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

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

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.

Posted in Life | Leave a Comment »

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.


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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.



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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.


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

Posted by kozemp on September 8, 2015


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.


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?


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

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #5: You’ll never come to Dorset.

Posted by kozemp on July 10, 2015


I realize this is an odd choice, but I’m going to start talking about this movie by talking about another movie.

Years ago I watched and really, really liked the movie Atonement. It wasn’t exactly a threat to this list – I doubt it would make my top 100 if pressed – but I was extremely impressed with and very taken by it, even with the fact that, as I described at the time, the last five minutes of the movie hits you in the back of the head with the flat side of a 20 pound sledge.

I was describing how much I liked it to a friend of mine, and he said, “what did you expect? Jesus, look at you. Your favorite movies are [SPOILER.] [SPOILER.] The English Patient. And now you like Atonement so much. It’s like you’re sexually attracted to misery.”

We laughed for a second, but then I stopped laughing and said, “wait, now that I think about it that actually explains a lot.”

Watching The English Patient last night, I was reminded of that story. I was reminded of the story because about halfway through I was struck by two very clear and very explicit thoughts:

“This is my fifth-favorite movie. Out of every movie on earth, there are only four that I like more than this.”


“Dear God, WHY?!”

That question of why would plague me for the rest of the night. And all of today. And maybe, I’m starting to think, for a long time.

The answer isn’t just because it’s a good movie. It’s obviously good. Everything about it is… I don’t want to say “perfect,” because it’s not a perfect film, but somehow that… I dunno, sort of works in its favor? I imagine there is some sort of tortured metaphor to be made here about diamonds and flaws and similar horseshit; let’s pretend I made one and move on. It’s not perfect, but the stuff that is good is so, so, so good – i.e. almost everything – and the stuff that isn’t good is short, and isn’t even that bad to begin with – i.e. about five minutes towards the end – that on balance, yeah, your movie only being, what, 94% amazing, you know, we’ll just round up to a hundred. This is, in a purely objective sense, an incredible movie. Full stop.

So it’s not that. We haven’t broken into the All Time Top 5 on purely quantitative merit alone. There’s clearly something going on here beyond acting and writing and cinematography, and while I was sitting here watching it last night I started to really think about those things, in direct relation to the movie, for the first time.

As I said to a friend last night, this ended up involving some fairly uncomfortable revelations.

I went through a couple surface-level ideas and discarded them pretty quickly. Not even worth repeating. There were a few that seemed promising, though, and I explored them a little further. Eventually they all sort of petered out, but as these things go the exploration was valuable.

Is it the “sexually attracted to misery” joke? Nah. I mean, that’s funny, and there are some things in my life you can point at and say “huh? Huh?” while snickering and making your point. At the end of the day, though, I feel it’s important to state unequivocally that I am not some kind of… emotional sadist? Is that the term for it? I am not actually, literally attracted to unhappiness. That things have sort of ended up in such a way enough times that one can make the joke, well… I am a lot of things, but as I have repeatedly said, remember that above all else I am the plaything of an angry trickster god.


Is it because of Kristin Scott Thomas? Her and Emma Thompson sort of cohabitate this odd little space in my brain set aside for Slightly Older British Actresses I Have A Really Weird Thing For. She was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, a movie that no one should be surprised by now actually WAS a late threat to this list, probably somewhere in the 30-40ish range. She is the Epitome of Cool. Her Katherine is intelligent, beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking. But, no, don’t think that’s it either. I mean, I’m not swooning over the first Mission Impossible. (WHICH SHE WAS THE BEST PART OF.)

Is it the fact that this was the Big Time Prestige Movie right when I started really getting into movies? This was the theory I toyed with the longest, and I think of the ones that didn’t make the cut it has the most merit. Yes, this was around right when I entered my budding-cineaste period, and it coincides with the rise of Miramax and indies dominating awards season – this movie is more or less the highwater mark for Miramax – and all that other shit I have since learned to more or less disregard about movies. I know it wasn’t the first one to do so, but it was the first arthouse movie that I REMEMBER having real mainstream cred (it was the center of a classic Seinfeld episode, remember) and that probably gives the movie some gravity in my thoughts that it might not have had otherwise.

But this isn’t one of my mostest-bestest favorite movies because of any of those things. They were good ideas, sure, but they weren’t the answer.

Finally, though, I did hit on the answer, and I’m not going to lie to you: I didn’t really like what I found.

I love this movie – and I do, if nothing else last night also proved that I deeply, profoundly, unreservedly and unabashedly LOVE this movie – because I connect with it personally.

I love this movie because when I look at Laszlo Almasy I see myself.

That is not a good place to stand.

Okay, so, let’s get the snickering and the dirty looks out of the way. Obviously, I am not a Hungarian count. (That I am aware of.) I do not possess Ralph Fiennes’ matinee idol good looks or talent. I have not had a torrid affair with a British noblewoman in North Africa. (Again, that I am aware of, there was a time when I was REALLY drunk and a lot of it is hazy.)

I would say something like “I do not possess his charm,” but on balance I am frankly pretty sure that I actually possess MORE charm than Almasy. Charm is not exactly his strong suit.

No, that’s not what I mean. Here is what I mean.

When I decided that I really needed to answer the question of “WHY?!” I went back and actually started watching more closely than I normally would when I am planning to write about something.

I watched, thinking to myself, “the answer is here. The answer is right in front of you. You just have to see it.” And as the flashbacks start to unfold – and the flashbacks are the part of the movie I’m interested in, not to take anything away from Juliette Binoche just yet – I started to pay attention to Almasy, really, REALLY pay attention, to his behavior, and his scenes with Katherine…

I paid attention to his scenes with Katherine and I felt myself start to get overtaken by a creeping, unsettling deja vu. Not because I’ve seen the movie or those scenes before. I’ve seen them, by my estimate, eight or nine times over the years.

I started to get the sort of deja vu where I was watching the movie, and thinking, I did that.

I did that too.

I’ve done that.

I’ve acted like that.

There’s the scene where Almasy tries to get Clifton to take Katherine back with him to “Cairo” not because he is actually worried about her safety, or about the expedition, or the desert, or any of the other bullshit excuses he gives. He wants her to go back because he’s terrified of his own feelings, and of being alone with her, even when he’s surrounded by other people.

It was uncomfortably familiar.

Then comes the scene after the night in the sandstorm, when they get back to her hotel, and he refuses to go in with her. And I remember doing exactly that. Doing the exact same stupid shit he does. Standing at the bottom of the steps or outside the open door listening to that voice in my head, just like he is in that moment, that voice everyone hears at some point, telling you that what you want is right there, right in front of you, that you can have it and it’s waiting for you, and then refusing to go and get it because of the other voice in your head that makes up some bullshit reason why you can’t have it, or why you don’t deserve it, the voice that eventually makes you say, “nah, I should go.”

And then not much later they’re finally together – no thanks to him, also a popular theme in my biography* – and I see what he does, the mistakes he makes, and how twisted up his insides get by fear, by his fear of his feelings, of exposing himself, of opening up to someone else, of other people and the world in general. Because, folks, don’t misunderstand: from the second he first sees Katherine until he gets cooked in that plane, every single thing Laszlo Almasy does is driven by fear.

Trust me on this point.

Sting once sang that “those who fear are lost,” and good lord does that apply here. How many people die because of Laszlo Almasy’s fear? Never mind the thousands of people in Cairo that die – as Almasy correctly points out, thousands of people would have died either way, just different ones. No. Not war casualties, not statistics. How many individual people – people he knows, his friends – die because Almasy can’t deal with his fear? Katherine. Clifton. Maddox. Hell, even the German general who cuts off Caravaggio’s thumbs ends up getting it in the neck because of what Almasy did, though admittedly he probably deserved it.

Almasy, for his sins, gets to spend the entire war dying.

In trying to figure out why I love this movie so much – partially through sitting here typing this and partially through long periods pointedly NOT sitting here typing this – I did at least manage to come to a realization that was a lot more comfortable than my similarities with Count Dumbass: the movie, itself, is also asking the question “why?” The opening scenes are purposefully opaque: a man, a woman, a plane, and a fire. Then we go back, and for the first time the movie poses the question, “why is this happening?” All the major action in the movie more or less centers around the question of why. Katherine wants to know why Almasy writes about her in his book. Clifton wants to know why he wasn’t good enough for Katherine. (Shoulda gone for brooding, dude.) Caravaggio wants to know why he lost his thumbs. Hana…


Okay, here’s my sort-of apostasy about this movie: I don’t really get Hana’s story. I mean I functionally UNDERSTAND it, I comprehend the plot, but I don’t know… what purpose it serves? Laszlo and Katherine is the movie. Their story is Why We’re Here. We set Hana up with this tragic backstory about her blown up Canadian boyfriend, and her blown-up girlfriend, and then she tries to blow herself up, and then… she decides to ride out the war in a crumbling castle with a mummy? Is it supposed to be some sort of counterpoint to Almasy’s story? Because you can’t really touch that on the whole “tragic love” front. Oh, your boyfriend got blown up. (In a goddamn war, we might add.) And then your best girlfriend got blown up (in the same damn war). And then you meet a perfectly nice young lad who you break up with for never satisfactorily explained reasons which possibly have something to do with him pointedly NOT getting blown up, which considering your luck should be considered a sign from the universe that he’s The One.

Boo fucking hoo! Lemme tell you a little story about Laszlo Almasy and Katherine Clifton, and buckle your seatbelt cause this is the mother of all tragic love stories. Did your husband try to kill himself with a plane with you in it? Did you jump off a train to try and save someone you love (blown up or otherwise) from dying alone in a cave? I think not.

(It is worth noting in passing that the movie’s plot summary on Wikipedia omits Hana’s story entirely, and not wholly to its detriment.)

Hana’s story – it’s existence – is one of the very few flaws in the movie. The other is what heppens between when Almasy leaves Katherine and when he gets back to her. As I’ve said, I’ve seen this movie close to a dozen times, and every time we get the knobheaded British soldiers dragging Almasy to and fro across the desert, and strangling people with handcuff chains, and Nazi plane swaps, I just kind of shake my head and wonder what the hell was going through Minghella’s head for that stretch. Tonally, in terms of performance, in terms of staging, everything, that one reel is from some other movie that is certainly NOT in my top 5. Every time a British soldier says “Fritz” I want to travel back in time and whack Minghella upside the head with a newspaper and make him rewrite those parts. I get that you can’t have “tragic love story” without, you know, tragedy, but isn’t there SOME other way we can get to it?

Hang on, though. Is “tragic love story” it? Hell, tragic love story is no less autobiographical for me than Almasy’s cowardice, though again in fairness I have never been set on fire because of my doomed love for an unattainable woman**. Maybe my deep-seated love of the movie is just pure identification, on every level, character AND theme? God, that would be depressing, wouldn’t it? That would be more depressing than this movie, which is actually something of an accomplishment considering the underlying message of The English Patient – my fifth favorite movie of all time – is “no matter how hard you try you can’t escape the past, love is a poison, and both of them will kill you.”

Note to self: stop asking “why.”

Oh, and, next time?

Go up the damn steps.






* That motherfucker is ASLEEP when she shows up!







** YET.

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Make me a drink.

Posted by kozemp on May 1, 2015

I am kind of furiously banging away at this one on a self-imposed late night deadline, because I really need to get some sleep but I also need to get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind, before said sleep smears the edges of my recollection. Which means this may not be the most polished thing I’ve ever written, but by the end you’ll understand why that’s necessary.

So, then.

Just after I started my slow, cautious foray back into doing theater stuff however many weeks or months ago it was – it is one of those things that already I cannot remember precisely when it happened – I was looking at the Theater Philadelphia website and saw that Theatre Exile was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

I saw that and had a curious, strangled reaction, for a bunch of reasons.

I instantly bought a ticket all the same, and here’s why:

A little while later I was having lunch with an old theater friend and I mentioned the play, saying, “have you ever actually SEEN it?”

He scrunched up his face for a second and then said, “you know, I don’t think I have.”

“Me neither,” I said. “I mean, I’ve seen the movie, and read the script a bunch of times.”

“I’ve done scene work from it,” he said.

“Right. But have you ever actually seen it performed?”

I paused.

I will admit that back when I was actively doing theater stuff I would occasionally bang on Theatre Exile for tackling really interesting and really challenging material and then having a bad tendency to back away from the parts that made it really interesting and challenging – for metaphorically, and occasionally literally, turning down the lights at the important bits. However, I will also admit that when I would call Joe Canuso “my nemesis” and shake my fist at the mention of them – I literally used to do that, for Chrissakes, I’m cringing at the thought of it – the joke came out of a combination of burning jealousy and sincere admiration. Joe and Theatre Exile seemed to have tastes that ran very similar to mine, except they also had a relative abundance of things I lacked. Important things like experience, and money, and decorum, and good sense. They were doing the sorts of shows I wanted to do, only better.

You can see how that would drive me crazy.

At any rate, once I made the decision to slowly and cautiously start working my way back, and to start out by just seeing as many shows and as many people as I could, and once I saw that Theatre Exile was doing Virginia Woolf, my reaction to the whole thing was summed up in what I said next to my friend at lunch:

“I’m not about to miss THAT.”

This is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Straight off and for the record: I saw Theatre Exile’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Plays and Players tonight, and it. Is. ASTONISHING.

It’s not just that everyone in it is great. (They are.) It’s not just that the execution of the tech across the board is great. (It is.) And it’s certainly not that Joe Canuso’s direction perfectly – oh god so perfectly – avoids all the things I’ve been running into as I get back into this thing, all the artificial, presentational things about theater that I absolutely fucking loathe. The actors talk TO each other. They look at each other. They get in each other’s faces. They touch. They flirt. The characters and the performances are so real and the direction is so dead-on and so right that… I… I almost can’t describe it. It’s like you’re not there. The proscenium and the seats and the lights and the other people in the audience melt away and you’re just in this room with these four people and you wish you weren’t, because the performances of these wretched, horrible people are so transcendent, but at the same time you can’t look away for even an instant. When Honey stumbles around in a drunken stupor I literally had a second where I was freaking out that she was going to fall off the stage.

The sheer reality of the whole endeavor is terrifying.

The agility of the show, of the totality of acting and directing and design, just amazes me. Most plays – good ones, even great ones – are like an aircraft carrier. They’re powerful, but they’re tough, and lumbering. And that’s not surprising, or even bad. It takes a lot of work and more concentration than most folks can comprehend from a whole lot of people to put on a really good production. A lack of maneuverability, after a fashion, is okay. This? This is not that. Christ is it not that. This is like someone turned a Formula 1 car into an Edward Albee play. The show, the whole thing, it turns on a dime, and it changes gears faster than you can blink, and it goes from zero to a hundred and back again in seconds without breaking a sweat.

Believe me, were it not way past my bedtime on a school night I would rave on and on about every amazing thing in this production, even though I have neither metaphors nor superlatives enough to accurately describe it. The closest thing I’ve got is what I was able to say to Joe Canuso before I had to rush out and catch my train home so I could type this up and get to bed at a decent hour (which I have failed to do).

I found Joe, shook his hand, and just said, “it burns the paint off the walls.”

As a friend of mine put it: this is what theater is supposed to be.

It is extraordinary.

You must, must, must go see it.


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Life is not a paragraph, and death is no parenthesis.

Posted by kozemp on March 30, 2015

When I was growing up, my father, like I assume all fathers, taught me a lot of rules. Though I have internalized a lot of them over the years, there are a few that I still carry to this day word for word, and that I imagine I probably will my entire life.

Bear in mind that all of these were offered as broadly-applicable life lessons of extreme, and roughly similar, importance. They are, in the order that I remember being taught them in:

1) Once you start a book you have to give it 50 pages.

2) Be careful, for the Nine are abroad.

3) Never sit with your back to a door.

4) Never draw to an inside straight.

It is worth noting that I read Lord of the Rings at 8 and learned poker at 13, so you can do your own math and draw your own conclusions, there.

The one that I found myself thinking of today was the oldest: the 50 Pages Rule. This one has actually served me in good stead, for the most part. If the opening of a book is a little wobbly, and you aren’t sure about it, if it hasn’t really done anything for you by page 50 the odds are the rest of it isn’t going to do much for you either. While I’m certain there are exceptions – the 50 Pages Rule is why I haven’t read Anathem – the rule nicely dovetails with some of the guidance I’ve come up with for myself later in life. I’ve said time and again that I don’t have time to watch/read anything that isn’t awesome, and that is really just the spirit of the 50 Pages Rule blown out a little: don’t give a so-so book more than 50 pages because that’s time you could spend reading something better.

I am a big fan of the 50 Pages Rule. I evangelize it as much as anything. It works for me. Likely it will work for you. Try it and see how it goes.

The upshot of this is that there are times when the Rule actively protects you from doing harm to your precious brain cells (and, more importantly, me from doing harm to mine).

I once dated a woman who really liked the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. In an attempt to bring us closer together (which is the point of dating, after all) I made an effort to engage with and read the things she liked. I started out by one day picking up her copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Interlude, because internet people seem to find my conversations with my father hilarious:

A few years after the events I am about to describe, I saw the American film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Through a strange alchemy of circumstances involving midwestern travel and me obsessing about a woman I met at a party, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was one of the incredibly rare modern movies that my father saw before I did.

After I finally saw it, I called him up (he was, at the time, once again in the Midwest) and asked him what he thought about it.

He said, “I really liked it.”

I said, “yeah, I did too, for the most part. It was really interesting seeing Daniel Craig be a whiny little bitch.”

“That is correct,” my father said. This is how we talk about movies. One of us makes a subjective observation and the other deems it objectively correct or not. “Overall, it’s dark, and violent, and a little too long.”

I said, “you just described every David Fincher movie.”

My father paused for a second, then said, “that is also correct.”

End interlude

Some of my father’s rules I take more literally, or follow more strictly, than others. I have been known to sit with my back to a door when it is more or less impossible to do otherwise. There have been times when I have grudgingly stayed in a pot while on an inside draw, though only when I was getting odds on my call.

(I can only assume my father did not include the concept of pot odds in his life advice because he assumed that 13 Year Old Me would not have understood it. This is actually an appalling lapse in judgment. 13 Year Old Me could do calculus; he probably could have grasped “fold unless this number divided by this other number is more than this third number.”)

So, sitting in her apartment one day, I picked up my girlfriend’s copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

If you asked me what the worst book I’ve ever read was, odds are that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would not make the list. It would not make the list solely because I cannot, in good conscience, claim to have read it. I have only read 50 pages of it. In point of fact I have only read EXACTLY 50 pages of it.

I started reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and on about page 3 I started the clock.

At the bottom of page 50, literally in the middle of a sentence – I am not making this up – I shouted “THANK FUCKING CHRIST!” to the empty apartment and hurled the book across the room, and started muttering obscenities about time I would never get back.

To say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad – or that the portion of it that I read is, at least – is an understatement. It is profoundly, unbelievably bad. I used to think it was just the translation, that maybe it was better in Swedish, but then I saw the movie and underneath some great performances and direction and cinematography there was a script that was still, at a very basic level, broken. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad. It is in-the-bones bad.

It is, in fact, so bad that the book doesn’t even deserve a thoughtful response, which brings me to The Girl on the Train, a book which very much does deserve one.

It took me a little bit, sitting here, to figure out how exactly how I ended up reading The Girl on the Train in the first place. I’m certainly not someone who is up on the latest “buzzworthy” books or anything like that, and a cursory glance at it reveals that subject-wise it isn’t really something I’ve ever read in the past. For years how I’ve simply read what I read and liked what I liked and when something broke through that, a new author or whatever, it was more or less a beautiful and unique snowflake.

That started to change for me last fall when I read an interview with Stephen King (whom I admire a great deal) and he mentioned how he was kinda pissed that The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, was a straight-up literary masterpiece that would get ignored by a lot of the book cognoscenti because it had science fiction elements in it.

I could not, at the time, remember a specific book recommendation from Stephen King, and decided that if it was good enough for him it was good enough for me, and when I finished Revival I went and grabbed The Bone Clocks and had a reaction that transcended positive. (There will, at some point in the future, be many glowing words in this space about David Mitchell.) My reaction was so transcendent, and branching out had proven so fruitful, that I decided I was going to actively expand my literary horizons, snowflakes be damned.

It goes without saying that the recommendations engine on Goodreads is… well, more or less the recommendations engine equivalent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Amazon’s recommendations, however, are usually frightening in their excellence, and every time I have read or looked up a new book since The Bone Clocks, I have added a bunch of Amazon’s suggestions to my “to-read” list, which now sits at a bloated 80 or so titles.

It will take me a while to get through the list. There are worse problems to have than “too many good books to read,” surely.


Here’s the thing about The Girl on the Train: after finishing it this morning I went and read a bunch of reviews of it, and so many of them mentioned Gone Girl it made me a little sad, and more than a little angry.

I must note at this point that I have not actually read Gone Girl (#45 on my to-read list), but that isn’t necessarily germane to my argument in this instance. Unless the book is vastly, VASTLY different from the movie – which I have seen, and nothing in my researches indicates the differences are in fact that vast – the similarities between the stories seem little more than superficial. A missing woman. An unreliable narrator. And… I dunno, that’s kinda all I’ve got. The “unreliable narrator” thing in Gone Girl isn’t even the same SORT of unreliable narrator in The Girl on the Train.

So what are we left with, then?

Don’t talk to me about genre. I do not give a flying fuck about genre. Genre is bullshit. It’s just another way to separate Us from Them, the intellectual haves from the have nots. All I care about anymore is theme and execution. All I care about is whether or not your book, or movie, or comic, or show or whatever is ABOUT something, and whether or not you can get that something across with some degree of skill. Gone Girl is about something. The Girl on the Train is about something. They are not, however, about the SAME thing, not remotely, and that makes the comparison wholly unfair.

Let me put it another way: are The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing the same sort of movie? Should every review of Miller’s Crossing reference The Godfather? Of course not. It’s unfair.

Would every review of The Girl on the Train reference Gone Girl if the books were called The Boy on the Train and Gone Boy, and if they were written by Paul Hawkins and George Flynn?

I’m just going to leave that there and move on.

Let’s get something out of the way straight off: I liked this book. I liked it a lot. I liked it enough that when I turned off my Kindle before getting off the train this morning (BA-DUM-BUMP!) I did a quick mental calculation of how much I had left in the book, how much I really wanted to finish it, and how much work I had to do at the office today, and decided I could safely sacrifice a good bit of the morning at work finishing the book rather than waiting to read it on the train home (BA-DUM-BUMP!).

I liked it for… well, all the usual reasons I like something, to be honest. It has clear themes, and themes that are favorites of mine to boot, foremost among them being an exploration of the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves, and how one of those is much, much worse than the other. I admit that this is somewhat by necessity a function of the whole “unreliable narrator” thing, a literary notion I despise, as it drags me back to forced readings of Catcher in the Rye.

It works here, though, because each of the narrators is unreliable in her own way, and that kind of parallelism is that much more book-catnip for me. Oh my, yes, I looooooooove me some structural parallelism.

It’s really quite ingenious, when you get down to it. Rachel is unreliable because she literally has no memories of parts of the story she’s telling. Megan is deliberately obfuscatory, leaving out important parts of her story until it’s too late, for her and for us. And Anna…

Okay, I’ll admit, I’m honestly not sure what the Anna chapters are supposed to accomplish. The first one comes out of nowhere – I was listening to my synced audiobook when it came and the third voice made me shout “WHAT THE FUCK?” in my car – and while there are bits of narrative in the later instances (which we’ll get to shortly) I don’t know what thematic purpose the chapters serve as a whole, especially early on, other than to really hammer home the point of, “hey, isn’t Anna awful?”

Because don’t mistake – Anna, the new wife of main character Rachel’s ex-husband, is truly loathsome. (Not in the way Amy Dunne is loathsome, but nothing that doesn’t birth itself out of your chest cavity is.) Another, lesser book would have tried to soften her up, to make her a perfect mother, a victim of whim or circumstance. A lesser book would have tried to cast Anna as some sort of latter-day Mrs. de Winter; The Girl on the Train sticks to its guns and keeps her Rebecca, and god how I love that about it.

Anna ends up being unreliable simply because you hate her so much. Call it the Jimmy McNulty Effect. I can complain about the chapters’ existence, but not with how well they’re executed.

All of which is a roundabout, discursive way of saying* that this is a Book With Really Well Done Characters, and that alone is usually good enough. I’ve long said that I’ll suffer a comic with bad art for great writing. I’ll also suffer a silly/boring/nonsensical plot for great characters, and this book has them.

I was especially shocked doing my post-read research to learn that Paula Hawkins is not, in fact, a former alcoholic, since the parts of the book detailing Rachel’s battle with booze are some of the finest I’ve read. Imagine something that specific and that personal that you know nothing about, and then imagine trying to write about it convincingly. It’s no mean feat. Rachel’s struggles are real. Megan’s struggles, too, are also very real, though they are of a different sort and come from a different place.

Beyond character and theme, though, that’s the other thing that impressed me so much about the book: it is, at a technical level, executed with extraordinary skill. The story is told across three separate narrators and three overlapping timelines, and not only does it make sense – I mean in a purely “this happened, and then this happened, and because of that this other thing happened” sense, though it does also work in that respect – the story is clear enough to follow, yet leaves enough unspoken to increasingly tantalize the more of it you read.

The different narrators have different voices. It’s hard enough for a writer to have ONE voice, let alone three. There are scenes that mean one thing the first time you read them, and then when you possess new information you can go back and the scene has a completely different meaning, and both work with your understanding of the story as a whole. Hawkins was a journalist – possibly, one might say, the most trained sort of writer there is – and her commitment and her discipline really shine through. (I also looooooooooove me a disciplined writer.)

And, through all of this, she only loses her mind once.

I’m trying very hard to avoid outright spoilers here, because I am very much of the mind that this is a book you should read (I mean, unless you hate things that are interesting) and part of me feels that knowing “how it ends” may impact your enjoyment of it. So I’m going to try and describe the one bit where she loses her mind in the broadest way possible, so as to alert you to its existence without giving away what it actually contains.

The “end” of the book, such as it is, the last however many pages or paragraphs or whatever – the longer you read on a Kindle the tougher it gets to make distinctions like that – are fine. Actually, they’re rather perfect. I loved that last bit. And everything that leads up to the scene that comes before that last bit is, as I have been saying for a thousand words or so, also very, very excellent.

Unfortunately, between that last bit and everything that comes before it is the climax of the book, and it… ugh, I found it profoundly disappointing. Not because it’s bad, or doesn’t work within the confines of the book as a whole. It does. In a purely story-based sense it does. That penultimate scene ends the way it absolutely has to end. I have no argument with that.

What I have a problem with is how it gets TO that ending of that penultimate scene, which is out of that other, lesser book I mentioned earlier.

Hawkins spends the entire book crafting this story that relies very intensely on character, and observation, and psychology, and memory, and all these very cool, very ethereal, very heady things, and then the climax of the book is this violent action sequence out of a shitty Adrian Lyne movie, or something, and I sat there reading it muttering, “oh, no, no, what are you doing? Noooooooooo no no no no no.” It’s so bad, and so out of place, and so incongruous with the rest of the book that the showbiz part of my brain is intensely wondering if that whole bit isn’t in there solely because of editorial pressure to jazz up the ending, that somewhere out there there isn’t Hawkins’ original text for that climactic scene, where things happen the way things in this book happen instead of the way they happen in a book that has not spent 300 some odd pages being so careful to NOT do things in that junky, market-driven way.

I’m pretty sure that given enough time and effort I could come up with a decent scene that accomplishes the same things as the climax of The Girl on the Train but doesn’t happen the way it does in the book, and if -I- can come up with it then I’m pretty sure Paula Hawkins probably could have as well. Because aside from a publisher’s thumb pushing down on it the only other logical conclusion is… I dunno, first book jitters? Maybe? I guess it’s possible. The book doesn’t really show that anywhere else, but if you’re going to have them maybe it’s best to concentrate them in ten pages or so.

That is such a minor blemish, though. Ten pages that don’t quite work, compared against so much else that does. Almost everything else that does, really. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best book I’ve read the last year. (Still The Peripheral.) It’s not even the best book I’ve read in the last month. (Still Perfidia.) But it’s damn good. Good enough to give the first 50 pages a shot, at least.


* aka “what I do”

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I destroy those I cannot control.

Posted by kozemp on March 2, 2015

And so, we have reached the point in our narrative – or my narrative, at least, as though there were any other narrative I really cared about – where I make a direct artistic connection between James Ellroy and Bruce Springsteen, and stop at HP Lovecraft along the way, and the connections work, and I will heretofore be proclaimed as either genius, or madman, or both.

But we’re not quite there, not just yet.


Me and James Ellroy is a funny sort of story. I came to Ellroy through the movie version of LA Confidential. I distinctly remember, after seeing the movie, sitting in the food court at LaSalle with Tony Romero and talking about picking up the book it was based on and him saying – almost 20 years later I still remember his exact words – “I hear it’s a fucking tome.”

I had discovered crime fiction as a teenager with Andrew Vachss – which is a bit like discovering recreational drugs by drinking a shot glass of LSD – and became one of those people who gleefully dove into the black pit every chance I got because… you know, I don’t actually know why. It’s true that I did have a severe conservative/authoritarian streak when I was a teenager and early adult, but that got fixed a long time ago and I can still pick up Hammett or Chandler or Thompson or whoever and thoroughly enjoy myself. It’s weird, I suppose, but I can’t tell you why I like soccer either. So here we are with me as a… as a kid? A young adult? Is there a word for that 18-21ish age? Whatever you call that time when you’re 18-21ish, by then I was long since that kid who had a pathological need to read novels that movies I liked were based on. How many other kids my freshman year at Chestnut Hill do you think read Silence of the Lambs? I would hazard “not many.”

Fun fact: some internet sleuthing has revealed that LA Confidential was the second book I ever bought off Amazon – after Neuromancer, which surprises, I imagine, precisely no one.

Anyway, I bought and devoured LA Confidential, and again almost 20 years later it is still one of only two books where the last lines are seared into my brain forever. The others are the last lines of Gatsby, also surprising, I imagine, no one.

I was pretty blown away by the book, and who wouldn’t be? I was already head over heels in love with the movie, after all; moreso, possibly, than whatever demure, emotionally distant brunette I was also head over heels for at the time. (I legitimately cannot remember which one it was, but, yes, I am aware that I have a type.) The book is at once both this brutal distillation of the movie and a grandiose, exploded version of it. The core of the film and the book are still the same – Los Angeles as seductress, sunny exteriors and rotten insides at every turn, and good men doing bad things. There are some key differences, sure: the Ed Exley of the novel is a little more carefully drawn and deeply motivated (and much more a conniving schemer, if you can believe that). The story is a lot more expansive. The end is completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – different. And then there is the subplot in the book in which – I am not making this up – a thinly-veiled pastiche of Walt Disney is revealed as a serial child rapist and murderer.

Yeah. It’s James Ellroy. /shrug

Even with that – and in typical fashion for me I was so engrossed in the story I tended to blow through it to get the broad strokes as quickly as possible and I missed a lot of those details on the first read (aka A Song of Ice and Fire Syndrome) – once you get used to Ellroy’s… let’s charitably call it “unique” style, which doesn’t take long, the book has the same core strength that the movie does. The characters are so strong they practically leap off the page, and for all the weirdness of the language it is still incredibly evocative in an odd way. More than almost any writer I’ve ever come across Ellroy’s books have a FEEL to them that is practically indescribable and impossible to replicate. Ellroy’s books… they SEETHE in an almost Lovecraftian way, like dark, misshapen things you know are hideous but you can’t take your eyes off of.

So I read LA Confidential, and went gaga for it, and immediately said “OH SHIT MAN WHAT’S NEXT?!” and grabbed myself a copy of White Jazz and I was toast. Completely hooked. This despite the fact that in pure writing terms White Jazz is less a book and more a collection of frenzied ravings that make the complete works of Philip K. Dick look like a carefully-considered sermon. On a sentence for sentence level it is more or less unreadable, but somehow as it accumulates it still works as a whole, and it introduces Pete Bondurant, and it has what in deference to spoilers I will call “the thing Exley does at the end,” which fulfills the promise he makes at the end of LA Confidential (the book) in the most satisfying and reprehensible way possible.

I don’t mention Pete Bondurant in passing; he is one of the main characters in American Tabloid, which is one of my Top Five Favorite Books Ever*, so clearly the whole James Ellroy thing worked out pretty well for me.

The thing about Ellroy is that as he got older his books started to… is “change” the right word? Maybe “drift?” They are still recognizably James Ellroy, they couldn’t not be, but there was something more to them that became more pronounced as the Underworld trilogy rolled on. If you start with The Black Dahlia, a book that seems to be powered by nothing more than madness and sheer style, and then go through the Underworld books, you can see that there is this weirdly emotional core to them that gets stronger and stronger.

I’m not someone who will read books purely for style. If I were I would like… well, among other things, Philip K. Dick. But the books slowly undergo this metamorphosis until you get to the last twenty pages or so of Blood’s A Rover and find that you are reading this shockingly sentimental, almost maudlin ending. After years of books that run on a combination of anger and glee comes this thing that is about… regret? Deeply personal, private regret?

From James Ellroy?

The fuck?

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. But one gets to the end of a James Ellroy novel, or one did up until that point, and expects shocking, bloody denoument, not the book quietly reminding you that the real point of all of this is to not end up a sad old man who wasted his life. To get that instead of what Exley does, or instead of Pete Bondurant waiting for the screaming to start, is one of those literary moments that is jarring and wonderful.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Perfidia.

I had actually missed Perfidia when it first came out – I recall one of my last Facebook updates, in fact, to be a lament that Ellroy had a book out and that I had missed its release. These things come few and far between anymore; with the Underworld books coming out in 1995, 2001 and 2009, Ellroy is getting positively GRRM-esque in his old age. My outrageous to-read-pile, both digital and deadtree, wasn’t helping, but eventually I came to the conclusion that leaving James Ellroy unread for so long had become a crime of, one could say, Ellroyian proportions.

So I started Perfidia. And it started as one would expect. Bad cops. Loose women. Wall-to-wall decadence and villainy. One of the book’s main characters is Dudley Smith, which as one reviewer noted is basically like making one of your main characters the Devil. One-third of the book is a view from the inside of pure evil.

But then…

I don’t want to say something in the book turns, because there isn’t a page number you can point at (or a percentage count in my case, YMMV) and say, “aha! This is the paragraph where everything changes!” It isn’t a single paragraph or a chapter. I’m frankly not sure that it isn’t there from the start. But there came a point, maybe halfway through the book, where I read one chapter about Dudley and realized, “holy shit, this is so SAD.”

And once I twigged to that it was all I could see.

In classic James Ellroy fashion no one in this book is what they appear to be, but they’re not what they appear to be to the other characters. Ellroy here lets us into his characters’ heads more than I think he ever has, and we see exactly what they are from the start, and just JESUS I cannot get over the overwhelming sadness that permeates the whole thing. I mean, the book is called “Perfidia,” which ought to at least give some sort of clue what he’s after. And there is still plenty of the litany of horrors that forms the ground level of any Ellroy book. Alongside that, though, there is this deeply felt despair at the novel’s core that reaches out and touches so much of it, and is so artfully and powerfully rendered that you kind of wonder why Ellroy hasn’t always done it like this. Even Dudley Smith – fiendish, profoundly evil Dudley Smith – gets a backstory and an inner life that is almost sympathetic. Even the Devil, apparently, can have his heart broken.

And that’s what this book runs on. Instead of anger and glee, it’s melancholy and heartbreak. It’s still James Ellroy – there are murders and beatings and sleazy dealings enough to numb the most jaded crime reader – but now with the added bonus of making you kind of want to give the characters a hug and tell them everything will be okay. And the whole thing is part of this very odd sort of temporally-transcendent literary experience that is dependent on having consumed an entire oeuvre over a lot of years.

My old buddy Frans and I were once having a conversation about music, and I forget the exact beginning of the line of discussion but we somehow got onto Springsteen and he said, and I still also remember this one exactly, “I mostly like the more uplifting Bruce songs. You know, like The River.”

I said, I thought not unreasonably, “uh… what?”

Before he could begin another typically Frans-ish line of hilariously awful reasoning I interrupted him and said, “dude, do you seriously not know what that song’s about?”

“Sure I do,” he said. “It’s about – ”

“The guy in that song kills himself at the end,” I interrupted him again. “He goes to the dry riverbed to jump off the bridge and commit suicide in the last place he was ever happy. It’s, like, Springsteen’s least uplifting song ever.”

He gave me his preferred look of cautious disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” I said. “I’m sure.”

A few years later he listened to Live in New York City and told me, “well NOW I get what you were saying about The River, yeah.”

Reading Perfidia is a bit like hearing the version of The River that’s on Live in New York City. How it’s the same song, but it’s not. And how you kinda need the old song to appreciate the changes to the new one, but the new song is still amazing on its own.


Ellroy, Lovecraft, and Springsteen.

Told you I’d get there.


* The Great Gatsby and then in no particular order American Tabloid, Dune, Neuromancer, and Cryptonomicon.

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A Story for Christmas, 2014

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2014

Okay, so, yes: I did not write a Christmas letter last year. At least three of you have expressed some consternation at this fact, and in the event that more than three of you were in any way put out by that, consider this tale my official apology. Inasmuch as I am official in any way, which I have come to learn over the years is in fact not very much.

There were two primary reasons I did not write a letter last year.

The story of the first reason:

Last summer – summer 2013, I mean – I got word that a friend of mine had taken his own life.

There are jokes coming, I promise, just bear with me a second.

So I get this news, and as you can guess if you don’t know already, I was thrown for loop pretty hard by this. I did what I did, you know, processed the whole thing in my own stupid, ineffectual, mostly useless way, and more or less carried on with my life.

Around about October of last year, though, I found myself having a tough time with a whole bunch of other things that were very pointedly not related in any way to my friend’s recent suicide, and for the first time in many years I went to see a psychologist.

If you’ve never been, seeing a psychologist isn’t too different from seeing any other doctor for the first time. There’s a lot of paperwork. A LOT. The big difference is that the paperwork at the psychologist, instead of asking things like “have you had any major surgeries in the last 5 years” or “how many medications do you currently take,” says “have you thought about harming yourself recently?” (Though, now that I think about it, it also asks about medication.) So I dutifully filled out the paperwork. I’m awesome at doctor’s office paperwork; I do a lot of it and once you get some practice you can get a decent groove going.

After I finished it I sat down with the doctor and we went over it together. We talked about the times I’d previously seen shrinks, my general life situation, stuff like that.

At one point he looked at the paper, frowned, and then looked at me.

He said, “on the question about ‘recent major events,’ you wrote that a friend of yours committed suicide?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Over the summer. But that’s fine, it’s not why I’m here.”

My psychologist raised his eyebrows.

I literally made a dismissive wave with my hand.

“It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Spoiler: it was a big deal.

The thing of it, though, is that my late friend was one of those folks who make a point every year, for some reason, of telling me how much they enjoy my silly little Christmas letter. And when the time came last year… I wish I had a better answer than “I just didn’t have it in me,” but that’s what I’m going with. I thought a couple times over the 24th and 25th about sitting down and banging out a little something, but I never got past the thought of doing it. I’d try to think of something to write about and no worthy idea would ever come up; there was not, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, any there there.

However, I did say there were TWO reasons, and it is distinctly possible that some part of why I was unable to string five words together in an acceptable order was because I was bone tired, just absolutely wiped out last Christmas.

The story of the second reason:

In the midst of everything else that was going on at the time, my mother managed to catch the world’s worst case of food poisoning last year on about December 22nd. She is and was fine, of course, but at the time it was very serious. She was in the hospital for a couple days and we didn’t know if she’d be home in time for Christmas until they discharged her around noon on Christmas Eve.

I am vaguely ashamed to admit that at the time I was… not AS worried about maintaining the appropriate Christmas traditions as I was worried about my mother, you know, dying in the hospital, but I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t spend at least a few minutes contemplating the inequality.

In an effort to maintain as much of our traditional Christmas as I could, though, certain sacrifices had to be made, and the biggest of those was that I wasn’t able to get out of the house. Someone had to stay home, man the phones, keep the place decent, etc etc, while my father was at the hospital.

So I stayed home, which meant that I could not get to the charity wrapping station at Willow Grove.

I would have to wrap all my presents for folks myself. And wrap my parents’ presents for each other.

I was, to say the least, not good at wrapping presents.

I was, in point of fact, astoundingly bad at wrapping presents, and frankly that kinda pissed me off.

You may have heard – not from me, mind, but around – that I am not a stupid person. I know essential survival phrases in something like 6 languages.* I can perform multivariate calculus in my head. I read the Aeneid in Latin and there are, at this very moment, satellites orbiting this planet that literally have my name on them.

Taping paper to boxes? Sorry, Johnny, no can do.

So in addition to being wrung out from the ordeal with my mother and her inability to keep nutrients in her body, I spent hours – hours, people, hours – the two days before Christmas sitting at my dining room table with piles of presents and scraps of garish red and green paper shouting “WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!” at volumes loud enough to get you kicked out of the Bellagio. (A decibel level I can now pinpoint with precision.) By the time the notion of writing the Christmas letter came around, in addition to my psychological issues with the whole endeavor, my brain was pretty much fried by tape and scissors and recurring daymares of Darth Vader wielding a cardboard wrapping paper tube instead of a lightsaber.

Which leads us to this year, and the fact that in addition to hearing around the water cooler that I am pretty smart, you have probably also heard that I may have a problem with what we will charitably call “hubris.”

On Monday I was at Willow Grove – Monday, not Sunday, that shit don’t fly no more – getting a gift for my mother. After my purchase was complete the very nice sales lady said, “would you like us to wrap that for you?” and my brain lit up and I said “YES! YES I WOULD!” far too intently.

The store would have people who are TRAINED in gift wrapping. Who were, most likely, experts at it.

I would watch them. I would study them. I would commit their every motion to memory. And then, when I got home, I would use my stolen knowledge to wrap my gifts myself this year. Not because I had to. No. Because I WANTED to. Because I COULD. I would steal their knowledge and use it to my own ends and become the gift-wrapping god that was my birthright – nay, my destiny.

And so I watched. I watched that woman practically without blinking. It’s a good thing she was concentrating very hard on wrapping my mother’s gift because I am fairly certain the way in which I was staring at her would not have been deemed polite, my excuses of “I was just watching your hands!” to the contrary. (Actually, as I read it now, “I was just watching your hands” is not really any less creepy.)

I watched. I studied.

When she handed me the box I said “thank you,” and meant it more than I’d meant a “thank you” in a long time.

I had studied her more intently than I’d studied anything since I had an Iranian chemistry professor who barely spoke English and I had to teach myself acid-base equilibria. I studied her carefully, and successfully. I had her secrets. I had her power. I was like Sauron with the One Ring in his grasp. I now had the ability to destroy all the gift-wrapping in my path.

I got home and took out one of my presents for my mother. I repeated what I had learned from the store wrapping person. I matched her movements exactly. I was her mirror image – she might as well have been there herself at my dining room table.

I smoothed out the last piece of tape, looked at my handiwork, and said, “oh what the FUCK?!”

My wrapping job looked like the thing from the transporter malfunction scene in the first Star Trek movie.

Now this is the part where what a normal person would do is look at the pile of presents on the table, then look at the epically atrocious job they’d done on the first, then look at their watch and say, “well, I’ve still got time, I can get this lot to Willow Grove and have the nice ladies wrap them for charity.”

This is the part where what I did was look at the pile of presents, then look at my epically atrocious wrapping job, then grit my teeth – literally grit my teeth – and say, “I can do this,” and pick up the scissors.

By this afternoon, the entire pile of my presents and those of my parents was wrapped and ready to go under the tree. I use the word “wrapped” in its loosest possible sense here, but still. The presents are ready to go under the tree, and yes, they are a mess of gaps and wrinkles and miles of tape that look like something the United Nations would issue sanctions for if a government dropped them on a civilian population.

Two years ago I wrote about how the important part of Christmas isn’t the present, but the time – the time you spend figuring out and getting that gift, whether it’s the “perfect gift” or just some little thing, that the gift is a physical distillation of time you spend thinking about someone else.

Staring at a pile of wrapping jobs that would make HP Lovecraft run screaming in terror I realized that I actually kind of liked having that extra bit of time thinking about other people. It is, after all, the thought that counts.

They don’t ever say what “the thought” actually IS, but I’m hoping “I AM WRAPPING THESE GODDAMN PRESENTS MYSELF NO MATTER WHAT” qualifies.

Merry Christmas, all.











* “I am an American,” “where is the train station,” and “I need water.”

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