Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jottings from the notebook

Aim therefore at no less than all the world.
        -- Milton, Paradise Regained. (Spoken by Satan, of course.)

The earth turns over, our side feels the cold.
        -- WH Auden

The deepest trap is to think about where I haven’t been, instead of where I’m going.

“Why is it always the ones who can’t fulfill them who have the power to get your hopes up?”
“They’re your hopes; bet them on a higher number.”

The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.
-- Raymond Chandler

The harder you push it away, the tighter it clings to you.

A poet once told me that originally the poet’s job was to name the things of this world.  In a way, I am trying to name things with my emotions.
        -- Lili Taylor

The highest purpose of poetry is to keep us from listening to fools.
-- Leopold Froehlich

“He says hello like the word could unzip the back of my dress.”

That roar which lies on the other side of silence.
-- George Eliot, Middlemarch

You know you do something right when you lose something.
        -- Tift Merritt

Being creative and being marketable: a bull surrounded by barbed wire.

My weapon against the world is another vision of the world.
        -- Jorge Teillier

As a writer, I think he chews out loud.
         --- Peter DeVries

Love is the only thing we have the right to be totally selfish about.

Marriage: a minimum of temptation with a maximum of opportunity.
        (after Shaw)

Marriage: a sort of friendship recognized by the police.
        -- Robert Louis Stevenson

“I’m sorry I never got back to you.”
“But you did get back to me--silence is also a response.”

Good things always come to an end; bad things must be stopped.
        (after Kim Newman)

I only see the trail when I look back.

Disco’s Dead And You’re Next
        (one day I’ll write a thriller with this title)

New York City is the capital of a country that has no borders.

Only a banker’s wife can show you Hell.
        -- one sentence review, Dante’s Inferno.

Blondes all have something to hide, brunettes all have something to prove, and the only sane redheads are orangutans.

From the great deep to the great deep he goes.
        -- Tennyson, Idylls of the King.

“You’re like the moon.  I know you have a dark side, but the way you always face me, I can’t see it.”

My soul and the internet: a giant weighed down by snowflakes.

He who would flee from bad taste is riding for a fall.
        -- Pablo Neruda

The ones who are dead inside live the longest.

It is the second job of literature to create myth.  But its first job is to destroy that myth.
        --Kenzaburo Oe

This body where I live: my dear assassin.

When Lear is mad, he speaks prose.
        -- Joshua Mehigan

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Forget it, Oz--it's China Town."

Remember Peter Jackson’s King Kong?  Y’know--the one that threw such a huge special effects budget at a beloved classic that it made you want to go home and re-watch the original?  Welcome to Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful, which does the exact same thing to The Wizard of Oz.  Seriously -- the novelization of this film begins with the words "You don't know about me without you have seen a 1939 movie directed by Victor Fleming."

So what can you say about a movie that can only stand on its own two feet by grabbing an 84-year-old crutch?

1.  If you don't like James Franco, you'll hate the movie.

2.  Even if you do like James Franco, he comments when he should commit.  So you’re probably going to be annoyed as hell whenever he opens his mouth.

3.  Speaking of which, the man’s facial hair goes back and forth between scruffy Ethan Hawke beardage to immaculately sculpted goatee, sometimes within the same scene. Hey Disney--next time you spend a couple of hundred million dollars on a special effects movie? Earmark ten grand for continuity, okay?

4.  And speaking of continuity, Franco’s character seems to have had a cardiectomy at birth, and only grew a heart because the script says he had to. 

5. Giving the good witch a father complex and making the bad witch go bad because she was jilted by a gigolo: take that, powerful women!

This was a big problem for me.  When I think of Oz, I think of spunky heroines, women who are much more powerful than men, and a huckster who’s pretty much venerated by Ozites the way Emperor Norton was venerated by San Francisco.  What I do not think of is women who are suckers for a con-man even when they have his number, or women with magic powers who are too dumb to recognize a gigolo when his every look says I AM A GIGOLO, and then go all Gossip Girl on his ass when they see the truth.  Seriously: what kind of woman says “Revenge on the whole world!” instead of “What an asshole!” when she finds out her Romeo is a roamer?

THE SCREENPLAY WRITERS: A Hollywood writer’s idea of a woman.
ME:  Oh right; silly me.

6.  Also--since the Wicked Witch of the West is the Oz version of Miss Gulch, isn’t she specific to Dorothy?  Making her the creation of the Wizard is yet another way this movie undermines its female characters by saying “She really wants a man in her life.”

7.  Thanks to the end of this movie, I now have to use a ton of mental floss to wipe away the image of Billie Burke and Frank Morgan bumping uglies.

8.  Thanks to the beginning of this movie, I now have to use a ton of mental floss to wipe away the possibility that the wizard’s sweetheart Annie is marrying John Gale because (thanks to the wizard) she’s pregnant with Judy Garland.

9.  The monkey in the bellhop uniform was supposed to have been given laugh lines, writers.  Try to remember that when you work on the sequel, okay?  Or else pay Zach Braff double for making you look good.

10. Not enough Rachel Weisz.  Although now we know who’s going to die under that Kansas farmhouse in about fifteen years.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Eulogy for Norman Wells

Almost 29 years ago now, after I delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, and I was heading back to New York City, Dad drove me to the Route 128 station, waited with me till my train pulled in, and then when we hugged goodbye, he said, “You did her proud.  I hope you can do the same for me when the time comes.”

Well, the time has come, Dad, and all I can say is: you did us proud.  

There are all kinds of luck in life.  Ours was in having Norman Joseph Wells as a father.

If you were never lucky enough to meet him, but you met one of the five of us, then you met Dad.  He was a handsome devil with a room-filling laugh, a scholar who taught himself a language so he could translate a book, a father and a grandfather who wrote out his cards and letters with a calligraphy pen, a guy who could correct a test and watch a Bruins game at the same time, and a dimly-seen figure sitting on the edge of my childhood bed reading Treasure Island to me before I went to sleep. 

It’s always dangerous to simplify, but I think it’s safe to say that, at heart, my father was a teacher.  Which is not what I ever said when people would ask me what he did.

When people would ask me what my father did, I would either tell them the truth, and say, “He’s a professor of medieval theology at Boston College;” or I would tell them the truth, and say, “Dig up twenty people who died before Thomas Aquinas, and he could talk to all of them.”  And, with the possible exception of Aquinas, win an argument with every single one.  

 He taught for over 40 years at BC, and because every professor in the department was required to teach the equivalent of Philosophy 101, football players and classics majors and pre-law and pre-med students were all lucky enough to get a blue book back with impeccable Palmer Method notes in bold red ink detailing errors in spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and—oh yes—philosophy as well.   This is why everyone in our family has had the experience of a total stranger coming up to us and saying, “I knew your father; he taught me Descartes.”  And, because Dad also taught at St John’s Seminary, sometimes that total stranger would have a cassock and a collar.  We’d be at a wedding, a christening, a confirmation, or a funeral, and there’d be the priest, or the Bishop, suddenly acting like an 18-year-old and saying, “Dr. Wells—how are you?”  

That’s what happens when you’re a teacher.  No matter how old your students get, they always look up to you as someone to respect, to emulate.  Especially when you’re a good teacher.

Now, if I said, “Good teachers make good fathers,” Dad would say I was writing a Robert Frost poem.  But it would still apply.

And if I said, “A man’s life is lived forwards but only understood backwards,” Dad would tell me that I’m misquoting Kierkegaard. But it would still apply.  In the end, the tranquility of his acceptance, not just of his own personal condition, but of the condition to which we all are subject, was nothing short of angelic.  

But if I said, “Even when you’re lucky enough to get to know somebody inside and out, there are still so many places inside that can surprise you,” I don’t think he’d give me an argument.  

For instance: I said five of us earlier.  Actually there were six.  Mom had a preemie—a premature baby—between Kevin and David, a baby who lived long enough to be baptized with the name of Joseph, and then died.  I remember her telling me once, while the two of us were drinking tea and smoking Larks in the kitchen, that she had asked Dad one night, out of the blue, “Do you ever think about the baby we lost?”  “Every day,” Dad said.  And that’s all he ever said.  And all he ever had to say.  

In the movie Amour, which just won the Oscar for best foreign film, you watch a husband caring for his wife as she slowly deteriorates before his eyes.  And notable in its absence, the title of the movie, the word love, is not spoken once in the entire film.  

It doesn’t have to be.  You see it in action.  I was lucky enough to see it in action when Dad was taking care of Mom, almost 30 years ago.   And anybody who watched my sister and my brothers take care of Dad in the last few years saw it in action as well.  

That stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere.  It gets passed on.  Jenna, Eric, Dennis, Alyssa: it’s in you now.  Pass it on, you guys.

Life is funny.  If you’re lucky, you get to live long enough to become an orphan.  And if you have siblings and you’re really lucky, then you get to live long enough to become an only child.  It’s a bitter gift, but Dad was lucky enough to be both.  He embodied, in the best way the words of Descartes when he wrote: “To know who people really are, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say.” 

That’s how Descartes would describe Dad.  Here’s how I’d do it.  Because I am who I am, and who I am is my father's son, it’s in the form of a sonnet--a sonnet I wrote on the train ride here from New York.  It’s titled “Philosophy.” 


    It’s not what you believe; it’s how your life 
    Embodies your beliefs—not quotes or facts 
    You weaponize while fighting with the wife,
    But offhand comments and impromptu acts.
    It’s what you do because it just makes sense;
    What gets said when your inner-you voice talks.
    It’s who you are when there’s no audience 
    But God, that stern gent in the upper box.
    Show me a man who lives his life like that
    And I’ll show you my father—someone who
    Has so much going on under his hat
    And in his heart, that what else can he do  
        But laugh, and roar, and take great care, and give; 
        And, if you’re lucky, teach you how to live.