Sunday, February 18, 2018


Perhaps you have stumbled upon one or more of Caitlin Doughty’s Ask a Mortician videos. Perhaps not. I did a few weeks ago when researching something else entirely. (Something in my search terms induced Google to offer them to me.). They prompted me to order her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory. Doughty’s literary education shows in this well-written memoir in which she takes issue with the way we in the West deal (or, more often, refuse to deal) with death. For readers not put off by morbid humor, the book is both intriguing and funny.

Caitlin’s interest in the subject began at age eight when she happened to witness an accident at a two-story mall. A young girl about her own age somehow went over the rail at the top of an escalator. A fall from that height normally wouldn’t be fatal, but by the chance way she landed this one was. “What is most surprising about this story,” Doughty writes, “is not that an eight-year-old witnessed a death, but that it took her eight whole years to do so. A child who had never seen a death would have been unheard-of only a hundred years ago.” The event made her conscious of her own mortality in a way most first world eight-year-olds are not. In the years afterward she became and remained contemplative about mortality and about the modern denial of it. Deny it we do. Every year in the U.S. alone 2.5 million people die, yet to all but their immediate families (those that have such) and the professionals who handle the remains they do so almost invisibly. Only the most dramatic deaths such as those by natural disaster, war, or spree killers impinge on the daily consciousness of most of us.

Despite a liberal arts degree (her thesis was in Medieval literature), at age twenty-three Doughty sought and gained employment at a crematory in Oakland, California. She operated furnaces, went on pick-up calls, and assisted with preparing bodies for viewing; most bodies received by the crematory were processed without viewings, but a significant minority needed to be readied for them. She and her co-workers faced it all, as you might expect, with graveyard humor. Doughty also found herself taking life less for granted. “Everything I was learning at Westwind [crematory] I wanted to shout from the rooftops. The daily reminders of death cast each day in more vivid tones.” The experiences reinforced her belief that our modern way of hiding death from ourselves is not in our own best interests.

Doughty took the crematory job without intending a permanent career in the industry, but she soon decided to pursue one. She went back to school, became a mortician, and went into business. She is a particular advocate of natural burials without embalming or expensive caskets. More importantly, she advocates coming to terms with death as a way of coming to terms with life: “writing our own Ars Moriendi [Art of Dying] for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes.”

Thumbs Up on the book and the message. Her quirky video blogs are worth a look, too.

Caitlin Doughty – Ask a Mortician

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gray Skies

It’s been raining steadily for two days in my small part of the world. That’s fine by me. For one thing that means we’ve dodged a major snowstorm: temperatures have stayed a few degrees above freezing as they commonly don’t in February in NJ. This much precipitation had it fallen as snow would have added up to a few feet (1 m). I’m happy to pass on that. For another, I rather like rain. I don’t mean monsoon-style deluges. I don’t hanker for floods and mudslides, but so long as the roof is sound the patter of rain on it soothes the ear as much as the dark gray daytime skies soothe the eyes.

'The Long Rain' segment of
"The Illustrated Man" (1969)
The heaviest downpour I ever experienced was a few decades ago on Interstate 70 approaching St. Louis from the West. I’ve been in a few hurricanes, and raindrops smacking horizontally at 80mph are definitely scarier and more dramatic, but what fell in Missouri that windless day had the hurricanes beat in sheer volume. I honestly could not see the front of the hood of the car through the curtain of water, and it was just a little Ford Maverick. I pulled off onto the highway shoulder and waited it out, which fortunately was not much more than an hour. I didn’t mind much. The Ford was a little reluctant to start after the soaking. Start it did, though, and I was on my way.

The record for annual rainfall in the US is regularly won by Puu Kukui in the West Maui Mountains. Even in an average year 370 inches (940 cm) fall there. It’s unpopulated up there, of course. Rainfall at lower elevations along the Maui shoreline where most people live is well under a tenth of that. The record 24-hour rainfall on the mainland was set in Alvin Texas just outside Houston in 1979: a tad over 43 inches (110 cm). The record for 12 hours was Smethport Pennsylvania in 1942: 34.3 inches (87 cm). The record for 1 hour was Burnsville West Virginia in 1943: 13.8 inches (35 cm). The 1-minute record was set in Unionville Maryland in 1956: 1.23 inches (3.12 cm). I’m not looking to experience any records. I don’t want the ground so soaked that septic systems overflow and trees topple: pines are most at risk with their shallow root systems as I know from hard experience. Just a simple ordinary non-catastrophic rain will do fine.

I like walking in rain, too. There is something satisfyingly sensuous about it. There is enough of a boy left in me to enjoy the splash when stepping in a puddle. Just as a personal quirk I never use an umbrella and rarely wear anything resembling a raincoat. This is less obvious in the wintertime, since on a 36 degree (2 C) rainy day I’ll probably wear a coat or jacket just for warmth, but on a rainy summer day I’m likely look like a cat that fell in a pond. I don’t mind that either. Few things are funnier to me during a summer cloudburst than watching guests scramble out of the pool so that they don’t get wet. It is wise to watch out for lightning while swimming, of course, but absent fulgurations a rainy day is my preferred time to dive in.

I’m not actually an exclusive pluviophile. (Yes, there is a word for it.) It’s not that I prefer rain to all other weather. Sunshine has its merits, too. I merely enjoy the alternation rather than just the one. “Blue skies” long has been a way of wishing luck, but I won’t take “gray skies” as the curse it might be intended to be. To be sure, rain does affect my mood, but not in a bad way. (My sister, by contrast, was unpleasantly saddened by rain: no wonder she moved to southern California in her 20s.) Rain mostly makes me introspective. For those of us with a touch of narcissism, that is a good thing. As for sadness, a little of that now and then is OK, too.

So, may your skies be gray – but not forever.

Devil Doll – It Was Raining

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Philadelphia Freedom

I’m told there was a widely watched sporting event on Sunday and that Philly won. Despite February weather, Eagles fans celebrated in the streets of Philadelphia by rioting in grand tradition.

There are many psychological and sociological studies on the causes of riots, but most frequently the simple fact is that rioters are having fun. Their reasons are the same as those of 13-year-olds who kick over neighbors’ mailboxes. Even when participants in a riot are angry about some event or some issue of social justice, pleasure in cutting loose remains mixed with anger. In sports riots there often isn’t anger at all. As we all know, not all human impulses are admirable; destruction can be an adrenaline rush, which is why violent video games are so popular. Amid the anonymity of a crowd fear of consequences for participating in the real thing diminishes. Alcohol is likely to be involved, too.

For the photo album
American sports riots are fairly tame by world standards. (We make up for it with our other types of riots.) Fans of opposing teams in this country almost never fight each other. Instead, fans of the winning team wreak high-spirited wreckage of property. They don’t target people. Their joyous vandalism is directed against cars, windows, and street poles. Though rare, deaths do sometimes happen, as in Boston after a victory by the Red Sox or in Chicago after the Bulls, but they are accidents such as falls or unintended trampling. This is because there is nothing more than hometown pride at stake. You need a “just” cause and a desire for payback really to turn things mean. Fortunately, politics, nationalism, class warfare, and such have stayed divorced from American sports team fandom so far.

We see what can happen when those factors are involved. The deadliest sports riot of all time, the so-called Nika riot, was as long ago as 532 CE. Chariot races in the hippodrome in Constantinople were organized into teams, rather like formula race car teams today. The teams were White, Red, Green, and Blue; each team had its own fan association. The Green and Blue associations were the most hardcore, for they had grown political with the Blues favoring pro-aristocratic positions and the Greens favoring the common folk. Unsurprisingly, they fought a lot when one team or the other lost an important race. Trouble came when city guards arrested several Blue and Green fans for murder after street fights following a race. Two of the prisoners (a Blue and a Green) escaped and took refuge in a church. For once the associations banded together and demanded that charges against the men be dropped. In January 532 the disturbances developed into a full-blown riot. The rioters ran amok for days, burned half of the city, and (with the connivance of ambitious Senators) turned their riot into an uprising against the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. Justinian, a well-known Blue fan, recovered the situation by turning the Blues against their old enemies the Greens through cajolery and bribery. He then sent in the troops. According to the historian Procopius, 30,000 people were killed. No other sports riot even comes close.

If there is a lesson there, it is that putting politics into team identities turns vandals into brawlers – sometimes murderous ones. So far we’ve been spared that. It wasn’t actually unsafe for Patriots fans in Philadelphia, and that at least counts for something. We are willing to hate each other for the silliest of reasons. Football fandom needn’t be one more reason to keep us separated.

The Offspring: Keep ‘Em Separated (Come Out and Play)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


Everyone is capable of enjoying cruelty, and none more dangerously so than moralists, idealists, and ideologues who deny they do, for they are the ones who – indulging in a particularly poisonous variety of sadism – will mask their cruelty as justice and fool themselves with their own mask. (Out-and-out criminals do more harm than moralists one-on-one, but moralists outnumber them and do vastly more harm en masse.) That is not to say we need yield to the impulse, but it is well to remember that cruelty is as much a part of human nature as kindness; it is all the easier thereby to turn the impulse in a more constructive direction – sublimation, to use an old-fashioned but still useful Freudian expression. Nietzsche argued that humor was sublimated cruelty, and few of us would want to go through life without humor. A harmless way to nourish our dark side is with such entertainments as murder mysteries and horror movies. Dramas with anti-hero protagonists or villains whom we on some level secretly admire remain enduringly popular, e.g. Dexter of the Jeff Lindsay novels or the Joker in The Dark Knight. A less lethal but still malefic pair are Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont of the 1999 movie Cruel Intentions.
Based on the 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos but set in 1999 Upper East Side Manhattan, Cruel Intentions is part cult classic and part guilty pleasure. Mainstream critics for the most part were unkind to it at the time of its release, but it clicked with its target audience and critics have warmed to it in the years since. Premise: Wealthy private-schooled teen step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe) embrace decadent upper class hedonism and play cruel games. Sebastian plans to seduce the new headmaster’s famously virginal daughter Annette (Reese Witherspoon) before school starts but Kathryn bets him that he can’t do it: the stakes of the bet are Sebastian’s classic Jaguar and Kathryn herself. Meantime Kathryn plans to corrupt innocent young Cecile as a pawn in a revenge scheme of her own. Everything proceeds more or less according to plan until Sebastian falls for Annette and develops a conscience, the one thing he cannot afford.
The Kathryn character is arguably diagnosable as having ASPD (anti-social personality disorder), commonly called sociopathy. She nonetheless is impressive. Sebastian has less of an excuse: he is capable of empathy, but chooses prankish malevolence anyway. Both are wickedly enjoyable to watch, both when they succeed and when they meet their comeuppances. Also, the 90s soundtrack is marvelous.
A musical adaptation of Cruel Intentions is currently playing off-Broadway at Le Poisson Rouge, a dinner club in Greenwich Village. I couldn’t pass that up, so a friend and I drove into NYC last Saturday. It is a campy production in a fairly intimate setting, and is definitely worth a look, though seeing the movie first is, if not a must, at least strongly advised. Nostalgia is much of the point. There are a few of the iconic numbers from the movie soundtrack (Bittersweet Symphony, Colorblind, Every Me and Every You), but most songs are not from the movie. All are hits from the ‘90s, however, and unless you never turned on a radio in that decade you’ll know them. The audience was a mix of all ages but was extra-heavy on younger GenXers and older Millennials.
Cruel Intentions the Musical runs only until March, but I suspect it will turn up again in other venues. I recommend revisiting the Valmont/Merteuil residence if you get a chance, whether for this production or another one. It’s a fun way to tickle your dark side. Call it catharsis.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Catching Ketchum

Humans think of themselves – quite rightly – as predators. I’m referring at the moment to the food chain, not to other uses of the term. But of course we also are prey. Let us put aside for the moment attacks on us by tiny feeders such as mosquitoes even though they (or rather the diseases they carry) kill 725,000 people per year worldwide. Consider just the big ones. Even in the 21st century 100 people per year are killed by lions. 25,000 are killed by dogs, but of course that is because there are so many more dogs than lions. The risk is very very low in today’s urbanized world, but it still happens. People still get eaten. For our hominin ancestors the risk was high and constant. For them the world really was full of monsters, and among them were fellow humans. Over millennia they honed the instinctual fears later exploited by horror writers and filmmakers.

There are many analyses in both popular and academic literatures on the appeal of horror fiction. They talk of catharsis and of the combination of fear with safety – much as a good roller coaster combines the two for enjoyable thrills. Whatever the source of the appeal truly may be, there always is a market for the stuff. While it’s not my first choice of genres, I’m not immune to its allure. I can and do read HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Bloch, and Stephen King with pleasure. One of the best authors, though not for the squeamish, is fellow New Jersey native Dallas Mayr, who died today at age 71. Mayr wrote under several pseudonyms for various genres, but for his horror fiction he went by Jack Ketchum.

Ketchum rarely flirts with the supernatural. You won’t find any ghosts, werewolves or vampires. In She Wakes he did unleash Hecate – yes, that Hecate – but that was an anomaly. It was an effective anomaly, it must be said. Nine times out of ten his monsters are all too human, and all scarier for that. Be aware that Ketchum pulls no punches anywhere in his prose. When the plot turns violent (and it will) we get the full in-your-face unexpurgated picture. This unsettles some readers. Ballantine Books despite reservations took a chance with his first novel Off Season in 1981 and was pleasantly surprised by its commercial success. Yet, the very same publisher turned down his next manuscript Ladies' Night, a tale of a chemical spill that eliminates women’s (and only women’s) inhibitions against violence. It was published only in 1997 after Ketchum’s success with other novels.

Critics are of two minds about Ketchum. Early on, a reviewer in The Village Voice decried his graphic style. Yet he won a string of writing awards, including the Bram Stoker Award, and he counts many accomplished authors, including Stephen King, among his fans. Even his harshest critics admit Ketchum writes well: graphically but well.

Jack doesn’t just shock for the sake of shock. He has something to say. He likes to tell us that we all have a dark side, and that the difference between monsters and the rest of us sometimes comes down only to chance and circumstance.

Ketchum’s most successful novel is The Girl Next Door, which was made into a deeply disturbing movie (not the comedy of the same name) that Stephen King called a dark side Stand by Me. Based loosely on the very real Sylvia Likens case, the book and movie detail the abuse and eventual murder of a teenage girl by a suburban woman, her sons, and neighboring teens of both sexes. The protagonist of the novel, a neighbor boy, is fundamentally a good kid, but he is drawn into witnessing the abuse by the dark fascination of it all. He wants to intervene when the cruelty becomes extreme, but by then his own tacit complicity is an issue that delays him from seeking help. His dilemma is both appalling and understandable; adults as well as kids all too often fail to act morally when in similar binds.

A few other Ketchum novels also have been adapted to film including Offspring, The Lost, and Red. Red is probably the most successful. Once again, Ketchum is not for the easily offended, but neither for that matter is Poe, a granddaddy of the genre. The quality of the writing nonetheless stands out. I regret there will be no more titles from Mayr/Ketchum, but his books are on my shelf and I regard every one as a keeper.

Trailer: Red

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Before the Thaw

According to forecasts the cold weather, after doing much hard work locally for the past month, will take the next week off. At this writing (8:26 EST Saturday morning) it is still freezing outside my door, but daytime temperatures should climb to 47 (8 C) today and then remain within spitting range of that number for the rest of January. I squeezed in a little winter fun yesterday while temperatures remained in the 20s, starting with running out of fuel oil for the furnaces and then by riding a toboggan (see photo in earlier post Brrr) down the slope in front of my house into the brambles. The latter was more fun – until the last few seconds anyway. At night I stayed comfortably at home with a movie and a book:

Impulse (1990)

Theresa Russell in Black Widow, which,
unlike Impulse, is pretty good
Back in 1990 I saw Impulse on the big screen. Directed by Sondra Locke and starring Theresa Russell (an appealing actress who looks sultry even when she doesn’t want to), the movie starts off as just another cops & crooks drama with an utterly clich├ęd drug-deal-gone-wrong. Then it takes an odd turn. Lottie (Russell) is a vice cop with debts she can’t pay and a creep for a boss. One night, after a particularly rough bust and still dressed as a working girl, she goes into a bar and quickly is approached by a man who puts down a ridiculously large pile of C-notes. Instead of arresting him she goes home with him. While she is in the bathroom at his house the man is murdered. She checks the body afterward and finds an airport locker key. The locker contains a case full of cash from that drug-deal-gone-wrong. She doesn’t turn it in. There is evidence, however, that could lead to her.

I remembered those basic details before spinning up the DVD all these years later. The flawed protagonist, as I recalled her, seemed an interesting type of character. Regrettably, I had forgotten why I didn’t rush out to rent the film for a repeat viewing when it became available on (at that time) videotape. Now I remember. The movie is dreadful. The dialogue is unintentionally hilarious while the acting somehow combines over-the-top with indifference. There was some potential in the movie’s concept, but it was lost in the execution.

Thumbs Down.

**** ****

Why Acting Matters by David Thomson

There are some people (all too few, but still some) who are great company thanks to erudite and free-ranging minds. In an age when click-sharing simple-minded propaganda passes for philosophical discussion, they seem to have something original and thoughtful to say about everything. Movie critic and prolific author on the popular arts David Thomson is one of those people. That this book is not very focused is actually to its benefit. Thomson digresses about his personal experiences, about the history of theater, about acting schools, and about the human condition. It’s a pleasure to join him on his wanderings even when they are distant from the supposed topic of the book.

He does return to the main question now and again, however. Thomson repeatedly turns to Olivier and Brando as representatives respectively of the traditional and naturalistic acting schools, though, as he points out, neither really can be pigeonholed as neatly as that.

Thomson’s basic point is that we all are actors (yes, that William fellow once said something similar) who adjust our personas to time and circumstance. (Persona, btw, is Latin for “mask.”) Witnessing someone act well on screen or stage is as rewarding and edifying as seeing someone do so in “real life” – the distinction not always being so great as we imagine. Observing the career of a favorite actor from youth to age is a template for the roles we ourselves play in the different stages of our lives. He concludes: “Acting is an entertainment, but it is a model for our existence and collapse. We try to act human. That seems the least we can do, and as long as that condition prevails – do not trust it forever – then acting is our engine and we are driving on a desert road.”

Thumbs Up.

Trailer Impulse (1990)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Dry Season

I saw 2018 arrive in my favorite place and state: at home, warm, and dry – dry in beverage sense. The hangover cures that peppered newspapers and net sites on and shortly before New Year’s Day were of pleasantly little personal interest. Besides, there are no cures. There are minor palliatives at best. Hangovers ultimately have to wear off on their own, and (ceteris paribus) this takes longer for some people than for others. I’m one of those for whom it takes longer. Frank Sinatra once remarked, “I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day.” In my case the morning after bibulation is as bad as I’ll feel all day – sometimes the next day, too. The usual supposed preventatives (hydration, fatty foods, white liquors only, etc.) make little or no difference to me. (Yes, moderation is always an option, but the topic is excess.)

I’m not virtue-signaling. I like a good buzz as much as anyone. Alcohol accordingly was something of a hobby for me in my 20s. The hangovers were not milder then. In that decade I simply was more willing to accept the price for the nights before. I have no judgments to make about those who still are, or who pay lower prices as a matter of course. By my 30s, however, for no other reason than pain avoidance I had tapered back to an annual intake about equal to the CDC’s suggested maximum for a week (14 drinks). Yet, even now I can see wisdom in Raymond Chandler’s advice: "A man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle, so he won't let himself get snotty about it." Twice has been about my number in recent years. It’s enough to remind myself why I don’t indulge the other 363 days, and also enough to remind myself why so many people do. There is much to be said be said for the night before. We all are aware of the risks and downsides (some potentially lethal) to the night before, but there is still much to be said for it. My preferred tipple on those two days: Wild Turkey 101, a flavorful moderately priced bourbon that, at 101 proof (50.5% alcohol), achieves its intended effect expeditiously and with no worse (albeit no better) aftereffects than any other pick.

The intended effect is a change in perspective: an altered state that can be revealing. (Altered states can be achieved without extraneous chemicals, btw, but that is for another discussion.) The ancient Persians who, according to Herodotus, considered every important question both sober and drunk before making a decision may have been onto something. I suspect, though, that the significance of that story got turned around in Herodotus’ colorful retelling. I suspect that it was less a matter of sober Persians saying, “Let’s see what I think about this drunk” and more a matter of drunks saying, “Let’s see what I think about this sober.” I think the good sense of the latter is self-evident.

What brings all this to mind, besides the time of year, is a re-watch with a friend last week of Joss Whedon’s 2012 version of Much Ado about Nothing, a remarkable side-project shot in 12 days with B&W handheld cameras at his own home. During the first viewing I didn’t pay much attention to how much the characters drink, which is a lot. Yet, their intemperance was an inspired directorial choice. The characters, after all, don’t make very sober judgments, so it makes eminent sense for them to be not sober. This is unlike so many movies in which characters seem weirdly unaffected by drinking: e.g. Nick Charles, who retains his sharp deductive skills despite awe-inspiring consumption in the Thin Man movies; James Bond, who remains quick of wit and reflex despite those shaken-not-stirred vodka martinis; and the Western gunfighter of your choice who is as sure a shot as ever despite guzzling whiskey in the saloon.

On second viewing I recommend Much Ado about Nothing even more heartily than after the first. It may be the most accessible Shakespeare film in decades. I recommend seeing it sober though. Well, once anyway. Persian fashion would work, too.

WC Fields’ debt: clip from Never Give a Sucker an Even Break