That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

And I dance with your ghost, oh but that ain’t the way.

Posted by kozemp on February 10, 2018

I came late to the Gaslight Anthem. I don’t mean late in life – although I suppose by the strictest definition I sort of do – but late in the band’s career. I showed up late to the game. I missed the first period.

I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but one day four or five years ago I somehow fell down a wiki-hole and ended up googling “jersey shore sound.” This led me to links to a bunch of different acts, five or six if I recall, that were meant to be emblematic of that Jersey Shore sound.

I know for a fact that I listened to all of them, but the only one that stuck with me was The Gaslight Anthem. I loved these guys. The Gaslight Anthem are the foremost group who grew up listening to Springsteen, but something happened to them and instead of just another poetic roots-rocker the music got pushed into this odd place, a melange of that Jersey Shore calliope sound and something harder and rougher – punk, more or less, but it’s more than that.

If – getting broad here – the core question of Bruce Springsteen’s music is how we live with each other, the core of Brian Fallon and TGA is the question of how we live with ourselves. I used to joke that I wanted to make a jukebox musical from Gaslight Anthem songs, and it would be about the guy with the worst luck with women who ever lived, coming to realize that he was the problem all along. There’s a pretty clear line you can trace through their work, I think, and it’s not insignificant the album about Brian’s divorce was the band’s last.

It’s also not insignificant that of all the bands I listened to that week the Gaslight Anthem, whose throughline is “his problems with women were his fault all along” is the only one that stuck with me longer than a minute, but that’s another show.

So, like I do with a lot of things I fell immediately and head over heels in love with their music and spent weeks and months listening to it almost nonstop.

***

I don’t remember where we were going – I want to say I was driving him to a train someplace – but I picked my friend Danny up one day and as we were driving away I fired up the album Handwritten on my phone and “45” started playing.

“The Gaslight Anthem, John?” he looked at me. “Really?”

“What?” I said. “I just found these guys. I love this shit. You don’t like it?”

“No,” he said. “They’re fine. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.”

“I like that sort of thing.”

“This song is on the loading screen for NHL 13,” Dan said. “I like the band but I’ve heard this song like a million times.”

This was literally the worst possible thing Danny could have said to me.

I spent the next three years tormenting him with “45” every chance I could get. It started out simple, just posting the video of the song to his Facebook or texting him the Youtube link directly. Nothing even remotely subtle. Just sending him the link, trying to make him watch it. Le Chiffre-esque, I eschewed exotic tortures and just went for blunt force trauma.

When that stopped working I moved on to more esoteric measures. First came straight-up rickrolling him. I would send him a text with some tease like “hey did you see this Hazard goal?” and the accompanying video would be “45.” I would do similar things on Facebook and utilize the “hide preview” button so that he wouldn’t be able to tell it was TGA without clicking through. Eventually he told me he just wouldn’t look at any videos from me anymore without knowing exactly what they were. I started using bit.ly and got informed for my trouble that he wouldn’t look at any links period.

I would have to work harder.

At this point – I’d been at this for more than a year by now – I realized I couldn’t just try to get him to watch the music video any more. I had to make him FEEL the song. So I would randomly cut and paste lyrics onto his Facebook page. When we were at the pub or on the train to the Rock I would idly hum the melody during breaks in conversation. This drove him nuts. It was great.

Finally, one day I unleashed my pièce de résistance on him.

I spent the better part of an entire morning at the pub describing a fictional woman I had met, and the fictional tribulations we’d been through, leading up to a fictional date that was an absolute fictional disaster. It was a classic tale of my woe and ineptitude with the fairer sex (or Brian Fallon’s) that he had heard many similar versions of over the years, but I sprinkled fairy dust throughout so at the denouement, summarizing how hopeful I had been at the start and how crushed I was at the end by the terrible fictional things that had transpired with this fictional woman, I could look at my friend, offer a mighty heaving sigh and say, “really, buddy, have you seen my heart? Have you seen how it bleeds?”

Danny stared at me for a solid ten seconds, a glare that would have made a Gorgon look away in terror, before he said, “I fucking hate you, John.”

It was one of the best moments of my life.

We went on watching the game. I drove him home afterward and played a different Gaslight Anthem album in the car. Danny sat there in silence the whole ride, trying to look angry and to not laugh. When I was really on he made that face a lot. God, I miss it.

***

Danny and I used to go to one or two Devils games a year together. Those were great times, always. Sometimes big groups of folks would join us, other times just him and I. At one stretch we went to Devils-Sabres at the Rock three years in a row and I got to heckle Ryan Miller with the classic “HEY RYAN YOUR SKATES ARE UNTIED!” (Dan’s response: “you’re better than that, John.”) We were there for Game 7 when the Hurricanes scored 2 goals in 87 seconds to end the season. Goddamn Eric Staal. Okay, actually, that time was not great, but still.

It was that Game 7 when I start when I started buying these collectible coffee cups every time we went to a game. At first I was on one of my occasional no-soda binges and needing something to drink at the arena I saw “ooh! A black plastic cup with a big red Devils logo on it!” and got one. I must have still been soda-free the next game we went to because I got another. And then another and another until it snowballed into one of those things I “had” to do. I have about half a dozen lying around here different places. At least two of them are currently holding paintbrushes. (Those don’t get used for coffee again.)

After his daughter was born we never managed to make it work so we could all get up there. Those were rough seasons anyway, and I didn’t feel too bad about missing out on games when they weren’t very good. It’s not like popping on the El to head down to a Phillies game, which I’ll still do usually at least once a season, even through the nigh-constant rebuilding years. It’s 80 solid miles from here to the Prudential Center; not exactly something you can decide to take in on the last minute, and it’s not an appetizing prospect to spend two-plus hours each way driving back and forth to Hamilton and riding NJT to watch the Devils lose 5-2 to the Capitals. Again.

So there was a gap there of about two years or so where I didn’t make it to a game in person. But I had found NHLTV by then and gotten their subscription package and I could very easily watch the Devils lose 5-2 to the Caps (again) in the comfort of my own home. Danny and I would text back and forth when he knew I was watching the game. Dan knew hockey, I mean really KNEW it. He wrote about the game for a bunch of different newspapers and websites, appeared on podcasts, the whole works. He knew hockey in a way I don’t really know any sport, but we would still maintain almost constant text conversations throughout games. Usually his texts were about some high-level hockey strategy that went completely over my head and my texts were either a) baiting him into messages like that with purposefully boneheaded analysis, or b) taunting him about poor goalie play.

We argued about goalies all the time. He’d always say “not every goal is on the goalie.” I would counter with something like “so all five goals were the defensemen’s fault?” We would usually have this argument on nights when the Devils were egregiously bad. We would usually have this argument on those nights because I would instigate it. At one point, in the pub a few mornings after one of these arguments, I asked “can you hear me cackling when I text that?” He assured me he could.

The last text Danny ever sent me wasn’t during a hockey game. It was a question about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on a random Thursday night last winter. I didn’t answer. I read it, thought about it, realized the answer was fairly complex, and resolved to talk about it with him at length later. The call from his wife Steph came that Sunday morning and now I still go back and look at that text on my phone and kick myself for not saying SOMETHING that night. The one time in my life I declined the invitation to pontificate about Indiana Jones. I can’t make up stuff that sad. I’ve tried.

***

In the aftermath of Danny’s death I wrote that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to a Devils game ever again. I didn’t watch a single minute of a game for the rest of last season after that weekend, putting hockey out of my head for a few months. Even on television it hurt too much to think about. I kept something of an eye out, mainly through the Devils subreddit – I knew they were still pretty bad, that Taylor Hall was having trouble fitting in, that, as Danny would always tell me, Cory Schneider was playing great but the defense in front of him was terrible. I read the headlines and occasionally dove into the comments but never participated. I didn’t want to be part of it.

I recognize now that was the exact wrong reaction, in no small way because when it comes to the Devils being part of it is the whole point. I’ve talked before about how in my experience Devils fans as a group are slightly nicer than other hockey fans because everyone is coming to the team from a distance. It’s not like the Flyers or the Rangers or whoever where you go to work and then pop right down to the arena for the game afterward, where the team is always right there next to you. Even local Devils fans are coming from someplace far away. (I mean, I assume there are SOME fans in Newark, but not many, and nobody lived in the Meadowlands.) Everyone is coming that distance, everyone is going out of their way, and instead of being cranky and mean about it there’s a sort of shared camaraderie of “well, we came all this way, let’s not spoil it.” I’m not saying there aren’t jerks and louts – there are anyplace large numbers of people gather – but my experiences with other Devils fans have always been positive.

My experiences have always been positive and when being part of something positive would have helped the most I was purposefully shutting it out. I was shutting it out because I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was shutting it out because, like Jim Kirk in Wrath of Khan, I’d never even considered dealing with it.

Make no mistake – when Kirk says he’s never faced death, this is what he (and David) meant. Not that he’s never faced his own death. No one ever really can. That’s the genius of Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru; not that he cheated, but that he recognized the whole test is bullshit to begin with. Your own death is incomprehensible. What Kirk had never considered – and nether had I – was the possibility of someone he cared about dying, someone really close to him, and when it finally came it blindsided him the way it blindsided me.

The difference is that Kirk knew enough to lean on the folks around him to get through it. Me, I didn’t know even that, so I shut out a lot of what probably would have been a very useful support system and decided, like I’d done with so many things before, to go it on my own. If I’d had my estranged son around to tell me not to be so hard on myself I might have tried something different, but if my estranged son is out there he hasn’t shown himself yet. I dated my own Carol Marcus enough times that it’s certainly possible.

***

When the start of the season rolled around I saw something on r/Devils that intrigued me – the Devils finally had a podcast.

I had railed for years that the team needed one, that (for a while there) the only fan podcast we had was a dour, unfunny slog – such nabobs of negativity that Danny had actually stopped appearing on it – and that other teams were starting up their own in-house shows and goddammit, we should do that.

I had been reluctantly toying with the idea of watching a hockey game since the end of the preseason a few weeks before, in no small part because I had forgotten to turn off my recurring billing for NHLTV and they had already charged me for the first month of the season. I was about as far from hockey as I had ever been in my adult life. I vaguely knew the Devils had gotten the #1 pick in the draft, but on that day in October I couldn’t have told you Nico Hischier’s name if my life depended on it. I didn’t know if I wanted to watch a game or not. I certainly didn’t want to go to one.

But a podcast! I love podcasts. I’m a veteran of three of them – my first, in fact, was a Chelsea podcast I did with Danny and our friend Tim. And the Devils podcast I’d been demanding for years to boot. I couldn’t very well not give it a cursory listen, at the very least.

I was sitting at my dining room table working, with my phone connected to the Bluetooth speaker on the kitchen counter. I tapped through the menus on Downcast until I found it – the New Jersey Devils All-Access Podcast – and started streaming the most recent episode.

The podcast started and the opening bars of “45” came out of my little gray speaker and I burst out crying.

I gripped the edge of the table – a familiar move, the last two years – tried to calm down, and thought, “of COURSE that’s the fucking theme music.”

The Devils had changed their goal music to Howl, another Gaslight Anthem track, a few years before – a change I liked – and it made sense that they’d stick with TGA for the podcast. There are worse things, certainly, than associating your team with a beloved local band. At that moment, though, it was just about the most awful thing in the world.

Once I let go of the table I pawed for my phone and stopped the player, then sat there trying to take deep breaths for a while.

It occurred to me that in addition to not watching a hockey game since Danny had died I hadn’t once listened to Handwritten either.

I got my breathing and my heartrate under control and looked down at my phone. The details of the show were still up on the screen: “Episode 3: The Return of Chico Resch.”

One of the things I occasionally quip – and always mean seriously – is that when the universe is telling you something, you have to listen.

Like pretty much every Devils fan, I would jump in front of a train for Chico Resch. He’s the wacky uncle to all of us and is maybe the most beloved figure in the entire organization. (Martin Brodeur is a lot of things, but I don’t know that “lovable” is one of them.) It was a legitimately sad day when he left the broadcast booth, like when that wacky uncle moves away and doesn’t have Facebook to keep in touch because, well, he’s your wacky uncle and folks of that generation are not great Facebook users.

A Devils podcast, led off by the Gaslight Anthem, with “the return of Chico Resch” (whatever that meant) was definitely the universe trying to tell me something. Specifically, it was telling me to take some more deep breaths, calm down dammit, and spend half an hour listening to this podcast.

I turned it back on and two voices came on, a man and a woman doing podcast intro banter, talking about their new show and how things were starting out. I believe there was an early mention of the now-ongoing regular fries vs. sweet potato fries debate.

I distinctly remember thinking that Amanda Stein had the most Canadian voice I’d ever heard.

I had gotten up from the dining room table and was busying myself in the kitchen while listening, emptying the dishwasher and shit whatnot, repeatedly thinking, “this is really good. It’s rough and new, but it’s really good.” Then the interview with Chico came on and as soon as I heard his voice I actually stopped what I was doing and smiled. Chico. God it was good to hear him again.

Hearing Chico Resch made me think of Danny and not be sad for the first time since I’d gotten the phone call from Steph.

And I would be able to hear him more! The “return” the title talked about was that he was going to be doing color on the Devils’ radio broadcasts. That alone made my heart leap a little bit, the chance to hear Chico on the regular. But that wasn’t even all. He was going to join Twitter! CHICO RESCH WAS GOING TO BE ON TWITTER! I was going to have regular access to his thoughts! CHICO ON TWITTER!

Sometimes the universe tries to tell you things. And then sometimes the universe looks at you, and raises its eyebrows in that “seriously, man, come ON” look and demands you get with the goddamn program.

The show ended and I subscribed to it in Downcast.

I looked at the schedule and saw that the Devils would be playing the Capitals the next night.

I said out loud to my empty kitchen, “okay, fine, I’ll watch.”

The next night after work I sat in front of the TV, fired up my NHL app, and watched the Devils lose to the Caps 5-2. Again.

***

After I watched the game I set up a “Devils” column in Tweetdeck. I added Chico to it first. I also added Amanda and Arda, the nice folks from the podcast. I added a couple players, the team accounts, some reporters.

It was slow – I was listening to a podcast, reading some stuff on Twitter, and had watched a single game – but hockey was something I could bear to think about again. I started paying a little more attention to r/Devils. Eventually I started joining in on game threads and other discussions.

I watched another game the next week, and another and another.

Watching those Devils games, those early ones back in October, was hard. After every memorable play, good and bad, for the first few weeks I would pick up my phone every time. The muscle memory was still there – something would happen on the ice, and I’d pick up my phone to text Danny something stupid about it.

Four months later I don’t pick up the phone anymore, but I do still think about it. Every time. I compose the text in my head and think about his reaction before I can remember there won’t be one, but at least I don’t pick up the phone anymore. Most of the time, at least. Every now and then the thought and the joke plow through everything and I find myself holding the phone and I end up texting our friend Tom, also a Devils fan, who I hope is watching the game. Sometimes he is and we have a nice back-and-forth.

Tom is another one who knows the game way better than I ever will. I was always a Devils fan more than I was necessarily a hockey fan, but I’m trying to learn a little now. I even read Wyshynski’s loathsome book about hockey strategy and managed to learn a few things from it (the ratio of time spent learning to time spent muttering “oh Jesus Christ” was highly unfavorable). I wish I had learned before – I wish just once I could have had a conversation with Danny about hockey that was close to his level – and the irony of finally doing that now is, believe me, really, really not lost on me. But I’m learning anyway.

***

For that first month or two, the thought of going to an actual game never crossed my mind. I could watch on TV, and I was participating more and more in the discussions on the Devils subreddit, but actually going up to the Rock was still a bridge too far. Being there, I was convinced, would be somehow “different” in some way I very carefully refused to define.

I stuck by that until I want to say sometime in early December, when out of nowhere I texted Tom, “we should find a Devils game to go to.”

I’m not entirely sure why I did that, and I don’t recall any specific moment of breakthrough or catharsis where I thought, “you know what, I think I’d be okay now to go to a Devils game, let’s round up the boys.”

Even still, before I knew it I was scrolling through the Devils’ schedule and I sent to Tom, “how about Devils-Bruins on 2/11?”

What the hell was I doing? I was still terrified of the thought of going to the Rock. It was like my fingers had a mind of my own, or I’d been infected by Snow Crash, or I’d finally had the psychotic break a lot of those Carol Marcus types had assumed was coming sooner or later. Why was I picking out dates for me and Tom to go to a game? It was madness.

Then I started texting OTHER people to see if THEY wanted to go to the game with us. Other friends of mine who were Devils fans. A friend who is a Bruins fan. I told Tom to see if any of HIS friends wanted to join us.

This one, at least, I knew what was happening: if I was going to plunge headlong into danger (a la a certain captain) I would surround myself with friends in an attempt to…lessen the blow? Provide moral support? Pick me up if I walked into the Rock and fainted? All of the above? Possibly.

The thing had gotten away from me now, though. Invites were flying all over the eastern seaboard. And if we’re being honest – and I hope I am, at least, it’s always a little dicey but that IS the idea – ever since we agreed to it I have been dreading going to this game tomorrow.

Not just dreading, though. I mean, definitely dreading, yes. I have no idea how I’m going to react when I walk into that arena tomorrow, when I first see the ice and the folks in their jerseys. There is a nonzero chance I’m going to have a total fucking meltdown when I get there.

You know what I’m really dreading, though? I’m dreading buying coffee. The thought of going to get one, for some reason, is almost as scary as actual things like being there for the first time without my friend. This is the thing I’m fixating on. The goddamn coffee cup. I recognize this is my brain doing gymnastics to try and get me to avoid thinking about actual things that are painful but COME ON: the coffee cup? I really feel like a brain that can do the things mine can should come up with a more interesting effort than that.

But I’m not only dreading it. For all the parts of my brain that are Kirk in his quarters trying to shut out everything that’s happened, still refusing to deal with death, there is another part that is Kirk on the bridge with Bones and Carol, searching for new life in the sunrise, finally dealing with death the only way we can that actually works: with other people propping him up.

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I know what I hope will happen. I’m going to walk into that arena with all the other people who came a long way to sit and be together, and hope I hear that Gaslight Anthem song, think of my friend, and feel young again.

JLK

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What are you then, Bill?

Posted by kozemp on February 6, 2018

I started thinking about it right before the playoffs started.

It was just an idea at first, something almost too silly to consider. “If the Eagles make the Super Bowl, I should go down and watch the game with my dad.“ It was ridiculous. The Eagles were not going to make the Super Bowl, so it didn’t really matter. A fancy, a little trifle.

Then the Eagles beat the Falcons, and I seriously started to consider it. Should I go down and watch the game with Dad? There are worse things in Florida in February, certainly.

Then the NFC championship happened, and somewhere around the third quarter together I decided “I guess I need to decide where I’m going to watch this game. Florida could be nice.”

I decided to go to Florida to watch the Super Bowl at around 1130 on the night of the NFC Championship, right before I needed to take a sleeping pill because of the neighborhood-encompassing party that was still going on.

So it was decided, I was going to head down to Florida to watch the game with my dad, and more importantly it was decided to not be in Philadelphia during the game. Not being at Philadelphia during the game turned out, I think, to be the smart play. The city didn’t end up destroyed, but this point I’m almost convinced that was an accident, as though there were some sort of cosmic force that was meant to destroy Philadelphia regardless of the game’s outcome, but, I don’t know, when no one was looking Reed Richards showed up with the Ultimate Nullifier and somehow everything worked out fine. If the worst thing that happens in Philadelphia is that a hotel canopy falls down, you’ve got to think that’s a win in and of itself.

Florida, though.

I don’t love flying. I never have. Technology has certainly made flying… not BEARABLE, over the years, but less awful. Once I went all-digital I stopped having to worry about something to do on a plane. (Admittedly I started having to worry about battery life on a plane, but that’s another show.) Once everything became cloud-based and I could more or less access everything I owned anywhere I wanted flying became the closest to “easy” it’s going to get, in this case meaning “I no longer need to take powerful narcotics to get through a flight.” Movies are my drug of choice on planes now.

Fun fact: The Force Awakens, from fanfare to credits, is EXACTLY the length of a flight between Philadelphia and Tampa. If I start the movie on takeoff it ends almost the second the plane touches down. Orlando is a little shorter, usually I have to start it on the tarmac before the actual takeoff sequence, but it’s pretty close.

You may also recall that my father was sick last year and I spent a good chunk of time shuttling back and forth between here and Florida, over and over again. I haven’t counted but I believe I have flown between here and either Orlando or Tampa eight times in the last two years. This, more than anything, is the primary reason I have seen The Force Awakens something like 17 times. I would watch it on the plane over and over again. Last spring, after I realized how wrong I was about Rogue One, I added that to my inflight playlist.

Star Wars while flying: better than drugs.

For some reason – possibly because I wasn’t flying direct for the first time in ages – I decided not to watch either on this trip. Could it be because for however much I love it (which is a lot) 18+ viewings of The Force Awakens may be a few too many? It’s certainly possible.

On the PHL-CLT leg, as part of the ongoing preparations for John Finally Goes To England, I decided to watch The World’s End.

My dad likes to say that the only “real” filmmakers any more are David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. I think in practice that statement is a little reductive but I get where he’s coming from with it. I don’t believe the “movies are all terrible now” whine from the cineaste-stroke-troll corner of the interwoobz – movies are fucking amazing now. I don’t even believe there’s more bad movies, or a greater percentage of bad movies, then there were at any pick-your-moment in film history. The only difference now, as with almost anything, is that you just know more about everything that’s out there.

Before I start getting angry about the opinion economy, back to my dad.

While I don’t necessarily think his math checks out I agree with his basic premise that there is a cadre of filmmakers who are way, way, WAY better than everyone else. The Tier 1 people. And yes, I agree that Fincher and Nolan are at the top of that list despite the Greek-tragedy-style fatal flaws they each possess. (Specifically, Nolan’s quixotic, Data-like quest to finally understand human emotions, and what we will diplomatically call Fincher’s problems with women.) I don’t know how much farther the list goes – there are lots of great filmmakers out there but there’s a huge gulf that separates that top tier from the “just great.” Call it a dozen for the sake of argument and round numbers.

I feel like I’ve been saying this for years, but Edgar Wright is in that dozen. Man can this dude fucking make movies.

This is not news to anyone who has more than a passing interest in movies but I’m not sure it’s getting over just HOW good he is.

Speaking of Nolan, a criticism I’ve heard of his movies is that they are too often “puzzle boxes,” less movies than riddles to be solved. This criticism is incorrect, but in a strange way it sort of DOES apply to Edgar Wright, whose movies are… is the word “constructed” right here? The “puzzle box” quip applies much more to Wright as his movies, at a micro level, are assembled with the precision of a Swiss watch. They’re vast assemblages of moving, interlocking parts and they SHOULD fall apart or seize up or explode altogether. I watched The World’s End last weekend and everything in it – EVERYTHING – does something. Every. Single. Thing. In the movie contributes in some way to the story he’s telling and works at drawing out the feelings – both conscious and unconscious – he’s trying to evoke.

In addition to being a great movie, with great performances, with a clear point of view and really strongly-developed themes, I realized this past weekend that The World’s End is also a brilliant object lesson in semiotics.

Every now and then I will watch or read something and come to a point where I just go, “this guy is smarter than me.” It doesn’t happen often. It happens with Edgar Wright all the time.

From CLT-TPA I pulled out the 2011 Gary Oldman version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of a book I love that I realized on second viewing is actually both a much closer and much looser adaptation than I had thought.

Let’s make something clear – this is Not A Movie For Everyone. It’s long. It’s a period piece. There are huge stretches without dialogue and ALSO a shitload of subtitles. There are plot machinations that you have to pay pretty strong attention to in order to really grasp what’s happening.

Note that I didn’t say it’s “a spy movie,” which might presumably turn off a segment of the viewing public. It’s not. It’s based on what is ostensibly a spy novel, that was adapted into a beloved spy miniseries. (A miniseries beloved by others, at least, I find it terribly indulgent.) But what Alfredson actually does is use the spy story as a framework on which to hang a series of stories about doomed love. It’s genius.

George and Ann. George and Karla. Prideaux and Haydon. Ann and Haydon. The plot of the movie – such as it is, with as much of it as Alfredson and O’Connor and Straughan bother to keep – completely hinges on the intense, life-defining relationships between these people and we literally NEVER SEE ANY OF THEM TOGETHER. Hell, in the movie’s single most genius stroke, Karla and Ann aren’t even in it at all. They’re just specters haunting the proceedings from a distance, unseen forces that push and pull at poor George Smiley, the literary ideal, the quintessential Good Man Who Has To Do Bad Things.

The George of the movie – and the book – has spent his whole life wishing he could lash out at Karla and Ann both. He never can. The closest he can get is Bill Haydon, who gets the only line in the movie that Gary Oldman delivers above a murmur. But even to his friend who betrayed him in every way possible George can only bring himself to raise his voice just a tiny bit for one second – and watching it I love that you can see Smiley decide “I am going to shout now,” and then he doesn’t, and you can see him decide, “it’s good that I didn’t shout.” All in a fraction of a moment, which gods like Gary Oldman can accomplish.

George can’t even bring himself to shout at Bill, not really, because deep down George knew what he was getting into. Just like Ricky and Irina, just like Peter Guillam, and just like Jim Prideaux.

I don’t know if there’s another movie that equates the spy business with the vicissitudes of broken love but if there is I guarantee it isn’t this good. And it’s probably still just a spy movie, which Tinker Tailor isn’t.

Speaking of Gary Oldman, before I headed back from Florida my parents and I went to see Darkest Hour, which was a fascinating movie experience.

My parents had actually seen it already, and when I talked to my father about it I said, “I assume, like all Joe Wright movies, that it is subtle and nuanced?” My father did not pick up on my sarcasm.

This movie is not subtle. It is not nuanced. Joe Wright is a smart guy and a great filmmaker but I’m fairly certain if you said either the word “subtle” or “nuance” in front of him he would blink a few times, tilt his head a little, and say, “excuse me, what?”

There are some artists who wield their art like a scalpel or a jeweler’s drill, who create work of intricate, almost delicate beauty. William Gibson. PT Anderson. Paul Simon. Joe Wright is not one of those artists. Joe Wright does not do subtle. Joe Wright does not do nuanced. Joe Wright wields his art like a 20-pound sledgehammer.

To be honest, speaking as someone who uses the English language as a blunt instrument, I sort of admire his dedication to the belief that a movie can be a battering ram.

Some movies would give you a little chyron in the corner telling you that the date is May 8, 1940. Not Darkest Hour! Not Joe Wright! Here, we dissolve into a hilariously-floodlit scene in Parliament – I’m a longtime viewer of Prime Minister’s questions, it does not look like that – and screen-filling, twenty-foot-high white Impact letters tell is it is “8 MAY 1940.” Oh, and we use the British day-then-month dating convention, because FUCK YOU! IT’S JOE WRIGHT!

The next two hours of what is essentially nothing but scenes of parliamentary procedure and meetings – seriously, people, MEETINGS – are delivered with more minute-long steadicam jobs, omniscient shots and combinations of the two than Stanley Kubrick could conceive in his wildest dreams, extreme closeups that could rouse Jonathan Demme from his grave, and, I swear to god I am not making this up, a combination battlefield miniature slash omniscient shot slash tracking shot that – I SWEAR TO GOD I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP – morphs into an extreme closeup of the face of a dead soldier on the battlefield. That is an actual thing in the movie. I laughed out loud at that, and the absurd titles, and any number of other things, not out of derision but out of a sort of disbelieving joy. I could not believe the things I was seeing were real in a movie about old British people talking.

And yes yes yes, Gary Oldman is great. Everyone in it is great. Everything in it is great. It would have to be, wouldn’t it? You can’t beat people about the head and neck with a cricket bat if the bat isn’t great. That’s what Joe Wright movies are – emotional and intellectual beatings.

My only complaint is that the scenes in the Underground didn’t have a quick cameo shot of Keira Knightley so we could establish the Joe Wright Cinematic Universe. What a terrifying prospect THAT would be.
JLK

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A Story For Christmas, 2017

Posted by kozemp on December 27, 2017

In the last week I’ve been asked why I am a Devils fan and why I am a Chelsea fan.

The answer to why I’m a Devils fan is pretty boring. I didn’t pay attention to hockey until I lived in New Jersey, and the person I started watching hockey with was a Devils fan. And here we are. As stories go it’s not exactly Jane Eyre.

The answer to why I’m a Chelsea fan is (I hope) a little more interesting.

When I first started watching soccer I spent a lot of time researching… well, researching everything. The different teams, the leagues, and eventually where you could go to watch games. This was 2004, mind, a long time before this insane golden age when the game is on anywhere and everywhere all the time. Back then short of maybe one game a week you might get on your local cable operator, if you wanted to watch soccer you had to go to a bar to do it.

And, again, not just any bar like you can now. As I recall, when I started my research on where I could go to watch games on a predictable basis, there were three places in the entire city of Philadelphia where you could do it. Two of them were right in the heart of Center City, and one was this place out in Olde City, right on the edge of Queen Village, that I’d never heard of. “The Dark Horse Pub.”

I spent a good long while trying to determine where to go and eventually decided that this Dark Horse place would probably be easiest and cheapest to park at.

I walked into this bar on a Monday afternoon and watched an absolutely dreadful goalless draw between Charlton and Southampton and before I knew it I was at that bar basically every weekend for almost ten years. I was working there. More or less my entire social life – and at the start I’d been sober for about 5 years – revolved around this soccer bar in Olde City for a decade.

I get that it was a little strange. I got it even at the time.

At the beginning, though, for the longest time I would just go and watch games. I didn’t care who was playing. I knew that I needed to watch more, especially if I wanted to understand what was going on. I started watching soccer – actually really watching it – with the 2004 Olympics and I distinctly recall not knowing why some balls that went over the line were goal kicks and some were corners until sometime in October. I could have googled the rules, I suppose. I’m not sure why I didn’t; for some reason I was determined to learn through osmosis, I suppose. Those days I would just get up and go to the Dark Horse and watch.

I learned quickly enough that some things were “bigger” than others. One of the last games I remember watching as a pure neutral was Manchester United v. Arsenal in October of 2004, which would have been Arsenal’s 50th game in a row without a loss but for some unfortunate events involving Wayne Rooney with Sol Campbell, and Ruud van Nistelrooy with Ashley Cole.

I didn’t care who was playing – at the time I barely KNEW who was playing – but I remember that day, sitting along the rail in the old Rigger Bar next to two Newcastle fans, with astonishing clarity.

I wasn’t a neutral for too long after that. I can’t recall exactly when, but an indeterminate number of weeks later – not too many – I was sitting in the main bar when some guy walked up to me.

“I see you here all the time, man, who’s your team?” he asked.

I said, “I don’t really have one. I just like watching. I’m kinda new.”

This random guy sort of looked just over the top of my head – he was and still is several inches taller than me – tilted his head to the side a bit and shrugged slightly, a gesture I have seen uncounted thousands of times since.

“Well, hey, man,” he said, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate a large group at the front of the bar. “Come hang out with us.”

Now understand: the time when I first started watching soccer was the absolute nadir of my existence. I was more miserable and unhappy and antisocial then than I have ever been at any point in my life. Not by choice, mind, just sort of by default. I’d learn eventually (really eventually, in some cases) that all of those things were fixable, but back then? On that day, in that month, in that year, in that place? The odds that I agree to the suggestion that I go hang out with a bunch of strangers are about 3,720 to 1.

I have replayed this situation in my head many, many times over the years, and the conclusion I keep coming to is this: I do not, for the life of me, understand why I said, “sure, okay,” and walked over to talk to those people. I have tried many times to figure out why but in addition to the mists of time – which grow ever mistier as the time gets farther and farther back – there’s some sort of weird mental block that is obscuring my thoughts at the time.

That day I went over to the front of the bar with this weird random guy to meet a bunch of random strangers – aka the ninth circle of social anxiety hell – and I’m fairly certain that I was a Chelsea fan by the time I left a few hours later. In the thirteen years since I have traveled with those people. I’ve been to Chelsea games all over the country with them. I’ve been to Chelsea games in other countries with them. I’ve been to their weddings. We have our own little Christmas party every year. I’ve been to their FAMILIES’ Christmas parties. I’ve spent thousands of hours over the years watching soccer games with them, and thousands of hours more not watching games, just hanging out.

I’ve been to their funerals.

And I have no idea why I started with them. For all of it, all these good and bad things that have happened to me over the years because I said “yes” and walked over and started talking with that group at the front of the bar, I cannot tell you what should be a simple thing: I can’t tell you why. And I need to know why. I don’t mean in this specific case – almost everything I do, every driving impulse I have, is because at the end of the day, I need to understand “WHY?”

I’m not claiming divine providence or anything specifically unnatural acted on me that day, but…

Look.

What we do matters, yes. I can’t imagine any reasonable argument against that, but more and more I am convinced that the reasons why we do those things matters just as much. Maybe more. Intent matters. Context matters. Symbolism or meaining or whatever you want to call it matters. Our lives may be the sum of the things we do but intent and context and symbolism and meaning make up the sum of what we ARE, and I am content to say that what we are is just as critical to being humans as what we do.

Yoda teaches us that “luminous beings are we,” which means that there’s no outward or physical manifestation of the most important parts of us. I tend to think Yoda is right about pretty much everything, but in this case I’m as sure about it as I am about anything, because if Yoda is wrong then Thomas Hobbes is right and our existence is nothing but a series of transactions from cradle to grave, a zero-sum game where no one ever adds anything to the world. And speaking in my capacity as the best poker player you know* I am here to tell you that is not what life is. It absolutely positively is not. I am more sure of this than I am of anything in this world. I have seen and heard and been a part of too many things the rational part of my brain cannot explain, too many extraordinary, inexplicable, magical things for that to be true. I have seen lives changed – forever, irreversibly, profoundly changed – by a few words or a simple gesture.

My life was forever changed for the better by five words in a bar and I guarantee that without them there is zero chance I’m here today sending out this silly little Christmas email for the 10th time or whatever it is. A life for five words.

We can change lives. The lives we change can change others. At the end of the day when the chips are counted, we can all be ahead. That’s the sort of power we have, all of us, and if comic books have taught me anything it’s that power needs to be wielded wisely, and “wielded wisely” is just another way of saying that intent matters. That symbolism matters. That “WHY?” matters. Our existence deforms the universe, like the lady in the comic book said, and THAT is responsibility.

So be good, for goodness’ sake.

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

* Unless one of you knows Daniel Negreanu.

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None of this has happened yet.

Posted by kozemp on September 14, 2017

I remember a night, many years ago, when Nick and I were at the Cherry Hill Diner.

I can’t imagine what we were doing there of all places – the only thing I can think of is that we must have been at the Loews for a movie, but even that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I want to say this was somewhere around 2008, give or take a year or so either way. I think Reg was in Arkansas, but when Nick and I were out late while she was gone we were usually much farther away than that.

When I wasn’t bitching about women or cards, we usually talked about soccer. It was different back then, before the sport seemingly was everywhere overnight; it was still an oddity you shared with your friends behind other people’s backs, like a secret society. Your main source of information back then, ironically enough, was a video game: FIFA taught me more about who was where in soccer more than years of staring myself blind at the BBC website ever did.

In my experience, a lot of the soccer fans I know have little satellite teams. You have your main side, the team you watch every week – or as much as your schedule allows, as we get older – but there are a couple you keep your eyes on, checking out the scores or the news to see what’s going on.This, also, comes as much from FIFA as anything. I support a fourth-division side in England called Cheltenham Town because when I first started playing the game you had to start your career with a lower-league team and work your way up, and I saw the list of possibilities and said “there’s a Cheltenham here, let’s go with them.” I’ve known Arsenal fans who also loved Real Betis in Spain and Chelsea supporters who are die-hard Napoli fans. There’s more than enough to go around; you could have a team in every league if you wanted.

I’ve tried to explain this to traditional American sports fans and, again in my experience, they usually seem to recoil in horror at the idea. It does not help that eventually I will get frustrated and try to explain why it’s okay with the phrase “Liet serves two masters,” which apparently has far less cultural penetration that soccer ever did.

That night at the Cherry Hill Diner, after we ate we were standing in the parking lot talking about the upcoming season, and who we’d like to see in the Champions League – this was, as I recall, a digression from a conversation about the European sporting concept of “fairness,” sarcasm quotes intended – and how both of us would like to see the competition widened rather than concentrated among the top teams.

“You know who I want to see in the group stages?” Nick said.

I said, half-joking, “Sheriff Tiraspol!”

Nick said, “yes!” and laughed.

Sheriff Tiraspol is a soccer team in Moldova that was founded by a police officer in the late 90s. Their team crest is literally a sheriff’s badge. I knew all of this from a combination of seeing them in FIFA and scouring Wikipedia during my downtime. I was enamored of this team from a city of 129,000 in Moldova – smaller than Cedar Rapids and four thousand miles farther away – because I had run into them a couple times in a video game, and their name was “Sheriff,” and I’d learned that they had a solid black away kit. I like solid black soccer kits, to a point that I once even looked at a black Liverpool shirt with something less than scowling distaste. I look good in black, after all.

Nick and I expressed as much to each other, though he wasn’t into the black away kit like I was. To date Sheriff still hasn’t made the group stage proper of the Champions League, though they’ve done well in some qualifiers and usually make a little noise in the Europa League every year.

Looking at LiveSoccerTV this morning I saw that their Europa League game against Fastav Zlin (a team from a Czech town of 75,000) was on one of the streaming services, and I could get a free trial and watch the game.

Ten years ago the odds of sometehing like this being televised anywhere in this country were almost zero. Jack Keane at Nevada Smith’s in New York might somehow be able to work his satellite magic and get it on a single TV or a laptop somewhere, but that was it, and if you got that there’s a good chance the picture quality would be so bad you wouldn’t be able to tell one side from the other. Whole teams and whole leagues were basically imaginary things that lived only on Wikipedia pages and video games and club websites in foreign languages. They almost weren’t real.

But now a team from Moldova is playing a team in the Czech Republic, on my big screen TV in my own living room in my own house, in high definition. The picture is so good I can see individual raindrops falling. I’m sitting here now, ten years or so later, actually watching Sheriff Tiraspol play for the first time.

They’re even wearing their black kit.

Before the show got ahead of the books, I used to joke with Game of Thrones fans who only watched the show that I could tell them what was going to happen and they wouldn’t believe me. I think it would be even more amusing to go back to that parking lot in the middle of the night a decade ago and tell ten-years-ago Me and ten-years-ago Nick what was going to happen.

I want to see the looks on their faces when I tell them I’m sitting here in the house I took on from my parents, with a random European soccer game on in the background and clear as day while I work remotely at a job I couldn’t have even imagined existed ten years ago, and Nick is watching his three year old son and two week old daughter in a house where my father played cards with his father-in-law when they were teenagers.

I want to tell them that even though on this particular day it’s just a soccer game on TV, and even though there’s a whole lot of terrible shit going on everywhere around them, living in the future is pretty fucking amazing.

Also, right before I pop back to the future, I’ll tell them Jon Snow dies and comes back to life.

JLK

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Dad, they come in through the doors.

Posted by kozemp on June 16, 2017

I’ve been having trouble getting out of bed lately.

Not trouble sleeping, mind. I’ve never been good in the mornings, but for at least the last god knows how many years that’s been mostly because I was never really sleeping. Since the nice doctors gave me the kickass CPAP machine at the end of last year, oh baby have I been sleeping.

But the last few months I’ve been having the damnedest time in the morning when I wake up. Before, my trouble in the morning was that I was always moving through quicksand. I’d get out of bed at 530 and I wouldn’t really even be awake until almost an hour later. That’s what happens when you haven’t slept for more than 8 or 10 minutes at a time in years.

That isn’t what’s happening now, though.

Now my alarm goes off at 530 – the opening song from La La Land – I wake up and turn it off, and then I just lay there. I’m not asleep, really. It’s not “oh, I’ll hit snooze and stay here for ten more minutes.” I don’t set a snooze on my morning alarm anymore. I turn it off and I just lay in bed awake. Sometimes for ten minutes. Sometimes for almost an hour. It’s not that I’m still asleep. It’s not that I want to go back to sleep. It’s not that my back hurts too much to get out of bed.

I just lie there, awake, not wanting to get up. I lie there until the thought of getting showered and dressed and making breakfast in time to leave for work would mean rushing more than I want to in the morning, and that’s the thing that jolts me out of bed. Having a leisurely morning is why I started getting up that early in the first place, and on days when I have to go to work it’s basically the only thing that gets me out of bed.

On weekends, when I need to be somewhere in the morning I’ll lie there until the last possible second before I’ll be late to wherever I’m going.

On weekend days when I don’t have to be anywhere…

On days like that I will stay in bed until I have to go to the bathroom so badly I can’t take it anymore.

The third or fourth time that happened I started to realize I had a problem.

********

Almost a year ago – in actual fact very close to exactly a year ago – we got the news that my father was sick. Really sick. Stage III peripheral T-Cell lymphoma.

That is one of those moments you wish you could say “I don’t remember much from those days.” I remember exactly which empty office I sat in at work to talk to my mother. I remember sitting there at the unused desk with my head in my hands for almost a half an hour, wondering what to do. I called Regina. I talked to my boss. I booked a ticket to Florida on the first flight I could afford. Then Florida in June – seven hells, Florida in June. The hospital. Back and forth the 24 miles from my parents’ to the hospital, sitting with my dad in shifts. Watching the Bridgestone and the Euros with my dad while my mom slept at home. Talking about treatment and prognosis with my father’s doctor, who annoyingly insisted on being called “Tim.” Exaggeratingly pronouncing “TIM” like John Cleese as soon as he left the room.

One night back at the house, laying out for my mother, talking nonstop for almost an hour in the coldest monotone I have ever managed, my detailed analysis of what an absolute failure I’d been as a son and a person. The feeling, when I left several days later, that I was inhuman for going back home and leaving them on their own.

I remember that week with perfect, excruciating clarity.

After that week came six months of treatment, which was somehow worse. I don’t want to go into too much direct technical detail here – I lived it for months and don’t want to spend so much as five seconds reliving it again – but basically the way we treat cancer, the way we stop this thing from killing you, is to do everything BUT kill you. The idea of the chemotherapy regimens is to get you as close to death as you can tolerate, and I don’t mean tolerate the way you gimp around on a sore ankle for a few weeks until you can see the orthopedist. I mean tolerate as in “not actually die.”  Once they find that level, they hit you with it over and over and over again. Then, for my father at least, at the end they perform a stem cell transplant, basically a complete teardown and rebuild of your immune system, a remarkable procedure with truly horrific side effects which in my dad’s case involved weeks living in a clean room and being ACTUALLY dead for a few seconds.

For six months there was this thing there, hanging over me, that no matter how much good news we got from doctors, no matter how well my father handled the chemo (which turned out to be very well), for six straight months I spent every second convinced that my father was going to die at any moment. Not just any moment, in the next moment. Every second of every day, waiting for the axe to fall.

It was not a good way to live. It wasn’t even the only one; over those six months I came up with any number of very innovative ways to live that were not good.

People were telling me from the start, “take care of yourself.” Tons of people reached out to me with offers of help, and good wishes, and the outpouring of support blew my mind more than a little, but people kept saying that to me and I really didn’t know what to make of it. “Take care of myself.” Of course I’m going to take care of myself. How can I not take care of myself?

Turns out, not taking care of yourself is a lot easier than you’d believe. Step 1: spend all your time worrying about someone else. Step 2: don’t do anything else. I’m not sure what happens after that for anyone else, but for me it involved losing a night of my life.

I’ve talked occasionally about the very few times I’ve straight-up hallucinated – brought on by my purposeful and idiotic choices to stay awake for days at a stretch – and how the real problem with, say, seeing trees in the middle of Roosevelt Boulevard is not “oh my, there’s a tree in the middle of the road that wasn’t there before,” but instead “there’s a tree in the middle of the road and I KNOW there isn’t a tree in the middle of the road so OH MAN MY BRAIN ISN’T WORKING RIGHT.” The problem isn’t bad input. The problem is the epistemological fear reaction it produces.

The very bottom of me ignoring the advice I got to take care of myself came on a Friday night in October, when I got home from work and stepped out of my car, and the next thing I knew after that I was lying in bed, in the middle of the night, in different clothes than I had worn to work that day. I had no memory of the previous six hours, but at some point I had, at the very least, changed clothes and gone to bed.

I made some very quick checks – I hadn’t blackout-dialed any of my exes. My car was still where I parked it. My bag was where I leave it when I walk in the door. I hadn’t done anything crazy. Near as I could figure, it appeared that once I had gotten home the conscious part of my brain simply shut down entirely.

The fact that I had managed to get myself inside, and changed and – damp towel, taken a goddamn shower! – and put myself to bed without any sort of higher brain functioning, all of that worried me less than the fact that it had happened in the first place. Just like that first drive back from New York in the middle of the night when I saw trees in the middle of the Boulevard, my reaction was not “oh my god I can’t remember the last six hours.” It was “how did I get myself to a place where it was possible for me to black out for six hours?”

Even at the time the answer was fairly obvious. I had been living on a ragged emotional edge for months at that point, and was now apparently doing considerable physical harm to myself as well, but what was I supposed to do? My father was sick. As far as I was concerned my father was going to die in the next five seconds. It wasn’t something that could be ignored. You might as well ask someone to ignore air, or the sun.

The part of my brain that still works through situations like this, that always seems to find some sliver to function rationally even when things have gone completely pear-shaped, reasoned that if I started blacking out regularly, or got myself sick or messed up, I wouldn’t be able to help my parents. That was what finally motivated me to actually make an effort to do what people had been telling me from the start and take care of myself through all this. That was what got me going. Not listening to those friends, or any sort of instinct for self-preservation. Just pure guilt. Straight up, end of Last Crusade, you can’t save him when you’re dead, guilt.

So I called some of the friends whose advice I had been ignoring, expressed my alarm that, Fox Mulder-style, I had lost time, and asked for help. My friends, being far better than I deserved, gave it and then some. I didn’t make any sort of real move to be actively healthy in any way – not then, at least – but I did start taking rudimentary precautions to make sure I didn’t black out again.

And then… not to make a long story too short, but: my dad got better. He tolerated the chemotherapy and his test results were positive. I went down to Florida a bunch more times. We did Hospital Thanksgiving the day after he was admitted to the transplant unit. We managed to have Christmas at their house when he demanded to be discharged from the transplant unit the first day it was humanly possible for him to leave. (He was in there a shade over three weeks.) Then, in January, we got word that his scans came back clean. There was no detectable cancer.

It was early yet, but by all indications the treatments had worked. My dad was fine.

The thing no one tells you, and I’m not sure if they don’t tell you because it only happened to me or because it’s too awful to talk about, is that the news that my dad was fine made things infinitely, almost indescribably worse.

I had spent more or less every second of the previous six months worrying about my father, but in an “is he okay RIGHT NOW” sense, and not in an “is he going to be okay in the indeterminate future” sense. That second thing was there, yes. In some way it was always there, but it was always a teeny tiny little process lurking in the background. 1 percent, 2 tops, and you’re not going to pay attention to that itty bitty thing when CANCER.EXE is up there at the top of the list crushing your CPU for every scrap of spare resources it can find.

My parents were young when they had me. I objectively know how young but it’s hard for me to understand, to really grasp just how young. I’m going to turn 40 later this year. When my father turned 40 I was finishing my FRESHMAN YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL. The thought of having a kid that old is legitimately terrifying to me, let alone having TWO like my parents did. They both just turned 65 and aside from the occasional minor health scare – there were a few years there when I was a teenager when we thought my dad had prostate cancer, thank you useless PSA testing, but it never turned into anything so it was never real for me – my parents have been basically chugging along nicely my entire life.

Stage III lymphoma, though, that’s a big flashing neon sign the size of Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas that says, “hey, guess what, Sparky? Your father is mortal and you might want to get used to the idea.” The trouble was that while he was actually sick I was so entirely consumed by the “is he okay right now” question that the notion of my father’s mortality had never crossed my mind.

I’ve lost people over the years. I’ve lost a lot of people. The part of me that is a bad card player – a very small part, admittedly – sometimes likes to think that I’ve lost more than my fair share of people. The rest of me, the vast majority that is a good card player, that part remembers an old man in a robe telling me there’s no such thing as luck and a cute goth girl with an ankh necklace reminding me that I get what anybody gets. And that’s… in a weird way, that’s okay? We all lose people, and you go through it, and it’s awful and sad, and eventually you come out on the other side.

None of those people are my parents, though. None of them are my father. I tried to think about the possibility of my father actually dying and I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t there; I couldn’t conceive of a world where that had happened. I’ve spent a lot of my life living in the future, in a future that was admittedly almost always incorrect but no less vivid for that, but no matter how hard I tried, and I tried very hard, I couldn’t see that particular future.

I’ve said before, here and other places, that I am loathe to assign meaning to things I cannot accurately describe, but this is one of those things that if I were pressed to say how it’s different I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything more than “it just is.”

So for six months I had sublimated – or, possibly more accurately, outright ignored – this giant reminder of my father’s mortality. (My mother’s as well, of course, but if there’s anything in heredity my mother will live well into her two thousands.)

And then came the news that my father was well. He was not going to die.

He was not going to die RIGHT NOW.

It was at this point that six months of not confronting my father’s mortality hit me all at once, and the force of it dislodged this thing inside me like an iceberg breaking off from the polar ice cap, and my entire brain was suddenly consumed by pure, atavistic terror.

Much like the feeling of worry that consumed me when my dad was sick, I’ve been experiencing that terror almost every waking moment since I got the phone call in January that he was fine.

You know what I hate more than anything in the world right now? My phone. Jesus puppyfucking Christ, how I hate my phone.

I had my first phone-related panic attack when my mother called a few weeks after we got the good news. My phone rang – the fanfare from the Indiana Jones theme – I saw “Mom” at the top of the screen, and the entire 68-piece panic attack orchestra broke into the opening bars of the 1812 Overture.

This was it. This was the call. The scans were wrong. The doctors fucked it up. The cancer is back. The cancer never left.

My mother was calling to tell me my father was dying again.

Now, of course, my mother was actually calling to tell me that my sister would be leaving their place soon and heading back up here, and she was sending some stuff for me with her, and when she came by to drop it off would I mind giving her the old vacuum cleaner?

I am reasonably sure my mom didn’t know that for the first 30 seconds of our conversation I was a hairsbreadth away from needing to be hospitalized. I think I covered it up pretty well.

My mother and I don’t talk on the phone all that often. She took to technology with much more ease than a lot of people her age so most of our communication is digital. She texts me about Doctor Who. She emails me stories about new attractions at Disney World and questions about whether or not she should upgrade her iMac. (The apple, and indeed the Apple, doesn’t fall far from the tree.) Honest to goodness voice calls, though, they’re pretty rare.

It’s a good thing they’re rare, because this panic attack happens every time she calls now.

Every time my phone rings and I see “Mom” at the top I get that feeling, that pressure in my chest, the world spinning around my head, that inability to catch a breath once I answer. Now, months later, it’s over almost before I know it, it’s over as soon as I hear that impossibly cheery “Hell-LO!” she always starts phone calls with, but even still, imagine that: even for a second, not being able to breathe when your mother calls.

This insane, impossible little box that connects me to the rest of the world has become this thing that I hate. I hate having it on me, I hate carrying it around, I hate needing it, because every time the fanfare from Raiders plays and I see “Mom” I am convinced that this time is it, this is the one I’ve been dreading, my father is sick again and the giant mass of atavistic terror is sharpened down to a dagger that gets driven into my chest.

One time she called me a few months ago I just sat there for a little bit, staring at my phone, wondering if this was the ballgame. Am I always going to panic when my mother calls? Am I ever going to be able to actually talk to her on the phone without feeling like I’m dying?

Am I going to spend the rest of my life terrified that this is the call telling me the world is ending?

The part of my brain that always functions rationally no matter what quietly said, “no, not for the rest of your life. Just for the rest of HIS.”

I put my elbows on the table and my head in my hands the same way I did that day last June when she called and said aloud to my empty dining room, “that’s not helpful.”

********

My dad and I were never really shy about communicating – well, not about talking at least, actual COMMUNICATING may be another story – but we talk a lot more now than we ever did. When my father was sick I made it a point to talk to him every day, even if it was just a text message to see how he was feeling. (The answer was usually “crappy.”) I still try to touch base every day, although most days if nothing else we end up texting the weather where we are to each other, as though the cursed smartphones we’re texting through don’t also tell us the weather where the other is.

So we talk about weather. We live-text each other the golf. We argue about movies. I text him the puns from the opening credits of Bob’s Burgers every week. He texts me what he did in physical therapy that day and how good he feels. We argue about their itinerary for when they drive north for the summer in a few weeks.

If I think about all of it too much it still feels just as bad, but it doesn’t feel as bad for as long, and I take my small victories where I can find them.

I woke up this morning and went down to the kitchen to make my breakfast. As I was getting ready to toss the butter for my egg in the pan, in my dreary pre-coffee shuffle I slowly noticed that I smelled gas, which should not happen. I realized, even through my stupor, that I never heard the click-click-click of the igniter on the burner.

I looked down: no flames.

I looked at the control panel for the range: no clock.

I muttered, “shit,” and was instantly, completely awake.

A minute later as I was sitting at my computer googling my electrician’s number I texted my mother “no power in oven. Weird. Calling the guy.” My parents are in Disney World, which I knew was the only thing on earth that would get my mother out of bed before 8AM.

Before I could finish finding the number my mother texted me “hang on.”

I saw that and thought “NO DON’T – !”

My phone rang.

Indiana Jones theme. “Mom.”

I gripped the edge of the dining room table so hard my nails would have snapped off, if I had any.

As my mother started talking about the GFCI and testing the outlet behind the dish rack, that rational part of my brain quietly slid up next to me and said, “it’s time we fixed this.”

I pushed the tiny red button on the outlet.

JLK

Posted in Life | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.

Posted by kozemp on March 22, 2017

It’s three Sunday mornings ago and I’m crawling out of bed at 930 when I see the missed call. I don’t recognize the number. But there’s a voicemail, so probably not a robo-call.

The voicemail is from Steph, my buddy Dan’s wife. It’s short, a simple “hey, call me back” sort of thing.

As soon as I hear that I start to get an unpleasant feeling in my head that is the closest thing I have to a spidey-sense.

I think, why would Steph be calling me at 8 on a Sunday morning? Man, this can’t be good news.

Once I get fully woken up and have some coffee I call her back.

It isn’t good news.

It’s three years ago and I’m on a train with Tom, one of the New York Blues, and Dan. It’s late on a Saturday night and we’re heading back from a Devils game on my birthday. It’s been a pretty great night. We had some decent food before the game, had great seats down in the tenth row on the shoots-twice side, and the Devils shut out the Sabres.

It’s the second year in a row the three of us have gone to Devils-Sabres at the Rock, and I am regaling Tom with the story of the first time Dan and I went to a Devils game in Newark together. Through some kind of bizarre set of circumstances, the game ran long and went into overtime and Dan calculated that he wouldn’t get back in time for the last train to Delaware, so he ended up calling an aunt or something who lived nearby and crashing at her place, then taking the train home in the morning when I could pick him up in Holmesburg.

It was as unclear then as it is now why he couldn’t take the train all the way home the next morning – or ask to crash on my couch – but that’s what ended up happening.

I point out that at the time, when I picked him up at Holmesburg, his exact words as he got in the car were “thanks for showing up,” as though there were any chance I would have left him hanging.

Dan is looking at his phone and says, “Paul Walker died.”

I snort, “what, did he drive a Lamborghini into a fucking pole or something?” I have never seen a Fast and Furious movie and my knowledge of them consists of a) Paul Walker is in them, and b) they involve lots of car stuff.

Dan says, “uhm. Yeah.”

Tom and I, more or less in unison, both say, “whaaaaaaaaaat?”

Dan hands me his phone and I read about the unfortunate death of Paul Walker.

Dan says, “he lived his life a quarter mile at a time.”

Tom and I both give him blank stares.

Dan says, “neither of you have seen these movies? Come on. They’re great.”

I say, “they are not.” I will not know I am wrong for another year, but Dan meets my ignorance with equanimity.

“Don’t know what you’re missing, man,” he says. He starts tapping on his phone. “Give me a second, I need to send some jokes to Matt.” His brother.

“Yeah. ‘Paul Walker, cause of death, excessive irony,’” I say. “You can have that one.”

“On green, he went for it,” Dan says.

A year later I will get that joke.

It’s last Wednesday night and I am out to dinner with some friends. One of them is Tom, from the New York Blues. The other is an old friend from the Dark Horse (god rest her) who is one of only three Aston Villa fans I’ve ever met, who for purposes of identification is unfortunately also named Tom.

Chelsea Tom is talking about his upcoming trip to England with the New York Blues, and we’re joking about who he might end up having to share a room with. Thinking back on some of my own travels with those folks, I say: “here’s an awful thought, I realized yesterday that Munich was five years ago. Five years, Jesus.”

Villa Tom says, “that was a pretty good week for you guys.”

We laugh. “It was. Best week of my life,” I say. “Good company.” I laugh again. “For most of it, at least.”

Chelsea Tom gives me a look.

I say, “did I never tell you the story of how I actually watched the game?” He shakes his head.

It’s three years ago and Tim and I are at Dan and Steph’s wedding. We are at a table with a bunch of folks whose names I either don’t catch or don’t remember – I’m terrible with names – who are friends of Dan’s from college.

At one point Dan and Steph come over to our table and we are admiring his wedding ring which – I want to stress this part – looks an awful lot like it’s made of obsidian.

“Hey,” I say. “Is your wedding ring made of dragon glass?”

“Yes, John, it is,” he says. “My wedding ring can kill the White Walkers.”

I say, “that would actually be pretty rad. I once knew a guy who convinced his fiancee that their wedding rings should be the One Ring.”

One of the many not-single women my age at the table says, “oh, that sounds nice.”

I reply, “I can assure you it is not. For starters, the One Ring is, you know, evil. His cruelty and malice, and all that. I mean, Chrissakes, I’m such a goddamn nerd that I can recite the inscription on the ring in English AND the Black Speech of Mordor and -I- wouldn’t want a woman who would agree to the One Ring as a wedding band.”

I am about to roll into the Black Speech version when she says, “you wouldn’t?”

“No,” I say. “I want a woman who agrees to that when I ask for it but when we get to the jeweler says ‘are you out of your fucking mind?’”

Dan and Steph start laughing.

Much, much later that night the wedding afterparty has rolled up to a cheesesteak joint, one of those places that is famous for enormous sandwiches. Everyone is, not quite drunk, but having a good time. I am not at all drunk but I’m still having a good time. At a wedding, no less, even if it is relatively easy to enjoy the part of a wedding that involves getting cheesesteaks at 1130 at night.

Dan walks up to the menu, studies it, and says, “oh, I didn’t know you had small steaks on the dinner menu.”

The girl manning the counter cheerfully says, “yup!”

Dan makes a “huh” noise.

I say, “in fairness, you probably didn’t know because you only learned how to read last week.”

Dan glares at me.

The counter girl looks mortified and says, “you just learned how to read last week?”

I hold my arms up in a Touchdown Jesus pose and shout, loud enough for all of West Chester to hear, “MY VICTORY OVER THE JEDI IS COMPLETE!”

Everybody but Dan starts laughing.

About an hour later I look around frantically, then utter the two most dangerous words in the English language: “where’s Tim?”

Dan laughs at that.

It’s five years ago and me, Tim, and a group of our friends from the New York Blues are in Munich. The day of the game Tim and I are walking around in the neighborhood near the Lowenbrau biergarten in our Chelsea kits. It’s a beautiful day and Munich is an amazing city.

We’re walking down the street and a Turkish gentleman standing in the front door of a small restaurant starts pointing at us and shouting. We stop and stare for a bit, dumbfounded. He continues shouting and motioning at us to come inside.

Tim says, “what the fuck?” I continue to stare in silence, not sure what is happening.

Finally he runs out and grabs Tim by the arm and starts pulling him inside. I am trying to find the phrase “can we help you?” in the makeshift German I have spent the previous five weeks crash coursing, but eventually we just go inside.

The Turkish gentleman, who I believe owns the restaurant – which is sort of the German equivalent of the small diners you see in downtown US cities, as though Midtown III were in Munich instead of Rittenhouse Square – is shouting and wildly gesticulating, pointing back and forth at us and at something on the wall.

This guy is one of literally three people I have met in the entire country who doesn’t speak English, and apparently doesn’t speak German either, in a strange dark restaurant we have been dragged into against our will. This is vacation traveler hell.

Finally he stops shouting and flailing and starts pointing slowly, with authority.

He points at Tim’s Lampard kit.

He points at a blue flag on the wall.

He does this over and over again.

We realize it is an 1860 Munich flag.

Tim says, “oh, you guys are 1860 fans?”

The Turkish gentleman gets an enormous smile, points at Tim’s shirt again, and gives a thumbs up.

We all finally get what’s going on and start laughing.

The Turkish gentleman finally says what are apparently his only words in English: “Fuck Bayern!” And gives Tim a huge bear hug before he starts yammering in Turkish again.

Tim claps him on the shoulder and says “carefree, man!” and we head back out into the Munich sunshine.

More than almost anyplace in the world I have been, I want to find that restaurant again.

It’s three Sundays ago and I start making phone calls. By some strange coincidence a lot of our guys are on vacation, and it’s early on Sunday morning, so I’m leaving voice mails everywhere:

“Call me back. It’s important.”

About an hour after I left the message, Tim calls me back. He was in Pittsburgh with some of our friends from New York.

“What’s up?” he says.

“Hey man,” I say. “Are you driving? Is Mike with you?”

“No,” he says. “Mike went with Danny and Eugene, they’re in their car. I’m on the turnpike.”

I think, shit. I don’t want to do this while he’s driving.

I say, “listen, man, maybe stop driving and call me back.”

Tim pauses for a bit and then says, “yeah, okay.”

After he calls me back a few minutes later and I give him the news, he says, “as soon as you said to pull over I was thinking, ‘shit, man, this is bad news.’”

I say, “sorry, man. I didn’t want you to read about it on Facebook.”

“Right on, man, it’s just…” He stops again. “Man, this fucking sucks.”

“Yeah it does,” I say.

Tim says, “what happens now?”

I say, “I don’t know.”

It’s five years ago and I am in a park in Munich: the Hofgarten, just behind the Odeonsplatz. Three of us from the New York Blues made the trip without tickets and there are only two tickets to spare, so I am watching the game on TV someplace. Or at least I’m trying to. For how wonderful the Germans have been there aren’t a whole lot of places eager to get packed with Chelsea fans and I can’t get into any of the larger outdoor viewing areas like the Olympiastadion. Before the game I get a tip that there will be TVs set up with tables in the Hofgarten so I have set off that way.

I round the corner of the Starbucks we’ve been using to get on Wifi and check emails and find maybe a dozen long tables facing a bunch of big flatscreens. All of the tables are packed to the gills with Chelsea fans. I walk down to the end of the row. Not a single seat.

I am convinced I am not going to see the game.

I look down towards the other side of the garden and see a bunch of restaurants with outdoor seating. The restaurants are closed. The tables for outdoor seating remain, but unfortunately not the chairs.

I have an idea.

Five minutes later I am standing on a four-top that I have dragged over to the area with the televisions. I am pretty pleased with myself, though it’s still about 30 minutes until kickoff and I’m not relishing the idea of standing on a table for two hours and change. I continue not relishing this idea until I remember that I am standing on a table for two and a half hours in a park, in Germany, about to watch Chelsea in the Champions league final, and I determine that I can suck it up.

I am just barely too far from the Starbucks to get on their wifi, so I am staring at my phone out of mostly useless habit. Other Chelsea fans have since seen my idea and are heading over to the unfortunate restaurant that did not realize who they were dealing with, and the Chelsea fans are stealing tables of their own to stand on, so I can’t move any closer for better reception.

About ten minutes before gametime, a gentleman of an indeterminable South Asian extraction walks up to my table and looks up at me. He is wearing a rubgy shirt and glasses.

“Do you mind if I join you?” he asks in a middle of the road British accent, not West London but not East London either. He points to the table.

Without hesitation I say, “go for it,” which is immediately the most socially available I have ever been in my adult life. In America I would have glared at this unknown person until he got the hint and moved along. I am in a foreign country, I think, I might as well act in strange new ways. We strike up a conversation as we wait for the game to start. Again, the fact that I am in the presence of a person I’ve never met before and I’m not sullenly staring at my phone, inoperative or not, is somewhat extraordinary. It’s obvious why we’re there, and where we came from, more or less, so small talk can be safely skipped. I believe he tells me he is a doctor. I’m sure he tells me his name at some point, but it doesn’t stick. I’ve always been terrible with names.

The game begins and the game itself is, to put it mildly, awful. Even at the time, standing there on the table in Munich watching my beloved Chelsea play in the Champions League final, it is for eighty-eight minutes one of the most profoundly boring soccer games I have ever watched. For most of the game I make conversation with the nice British gentleman I am sharing my table with. He’s smart and pleasant. He has a good head for the game and is not the sort of insane, reputation ruining, this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things Chelsea fan that I am about to learn we are surrounded by.

Didier Drogba scores in the 88th minute – a goal which TIES the game, mind you – and the other Chelsea fans go nuts. They start trashing the place. That is not hyperbole. I mean that quite literally. There is still two minutes to go in regulation, plus extra time, plus likely 30 minutes of added time after that, and this is the point several dozen Chelsea fans decide to destroy the setup where we are watching the game.

When the first television gets knocked over I turn to the nice British gentleman and say, “I think we should probably get out of here.”

He says, “I think you’re probably right.”

We hop off the table and extract ourselves from the Hofgarten.

We end up watching added time through the picture window of a restaurant around the corner, standing on the sidewalk. This strikes me as terribly, quintessentially European, watching a soccer final from the street. We manage to get there just as the regulation whistle blows and we are the only ones. I am amazed by yet another good idea, my second in two hours. By the time the penalty shootout starts there will be about 40 people standing there watching the game through the windows of this restaurant. The nice British gentleman from the garden is standing on my left now. To my right is a British man who introduces himself as “The Geezer” – the only name I ever get from him – and he spends almost all of extra time wailing that Chelsea will lose and the world will end, in that order and in quick succession. When the penalty shootout starts he turns his back to the window. He literally can’t watch.

I look around and realize that no one else is watching either. All the English people have either turned their backs or knelt down on the ground.

When Didier Drogba’s penalty goes over the line, in the picosecond that follows I realize that of the several dozen Chelsea fans standing in close proximity, I am the only one who’s actually seen it happen.

I throw my hands up like Joe Montana and shout “we won!” The world is momentarily thrown off its axis. The nice British gentleman grabs me and hugs me and starts screaming. While he’s hugging me the Geezer grabs me from the side and starts hugging me and screaming, and then the three of us start jumping up and down and screaming incoherently together.

In the hours of singing and high fives and stranger-hugging that follows up and down the Odeonsplatz – I hug more strangers than I could have ever imagined possible – I lose track of the nice British gentleman and the Geezer.

I think, shit, I should have gotten their email addresses or something.

I get back to the Sheraton, and when my phone hits the hotel wifi a bunch of notifications pop up. Two of them are texts, sort of: I can’t get SMS over wifi but I can get iMessages from other iPhones. One is from my mother, telling me that she and my father watched the game, and are very happy for me, and that they hope I stay safe.

I chuckle at the notion of my father voluntarily watching a soccer game.

The other is from Dan. A bunch of texts from Dan, in fact, telling me about the celebrations back in Philadelphia, everyone who came out to the pub to watch and the party going on there, and how jealous they are that Tim and I are actually there. He demands to hear the entire story as soon as I get back, and expresses his own personal jealousy that he couldn’t make it.

I start tapping out a reply and think, I’ll have to write this story down someday, this is a good one. The thought doesn’t begin to cross my mind that it could possibly be five years before I manage to keep that promise to myself.

As I’m sending the reply I mutter to the empty room, “next one, buddy.” It is reasonable at the time to assume there will be a next one for us to go to together.

It’s that Sunday morning and Mike has called me back.

Mike was the boss of the New York Blues, the Chelsea supporter’s group, for years and years. He was the first Chelsea fan I met outside of our circle of guys in Philadelphia. He’s actually known Danny longer than I have, from back in the days before I hung out with the New York Blues and Dan lived and worked in North Jersey and watched games in the city.

“Hey man,” I say. “Are you driving?”

“Yeah,” he says. “What’s up?”

“Listen, give me a call back when you’re not driving anymore.”

“What’s going on?” he says. “Tell me.”

I think, fuck.

I tell him. There’s silence on the phone for a few seconds.

I say, “I told you to stop driving.”

“You did,” he says. He pauses for a few seconds. “Ah, that’s just so fucking sad.”

“Yeah.” I say.

I make a bunch more calls and texts like this to everyone who knew him. Over and over, for hours.

Our friend Matt says to me, “I know how close you guys were. I really appreciate hearing it from you and not on the internet or something.”

The only thing I can think to say is, “yeah.” Over and over, for hours, to everyone.

It’s six or seven years ago and the Philly Blues are at the Dark Horse on a Sunday morning. Dan is bringing the woman he’s currently dating to the pub to watch the game. This has become something of a running bit over the last couple years, Dan bringing a series of depressingly insane women to the pub to subject them to soccer and, I cannot tell if it’s more or less importantly, to us.

I always joked about running women I dated past my friends to see if they’d hold up. Dan actually does this – does it repeatedly – and it and it never seems to go very well, partially because he is on a string of rotten luck woman-wise and partially because of the friends he’s testing these women with.

This one is different.

She’s smart – very smart – and though she may not know soccer like us she’s at least interested. She’s not feigning interest to appease her date; if she isn’t necessarily an expert on the game she has an open mind at least. She is intellectually curious. She’s a sports fan. She talks about the 49ers a lot and she knows her stuff.

She also has some weirdly specific knowledge about things no normal person – that is, to say, someone who is not me – would or should know about.

I am sitting in my usual spot right in front of the door to the main bar and Dan and his date are sitting at the jukebox corner. At one point after the game the conversation somehow gets to the subject of NCAA shooting contests – possibly as a digression from a discussion of biathlon – and Tim says, “yeah, Army’s gotta win that all the time.”

I am about to correct him when she says, “nah, Navy always wins pistols.”

She says it in a way that for some reason reminds me of the farmer-type folks I have met traveling the midwest, a strange combination of laconic, disinterested, and utterly confident. I am so surprised that someone else has corrected him on this ridiculously obscure fact that I am standing there with my mouth partially open, with what I presume is a look of shock on my face.

She looks at me and smiles.

A little while later she heads off to the bathroom and Dan walks over and stands next to my barstool.

“So?” he says.

“Well,” I say. “She’s not nuts.”

“She’s not,” he says.

“And that’s a big step up for you.”

“Yes, thank you, John,” he says. “Your approval means everything to me.”

“I know,” I say.

Dan stares at me for a second or two. I break into a grin. “Nah, man, I like her. She’s pretty great.”

“Yeah,” Dan says. “I think so.”

“She’s definitely better than, whats her name, that psychotic helicopter mechanic.”

He questioningly says a name that flies in and out of my head.

“Her, yes,” I say. “Jesus, what a piece of fucking work.”

He jerks his head down the hall in the direction of the bathrooms. “Yeah, she’s… she’s not nuts.”

I say, with a slightly awkward pause at the beginning, “she doesn’t seem to be, no.”

Dan stares at me again.

“You can’t remember her name either, can you?”

“I, uh…” I make stalling noises for a little bit before deflating in my seat. “I’m sorry! I’m terrible with names.”

Dan smiles, a huge smile as wide as the bar, and claps his hand on my shoulder. “Stephanie,” he says. “Her name’s Stephanie.”

“I’ll try and remember,” I say.

“Yeah, might be worth your effort, I think she’s a keeper,” Dan says.

It’s now, weeks after that Sunday morning, and I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing.

In that first week our friends would call me, some to see how I was doing, some to ask some variation on the question, “should we do something?” An event for the New York and Philly Blues, a GoFundMe, something for Steph and the children.

Every time I say, “I need to talk to Steph, and Dan’s family, see what works for them, but yeah we should definitely do something.” And I mean that. I mean it every time I say it but keep finding myself unable to make those calls.

Every time I think about making those calls my thoughts get pulled somewhere else.

I think about a bunch of Devils games at the Rock, and when I think about going to another one I feel this dark, burning mass in the center of my chest. I think about how I never want to watch another Devils game for the rest of my life.

I think about how if we did do something for Steph and the kids and the family, if it was in Philadelphia it would probably be at the Dark Horse, and how I don’t think I ever want to set foot in there again either.

I think about the picture of the five of us, the old Philly Blues, taken ten years ago at the Dark Horse, and how only three of us in that picture are still around.

I think about that Turkish restaurant in Munich. I think of all the places in the world I’ve been, both amazing and common. I think of the Grand Canyon, and the Nymphenburg, and the Pacific Ocean, and dinner at Dan and Steph’s apartment in West Chester, and hockey games at the Rock, and weekend mornings at the Dark Horse, and still, more than anyplace else I’ve been, more even than all the places I wish I could go back to but never can because they’re gone now, I want to find that restaurant.

I want to go back to the Hofgarten.

I want to find the nice British gentleman, and the Geezer, and talk about how a silly thing like a soccer team can forge bonds that you never would have thought possible, whether for a night or a decade. About how it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a night or a decade when deep down you don’t really believe you can forge lasting bonds with anybody in the first place. About how the things and the people that change you, that change you for good, and make you better, are the ones that you never see coming.

I want to find those men, and sit with them on a spring day in the Hofgarten, and tell them about my friend, who made me better.

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You had all of them on your side, didn’t you?

Posted by kozemp on April 20, 2016

It was Nick who figured it out, because of course it was.

This was… a few weeks ago, maybe a little more? We were at his house on a Sunday night; it was late, Reg was out of town and Danny was long since asleep. It was actually the second time I’d been there that weekend. Reg left the morning before to drive to Appalachia with the LaSalle kids and Nick was, for some reason, worried about “being with Danny on his own,” a notion which was a very amusing combination of adorable and idiotic, so I got called over for breakfast before his wife had gotten as far as the Washington and Jefferson Forest. I was back the next night, that Sunday, for dinner and dessert.

I forget what we were talking about in the leadup to it, but at one point, sitting at the dining room table with my arms folded, staring into the living room, I said, “I’m not happy.”

He gave me a look.

“I’m not, you know, depressed,” I said. “I know what that’s like, that happens enough. It isn’t that. It’s just…” I made that displeased face where I sort of squint my left eye shut with my cheek. “I’m just not happy. And I haven’t been for a while.”

Nick said, “why not?”

I thought about it for a second, then said, “I don’t know.”

I didn’t really need to think about it. By then I’d been thinking about little else for weeks. But it was true: I wasn’t depressed, but I was constantly unhappy, and I didn’t know why.

Nick looked at me again, and I knew it was coming.

For years now, for as long as we’ve known each other, this has been how it happened. Sitting up in the middle of the night, bitching about women or cards or work or family or whatever, trying to figure out what the hell we were supposed to be doing with our lives. It used to be in the car on the way home from the casino. Now it’s at his dining room table. Nick is excellent at getting to the heart of my problems – 90% of the substance of which is usually of my own making – and I am excellent at giving advice that is mostly useless to anyone who doesn’t live in the Minoan labyrinth of my brain.

One of us, needless to say, bitches about more women and more jobs and more cards than the other.

Nick looked at me again, and I knew it was coming.

He said, “you’re only happy when you’re performing.”

I made my attempt at a Spock-like eyebrow raise and said, “go on.”

My version of Spock’s eyebrow is really just me raising both my eyebrows while squinting with my left eye. As facial expressions go, the left-eye squint is my go-to move.

“I don’t mean, like, on stage or whatever,” he said. “Though that probably wouldn’t hurt.”

I started to say “I’m not that good an actor” before he ran over me.

“Just… SOMETHING. Whether you’re on stage or whatever, or producing a play – “

“The podcast,” I muttered, thinking of The Stack, not liking where this was going.

“Your podcasts or, shit, even back when you were doing Quizo every week.”

“I did think of Quizo as a sort of weird ongoing performance art piece,” I said.

“Exactly,” Nick said, with that pointing-with-upturned-palm and tone of voice I get when he is telling me something that should be painfully obvious since I live inside it. “Whatever… I dunno, form it takes, you need to be in front of people.”

We talked some more about it – the stuff I am slowly attempting now and planning for in the future – but just then I thought the same thing I have thought many, many times over the years:

I hate it when Nick’s right.

****

Dave is another good friend who has a nasty habit of cutting through my obfuscatory bullshit. This is a good thing. As I said to him earlier today, and to a couple people before that, one of the things that has changed for me since my experience on TV is that intellectual superiority no longer interests me. To paraphrase something I read from Elon Musk: I don’t want to always be right anymore. I want to stop being wrong.

Dave is great at telling me what I’m doing wrong.

I’m not a huge fan of that either.

We were discussing a weird thought experiment that revolved around me once again attempting to move to Los Angeles. Dave and I have a lot of very strange conversations like this; much of our communication consists of series of loopy, half-comedy-half-therapy exchanges where it can be so difficult for either of us to tell who is being serious when that we will literally have to stop in the middle and ask, “wait, is that a joke or for real?” fairly often.

There were points during our talk today where I legitimately could not tell if we were just shooting the shit or if Dave was trying to tell me that he accidentally rented a 2-bedroom apartment in Glendale and needed a roommate.

Serious or not, Dave raised a number of very sharp ripostes to my various objections as to why me going back to LA is a terrible idea, or at least a very bad one. But something in the conversation flipped a switch somewhere in the back of my mind, and while I was defending my perfectly-reasonable irrational fears about life in general and the creative industry in specific from Dave’s obnoxious use of facts and logic, I started thinking about my conversation with Nick from a few weeks ago.

While Dave was typing something about how stupid one of my contentions was, a whole bunch of things lined up in my brain at once and I had what psychotherapists refer to as a “breakthrough.”

I went on to describe my breakthrough: as established by Nick, and agreed upon by me, I have a need to perform, however we want to define that. More than a need. I’m not happy if I’m not. More than “not happy,” in point of fact, I am profoundly unhappy when I’m not.

But performing is hard work, you know? I don’t mean literally hard work, like lifting and hauling shit out in the sun all day – I have done a very small bit of actual hard work in my life and have zero desire to ever do it again – but doing it right is, in its own sort of way, hard work. It is, in fact, the only kind of hard work I actually enjoy doing, but there’s still a lot of inertia to overcome there, and despite how much I actually enjoy the hard work of whatever performance I can end up getting myself to start… that start isn’t easy for me. It never has been. Stephen King once talked about how Thomas Harris was a great writer for whom the act of writing was excruciating, and I feel like I’m the same way a lot of the time. (Not that I’m as talented as Thomas Harris, mind, just that the act itself can be more prohibitively difficult than you might think.)

But, hey, you know what I can do with almost no work whatsoever? I can bang out a joke. A single joke. A one-liner. Something that fits nicely in 140 characters. Or maybe even a funny paragraph, or two, or three, or an interesting short idea. Something that works really well on a Facebook wall.

I could overcome all that inertia and do all the hard work of creating something real, a show or a story or whatever, work that actually results in a true creative high, the obscene, godlike creative high which I can tell you from comprehensive experimentation is better than booze or sex or drugs.

Or I could just say “fuck it,” come up with a funny paragraph in a few seconds, and get a quick laugh from a couple dozen people online.

My exact words to Dave were: “I wonder if I’m not using Facebook and Twitter as a sort of methadone.”

I went back and started checking some dates.

When did I decide to start getting back into theater work again?

Last year, during the period of my self-enforced absence from social media.

When did I produce pieces on this website at a faster pace than any time in recent memory?

Last year, when I wasn’t on social media.

Back on January 1, what did I list as one of my New Year’s Intentions?

“Spend less time on social media.”

Even then, months ago, parts of me were already subconsciously aware of what was going on.

I summed this all up to Dave with two words: “mother FUCKER.”

I say I hate it when Nick’s right. I say I hate it when Dave’s right. And there was probably a time when I actually DID hate it when they were right. But they’re right a lot, and they’re right about the important stuff. And now? I’m thankful my friends can do the thing I need them to do the most: tell me when I’m wrong.

What does it all mean, then? It means for now at least, on the social media front, I’m out. Well, not totally out. I’ll be reachable, certainly – Messenger and Hangouts seem okay as things go. I finally found the button to have Facebook email me when I get an invitation to an event so I can still keep up with people’s shows and whatnot. If folks need to get in touch with me there are any number of ways they can. Beyond that, I’ll be here a lot more, hopefully. Behind a stage, maybe, or a microphone. And I’ll hopefully be out in the real world, more than I have been for a while.

But otherwise?

Enough of the stepped-on shit.

JLK

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This is what’ll happen if you ain’t giving your girl what she needs.

Posted by kozemp on January 28, 2016

This is not going to be particularly polished, or even coherent, because I desperately need sleep, and my knee hurts like hell and has taken on a shape more reminiscent of a softball than a human joint, and there is a small blue bottle sitting on the kitchen counter that is going to fix ALL of those things all at once, but once again I am in the position of needing to get something down while it is still fresh in my mind.

I just came back from the world premiere of The It Girl, by Amanda Schoonover, Brenna Geffers, and Anthony Crosby, at the brand-new Drake Theater. (Technically, I suppose, at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, but I can be more interested in splitting that particular hair later.)

I am struggling here to accurately describe what the show IS. I can pull out the old English Major Douchebaggery merit badge and go on at exceptional length about what the show says, and what it is about, and how it presents those things, and how well it does it, and how important the things it’s saying are, but I am really stuck on a basic description of what you get when you sit down.

The best I can come up with – and partially because I don’t want to spoil the joy of discovery that comes with watching the show become what it is in front of you – is that it’s a about the life and career of silent film star Clara Bow. This is a bit like the way I once talked about describing LA Confidential, where as soon as you say that you want to add “but it’s SOOOOOOO much more than that.” And it is. But I can’t tell you what any of those things ARE because knowing it would ruin a lot of the magic of it.

What I can tell you is that the execution of all the things I’m not telling you is fucking amazing. Amanda Schoonover is astonishing as Clara, whipsawing across the silent film star’s life with an energy I could scarcely believe from 15 feet away. (The Louis Bluver theater is, to put it mildly, very intimate.) I want to see more of her Clara, and when you see this show and realize exactly what that means, and what it is, and that’s it’s ME saying that, you’re going to retroactively understand just how effusive my vague praise here is.

The fact that the previous paragraph requires a time machine to fully work is a good sign that it’s close to blue bottle time.

It is not, strictly speaking, a one-woman show, and Anthony Crosby… it took me a little while to sort of realize what he’s representing here, but it’s so cool and understated and I love the way it ends up working. Take care to pay special attention to “understated” there because, trust me, the desire to take what he’s doing and hammer the audience with it can often be too powerful to dismiss. I’ve seen shows that do that. I’m pretty sure that at least once I made a show that did that. The fact that this show doesn’t is just another thing that’s so great about it.

And then you get to the end… sort of… and the conclusion of Clara’s story feels earned in a way that biographies never seem to manage because real life just doesn’t work that way, does it? But it does here, and it’s heartbreaking.

And then…

Shit, you know what it’s like? Remember at the end of The Ring, when Rachel pulls Samara’s body out of the well, and there’s the big dawn scene of “hey, we fixed everything, now let’s go home and enjoy life?” And then there’s still 20 minutes of movie left that turn your soul into jelly? The It Girl has a moment like that, a moment where it’s clearly all over and you’re ready to release all your built up tension and head home and then Aidan says “you helped her?” and suddenly everything jumps to another level and you are trapped in this thing and it won’t let you go. It’s transcendent. I wish I could tell you more about it but I refuse to. You’re going to have to trust me on this one. I don’t use words like “transcendent” lightly.

I haven’t even talked about how great the script is, how like all the best period pieces it’s actually about right now, and how sharply it addresses the horrifying truth that 90 years later showbusiness still chews women up and spits them out. I could go on for days about that too. This show is so great it makes me angry I didn’t do it.

Put simply, like a wise man once said: it is unique, and unique is always valuable.

You must, must go see it.

JLK

 

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A Story for Christmas, 2015

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2015

I have written in the past that when I was a kid, my parents had the whole “Christmas magic” thing down like nobody’s business.

When I was young, how Christmas worked for us was this: there would be nothing in our house – not a string of lights, not a decoration, not so much as a single strand of tinsel – all through December. There were these dreadful little electric candles my mother would put in the window, but that was it.

I don’t use the word “dreadful” here lightly. I am fairly certain that while these candles may not have actually been part of the very first batch of electric lights built by Thomas Edison, they were one generation removed from that at the most. These things were ancient. They were cardboard tubes with an electrical cord at one end and a light bulb socket at the other. So when we would first plug them into the wall with their same-size non-polarized outlet – polarized plugs were invented in 1948, if you were wondering – we were sending oodles of electrical current through, more or less, a very small paper towel tube.

So we were passing tons of electricity through a cardboard tube to these little light bulbs that burned so hot you could cook food over them. When I was in middle school we got blinds in all our windows (the last of which I have literally only gotten rid of this week) and the first Christmas we had them we put the candles in the windows with the blinds hanging directly behind them. Because my house was presumably designed by the same blind Spaniard who laid out San Antonio and built by the drunk mule he was riding, the window sills all tilt slightly away from the actual windows, and where the candle bulbs touched the blinds they actually burned through the vinyl slat.

My parents’ solution to the problem of their Christmas decorations setting the blinds on fire – I am not making this up – was to put matchbooks under the candles so they wouldn’t touch the blinds. Polarized plugs were invented in 1948; my research has indicated that safety was not invented until about 1953 and was not accepted as standard practice in this family until sometime in the late 1990s.

But I digress. Christmas magic.

Aside from the incredibly dangerous electric candles, there were no Christmas decorations in our house. Not even a tree. ESPECIALLY not a tree. On Christmas Eve, we would wake up and my sister and I would go out with my father to get the tree. This led to some surprisingly amazing trees. It also led to some unsurprisingly awful trees. There are at least a few years – again, I am not making this up – where my father somehow managed to score a $5 Christmas tree. This is less impressive when you recall that we used to put our tree up on a platform, so it had to be fairly small; if I remember correctly the tree couldn’t be taller than my mother, so call that about five and a half feet, give or take. Even still – a five dollar Christmas tree.

We would bring the tree home and put it in a bucket of water in the garage. (This was back when it was, you know, cold on Christmas.) We would do some family-kid-Christmas stuff, watch a special or two, and at bedtime my father would read us Clement Moore, the same red book I still have, and my sister and I would go to bed.

When we would wake up on Christmas morning we’d get my parents up, they’d make us wait at the top of the stairs for a minute or two, and then we’d come downstairs to find that Santa had gone completely apeshit while we were asleep.

The tree would be up on the platform, and lit, and decorated. There would be ribbons and lights and tinsel and decorations all over the house. There would be stuff EVERYWHERE. It would be like one of those Christmas stores exploded in our living room overnight. There would be piles of presents, and everyone’s stockings hung up on the mantle, and just JESUS. And my parents would say, “Santa did it all while you were asleep!”

All this happened because the second they determined that we were asleep my parents would run around like maniacs putting up decorations and wrapping presents and, most importantly, setting up and decorating the tree. The tree was the big thing. And as I have said before – one reason we went to get the tree on Christmas Eve was that waking up to a fully-decorated tree that was in a bucket in the garage when we went to bed was the cornerstone of my parents’ execution of Christmas magic. When you are six years old, this is absolutely mind-blowing. When you are 38 years old and know how it was done, it’s STILL mind-blowing.

The other reason we got our tree on Christmas Eve was that my father was really, really cheap.

When I was in high school my mother’s aunt gave us this artificial tree that I absolutely hated. Hated. HAY-TED. And even that we didn’t put up and decorate until Christmas Eve. It was what we had for a long time until my father finally relented in 2010 and agreed to go back to a real tree so long as we actually got it and had it up for a good chunk of the Christmas season. The agreement we came to was that we would buy the tree two weeks before Christmas.

On December 10, 2010, my bathroom fell into my living room right on the spot where the Christmas tree would go.

We delayed getting the tree until a few days before Christmas.

But finally we had a real tree again! And we would forevermore. Since then we have figured out a nice new Christmas tree tradition: the tree goes up about two weeks before and we put the lights on it, and then we do the actual decorations – the glass globes, and the stuff I’ve brought back from vacations, and the things me and my sister made when we were in grade school – go up on Christmas Eve.

This year, though, was the first Christmas where I was fully lord and master of the castle all by my lonesome. (I like to think of the cracked walls and creaky floors and dodgy wiring as unruly serfs.) But still! I certainly wasn’t going to back down. Everyone is welcome to do what works for them, of course, but for this Christmas traditionalist it is Real Tree Or GTFO.

About two weeks ago, when I got back from Vegas, I set out to get my Christmas tree.

Getting a Christmas tree is easy. In fact, it’s a little TOO easy.

I’m not going to lie to you – these last few years, buying Christmas trees, I have gotten some profoundly bad trees. But they are REAL trees, god dammit, and every year I am resolved to get a better tree, one that won’t die within hours of bringing it home.

There’s a reason I keep resolving the same thing: I’m not very good at this.

I went to a new Christmas tree place this year, thinking that perhaps the problems I’ve been experiencing have been because the places I have bought my trees in years past have had substandard product.

I am finally now coming around to the realization that “substandard product” is sort of the way parking lot Christmas trees tend to go in general.

This year, though, I came prepared. I knew that the most common cause of home death of Christmas trees is that the cut at the bottom of the trunk will sit out too long and clog with sap, preventing the tree from drinking water. I made certain to prevent this by buying a special pruning knife that I would use mere seconds before mounting the tree and getting it into water. And let me tell you, folks: that ain’t a knife. THIS is a knife. The handle is about the size of a lightsaber hilt and the blade is a solid nine inches long with a wicked curve and tons of enormous little teeth. It’s not so much a tool used to saw through a tree trunk as it is a brutal weapon the Predator carries to hunt sentient pine trees.

In the past few years when my trees have died prematurely – which is to say basically every year – I have attempted to make a new cut in the bottom of the trunk with a hand saw. This was a long, agonizing process that usually took a loooooooong time. We’re talking ten, fifteen solid minutes of hacking away at the tree stump – often with lights still on it after I took it out of the stand – but not this year.

This year, I set my tree stand up in the living room and went out to the front steps where the tree was waiting. I balanced it on the wall out there and began my first cut on the bottom of the trunk with the pruning knife.

I cut through the entire thing in about nine seconds.

I stood there and stared at the knife in my hand and remembered Church saying, “I could blow up the whole goddamn world with this thing.”

Now I had read that it takes something like 6-8 hours or more for the bottom of the tree trunk to actually choke off with sap, but I wasn’t having any of that. I hustled that thing right into the waiting stand in the living room and proceeded to put up my Christmas tree on my own.

Have any of you ever actually tried to get a tree into a stand on your own? I know some of you have. I can hear you laughing.

We have an old-school metal stand with a bowl, and four legs with holes in them and a metal collar that eye-bolts screw through to hold the tree up.

The first time I pushed the tree trunk through the collar in the stand and started to get down on the floor to put the bolts through, I had the passing thought, “wait, how does the tree stay upright while I’m down there?”

Spoiler: it doesn’t. I was on the floor for maybe three seconds before the tree fell on me.

This didn’t faze me in the slightest. It was a process, that’s all. I would iterate. So I moved the tree stand back towards the fireplace, pushed the tree through the collar, and then pushed it back farther towards the fireplace so that the top of the tree was leaning mostly upright against the mantel.

I got down on the floor to start pushing the bolts through the tree and had the thought – I distinctly recall this – “stupid tree thought it could beat ME.”

I learned the word “hubris” in ninth grade, for those keeping score at home.

This time I lasted almost thirty seconds before I had to rotate the base to get to the bolts I couldn’t reach and the tree fell on me.

I got out from under the tree and purposefully ignored the alarming number of pine needles that were coming off it and continued to work on my process.

Attempt number three: I would push the tree into the collar, then squat down in a catcher’s stance with one hand on the trunk of the tree and the other screwing in the bolts as best I could without being able to see them. Yes, it probably wouldn’t be perfectly level and the bolts would be a pain in the ass, but that would prevent the tree from falling down on me. And once it was in I could level it at my leisure.

It turned out that it was almost impossible to fit the bolts through the legs of the stand without being able to see them, so I pushed the stand back farther and leaned the tree against the mantel again. My new revision to my process was that I would lean it up again, but this time when I needed to rotate it to get at the other bolts, I would actually stand up and rotate the tree from there, then get back down under it. It would be more time-consuming and mean getting up and down off the hardwood floor more times, but it would keep the tree from falling on me.

If it only takes three tries to get to a perfect plan, I thought, this can’t be THAT hard. I had created a perfect, repeatable process for Christmas magic. I was as unto a Christmas magic GOD.

Crouching next to it, the second I let go of the tree it fell over on me.

I pushed the tree off of me, continued to even more purposefully ignore the even more alarming number of needles I was covered in, and started throwing wild right and left hooks at it while shouting obscenities about the tree’s mother.

I can safely say that punching a pine tree is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. I can hear what a lot of you are thinking right now, and: yes. Worse than THAT. Do not try this at home. You know, like I did.

Once I regained my composure, which took longer than I am comfortable admitting, I came up with a new iteration of my process: call someone else for help. The problem was that help was probably a day or two away at best, and the tree wouldn’t stay up in the stand until then. The tree wouldn’t stay up in the stand for a single goddamn minute. How could I keep the tree watered until help arrived?

I stood in my living room, pensive, staring at the tree. This, clearly, was actually the most important part of the process. On this, my own nascent version of Christmas magic depended.

What did I have that was big enough to fit a tree trunk, and strong enough to hold up a tree, but would also…

My gaze drifted to my right. Towards my kitchen.

Hold water…

I sent a picture of my solution to my father and the exchange went like this:

My father: Is that my crab pot?

Me: If by “your crab pot” you mean “my stock pot,” then yes it is.

A few days later my friend Kevin showed up to help me get the tree in the stand proper and when we pulled it out of the pot the gallons of water I had been pouring in it were still there, along with tons of pine needles, with tons more on the floor.

The tree was dead when I brought it in the house.

“Well,” I thought, “I’ve got a lot of years yet to perfect the Christmas magic process.”

Then I smiled, and thought, “at least I got a really badass knife to play with.”

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #4: Are you not entertained?

Posted by kozemp on September 8, 2015

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I see a lot of movies in the theatre.

There are movie people who don’t. I know a bunch of people who are super movie nerds, moreso even than I am, who hardly ever go to the theatre, or not at all. And I can sympathize with that, a bit, even if I don’t necessarily agree. The movie theatre experience can get pretty ragged anymore. Me, though, I’m still there. I’m still there all the time. I probably see… 20 movies a year in a theatre, give or take? 25 at the outside? Either way, it’s a lot. Way more than the average, which I believe is about 3 or 4 a year.

So yeah, I love going to the movie theatre. But here’s the thing: I almost never see a movie more than once in the theatre. I mean it almost NEVER happens. (I mean, aside from things like screenings of Casablanca or whatever, which I’ll go to any chance I can get.) The last new movie I twice in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. The last one before that, I am pretty sure, was Casino Royale, and that was almost ten years ago. It takes a LOT to get me to the theatre more than once.

The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres twice is very short. The list of movies I’ve seen in theatres three times is very, very short: It’s The Matrix and the first X-Men movie, which people I knew kept wanting to see and, sure, X-Men in a movie theatre, let’s go again!

The list of movies I’ve seen four times in the theatre is precisely one movie long, and that movie is Gladiator.

That is funny to me now, sitting here, because when I was watching it today in preparation for writing this, all I could see was what’s wrong with it. This isn’t a case where oh, I saw this thing in the theatre 15 years ago and loved it to death and haven’t had eyes on it since. I am pretty sure that Gladiator also holds the dubious honor of being the movie that I have purchased on various home video formats the most times. It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I definitely bought the DVD at least four times: twice for the bare bones, basic DVD (one “disappeared”), once for the slightly-upscaled DVD edition, and then once for the three-disc Super Tiger Dragon Edition. That’s just on DVD. I’ve also bought it at least once on Blu-Ray, and I have a nagging suspicion that I’ve actually bought the Blu-Ray twice. And that’s never minding the fact that it’s one of those movies I am physically incapable of turning off if I see it on TV. I have watched it at least once a year since the day it came out.

Today was no worse than the 20th time I’ve seen Gladiator, and like I said, the movies flaws were all I could see. And there are a lot of them. This is a deeply, deeply, DEE-HEE-PLEE flawed movie. Like Grand Canyon, Springfield Gorge, Doctor-Who-cracks-in-the-universe deep. It’s no small wonder the movie doesn’t simply crumble into bits trying to hold its own weight up against them.

My notes from today’s viewing consist almost entirely a series of incredulous rhetorical questions about the movie.  (I love the Socratic Method almost as much as Gladiator, apparently.) In what is almost certainly not a coincidence or accident, the vast majority of them revolve around Joaquin Phoenix because I am realizing that the central question of the film is quite possibly WHAT THE FUCK IS UP WITH COMMODUS?!

A few examples:

  • “Why does Commodus kill Maximus’ family? What does that accomplish?”
  • “How does Commodus not realize that his sister keeps him in line with drugs and the empty promise of icky sister sex?”
  • “Commodus has this weird need for love that makes him a lot more pathetic than most movies will let their villain be.”
  • “Seriously, what the fuck is Joaquin Phoenix doing?”

I used that last one, or a variation on it, four times in my notes, because the character and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance are just baffling. (Phoenix’? Not sure of the punctuation rules there.) Or rather they are as you go through the movie from start to finish, because at the end it all comes together in the “am I not merciful” bit, when you see for the first time what Commodus really is, just a barrelful of rage and hate and fear shoved inside a person suit.

The scene is amazing, and Phoenix is amazing in it, and it shows you that Phoenix has actually been, you know, doing something specific the whole movie, but the Commodus issue is the movie’s second biggest flaw: the action of the entire picture hinges on what Marcus Aurelius tells us at the beginning, that we have to go through all this shit because Commodus is unfit to rule. And, yeah, you get a vague sense of that at the time, with his weirdo thing for Lucilla and he’s kind of a preening jerk at the front and the whole killing his father bit, but all any of that really proves, or shows, is that Commodus is an ambitious dickhead and a pervert. I mean, those are more or less the basic REQUIREMENTS for being a Roman emperor; he should hardly be ruled out because of that. So as an outside observer you’re like, “okay, so what exactly is the problem with this dude,” and you have to wait almost three hours before he’s screaming at his sister, who he has promised to spend the rest of his life raping, about what a great guy he is and you realize, “oh, okay, he’s an insane fucking monster, which we grudgingly admit is just over the line for this particular job.”

But this here is one of the things I love about Gladiator, that its flaws are also secretly its strengths. Because here’s a really, really weird thing about this movie: so much of the plot – of what actually happens in the here-and-now of the movie – is deeply dependent on a ton of very complicated backstory that the movie makes absolutely no attempt to present. Or even let the viewer in on. The key players all have this long history together that all the action of the picture springs from and the movie’s attitude is “eh, people will figure it out.” The question of “is Maximus the father of Lucila’s son,” a lot of movies would have tried to milk that question for at least two or three reels. Gladiator just sort of leaves it hanging there, a big vague maybe that I don’t think I even picked up on the existence of until my third or fourth viewing. Think of every movie like this, where the characters have this kind of history. Then think of a movie that doesn’t explicitly tell you any of it – ANY of it! The lousy movies are the ones that go out of the way to just shove it in your face, full of those awful lines of expository dialogue that start with phrases like “of course you remember…” and “you know…” Then think of movies that don’t do that.

One of those is a batch of bad, or mediocre, movies. The other is a batch of great movies. Exposition is death. Character exposition is even worse, so Gladiator just says “fuck it” and dares the audience to keep up.

That dare to the audience, the Marty McFly-style “try and keep up” is the spine of the whole movie, in a weird way, and unfortunately that works both for and against it. To wit: I have seen this movie at least 20 times and still cannot tell you exactly what is going on in the opening battle scene. Forget “exactly,” I can’t tell you AT ALL what’s going on. There’s Romans, and there’s a bunch of barbarians, who knows how many, and they’re in a place with trees and dirt, and they fight, and that’s about all I know. The geography of the battle is completely incomprehensible. Where is Maximus leading the cavalry charge from? Behind the Germans? (Germanians? Whatever.) If he’s already flanked them with his cavalry why does the whole infantry battle even happen in the first place? If he can just pepper the Germanianianians with flaming arrows and giant Molotov cocktails from a mile away why is he hitting them with guys on horses? What the hell is that dog doing there? When Commodus shows up after it’s all over and the guy is like “the Emperor has been at the front for 19 days” he hops a horse and he’s there in a couple minutes. That’s like me saying my father has been at the WaWa on the corner for 19 days.  How and why does ANY of the opening 20 minutes happen the way it does?

I ask these questions but at the same time I kind of don’t care because Christ on a pogo stick those opening 20 minutes are awesome. I am not any kind of connoisseur of movie violence anymore but that scene – all the fight/battle scenes, really, but the opener in particular – have this intensely visceral quality that few other movies can match. I said on the podcast a few years back that no other filmmakers is as concerned with the interaction of life and death than Ridley Scott, and it really shows here. The scenes are graphic – like, yuck graphic – but not exploitative or gratuitous and everything has this frenetic, sort of lived-in, you-are-there feel that still makes my heart catch in my throat when I watch them. Maximus, in that second fight scene out in the provinces, dual-wielding. Oh my stars and garters. It’s brutal and vicious but at the same time it’s just so real and present that you can’t take your eyes off it.

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Oh, by the way, there’s this guy in this movie, Russell Crowe? Yeah, you may have heard me talk about him and how stupid awesome he is. There are actors you can see working, and then there are actors you can’t see working, and then there are actors for whom it is just effortless, and then there’s Russell Crowe. He’s a lot of the reason you can’t take your eyes off this movie. Is there a big, epic-movie hero who talks less than Maximus? Crowe has to do so much with just his eyes and his face and his body and wordless or near-wordless shouting, and he DOES it, and he makes it look so easy, and I hate him for it. And the laughing. The fucking laughing. Maximus laughs, and that is SO GODDAMN IMPORTANT. In the hands of a lesser actor Maximus would be a brooding, dour caricature (the script does him no favors here) but just a couple times over the course of the movie Crowe knows to crack a smile, or laugh a little bit, and JUST BY DOING THAT he turns Maximus from an obsessive, single-minded revenge-bot into a real person and dear god you could cook a roast over the burning fires of my jealousy. That is such next-level shit I would add him to the list of people I plan to devour in order to gain their powers were I not certain Russell Crowe could kill me with his mind.

But then…

But then, Maximus is a bit of a cipher at times, isn’t he? Watching with my dad this morning the first fight scene in the Zucchabar arena is on, and my dad says, “so, what, practice is beneath Maximus but he shows up on game day? He just didn’t want to go to camp! He’s Brett Favre!*” And I tried to explain that, no, you see, Maximus wouldn’t do the practice bits because he was showing his contempt for the games, but when Proximo started talking about facing death he got up for it because he actually wanted to die and… I stopped myself before I got too deep into it because, just, ugh, even I didn’t believe any of that. Crowe does a ton of work without saying anything, but while Maximus’ overall revenge arc isn’t exactly difficult to parse, he says so little and gives away so little that his motivation in any given scene isn’t always easy to pick out (or, oftentimes, possible to).

The fact that I keep going back and forth between things I love and things I hate about this movie is a symptom of how deeply flawed the movie is, and it and all the other problems spring from what is the movie’s biggest flaw: the script is awful. Oh my GOD the script is awful. While filming Russell Crowe famously (and possibly apocryphally) refused to say whole sections of the dialogue, most of which ranges from simply bad to so terrible it will actually cause your skin to boil away if your sound system is turned up too loud. Connie Nielsen’s “prisoner of fear” speech, which is actually in the extended edition TWICE, for fuck’s sake, please save us O Lord from the prisoner of fear speech. And that’s just the actual spoken words. While Maximus’ revenge story is pretty simple and, let’s charitably say, reasonably clear, anything else that goes on in the movie is your classic “a bunch of shit that happens.”

Much like the opening battle scene, the third act of this movie makes basically no sense. There’s a plan, it involves Derek Jacobi in some way – side note, what movie is Derek Jacobi in, because it’s not the one everyone else is – and then everyone is in jail, and Maximus breaks out of his slave-prison-slash-rich-Roman-lady-fuck-palace, and is then captured nine seconds later when his Scottish buddy gets killed for no reason, and then, I dunno, a bunch of other shit happens. Derek Jacobi is in the last scene, because… the Roman jail is in the Colosseum? The extended edition – which Ridley Scott actually appears at the beginning of to pointedly tell you is NOT a director’s cut – tries to address some of this with a bunch of political scenes about Commodus selling grain, and… oh, god, it’s all just so goddamn tedious. It’s like someone had the idea “let’s do a movie set in Ancient Rome,” and then did some research on Rome and gladiators and shit, and wrote an outline, and then never looked at it again, and a week before shooting started a deaf chimpanzee with a drinking problem banged out the dialogue in one overnight typing bender before killing himself, and then Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe somehow convinced each other to shoot THAT.

The fact that this is still a great movie with such a godawful script is actually something of a miracle, since flaws like that are usually structural and, thus, insurmountable. Even when you get lots of super talented people together, making a great movie from a bad script is like trying to make a great meal from bad ingredients: a great cook can maybe salvage something edible, but it’s almost impossible to make something really delicious. Look at Skyfall, for example, or the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Tons of great people made those and the movies still never get there. Auteur theory people can wank all they like to “you can’t run a screenplay through a projector,” but a painter still needs paint.

And let’s not kid ourselves here: a lot of fantastically talented people did outstanding work on this movie. Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe. Here’s one you probably don’t think about too much: John Mathieson, the DP. This movie looks SPECTACULAR. I saw it last year at a revival screening, one of those show the remaster in digital cinemas when the Blu Ray comes out jobs, and seeing it on a huge screen for the first time in more than a decade, dear lord the movie’s look is just jaw-dropping. The landscapes and the sweeping shots of Rome and the Colosseum are all as gorgeous as the dirty, gritty closeups on the floor of the arena… I mean, honestly, if you can’t let yourself get taken away by stuff like that, what are we even doing here? Shit like that, transporting you to another world, that’s what movies are FOR. That’s the whole point.

I think, maybe, that’s why I like it so much. I try not to analyze these things TOO intently; analyzing the movie is one thing but trying to too finely dissect the whys and wherefores of why I like something seems like a fool’s errand. But looking at this list, this odd little enumeration of “these are things that I love,” it jumps out at me that with just a few exceptions it’s all period pieces and other worlds and things that are so far outside my experience that, well, I need movies to experience them. Gladiator has all these flaws but… it isn’t that I don’t care. Obviously I do care; I’ve spent 3,000-something words tearing apart one of my absolute mostest-favoritest movies of all time. But whether it’s because of them or despite them – and I have honestly been trying to figure out that difference all day and I simply cannot – even still, I put Gladiator on, and the people and the visuals and everything come together and just take me to this other place that is so real you can almost smell the dirt and the blood. It’s magic. That’s what Gladiator is, in the end: it’s movie magic. Whether I’m talking about movies or mathematics I am loathe ascribing any sort of result to a process I cannot accurately describe, but after 15 years, 20-plus viewings, and crying like a little girl at “honor him” every single time, I don’t have another answer.

You compare Gladiator to those other movies I mentioned a little bit ago, or any not good movie made by people who are. This is the same thing. The result should be the same. By all rights, in any sort of logical universe, when you take all the same pieces and put them together the same way you should get the same result. But every now and then, you don’t. Every now and then, magic happens, and it’s inexplicable. Magic happens and you end up in the theatre four times seeing the same movie.

It wouldn’t be any fun if magic never happened, would it?

JLK

* Yes, watching movies with my father is absolutely infuriating.

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