Returns: MST3K, Twin Peaks and the Inertia of Nostalgia

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*DISCLAIMER* This post originated with a coincidental connection between the two series of the title of this piece in one actor: Robert Forster, who plays Sheriff Henry Truman in Twin Peaks: The Return. He appears alongside Mia Farrow and Rock Hudson in the third episode of MST3K: The Return with the disaster film Avalanche! The synchronicity of his appearance in both shows planted a little seed of an idea. The following is a narrow, tight-rope walk a few inches above the ground. The reader can fall off at any moment and still be safe. A metaphorical sprained ankle is the most harm that could come to you.

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First, a few provisional, expository passages on the theory of nostalgia at work in the entertainment industry, and the possible results of its effect on the human psyche:

In 1989, Cameron Crowe penned and directed Say Anything. At the beginning of the film, Ione Skye’s character Diane Court memorably proclaims in her valedictorian speech to her fellow despondent Class of ’88 (with the exception of Lloyd Dobler of course!)

Having taken a few courses at the university this year, I have 
glimpsed our future, and all I can say is... go back.

Sure, Diane’s dad Jim is all laughs, but the line falls flat on everyone else. We might also sit in silence like those in the audience, confused and unsure about what she means. If not for a party to look forward to in the evening, we might become fidgety, uncomfortable, and mistake her advice as a suggestion to turn away from our present-facing-future, wandering back into a mire of child-like nostalgia with almost-adult bodies…Nevermind, party time!

If you were taken by her speech to “go back” inside your body, inside your psyche, there is an excellently comfy armchair with the brand name Nostalgia. A ghost of love haunts it, guarding access and relief, necessitating an homage from us to an old and well-known form. It wants a sacrifice of the two things worth more for their usefulness to our existence than anything else: time and attention. When we take a seat and sit back, this kindest haunting occurs in our thoughts and feelings: we return to better times. Ahhh…we are no longer reaching for comfort in our awkward bodies. We calm ourselves before that something-scary-and-new and like a late-night visit in a kitchen of worry, we nurse from a plastic teat of childhood milk.

Is this what she meant by going back? As Say Anything moves along, quick relief comes from “go back” when Diane Court’s speech passes and the narrative brings us to the party. However, throughout the party that night Lili Taylor’s character Corey Flood is strumming her sad and angry songs about the toxic dude Joe who “rapped” before Diane’s speech (and who later gives Lloyd woefully terrible and misogynistic advice). Corey states she is going to play all 65 songs of pain that she wrote about Joe, but not to go back and stay. She goes back to go through her grief and emerge she-knows-not-who (this is a Jungian reading, to be sure). She faces Joe when he approaches her alone in a side room and though scared of what comes next, she’s able to walk away from his sap-trap. Most of us forget Corey’s living example in word and song of Diane’s speech. We just remember that image of John Cusack holding up that boom box playing Peter Gabriel.

[To acknowledge my composite image of film and television above] Skye’s bit of dialogue as Diane is just as metaphorical as Matthew Fox’s character Jack Shepard from ABC’s LOST (2004-2010) when he crazily screams to Kate at the end of Season 3 that “We have to go back!” How is this different from an escape into nostalgic feeling and an avoidance of our present-facing-future? We can just as well lose the sense of ourselves at the gates of the future as in the ruins of the past. Whether we’re graduating from high school with unrealistic ideas about college and careers, or hopping planes day after day at the end of our rope waiting for the miracle to come, we can (if we’re lucky) be stopped by these experiences which we stumble over and have no place for in our lives. The lack of place, which is what is common in Diane’s speech and Jack’s desperation, is the arresting feeling that can imprison us in our wish for indulgent rests in Nostalgia’s armchair. Go back, but go back to go through – remember Corey’s songs, not “In Your Eyes.”

While the future is unwritten, LOST is exceptional in that it agitates the heart and the mind to turn reflexively away from the screen and to look in on our own lives (but perhaps not for every viewer, as its nostalgia holds true with new podcasts popping up devoted to re-watches and analyses even after close to a decade since its final episode). Like Jack, we can’t return to the same place to begin something new – we have to undergo some kind of journey. There is no new birth in nostalgia itself, as its inertia can keep one fixed like a mirage seeming to offer a familiar destination. Speaking to the human psyche as an individual, albeit a social individual, what could actually benefit one is a return to the paths and places-not-yet-set where we felt uncomfortable, where our nostalgia did not hold us in a Stockholm syndrome-like hug. It is possible to grow where time and attention are available to us without the crippling discomfort of the unknown. This is how we can find footing, and begin to progress beyond the state of the fool.

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LET US NOW SLOW our narrative of the utilization of nostalgia and our challenge against it by focusing on two recent but very different shows that have promised to “take us back,” both using the subtitle or tag line “The Return”: Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) and Twin Peaks. The high contrast between these two television shows in form and in content is intentional, and can illustrate a number of things to us as audience members of streaming television in the early 21st century. Initial considerations are purely contextual:

  • Twin Peaks was brought back by Lynch and Frost following conversations in August 2012 between them and later in 2014 with exec Gary Levine, who was at ABC during the show’s original run, resulting in a drafting and developing of another season for Showtime; MST3K’s original creator Joel Hodgson secured funding for their return with a Kickstarter campaign (the most successful to-date for a TV/Film production at $5.7 million) after reacquiring the rights to the show with the help of Shout! Factory.
  • Twin Peaks was released part-by-part in 18 weekly installments (with occasional breaks) by Showtime through multiple streaming services just as the first two seasons were classically aired on ABC; MST3K was dumped as a fully-watchable season on Netflix, as the streaming service and original content provider does so with all of their new shows.
  • Lastly, just beyond the horizon of the contextual, Twin Peaks has been a highly influential sci-fi/mystery/horror show to the writers and producers of many subsequent productions, such as The X-Files, LOST, and scores of others; MST3K has had a different kind of cult influence – as a spoof on sci-fi and a riffing comedy that mocks and lampoons (with endearment) “the worst films ever made.” Indeed, Hodgson and Lynch/Frost couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, at least on conceptual and demonstrative grounds, as creators in the medium of television.

Despite these contrasts, both shows inspired and fed strong fan bases. Through the rallying of their support, each show was revived during their original runs to continue more episodes – in the case of MST3K on another network (the SciFi [now SyFy] channel) and for Twin Peaks a final number of episodes added to their second season on ABC. In this way, the idea that each are now “returning” is a wondrously nostalgic trick. These shows were brought back, and now it is happening again – the exact tagline of Twin Peaks: The Return. Each are returning with the creator’s own awareness that they are returning with all the accompanying fandom expectations and comparisons to their “original” forms. Each show navigates these treacherous waters in their own way with callbacks and references, continuations of plot threads, and bringing back characters who have disappeared long ago. In the case of Twin Peaks: The Return, even characters who have long since died (David Bowie’s Phillip Jeffries, Frank Silva’s BOB, Don S. Davis’s Major Briggs, and a few others) somehow make an appearance. Television is a dark magic.

There’s nothing really new in what I have to write here. The phenomenon of returns has fast become a trend in television in this second decade of the 21st-century and does not seem to be slowing down. It follows the same commercial trend of film sequels and re-boots that are regularly green lit in Hollywood. What differentiates both MST3K and Twin Peaks in their format is that each of these returns are intentionally limited in their release and their short burn is a trademark of how nostalgia, despite being so useful to gain our time and attention once more, is unsustainable over long periods. MST3K has quasi-challenged this statement with their second (shorter) return season called “The Gauntlet,” marking the 30th anniversary of the show’s debut on Thanksgiving Day in Minneapolis in 1988 – but David Lynch and Mark Frost have no intention of continuing Twin Peaks with another season. The fan base for the show has only a reading left for them of Frost’s publication Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier written from the perspective of the return season character Agent Tammy Preston. While this writer thinks it is a bookend worth checking out, some fans feel that this book and Frost’s previous The Secret History of Twin Peaks are non-canonical works from the series co-creator, you know, the-one-who-is-not-David Lynch.

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LET US ADMIT that the demand to produce continual, original content, updated like software, is no guarantee of a quality experience because of re-investment in our nostalgic memories. Both return seasons are their own new shows, but viewers undoubtedly draw on their feelings and impressions of a past nostalgic experience with their predecessors – and compare. Audiences are mixed in their reactions but nonetheless these productions guarantee spent time and attention (and money earned). On the other side of the screen, the actors who are paid to be a part of the return can be less than enthusiastic to re-inhabit their past roles.

ANOTHER CASE in point, the two return seasons of The X-Files. Each sorely lacked the depth and vision of the original series, and are unarguably weak in their conception and demonstration of an earlier millennial (the time, not the generation) style and flavor. Interestingly, David Duchovny’s revival as Denise in Twin Peaks: The Return is full of life, but as Mulder he is a kind of Casper the Friendly Ghost – there-but-not-there – and the dramatic weight falls on Gillian Anderson and the supporting cast to carry any of what little coherence the writing has for them. Anderson’s character arc as Scully has been the focus of the show since the last few seasons (and arguably the films as well) and in the case of their return seasons, has portrayed Scully with care, maturity and skill. Unfortunately, Duchovny overburdens and isolates her dramatic force much too often with lethargic deliveries and detached affect. Combined with the weak writing, it’s a slough to get through. SPOILER ALERT not SPOILER ALERT: The Cigarette Smoking Man is still trying to pull all the strings and it’s just about as interesting as watching people recycle their glass and cans at a grocery store.

When it comes to MST3K‘s return, Joel Hodgson and his team of writers have the benefit of new characters and a new scenario that mirrors the first incarnation and plays with strange combinations and guest stars. It’s moderately amusing and there are some quality riffs and jokes. Twin Peaks however must (and I believe, does) deliver the relish of newness with the trick of a return, gifting us memorable new characters and in some cases the wondrous evolution of our old favorites. Lynch and Frost have been sensitive and highly aware of the expectations of the fan base’s secret wishes, and the use of the alternate-Coop and “Dougie” can be seen as the very reflection of the frustration to get back the Agent Cooper they left in a different kind of armchair at the Black Lodge. Like the finale of LOST, it has divided fans new and old – but much like anything truly worthy of our time and attention, we are left on the other side of the screen with the question “why?” – which we can choose to pursue, or not…

This writer feels he must pull back as far as he can and see the whole project of Twin Peaks: The Return in the round as a journey through the nostalgia of its own fandom, the mythology of the original show, as well as Lynch’s entire on-screen canon. The utilization of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as being integral to the substance of the story arch of The Return in particular is a brilliant move and so inimical to the desire for us to sit down in our armchair – almost as if like William Castle, Lynch and Frost have placed an electric buzzer there to go off whenever we find ourselves too comfortable in our assumptions about what is happening and how things are going to unfold with our beloved characters. In this, there’s a lesson for us to internalize, and for Hollywood and the streaming giants of Hulu, Amazon and Netflix to consider when they soon gift us with another project that promises to take us back.

Shared Weltanschauung?

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Bubbles are beautiful. They reflect light, yet you can see through them. They are colorful and also translucent. They are created and contained by the pressure of the air and maintained by the strength of the structure of itself. The physical science of the bubble is that “it is the shape that minimizes ​the surface area of the structure, which makes it the shape that requires the least energy to achieve.” Scientifically, its beauty lies in the economy of its geometry. And then, it pops as fast as it was made and ceases to exist.

Once that structure *pops* one can always make a new bubble with soap, water, and a ring which gives you enough time to blow or pull some air through. The sight of a sphere or form floating, contained, yet free and angelic in its lightness, speaks to us from childhood and into adulthood as somehow connected to our own lives – as if we were also spherical in our being somehow. Maybe we see a reflection of the blue marble we live upon, the eyes in our heads, perhaps, in the very conception of ourselves in the sphere of the womb.

The above frame grab from Honey We Shrunk Ourselves (1997, Dir. Dean Cundey) presents an entirely different take on the bubble – that within the bubble is a horrifying containment. If one were to imagine sharing a single bubble with another being, you’d probably feel like the characters from that unfortunate straight-to-video film. You’d be sure that your existence together would last so briefly before the inevitable pop. You’d live in fear of each other’s movements, of each other’s voices, of each other’s slightest miscalculations, knowing that the structure that contains you both cannot by its very nature last long. You’d be hoping beyond hope that by the hand of Providence (forgive me this anachronism) your lives would be spared and you’d never have to share another moment like that with someone again. The film was a comedy but the situation isn’t funny.

This prolonged parable about you-and-the-bubble-from-the-outside being so dissimilar from us-and-the-bubble-from-the-inside is an attempt to visualize more completely an observation about differing world-views between oneself and others. While we can admire, lawfully explain, or observe other world-views, we don’t share our own Weltanschauung (Ger. “overall philosophy of life or worldview”) without running the risk of popping theirs. When we are fast becoming adults, first beginning to form a worldview, the risk and hazard that comes with searching for one is a necessity for our lives and its growth. We first seek in others what we wish for ourselves, usually by imitation. This feeds a strange void of dialogue between generations, political affiliations, religious dogmas, and ways of living because of the risk of difference when imitation ends and our own worldview develops. Regardless, we require challenges to keep from falling back into the hypnotic sleep which seems to blanket the planet, to become a little more awake and conscious of our behaviors and actions, and to maintain our worldview when we find ourselves in it. When it becomes our world, we define ourselves by it and with the others who inhabit it.

When we do share the same worldview with someone else, when we find ourselves in the bubble we’ve been admiring and seeking to experience, an alarming expectation arises: to continue to have consistent and reliable behaviors and reactions in order to keep one’s new bubble from popping. The tension which maintains the surface area of a shared worldview is also a tension which maintains the limits of its horizon. You can’t challenge the horizon – you accept its limitations, or, *pop* – it disappears. It becomes better to respond in-kind and make certain to yourself and to others which side of the bubble you’re on. Otherwise, argument, dissent, division – *pop*.

This parable is much too simplified and falls far short of the kind of synthesis of philosophical history/history of ideas which Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres volumes addresses (one review at Huenemanniac). This brief parable-essay is trying to reach for something that keeps eluding this mind when thoughts are stretched over a topic or issue. My concern (to be transparent) is with the incompatibility of differing world-views as well as the difficulty of sharing a worldview with another. As a nation, it does not seem to me to be true that the facts of an event or person are anchored in the material knowns of the world. The laws without are not the laws within – that takes an extra step, a kind of world-maintenance. We can’t make a beautiful and good worldview and expect that once a person inhabits it they will do everything they can to maintain it. We are constantly challenging our horizons. Look at the history of the assembly of the Space Station or the recently completed solo trek across Antarctica by Colin O’Brady. Bubbles pop and new ones are formed – we ought to take comfort in this instead of fearing the inevitable loss of a structure that is only formed because it “requires the least energy to achieve.” A worldview that demands to be maintained neglects the fact that there are other bubbles, and other worlds, each with their singular, unknown interiors. Some as big as a globe or as numerous as sea foam.

This piece of writing pops because it also tries to make a bubble, to encapsulate some kind of idea or opinion about Weltanschauung, using the metaphor of bubbles to represent a person’s or a collective people’s conception of “worldview.” It tries to be the stroller in Grandville’s “Ring of Saturn” (1844), bridging one world to the next and the next. It gives the impression of worldview as fragile when they are in fact much stronger and are filled with much more than air. The causes and concerns that are shared in a worldview are not to be taken lightly. History proves this to be true – people battle or judge, die or execute, over a worldview…but it seems that since we live in a period that some call post-historical or post-truth, that we ought not to fear popping more of our world-views. Taken further, we could be our own worldview, with no need to *pop*.

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Published in Chronogram

In late 2016 I had a poem, a short haiku, published by Philip X. Levine in the monthly Hudson Valley periodical, “Chronogram.” This year, I have the honor of another of my poems (“Older Male Friends”) published by this same supportive editor in the August 2018 issue of the magazine. The poem, along with Levine’s other selections, can be read here online, and the entirety of the magazine can be perused here on Issuu.

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This is an unrelated picture of Keanu Reeves, who is my spirit animal.

Published in Caesura

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I am very pleased to announce that last month the Journal of the Poetry Center of San Jose published a poem of mine (“Hugh Melody : I”) in the print copy of their annual publication Caesura. The online version can be read here but it is of a different form than the print version, with all-new authors and differing selections. If you would like to order a copy with me, send me a message and I will try and procure you one at a discount.

Instagram and Poetry Month

This past April was National Poetry Month, as it has been every year in the U.S. since 1996. While I do sympathize in some part with the quiet criticisms of the celebration, a somewhat trivial designation for the public’s attention to turn toward poetry (the point being that after you’ve taken brief notice of the fact of its existence you can then continue with your general neglect of poetry), I decided to say Bernstein be damned and take on a reflective self-challenge.

I wrote a poem each day this April and posted it to my Instagram feed (not too far of a scroll away). Being my birth month, I associate the Spring and the re-awakening of the earth in this hemisphere with creative activity. But never have I forced myself to compose one poem, each day, for a month, as if I were manually breaking open seeds and thrusting them through to the surface prematurely. Most took in some light (and likes) amidst all the visual splendor of that medium. After week one I gained a steady pace of alternating between writing and posting, then took time to peruse the other poets at work through the convenience of Instagram’s self-making engine.

What I found was a strange mix. There was certainly cobwebs-upon-cobwebs of cliched and tired metaphors applauded with fan hearts and digital accolades, but there were also some authentic voices stringing together solid and resounding verse. In some cases, poets in either camp are making the leap from the app to bookstore shelves. My old employer of West Coast indie fame, Powell’s Books, has collected a number of such authors for your interest and support with handheld yet plug-less reading. Mostly self-published at first, these poets have made the successful transition to authors-with-contracts by the proving ground of Instagram – which saves the publisher most, if not all, publicity and marketing expenses upon the volume’s release.

Has this made poetry a well-read form again, as it once was in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century? Probably not as it once was, and perhaps “well-read” is a generous and not altogether substantial statement. The scrolling must continue on Instagram, indeed, it feeds off such motion which your twitching digits reinforce. What seemed so noble or profound in scant lines once jammed between the colorful plate of food before, and the glorious body come after, may not hold for much longer with its own spine. These are not uncharted waters, but the fog of short attention is always rolling in to obscure our appreciation of the beautiful, and the trash, alike. My only advice would be to read with a critical eye, not just for pleasure.

Doctor Strange, The Shadow and Golden Age Myths

Films are offered to the public at the price of a meal. As we sit in the dark and take in kernels of popcorn, we also digest the films we’ve come to see. They pour in through our senses, are metabolized by our minds and carried by whatever consciousness we may have to associate – with other visual and audio memories, prior knowledge and in many, many inner meeting halls with other versions of ourselves. If a film sits with us and we sit with it, this kind of digestion can cause our experience of it and everything connected to it to rise high within, rather than foul without.

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After sitting through Marvel Studio’s 13th hit Doctor Strange, I had the lingering sensation of the above process. I’m on my weekend from graduate school – not toward a medical degree but for a masters in education, and it so happened that in the middle of preparing a lesson plan for high schoolers on Western interpretations of ‘the East’ I happened to sit with this film. I didn’t need the quantum mechanical/metaphysical explanations by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One character through some astral trip to bridge entertainment and education – a sequence of graphic awe in DS that worked against the lines she was imparting to Benedict Cumberbatch’s broken doctor. By chance this Marvel film fit in nicely with a lot of the material I’ve been reviewing about Orientalism since the 18th century. Doctor Strange‘s new depictions of old ideas (Leonard Cohen, R.I.P.) are no exception to the fascination with and misunderstanding of civilizations and cultures not originating from Greece and Mesopotamia. As I left the theater, there was a lot of chatter between the new and the old but not much agreed – which often happens with generation gaps…

What set me going enough to write this was re-watching a similar film in aspect from 1994: The Shadow. Based on the 1930s radio show/pulp by Walter B. Gibson, it stars Alec Baldwin as Lamont Cranston, a wayward son of NYC’s elite who after the First World War apparently goes rogue to become an opium warlord in ‘Tibet.’ He is then taken under the wing of a tulku, a teacher of a lineage of ‘Tibetan Buddhism,’ who helps him develop the ability to “cloud men’s minds” through ‘concentration’ – to become invisible to them. This helps him to curb the darker side of his nature, which he can never hide (hence, The Shadow) and so Cranston returns to the West, reformed and gifted by ‘the East.’ He helps people and they help him in return, and soon there is a large network of eyes and ears throughout the city. This aids him crucially in his fight against the last descendent of Genghis Khan who just arrived in New York via a silver sarcophagus sent to the Natural History Museum. He’s another student of the tulku (whom was killed by Khan for his living knife) and is on the lookout for a proto-atomic bomb so that he might fulfill the world conquest of his namesake! Interested!? The Shadow was not a summer blockbuster upon its release and has been receiving poor reviews ever since.

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Unlike in success, these two films share a likeness of origin stories. It’s not only that each of the lead characters are persons of privilege at the end of their ropes; each of them are these people out-of-place in a geographical and/or existential unknown, ‘the East’ being not the West and they not being themselves: or, becoming someone else. Before Cranston is taken in by his tulku he’s like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (I should say Coppola’s Apocalypse Now but I’m studying to be an ELA teacher). He’s “gone native” whereas Strange is a desperate tourist only partly aware of why he’s there, a little more like Marlow of HoD. Each are a vulgarity to the cultures they find themselves in because they do not belong and take the native people as stereotypical (unlearned, backwards, provincial, etc.). Then an intervention occurs: each encounters the figure of a wisdom teacher, from which both are reluctant to learn. After a time, each proves an excellent student of their respective schools of “ancient arts.” When both return to the West, each face a counterforce which endangers the fabric of their world(s) who in some aspect are eerily similar to their former selves. This is made explicit visually in a disturbing dream with Cranston and Khan in The Shadow and in dialogue between Kaecilius and Strange in Doctor Strange. These forces/faces are eventually defeated and their new selves remain, mastered.

What both The Shadow and Doctor Strange share most deeply is the twisted heritage of popular culture appropriating the realities of traditions, ways of knowledge and religions to create the allure of Orientalism, the sense of a “mystical” or “exotic” Other,  for (in today’s terms) capitalist profit. Edward Said’s study of this ongoing phenomenon is essential reading on its history. The Shadow failed to make loads of money but in its depiction of an “actual” lineage (with the crude liberties of the living knife and whatever ‘concentration’ is meant to signify – deep states of meditation?) is less offensive than the idealized fireworks magic of the Ancient One in Kamar-Taj (Read: Shambhala). The announcement of Swinton’s casting caused a stir of Hollywood whitewashing articles back in the spring, most which never called out Marvel’s real reason for not casting the Ancient One as Tibetan – the likely large loss of profits in the Chinese market. However, the film and script as it stands conceals a very old myth and key piece of Western interpretation of ‘the East’ that is significant in Swinton’s casting as a Celtic sage.

When the counter-cultural movement of the ’60s received the creation of Steve Ditko’s character Doctor Strange, Europe and America responded to him because it was yearning to regain something they thought lost in the current ideologies, religions and social mores of their civilization. They wanted to reach back to a “source,” the origin of a kind of animating quality, as people in periods before had searched for during social disorder, governmental strife and economic ruin. Cranston and Strange are representatives of that yearning for some kind of authentic self that, so the story goes, we lost long ago. This story is always being told. And with Swinton cast as a Celtic and without age, it seems a glaring reference to the particular myth of some kind of original, perfect state  – call it Albion, as Blake did – that generations of Westerners have attempted to symbolically reorient themselves back toward: be it from revivals of Druidism/Wicca in the late 19th century (the Golden Order, the Theosophical Society, etc.) to Zen, Vipassana, TM, yoga and “mindfulness” today.

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Whether a Golden Age lived in the past of Western cultures or Asitatic ones and we are to find ourselves there again, Doctor Strange comes from a well-known land: Hollywood. And since it is a Marvel Studios production, I waited after the lights went up in my local theater for one last, little scene. If you missed out, it shows Karl Mordo paying a visit to Pangborn (played by Benjamin Bratt), the character who tipped Strange off about Kamar-Taj. Mordo uses his power to take back Pangborn’s ability to walk because P. was accessing a different dimensional energy than Earth’s and therefore, breaking a natural law. Mordo, especially in being played by black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, could be saying in the final line of the film (“Too many sorcerers”) that the abuse of authentic traditions and vestiges of culture in the West by those who craft stories about ‘the East’ for profit needs to end. This would be giving Doctor Strange the secretly self-critical credit that at least a few reviewers gave to Jurassic World, which in my opinion was far too generous. But perhaps the West does need to swallow this truth before taking the next cinematic pill to entertain the brief illusion that our unquenchable thirst for disrespectful myth-nodding stories has been slaked.

From One Equinox to Another

Now that autumn has arrived (this very night full of the cool breezes and beads of soft rain that wash away the heat and bear away the humidity), I am posting a piece that I attempted to shop around to various local journals and magazines when the spring equinox was upon us here in upstate New York. It is entitled “The Swifts of Spring” and was finished in late May of this year:

The night sky begins to pale toward morning. There is a bright chatter that rises up before the sun. It wakes you in the still yellowy night, lit only by a few streetlights. In the alley below, an exhausted and tearful weeping sounds over a deep but impotent protest. It’s the playing out of a lover’s quarrel, the current theme set to birdsong above the village streets an hour before dawn. Their voices soon fade away as night diminishes and I roll back over into the short dream before coffee.

I’m no birdwatcher but as I acquaint myself with my new home of Catskill, I watch on Main Street the arcs and lines of birds with the daily trails made by my fellow residents below going into Catskill Grocery & News for coffee, smokes and scratch-its; strolling between the Greene County courthouse and the county offices; working out to Zumba music from the open door of the Community Center; heading into the Community Theater for the latest Captain America film or out of Kirwan’s Game Store for fresh air. Weekenders from the city also trounce the sidewalks, and a part of me feels as if my partner and I’s move is just as transitory as their visit. However, we both know this is now home and these residents, our community.

From creekside to the tombstones at the top of the hill, across the variously stormy and sunny skies, the village now has a rarer visitor. Since the first two weeks of May, twenty or more migratory Chimney swifts have been sighted. Swifts are exceptional creatures and commit their energy to an almost totally airborne life. They eat, mate, and do everything but sleep in the air, having no ability to perch like most common birds. In fact, they are in the same order as hummingbirds, Apodiformes, meaning “footless” in Greek. Since leaving their wintering homes in South America, their high-pitched squeaks and chirps have been lilting overhead.

How much envy has greened our race for ages while admiring the flight of birds. Whereas a bird would use a crease in the ripple of a wind to bank or roll its body further along its course of flight, we clumsily trip on the edge of a slightly upturned sidewalk block. Some of us drag our feet while walking – I myself have an odd ‘duck-footed’ gait that reveals itself slowly in the wearing down of the backside of my heels. We feel the rule of gravity’s kingdom on our shoulders and try our best to straighten the somewhat crooked sway of our travelings. It’s no wonder that birds were imitated for a good many centuries by would-be aviators before we had to figure out our own means of catching the air.

(As an interlude, I scribbled the following poem while musing on this phenomenal influence:

Aviators

You have to admire

The stapled wings of foolish inventors

As much as the quilled designs

Of Leonardo –

Both inspired by the grace of birds

As much as – or more than,

The mechanics of flight

It’s now the breeding season. Chimney swifts make nests of twigs which are glued together using their own saliva, holding their clutches of 4 or 5 eggs. In the early morning the other birds of this village, the house sparrows, starlings, and purple finches, keep their nests in the slightly open cracks between cornice and gutter or among the now greening vines along the side of the old Oren’s building. The making of nests is in the nature of all birds, from the complexity of the bower to the simplicity of the penguin. For the benefit of the swifts, Catskill features many chimneys from the 19th century that no longer hold flames. It seems fitting with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s new studio and exhibit on the painter’s architectural designs that the swifts are making new use of our old brick. For local historians, this could be a point of pride in a town once known for its industrious brickyards.

I’m uncertain how long the swifts will be flying among us this spring. A brief bit of research shows that incubation and nesting takes a combined 40 days. And as much as I can glean from eBird.org, no sightings of Chimney swifts have been recorded in Catskill in the last decade. It makes one wonder at their being here, soot-dusted and gulping down great amounts of insects each day, to return at sunset to a few chimneys hanging in the air. If you live in this village or are visiting in the next few weeks, observe their grace while you can.

I hope more than a few of us took in the sight of their arching flights. There was ample time and number, as by the close of August more than 40 were in the undulating groups of parents and their brood before taking flight from Catskill, Hudson, Saugerties and number of other towns and villages in the area. Soon after they left, a legion of spiders soon filled the insect-eating vacuum left by the swifts and populated the streetlight, windows and facade of my building along Main St. to a creepy extant.

Weekend/ers

Sitting on the windowsill of another blooming summer day, Saturday opens its arms up to the weekenders in Catskill. The unhurried pace of parents or grandparents and their younger brood cast hovering shadows on the sidewalks. The shuffling of shoe soles halt for a moment with a quick look into the Exchange House space on Main Street. The owner is putting out some bikes, plants, chairs, and speaks a little to the visitors. It’s midday and the sun has already warmed the once cooler breezes of the morning. The trees which are maintained by Cultivate Catskill are briefly animated. Our visitors don’t seem to mind much at all beneath their large sun hats and baseball caps and after nodding the small business owner away, the attractive cool of The General Store of Catskill draws them inside. Further along our historic downtown strip lined with gaudy cat sculptures that merit a photo or two and a laugh, they disappear out of sight and return to their cars.

And then the week comes  – and with it, its relative peace and quiet. This is the gentle ebb I appreciate the most: slow enough to almost watch the plants grow. When you walk into a local pub after a day of work, you know who is here. We visit one another with the aim of burning some time away during long shifts and running errands. Small business owners, county office workers, police officers and locals strolling or sharing some shade, a cigarette, a little advice or a bit of gossip, create and augment the atmosphere of Catskill without its gawkers and gift buyers. With the farmers market on Friday evening, the whole cycle is begun again. Music from Carmen and Alison of Jumbo Bungalow emanates from the event to kick off a new summer weekend and lure citizens and visitors to the tables setup by farmers like Carol Clement of Heather Ridge Farm. Those who are willing to meet you and ask your name and get a sense of who you are, might be the very neighbor you live down the street from. We all have a tendency to self-isolate in our rigid routines, but opportunities abound when the weekend arrives. This double action, of the visitors coming in and the locals coming out, seems to grant us some kind of balance in a very, very chaotic country.

Looking to Age

DonaldHallSlider

I read the paperback edition of Donald Hall’s 2014 book, Essays After Eighty, within the last few weeks of 2015. A reading list was compiled during that summer, which didn’t include this newest of Hall’s publications. As happens with summer reading lists, it promptly extended itself into the fall and winter. More than a few titles from last year are now due to be held this summer in my hands, with morning coffee nearby or propped upon my lap before bed. However with Hall’s book I felt an urgency to take in his voice on the page immediately. It was also an unexpected purchase, and as I heard no complaint from the other books in queue, I followed his literary towpath into the world of the former Poet Laureate’s native New Hampshire town and into his home at Eagle Pond Farm.

His ancient and warm voice can be heard here, if you’d like to pair sound with his prose on the page. The essays are not terribly vast in their range but are bound by the horizon line of his current locality, his bodily state and the breadth of his memories. We return again and again to the landscape of his last few decades: to the barn of his grandfather’s farm; to the local roads he looks out on from a passenger seat window while being driven to physical therapy or the airport; to his farmhouse where mice and snakes scurry and wriggle their way across the floor while he searches for his dentures. What’s unique about the perspective of Hall’s voice in this book is his humility through the advance of his years. It is both self-deprecating and appreciative of his limiting dependence and diminishing energy.

While the end of our lives are never known (except perhaps by medical diagnosis or superstitious prophecy) we are freely given mountains of advice as to how to live it. For the devout especially conservative religious we are told to repent now and strive to live without blemish or sin in our actions and thoughts – for the next life. For the hedonistic, never mind the soul – you better live it up while you’re able to function, as the body is sure to wither away. Then, there is the strange cult of fitness that is the sort of flip side of the latter: eat well, watch your diet, don’t smoke, work out, drink smoothies, etc. Even if the body is going to pass away, it ought to be in the best possible condition! And for as long as it can exist. What is most common with all these prescriptions is this: whatever you are doing with your life probably ought to be changed before you die.

We never know when we’ll divest the planet of our consciousness, but while we age the reality of this fact makes different impressions to different people, and is often dependent more on our outer practices than our inner beliefs. In his essay titled “Death” Hall proclaims, “at some point in my seventies, death stopped being interesting.” Later he affirms that his activities in spite of the reality of old age are very much the same things he was doing in the middle of life – “I try not to break my neck. I write letters, I take naps, I write essays.” I was reminded of an interview by Q TV’s Jian Ghomeshi of CBC with Leonard Cohen (another brilliant human past the age of seventy) who quotes his deceased friend and poet Irving Layton that “it’s not death that he’s worried about, it’s the preliminaries.” It makes a good point about where our heads usually are – do we live life from death’s perspective with dread or see death from life’s vantage point? He later tells Jian,

Of course, everyone has to have a certain anxiety about the condition’s of one’s death-the actual circumstances, the pain involved, the effect on your heirs. But there’s so little you can do about it. It’s best to regulate those concerns to the appropriate compartments of the mind and not let them inform all your activities. We’ve got to live our lives as if they’re real, as if they’re not going to end immediately, so we have to live under those…some people might call them illusions.

 

I see in Donald Hall, Leonard Cohen (and another of my “Don’t Trust Anyone Younger Than 70” club: author, educator and essayist Marilynne Robinson) a number of great inspirations to me and others that while we are wading through life’s swampy marshes or traipsing through its golden landscapes, we will continue to fade. How we are or aren’t becoming to the inevitable is but a little difference of musculature in the face – either a tensing up to brace, or a relaxing into the pleasant smirk of acceptance.

Calasso and Literary Civilization

It’s a slim and colorful volume from FSG that contains the insightful and wise words of the Adelphi publisher and multi-varied scholar Roberto Calasso on the very art he has exercised for near fifty years. To have this translated work, The Art of the Publisher, available to an English speaking audience and to those within such a collective who take an interest or make investments in the design & production of the vehicles we know as books, is quite a modest though stimulating event for our culture at the near-end of 2015.

Here you can read a short excerpt from this new book.

Calasso’s manner of stating the very nature of the presentation and the substance of a publisher’s duty to quality and value (“that the publisher enjoys reading the books he publishes”) reminds one of an old path that is cut through with such simple, precise words. They reveal beneath our overgrown, commodified brush of books a way once trod on by the few who found it necessary to guide readers on an aesthetic journey – rather than a brief, sensory delight. As he writes, the public can be invited along on an “editorial program” which envisions each book as a chapter in a much greater tome.

I’ve written elsewhere about a publishing enterprise in America similar to Adelphi in its scope and variety. If there is something close to it now, it might be found in FSG or New Directions and the growing catalog of works joined together by these publishers’ visions for a “literary civilization”. But perhaps, in the wake of Calasso’s book or the waning of modern ideas about scholarship, there will be or is now emerging new “forms” of approaching the art of publishing as a higher calling toward the outward balance of unity and variety – as we might hope for this to occur, to each one of us, inwardly.