER SEEN HIM WEAR (along with one or two tears of joy)! This was the GREATEST DAY OF THE LAST 22 YEARS for me, our family, and most importantly, BILL MANTLO!


I can only imagine how satisfying it must be for somebody to see one of their creations — a work-for-hire job from 40 years ago, no less — come to life on the screen, and to know it’s going to reach millions, maybe even billions, of people before it’s all done. That he now has audiences who weren’t even born in 1976 about to discover and love his work… For someone who frankly has lost almost everything a human being has to lose… well, it’s got to be hugely emotional. And hugely gratifying. I’m so glad Bill was able to see that, to have one little moment of victory in a day-to-day existence that’s otherwise pretty bleak.

One final note: Bill’s care is enormously expensive, and he has very little human contact beyond his caregivers, so Mike Mantlo encourages fans to contribute whatever they can, large or small, to help out, and also to reach out to Bill with a card or letter. I would like to make the same request of my Loyal Readers. If you enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, if Rocket and Groot cracked you up and touched your heart, if you have an action figure or a bobble head or a t-shirt with this character on it, send Bill a few bucks. The cost of a movie ticket perhaps. Give up an extra screening of the movie for the guy who helped make it happen. And send him a card to let him know how much we love that little furball… to let him know he’s not forgotten, and he’s not alone. That’s what I intend to do as soon as I finish this.

Details on donating and how to contact Bill can be found here. I hope you’ll consider it. We all love these stories about heroes saving the universe. But more and more I think true heroism comes from just reaching out to another individual human being, and offering to help even if we really can’t do much…



Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy


This entry is far beyond its window of relevance, considering there’s now probably only about a dozen people left on the planet who haven’t seen it yet, but for whatever it’s worth, I really, really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest entry in the interconnected film franchise that’s come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was everything I hoped it would be, and everything I’ve been craving for a while: a feel-good space adventure with likable heroes — hey, remember those?! — and a healthy sense of humor, balanced with just enough pathos and epic scope to keep the whole thing from tilting over the edge into outright comedy.

While I enjoyed the story and characters, honestly, a lot of the appeal for me was the environment of this movie. Like its distant ancestor, the original Star Wars, Guardians drops the viewer into a fully realized, busy, populated universe where it feels as if every individual on the screen has some life off the screen. We get the feeling that there are a billion stories in this universe and we’re only focusing on this one handful of characters for a while, that we could easily shift our focus to those guys over there and it would turn out to be just as entertaining. That sounds like no big deal, but it’s a trick very few sci-fi movies — very few movies in general, when you think about it — manage to pull off. I found myself really appreciating the sensation of verisimilitude, the feeling that I could crawl inside this movie and walk around and meet people. And since I had absolutely no background with this property going in, I also had the pleasure of discovering something entirely new. As much as I’ve enjoyed the other Marvel films — Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, as well as the X-Men movies (same comic-book publisher, different movie studio) — I already knew who those characters were and the rough outlines of their most famous adventures, so the pleasure I felt with those movies came from seeing how successfully they brought life to the familiar. Guardians, on the other hand, was a clean slate for me, and I dug the things it filled up with.

In addition, I liked the overall look of Guardians. It’s kind of a weird observation, but I was deeply struck by the way one of the main locations, the planet Xandar, was such a bright and sunny place, where the police aircraft are a shining gold and citizens wear brightly colored clothing. Such a refreshing change from the desaturated, grayscale visuals and perpetual nighttime setting of so many science fiction films in recent years.

I have to mention the soundtrack, naturally, which consists mostly of upbeat, bubblegum-flavored pop tunes from the 1970s. Kudos to director James Gunn for choosing just the right songs to evoke a mood, and for working with that old music I love so much instead of ironically mocking it.

About the only complaint I have with Guardians is one you’ve heard before, which is that the big action scenes are unfortunately cut in the jittery, zoom-in/zoom-out, lots-of-crap-flying-around, which-way-am-I-supposed-to-look style that’s been the vogue for the past decade or so, ever since those damned Bourne movies. I hate to admit this, because I’m fairly certain it’s a sign I’m getting old, but I simply can’t tell what the hell is going on in action scenes these days. Guardians wasn’t as bad in this regard as other flicks I’ve seen, but there were a couple of shots (mostly in the segment involving a dogfight in and around a place called Knowhere) that I had a lot of difficulty following.

Still, that’s nitpicking compared to the overall level of joy I received from this film. Honestly, how could I not love a space movie that references the Kevin Bacon classic Footloose? Am I right? And of course the cameo everybody’s been talking about absolutely made my night. Whoever thought we’d see that guy on the big screen again, in any form?


In Memoriam: Robin Williams

robin-williams_dead-poets-societyAnd I’d been having a relatively good afternoon, too.

I was nearing the bottom of my inbox at work for the first time in several days, and I’d finally forced myself to break away and go for my afternoon walk, during which the incongruous sight of a fully armored Imperial stormtrooper strolling up South Temple Street brought a smile to my face. (I’m guessing he was a cosplayer on his way home from some event, but really I have no idea what the deal was… there was simply a stormtrooper walking around in broad daylight in Salt Lake City on a summer day in the early 21st century, and how can you not smile at that?) When I got back to the office, I went up a floor to see my friend Waylon. He had some DVDs I wanted to borrow, and I also figured he, of all people, would appreciate my “Imperial entanglement.” He sits just off the emergency staircase and, as I came through the fire door and approached his cubicle, I saw the headline splashed across the top of his computer screen: “Robin Williams dead at 63.”

“Dude,” I said, “Tell me that’s another one of those stupid damn Internet hoaxes.”

Waylon turned to me and from the solemn expression on his face, I knew this wasn’t a hoax. And I felt like I’d just taken a crossbow bolt in the chest.

I was on the verge of tears all Monday evening thinking about it. The last celebrity death that hit me this deeply, as best I can remember, was Jim Henson way back in 1991. And I imagine Robin’s death is affecting me so deeply for similar reasons that Jim’s did: Both men’s work were constant fixtures in my life from a very early age, both had a tremendous influence on my sense of humor and my view of the world, and both left this world very suddenly and unexpectedly.

Like everybody else, I suppose, I first encountered Robin Williams when he played Mork from Ork, a naive extra-terrestrial trying to understand the mysterious ways of humans, first in an episode of Happy Days, then in the spin-off series Mork & Mindy. I don’t know if people today realize how insanely popular that show was, at least at first, but I remember it well. There were Mork dolls and lunchboxes and board games and tie-in books (even a Fotonovel, one of those curious late-70s publications that used stills from the show and comic-book-style word balloons to tell the story). I myself proudly wore a t-shirt emblazoned with Mork’s face and catch-phrases — the greeting “nanu, nanu,” and the expletive “Shazbot!”  And I had a pair of rainbow suspenders like Mork’s, and a wall calendar. Hell, I even named a pair of kittens we acquired around that time “Mork” and “Mindy.”

In the world of three-camera sitcoms that were comfortable but utterly predictable viewing, Robin Williams seemed as if he really was a space alien. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like his style: the weird, squeaky child voices and celebrity impressions he could launch into without a moment’s hesitation, the warped-lens view of the mundane world, the rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness delivery, the barely contained physical energy. In fact, his tendency to be in constant, restless motion led to the innovation of a fourth camera on the Mork & Mindy set, because he couldn’t stay in his marks.

Robin’s improvisational nuttiness bore some resemblance to Jonathan Winters’ (who would become a cast member in M&M’s final season, playing Mork and Mindy’s child), but only some. Beyond a certain point of comparison, Robin was just Robin, a uniquely odd performer. And yet, unlike other oddball comedians who were more or less contemporary — Andy Kaufman, say, or Stephen Wright, or even the great Steve Martin — Robin was lovable in addition to weird. He had a cuddly quality that only seemed to grow as he aged.

I was just a kid when Robin played Mork. By the time I was a teenager, I was thinking of him primarily as a stand-up comedian. As I mentioned recently, I went through a phase when I was obsessed with stand-up, and Robin’s HBO specials (which I saw on VHS tapes rented from my local mom-and-pop video store, as we didn’t have cable), and especially his record album Reality… What a Concept!, were favorites of my rebellious young self. His routines have the zaniness of Mork, but with the added transgressive appeal of being dirtier than hell, all delivered at a pace that leaves the viewer gasping for breath while he’s already three jokes ahead. My God, that man’s mind was fast. I’ve always been awestruck by the way he could pivot from one subject to another, jump in and out of fully realized characters, and improv off audience feedback faster than the average human being could even process what had just happened. I realize, of course, that some of that incredible tempo was surely a side-effect of the cocaine that Robin snorted by the bucketful back in the day… but not all of it. Even when he got older and clean, he was still faster than you or me. (I’ll be honest, Robin’s live performances could be exhausting, and I’ve always had to be in the right mood for one. But that doesn’t lessen my appreciation of them!)

But of course, it is as a movie actor that Robin Williams is going to be most remembered, and I’ve been very interested over the past couple days to see which of his movies people are mentioning with the most fondness. My lovely Anne immediately brought up Popeye and Hook. (For a film that’s so critically reviled, Popeye seems to be surprisingly popular, especially among folks who performed in high school musicals… or so it seems from my perspective.) My literary and cineaste friends are sentimental about The Fisher King, while parents are all about the films they can share with their kids: Jumanji, the Night at the Museum series, and, of course, Aladdin. Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage both seem to be pretty large touchpoints. And even Patch Adams, a flick I don’t really remember anything about except the treacly bad taste it left in my mouth, has gotten some love.

My own favorites are from the mid-point of his filmography, a pair of deeply humanistic and compassionate dramas that came out during my theater-usher days. Awakenings, released in 1990 and based on real events in the life of Dr. Oliver Sacks, bears some resemblance to the old story “Flowers for Algernon,” as we watch a comatose medical patient (played by Robert De Niro) re-emerge into full consciousness, struggle to deal with the ways the world has changed while he’s been “sleeping,” and then regress back into his unaware state. The final scene, in which Robin, playing the doctor who revived and then befriended De Niro, tries to find some solace is devastating… a quietly powerful bit of acting that’s so far removed from Mork from Ork that it’s hard to reconcile the two characters emerging from the same artist.

And then there is Dead Poets Society, which came out the year before Awakenings, in 1989.

Honestly, I’ve become somewhat ambivalent about this one as I’ve gotten older. The “carpe diem” thing quickly turned into a tiresome bumpersticker slogan, and really what the hell does it mean, anyhow? How is it really possible to “seize the day” — every day? — when so much of adult life is by necessity composed of repetitive, mundane activities you’d really rather not be doing, but have to do in order to hold it all together? Believing too strongly in “carpe diem” strikes me as just one more set-up for disappointment and failure in a world that’s already filled with those.

I’m also pretty dubious these days of the film’s idealistic messages about the power of literature and fighting the system and the possibility of each and every special snowflake living an extraordinary life. But then I’m speaking from the perspective of a chronically sleep-deprived, stressed-out, frustrated, disillusioned fortysomething. Back when the movie first came out, though… back then I was nineteen years old, planning to declare an English major in the fall, and dreaming of writing novels for a living. I don’t know that there could have been a target audience more precisely suited for Dead Poets Society than I was. All that jazz about sucking the marrow out of life and letting the words drip from our tongues like honey… God, that was seductive. I wanted that. For a brief time, because of this movie, I even considered becoming an English teacher, imagining of course that I would be the cool, unorthodox, inspirational variety of teacher like Mr. Keating, the character Robin Williams plays in the film.

Dead Poets no longer speaks to me the way it once did… but it remains important to me because I remember the sound of its voice, and the tingle it sent down my spine, and the ghost of the young man I was then. And it’s important to me because the movie itself, the artifact called Dead Poets Society (as opposed to the story, the art), was such a big motif in the backdrop of a very dear and all-too-short-lived period of my life, that glorious Summer of ’89, when I was young and in love with my girl, my car, and the endless possibilities you only seem able to see at that age.

On the days I worked while Dead Poets was playing, I used to duck into the back of the auditorium to watch the final scene. I must’ve seen that one scene a hundred times that summer. I prided myself on opening the theater doors at just the right moment, as the screen is fading to black and the bagpipes are kicking in on the soundtrack, fulfilling my duty as an usher to bring the audience back into the real world with a little bit of class. I’m not at all surprised that I’ve been hearing that music in my head ever since I read that terrible headline on Waylon’s monitor.

I like to think that before Robin Williams passed from this world altogether, bound for whatever lies ahead for all of  us in that undiscovered country, he was granted a brief moment to pause and look back and see how many of us have been standing on our desks this week in solidarity and affection for our fallen captain. I hope the sight made him smile.


What, Beards Are Cool Now? Really?

According to a lighthearted study commissioned recently by Wahl, a company that makes electric hair-trimmers, the fifth most facial-hair-friendly city in America is…Salt Lake? Seriously?! You’ll forgive me if I have difficulty believing that. My own personal experiences as a bearded man living in clean-cut Mormondom have largely been to the contrary.

I was once told in a job interview — an interview for a position that would have had me working alone in a back room with no contact whatsoever with the public — that I would have to shave my beard and make myself “presentable” if I wanted the job. More than one young lady shot down my request for a date because they didn’t like “scruffy” men. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve practically heard the record-scratching sound effect upon entering a room because I was the only male in the place with facial fuzz. (I should point out, for the record, that I’ve always kept my beard neatly trimmed. Think of Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation; I didn’t deliberately emulate him, but our styles were similar. Which is one of the reasons why hearing negative remarks about my whiskers has always pissed me off so badly, because they don’t look scruffy, which naturally has made me all the more determined over the years to hang onto them.)

Of course, all these incidents were 20 years or more ago, and I will concede that if I really think about it, I see a lot more mustaches, beards, and assorted variants out there than I used to, especially downtown. Which I suppose makes sense, since I’ve read that metropolitan Salt Lake City is the most liberal spot in the state, with a demographic breakdown that’s now less than 50% Mormon. (The ‘burbs, on the other hand, are far more homogenous… and conservative.)

Old paradigms die hard, though, and I still tend to think my beard marks me as an outsider… a loner… a rebel. Learning that times have apparently changed and I now live (or at least work) in one of the beard-lovingest places in the whole bloody country… well, that’s going to need some time to sink in…

Incidentally, if you’re wondering what other cities are down with ‘staches and whiskers, here’s the rest of Wahl’s list, in order from top to bottom:

1. Boston
2. Los Angeles
3. Miami
4. Chicago
5. Salt Lake City
6. Minneapolis
7. Austin
8. Seattle
9. Denver
10. Nashville
11. Dallas
12. San Diego
13. Philadelphia
14. Houston
15. Detroit
16. New York
17. Indianapolis
18. Atlanta
19. Washington, D.C.
20. Pittsburgh

(Originally spotted at Boing Boing. Of course.)



Can Everyone Take a Deep Breath, Please?

I’ve seen a number of panicky Facebook posts and tweets about the Ebola crisis today, no doubt fueled by the news that a couple victims of that dread disease are now here in the U.S. instead of safely isolated on the other side of the world, and — I have to be honest — they’ve really annoyed me. Yes, Ebola is scary shit, and the idea of a pandemic wiping out the human race is one of my deepest fears, even worse than my worries about a nuclear holocaust followed by an army of chromium skeletons systematically exterminating the survivors. (Seriously, I grew up in the latter days of the Cold War, when Ronnie Ray-Gun had his finger on The Button and every third movie, TV show, and pop song was telling us we were all going to die in a planetwide crop of mushroom clouds; I jest because I remember what that fear was really like.) But everybody needs to take a deep breath and apply some rational thought to this Ebola thing.

The truth is, Ebola is actually pretty hard to contract, and the odds of it breaking out in any serious way in the United States — let alone turning into something out of The Stand — are extremely long. The Centers for Disease Control website has a lot of good information on the subject; the CDC has also produced a calming infographic, which I’m just going to leave here….


You’re welcome.



Three-and-a-half years have passed since my coworker Julie Ann Jorgenson — a smart, beautiful, vibrant young woman — was killed in the frigid pre-dawn hours of a gloomy January day. She was in her car, stopped at a traffic light in downtown Salt Lake, when a speeding pickup truck plowed into her little Mazda with enough force to push it through the intersection and partway up the next block. Julie’s car burst into flames on impact and was quickly incinerated… with Julie still inside. I still struggle with the image of her lovely face and hair being consumed by fire. I want to believe she was killed on impact, before the fire reached her, but… well, let’s just say that a vivid imagination is a real curse sometimes, because I can see other ways it might have happened as clearly as if I had stood there watching.

Yesterday, the man who was driving the pickup, Shane Roy Gillette, was sentenced for the crimes of manslaughter and “operating a vehicle negligently causing injury or death.” He received two consecutive prison terms that could max out at 10 years. He’ll also be required to pay $5,000 in restitution.

According to the defense, Gillette was suffering from a psychotic delusion at the time of the accident, convinced that he was being attacked and was running for his life. Now medicated and rational again, he’s expressing remorse and lamenting that he’ll have to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life. I’m not unsympathetic to the guy. At least, I’m not now. (Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I wrote some pretty unkind things about Gillette back when this first happened, and then later got schooled by his brother, who somehow tracked me down after stumbling across my remarks.) He is a fellow human being, after all, and it’s not like he set out to deliberately harm anyone.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Julie is dead… suddenly, shockingly, and forever denied whatever future awaited her. And if I’m honest with myself, I find I’m still really angry about that. And I barely knew her, really. I can only imagine how her family and loved ones must feel.

If you were in Shane Roy Gillette’s shoes, what would you do — how would you spend the rest of your life — to try to atone for something like that? Is atonement even possible for something of that magnitude? Would you even bother to try? And how could you live with yourself if you didn’t? Stories of redemption tend to have a profound effect on me these days. There’s a certain category of movies and novels that will reduce me to sobs in fairly short order, because I so want to believe that you can somehow make up for the huge mistakes and failures of your life. But honestly, I think a big reason those stories are so appealing is because I know, somewhere deep down, that they’re impossible. Mere wish fulfillment. That there are things you just can’t take back and that you just can’t fix, no matter how long you live or how hard you try or how much you want it.