For Alice P.

In Memory Of George Sykes

So they decided to number the days
God gave you. Lined them up and out
to a finite end, give or take the consequential
few. Days that could have swum by at
close to the speed of terror.

But, gauging the accuracy of science
and capricious life,
you paid no attention.
Death is no failure, no surprise.

Hope is an irritating thing,
doubt and desire gnawing
at the cluttered parts of your mind.
You did not succumb to it.
You just lived.

 

I originally wrote this for my Uncle George but, in keeping with the times, I am re-purposing it. No, same purpose just another time.

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In Memory of George Sykes by Constantine von Hoffman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Dianna Wynne Jones

guide1Likely as not you never read one of Dianna Wynne Jones wonderful, archly funny and slightly dark fantasy novels which generally poked fun at the conventions of fantasy. (And one, Deep Secret, which also poked fun at SciFi & Fantasy conventions.)

If you have read her then likely as not you spent too much time in the library when you were younger, just as your correspondent did (does).

She was best known for writing Howl’s Moving Castle, which became the basis for the Hayao Miyazaki movie of the same name; and for her Chronicles of Chrestomanci which JK Rowling borrowed rather heavily from.

As Christopher Priest notes in his fine obituary for Jones:

Of the apparent coincidences, Jones said generously to this newspaper in 2003: "I think that she [Rowling] read my books as a young person and remembered lots of stuff; there are so many striking similarities."

She had a great skeptical eye which she earned. As a child she was evacuated out of London to the Lakes District where she encountered two well-know children’s book authors: Arthur Ransome, who thought she and her friends were making too much noise, and Beatrix Potter, who slapped her.

While I can recommend any number of her books, here are a select few which I particularly like:

  • The Tough Guide To Fantasyland — lampoons all those tropes created by Tolkien and C.S. Lews (both of whom she studied under) in tour guide form.
  • The Darklord of Derkholm – a fantasy world rebels after being turned into a theme park for people from earth wanting a fantasy world adventure.
  • Archer’s Goon – A distinctly troll like debt collector invades a family home to collect the 2,000 words the father owes to a wizard.
  • The Ogre Downstairs – is the new stepfather actually an ogre or just behaving like one?
  • The Chrestomanci series

But, likely as not, you won’t read them. Your loss, not mine.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Leslie Nielsen

So much is being written about him that I don’t really have anything to add. This poster hangs on the wall at CollateralDamage HQ. I first saw it before Airplane, Naked Gun, etc., and loved it. I have to say when I saw it after those movies came out it felt much different – and I still love it. He did a great interview on Fresh Air and I hope they put it back on the website soon.

forbidden_planet

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Alex “Rocky & Bullwinkle” Anderson

It is difficult to imagine now but there was a time when there was practically no intelligent, funny animation on TV. When I was a kid all that me and the mastodons could watch on TV was Hannah-Barbara mass-produced dreck, leavened with re-runs of the great Warner Bros. cartoons. Wonder why Scooby Doo has such a devoted following? It’s because it was one of the better kids shows on at the time – and it really is just a shade away from pure crap.

BullwinkleRocky & Bullwinkle were the exception. They were to TV what Mad Magazine was to publishing – subversive, under-the-radar, smart and funny commentary on the grown-up world. Boris & Natasha made fun of the Cold War (I have a framed picture of Boris on the wall in the living room at Collateral Damage HQ). Sherman & Peabody made fun of history, Fractured Fairy Tales made fun of, well, fairy tales, Dudley Do-Right made fun of Canada. Of course they were actually making fun of everything in the world under the guise of laughing at these topics but that was part of the fun. (Dudley’s girlfriend, Nell, has a crush on Dudley’s horse!) Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Wossamotta U. stories are a send up of college athletics on a par with The Marx Brother’s Horse Feathers. In this golden age of The Simpsons, South Park, Harvey Birdman, King of The Hill and Futurama it is easy to forget how plain old horrible TV cartoons once were. Even the cartoons explicitly aimed at youngsters are better. I will happily sit down and watch Phineas & Ferb,Kim Possible, Arthur, Rugrats and more without feeling I am being insulted and condescended to as I was watching Hannah-Barbara shows.

While most people associate Rocky & Bullwinkle with Jay Ward

Mr. Anderson, who grew up in a cartooning family in California, was also the creator of Crusader Rabbit, which became television’s first animated cartoon series in 1949. He spent much of his career in advertising, and his role in creating Rocky and Bullwinkle was overlooked with time. He fought a long legal battle late in life to reclaim recognition as the cartoon characters’ artistic father. … Mr. Anderson and Ward grew up together in Berkeley, Calif., and formed a business in the late 1940s to pitch cartoon ideas to television. Crusader Rabbit, Rocky, Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right were among the characters they showed to studio executives before Crusader Rabbit was picked up. After Mr. Anderson’s other cartoon ideas failed to catch on, he joined a San Francisco advertising agency. Ward moved to Los Angeles, trying to sell TV studios on a Bullwinkle series.

rocky_bullwinkle_4__04070Anderson took legal action after seeing a documentary about Bullwinkle that didn’t even mention his name. He won and in 1993 – four years after Jay Ward’s death — received a lump-sum settlement, along with a court-mandated acknowledgment as "the creator of the first version of the characters of Rocky, Bullwinkle and Dudley."

Bless you and thank you, Mr. Anderson.

 

AND ON A SADLY RELATED NOTE: RIP and thank you to Leo Collum, a cartoonist whose blustering businessmen, clueless doctors, venal lawyers and all-too-human dogs and cats amused readers of The New Yorker for the past 33 years, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 68 and lived in Malibu, Calif. For a selection of his cartoons, click here.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Satoshi Kon

MillAct The brilliant anime director Satoshi Kon has died at the age of 46 from pancreatic cancer. I’m not even going to pretend that most people have heard of him, let alone seen his work, which is a shame. Kon, along with Hayao Miyazaki, are two truly great artists whose chosen media is anime. Kon directed four amazing movies Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika, as well as the incredibly strange and good TV series Paranoia Agent.

Unlike many anime creators, Kon’s work was rooted in the present – not a science fiction future or fantasy past. My favorite of his movies is Millennium Actress (I’m looking at my copy of the poster for it as I write this). It gives the history of 20th century Japan in the form of an actress telling her life’s story. Tokyo Godfathers is about homeless men trying to raise a baby they find. With all of Kon’s work you are never quite sure if what you are seeing is real or not. He brought magical realism to the screen far better than any other director I’ve seen. In Paprika, my least favorite of his movies, he goes over the top in trying to confuse the waking world with the dream world. Paranoia Agent is a totally unique work and well-worth watching. It’s ostensibly about a serial murderer in Tokyo, unless it’s about a woman who create a Hello Kitty-ish character for her company, or maybe it’s about police corruption? Agent is so claustrophobic, weird and, well, paranoid that it makes The Prisoner look like a Disney special.

On the good news side of things, Katoshi’s final film, The Dream Machine, was already in production at the time of his death and will hopefully be finished and released.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … John Callahan

callahanimg I doubt there has ever been a cartoonist who combined sick, twisted and funny as well as John Callahan. Callahan – quadriplegic and alcoholic – was totally without fear when it came to finding humor in a situation. Callahan, who died yesterday at 59, had a drawing style that could at best be called unschooled. If your 6-year-old drew this badly you would take him or her for physical therapy. Yet his horrid drawing, like Bob Dylan’s horrid singing, was the perfect instrument for his perverse muse.

The drawing shown here is one of his classics and also provided the title for his brilliant 1990 autobiography which tells you more than you want to know (and is also the bare minimum you should know) about life as a quadriplegic.

Here are descriptions of his cartoons from Gene Weingarten’s great eulogy in the Washington Post:

  • A blind man is plummeting off a cliff. In front of him, on a leash, also falling, is a small animal. The blind man is thinking, "Why did I buy a seeing-eye lemming?"
  • A man is selling puppies on the street. The grim reaper has walked up to him, accompanied by her three little grim reaper children. They are excitedly bouncing around, saying, "Mommy! Mommy! Can we kill the puppies?"
  • Two horseflies are sitting on a couch. The male fly is putting the moves on the female fly. On the floor, in front of them, are some little round objects. The female fly is saying: "Darling! Not in front of the maggots!"

As Weingarten puts it (and really – stop reading this, click on the link and read the damn thing, it’s great):

Typically, Callahan’s humor was judged against the backdrop of his disability — he was, in effect, given a pass for what would be considered tasteless if done by anyone else. He objected to that, and for good reason. Callahan’s genius — and it was genius — may have been informed by his disability, but it was not dependent on it or beholden to it; Callahan’s work needed no special accommodation for the handicapped, and to suggest it did is a disservice to him and to humor itself. Callahan’s crippled characters were stand-ins for all of us; he saw all of humanity as being lame — disabled by prejudice, by sanctimony, by vainglory, by small-mindedness, by self-absorption.

It’s no surprise to learn that his cartoons garnered a lot of hate mail, which he clearly loved as a lot of it is republished on his website. One sample: “In a recent edition of The Riverfront Times, you printed a cartoon depicting a square dance as an "Alzheimer’s Hoedown." Several our family caregivers of AD victims contacted our office to voice their outrage at your insensitivity.” Callahan believed everyone should be able to share in the gallows humor for any group. He took jokes which could usually only be shared between people afflicted with a condition or caring for those people and made them public. He did much more than that but even if that was all he had done he would have contributed a lot.

Let me end with this tagline from Callahan’s website: when you’re done laughing at the maimed, sick and unfortunate visit our foolish sponsors

A moment of silence for one of the greats … David Levine

nixon_richardThere are a lot of good editorial cartoonists but – as with any other art form – there are very few great ones. The great ones are the ones whose work we still look at long after that moment in time has passed. These include Brits like Hogarth, Scarfe, Steadman to name a few – and Americans like Thomas Nast and the wartime work of Bill Mauldin. David Levine is in that group. His pen dripped so much acid he must have had to draw on metal plates.

Levine, who died last week at 83, was the house illustrator for The New York Review of Books to which he contributed 3,800 drawings. His drawings were always the mot juste that The Review’s writers needed.

As Jules Feiffer said, “They were extraordinary drawings with extraordinary perception. In the second half of the 20th century he was the most important political caricaturist. When he began, there was very little political caricature, very little literary caricature. He revived the art.”

If Levine had one weakness it was that he gave more depth to some of his subjects – our last president, for example – than they actually had. Idiocy, it seems, can daunt even the greatest talents.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Budd Schulberg

“The first time I saw him he couldn’t have been much more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick.”

Sammy Thus begins Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? A satire of the movie business so accurate Hollywood is afraid to make a movie of it 68 years after it was published.

A planned DreamWorks production featuring Ben Stiller was in development in recent years. “I have a feeling they’re not going to do it,” Mr. Schulberg said in 2006. “It’s still a little tough for them.”

At the time it was published the movie studio heads were so incensed that Schulberg was blacklisted in Hollywood. In a biography of Samuel Goldwyn, writer Arthur Marx reports Goldwyn offered to pay Schulberg not to publish Sammy.

In time Schulberg played a part in blacklisting others. In the 1950s he testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating allegations of Communism in the motion picture industry. He named Hollywood colleagues as Communists. He defended himself by saying he named only people already known to the red-baiting committee.

Schulberg also wrote the movie On The Waterfront – an astoundingly good look at being poor in America. As well as some great reporting on boxing gathered together in the book The Harder They Fall. He was later voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as an “observer,” a category established for journalists and historians.

After the riots in Watts in 1965,  Schulberg co-founded the Watts Writers Workshop and edited a compilation of stories, "From the Ashes: Voices of Watts." A supporter of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, he was among the last to speak with Kennedy before RFK’s assassination in Los Angeles.

Robert McNamara: An appreciation … of sorts

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones

McNamara, dead today at 93, embodied The American Century.

Born two years after the start of World War I, he got his MBA from Harvard in 1937, in World War II he served in the Air Force in the Pacific Campaign, became president of Ford in 1960 – when that was still something to aspire to – then secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during both the Cuba Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, finally president of the World Bank. He was neither Zelig nor Forrest Gump – he was in the foreground of the pictures Gump and Zelig snuck into.

He received – justly – a lot of blame for Vietnam. This is the man who, on his first visit to South Vietnam in 1962 said “every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” While McNamara had clear doubts about the war he lacked the courage of his convictions. He was unable to convince President Johnson – who also knew the war was unwinnable – to change his policies. He was unwilling to commit apostasy and tell the US public what he knew to be true.

Without setting any of that aside, let us acknowledge one thing: the war could have been a lot worse without McNamara.

Vietnam was a fiasco in large part because it was unwinnable. The US sent troops to try to preserve a fiction: the “Republic” of South Vietnam. It sent soldiers to fight over something that was of no importance to the nation whatsoever. The fall of South Vietnam to the Communists – who were certainly despotic and brutal – meant nothing to the US. At least the French had been fighting for a revenue-producing colony. As Yeats put it in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

While Vietnam was a fiasco, at least – and I say this without irony or sarcasm – it was a well-run fiasco. McNamara, a brilliant logistician and administrator, saw to it that the troops were fed , armed, deployed, medically cared for and treated in as professional a manner as was possible. The mail was delivered on time to the soldiers, sailors and airmen. Let no one underestimate how important that is. If you think this is not a major accomplishment then look at our two current wars. Because Iraq was run from the White House by people with no idea of what was needed to run a war:

  • The wrong troops were sent to do the wrong jobs, thus the tragedy of Abu-Gharaib – a prisoner of war camp run by military police with no training or experience in running a prison.
  • Troops were sent into combat with inadequate supplies of water, body armor, ammunition and God know what else.
  • Soldiers were forced to weld metal plates onto vehicles in an attempt to give them the armor needed.
  • Because of a political decision overruling the military’s recommended troop requirements, the same units were and are repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – whether or not they are combat ready and, at the same time, further degrading the combat readiness they already had.

Vietnam, by comparison, was renowned (and sometimes reviled) as one of the most over-supplied conflicts in history. In addition to those basic things like ammo and water, units in the field were even provided with everything from beer to ice cream. (As ice cream creates thirst rather than sakes it, this was a very dubious benefit.) McNamara stepped down as secretary of defense in 1968 and within four years the US Armed Forces were falling apart in Vietnam.

Also to McNamara’s credit – he took responsibility for his actions and mistakes. In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:

McNamara said he and his senior colleagues were “wrong, terribly wrong” to pursue the war as they did. He acknowledged that he failed to force the military to produce a rigorous justification for its strategy and tactics, misunderstood Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, and kept the war going long after he realized it was futile because he lacked the courage or the ability to turn President Johnson around.

He never said history would vindicate him or that he was just following orders.

In Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary Fog of War, McNamara became human for the first time for many people. During it he discusses Vietnam and the formative World War II incidents that shaped him. McNamara served under Gen. Curtis LeMay, who lead the bombing campaign against Japan. He quotes LeMay as saying  that had the U.S. lost the war, he fully expected to be tried for war crimes. Despite all that happened in Vietnam, I suspect that type of action was what McNamara was trying to avoid.

In one well-publicized incident, [McNamara] rejected a list of bombing targets that the military officers wanted to hit, including targets near Hanoi and other civilian population centers. The joint chiefs off staff went over his head to Johnson, and the president authorized the strikes.

It is easy to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that certainly was the case here. However it is important to remember and learn from those intentions. The failure to live up to them had terrible costs for the US, Vietnam and Robert McNamara.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Vern Gosdin

gosdin You have to be pretty deep into country music to know about Gosdin, who died yesterday at 70. A wonderful songwriter, he was nicknamed “The Voice” and if you ever heard him sing you know why. He had a rich baritone, and once was described by Tammy Wynette as "the only other singer who can hold a candle to George Jones."

He doesn’t break your heart the way Jones does – with that unexpected swoop – he just sings them straight at you and with his voice that’s enough. My favorite album is Chiseled in Stone from 1989. His songwriting was as direct and understated as his singing. And he could be damn funny, too. Check out

Nobody Calls From Vegas Just To Say Hello

It’s three o’clock in the morning
Phone’s ringing off the wall
It’s been months since you left
Funny that you’d call

I know you’re needing something
Your money running low?
Nobody call from Vegas
Just to say Hello

I’m tired of holding to this phone
Listening to your lies
Just about to lose control
This is my last goodbye

The next sound that you hear
Is gonna be me letting go
Nobody call from Vegas
Just to say Hello

Money don’t grow on trees
You can’t reep what you don’t sow
I may be crazy but I ain’t stupid and I know
Nobody call from Vegas just to say Hello

I wanted to believe you
When I picked up the phone
Says you was calling
Just to see what was going on

That casino in the background
Tells me buddy don’t you know
Nobody call from Vegas just to say Hello

A moment of silence for one of the greats … J.G. Ballard

Ballard If you’re an American chances are very slim you’ve even heard of him let alone read him. In the UK – where they seem much more open to speculative fiction – Ballard is a Significant Name & Writer.

I’ll be honest, I’ve only read the end of the world trilogy: The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World. I tried to read Empire of the Sun several times and found the writing so beautiful that I couldn’t get very far into it. I know that doesn’t make sense but it’s true nonetheless. (I’ve been meaning to read his story “The Assassination of JFK Considered as a Downhill Road Race” from The Atrocity Exhibition for something like 30 years – how’s that for procrastination?")

All that said even my limited reading made it clear to me he was one of the greats. The Crystal World is about exactly what the title implies: for unknown reasons a crystallization is spreading across earth, turning everything living or not into crystal. It isn’t written as a horror story – more as journalism. Despite the end-of-the-world scenario, the story is about people not saving the planet (which, spoiler alert, doesn’t get saved). Lord, I am sooooooo tired of SF/Fantasy novels that have to rely on saving the planet/species for all their alleged plot.

Ballard was that rare experimental writer (like Italo Calvino, for example) who could be read just for the story and not as an endurance test.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Tony Fazio

Few of us do things that matter to history. We’re not the inventors/artists/explorers etc., whose deeds get written about. Given that, the best of us are content to just do things that matter to the people around us. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to one such person, Tony Fazio.

Tony, who died last week at the age of 90, was the father of my friend Regina. I didn’t know Tony well but I had spent a little time with him at weddings, birthday parties and holidays. I knew him better through the stories Reg tells me about him. He and Helen (his wife, Regina’s mom) are funny people — like most parents are funny to their kids. So what I heard about Tony were the sweet funny stories. I also heard about the things he did.

A veteran of WWII, he served under General Patton in the 94th Infantry-Field Artillery Division, and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He was honorably discharged in January of 1946. Upon his return from the war, he became a certified watchmaker and Gemologist, and opened Community Jewelers in Harrison, which he owned and operated for many years. Supported by his wife, Helen, Tony was highly involved in many volunteer efforts. Among them, as president of the Rotary Club in 1965-66, he fueled a relief drive for victims of a devastating hurricane in Honduras. On behalf of the people in Harrison, he was also instrumental in the installation of ramps at the United States Post Office and other locations throughout the town to enable handicapped access. Additionally, he founded Operation Lifeline, dedicated to improving rescue services and first responder education. In 1970, driven by his love of the opera, and concerned that professional opera performances were not affordable or accessible, particularly to young people, he founded the Harrison Friends of the Opera. Funded through donations, Harrison Friends of the Opera brought (and still brings) professional performances to the community free to the public.

So, in short, here’s what Tony did: He was a good husband, dad and grand-dad who made the world a little better.

Lord, in my many moments of grandiosity, help me to think of Tony. I can’t bring about world peace or end poverty. I will not be winning a Nobel or Oscar or whatever. Instead maybe I can help someone get someplace they’ve never been before, aid those who are truly suffering and even let a little more art into the world. There’s a lot to be said for big dreams, there’s even more to be said for actually getting things done.

Donations may be made to any charity benefiting your local community OR, please consider donating your time to any local volunteer effort and dedicating some of that time to Tony’s memory.

Thank you, Tony. I hope I can accomplish as much as you did.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Blossom Dearie

(And yes, that’s the real name: Marguerite Blossom Dearie.)

You may not think you know her but a lot of us grew up listening to her beautiful voice on Schoolhouse Rock!. Her ethereal singing on “Figure Eight” was as close to the sublime as TV got in the 1970s. The only thing better than her way with a serious song was her way with a silly one — my favorite is her “Rhode Island Is Famous For You.”

Copper comes from Arizona
Peaches come from Georgia
Lobsters come from Maine
The wheat fields are the
sweet fields of Nebraska
And Kansas gets bonanzas from the grain
Ol’ whiskey comes from ol’ Kentucky
Ain’t the country lucky?
New Jersey gives us glue
And you come from Rhode Island
And Rhode Island is famous for you

rooting-songsMarketing connection: In the early 1960s she sang a song for a radio commercial for Hires Root Beer. It was so popular she recorded an album called “Blossom Dearie Sings Rootin’ Songs.”

As if her talent wasn’t enough she had attitude to match:

Ms. Dearie didn’t suffer fools gladly and was unafraid to voice her disdain for music she didn’t like; the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber were a particular pet peeve.

“Didn’t/doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” Is there a more wonderful phrase in the English language? Well, anything that points out how terrible Andrew Lloyd Webber is a close second.

Thanks Blossom. I miss you already.

A moment of silence for one of the greats … Millard Fuller

habitat-for-humanity

A millionaire by the time he was 30, Millard Fuller gave up his fortune and invested his life in Habitat for Humanity — a Christian charity that has built more than 300,000 houses and turned poor people into homeowners by using “sweat equity” and no-interest loans.

Some have criticized President Obama’s $500,000 cap on executive compensation for companies getting taxpayer bailouts, saying it would put a damper on the quality of the CEOs at these companies. The truth is there is NO correlation between CEO compensation and corporate performance. As Mr. Fuller showed, what is needed in a CEO is creativity and zeal. Maybe drawing from a pool of people who are willing to take “only” $500K per annum (and they’ll get all sorts of other things like transportation or housing or what-have-you) will get hungrier, more creative people into the corner office.

Donations to Habitat can be made here.