Tuesday, May 23, 2017

RIP Roger Moore

I had another blog post in mind, but the news of the day has me changing plans.

Actor Roger Moore has died. He was 89. He will of course be most remembered for playing James Bond. I wanted to take a moment and explore what that means to ESE.

I've blogged several times about growing up in the Cold War. It was a unique epoch in history. I'm not sure how to accurately convey what it was like other than ask you to imagine the kind of "we could die any minute" terror that comes with war but without your country being actively engaged in any shooting. You knew that thousands of nuclear warheads were pointed at you, just waiting for the go code, but looking out the window nothing seemed amiss. That was partly due to the work of an entire "shadow world" of operatives on both sides, keeping the unthinkable from happening.


But as a kid, my only understanding of the spy life came down to two words: Roger Moore. He was James Bond at the time and my introduction to that mythos came through a movie called Moonraker.

In addition to Cold War tensions, the late 1970s was also something of a halcyon age for those of us who love classic science fiction films. It was the time of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Hollywood moguls were blending space themes into their films wherever they could, even if it didn't make sense. I guess they thought it would get geeks in seats. At least in the case of seven year-old Jonny, it worked.

When I came across a promotional article for Moonraker in Starlog magazine, I knew it would be a must-see film. It had a massive space station, a fleet of space shuttles, lasers, a giant assassin named Jaws with a mouth full of metal, and thrilling action of all kinds. I was only vaguely familiar with James Bond 007, but just how much did I need to know? He was a spy, he got all the girls, and this time he was going into space. Why? Because an arch-villain named Hugo Drax had built a base in orbit, poised to wipe out humanity with nerve gas so that he may repopulate the Earth with a master race.

It all ended with a climactic laser battle between men in spacesuits, thus granting me my introduction to the world of James Bond.

Later I would come to understand what real espionage was like and it certainly wasn't like Moonraker. It was more the books of John Le Carre, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or other writers like Frederick Forsyth with The Day of the Jackal. If you want an even grittier look at "real life" Cold War espionage, I might recommend the TV show, The Americans. The real thing is nothing like what Roger Moore portrayed and that may be why a contemporary audience responds more to a Bond like Daniel Craig or even to the perennial favorite, Sean Connery. I can see that and I appreciate those two actors in the role in their own way.

I still come back to Roger Moore. Probably because he and the films he appeared in aren't realistic.

His Bond was cool, suave, and unflappable. The stories he appeared in mixed spy thrillers with science fiction (not just Moonraker, but take a look at that "sea car" in The Spy Who Loved Me), reminding me of the Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. comics I was reading at the same time. More than that, there was a underlying kindness and gentility about him. Those may sound like odd qualities for a Bond and in reality I suppose they are, but I think it makes a statement. It was as if the good person Roger Moore was came through no matter who he was playing.

He was fun.

In a day and an age where terrorists have just set off a bomb at a teen pop concert and cyber attacks on our infrastructure are commonplace, "fun" might be counter-intuitive or even repulsive for an espionage story. The post 9/11 palate may demand a spy character to be written more like Jack Bauer from 24. I can see that. At the same time, I don't think it's a detriment to a have a fun distraction from events I can do nothing about.

Roger Moore and his Bond provide that distraction and I thank him for it.

Addendum 1:
I fought this just a little bit ago. The Roger Moore Adventure Book with stories of "true life adventure." Not sure what it is exactly, but it might be the only book I'll ever need to read.

Addendum 2: I really should close out this tribute with my favorite James Bond theme...which just so happens to be from one of the Roger Moore films.

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Friday, May 19, 2017


"Every country is home to one man, and exile to another."
-T.S. Eliot

In composition studies, we have this concept called "exigency."

It's a fancy word that basically means "what makes someone write." What is that initial spark that occurs that compels a person to commit the thoughts in his or her head to written language? Exigency can range from the mundane (a grocery list) to the sublime (a literary novel). Right now, I'm considering exile as exigency in literature.

Because I feel as if I've been exiled. Why? Read here.

Back now? Good.

Turns out exile is quite the literary motivator. Without it, we might not have had The Divine Comedy. Dante was banished from Florence in the 13th Century for the duration of his life. At several turns, it must have seemed to Dante like he was "wandering through hell" and thus inspiration for The Inferno. Victor Hugo was expelled from France after tussling with Napoleon. Most of this explosive conflict was due to Hugo's passionate sense of social justice...something of which Napoleon had very little. It's all right. The banishment gave Victor Hugo time to write his triumph, Les Miserables.

Of course one can write a tremendous work about exile without actually having been exiled. It didn't happen to Milton (as far as I know), but Paradise Lost is loaded with it. From Satan's fall from Heaven ("It is far better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven!") to Adam and Eve driven from Eden, it's hard to miss the theme. Me? I have great affinity for Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. In that book, sailor Edmond Dantes is wrongly sent to prison. Just read the passage where Dantes is on a barge in shackles and realizes he's being taken to a grim, island prison. Dumas' description of the shock and despair at this realization is visceral. Even better, the story really focuses on Dantes getting out of the joint and returning to rain revenge down on those who wronged him. Dope.

I could go on with other examples both major and even minor, such as Aeneas in Carthage during The Aeneid, but if you've read ESE for any length of time, then you know I'm not entirely a traditional academic in a tweedy jacket with elbow patches. What of exile stories in America's greatest cultural achievement? What about...the comic book? I put a call out to my boys asking this very question. Here's a few of their responses:

Well, the Silver Surfer is essentially a story of exile from start to finish. He is forever expelled from his happy home, Zenn-La, and was for a time confined entirely to Earth.

My friend Jason also suggested the episode "Superman in Exile" from the original Superman TV series with George Reeves. While it's not a comic book, I will accept it as it is based on a comic book character (arguably the comic book character) and somebody had to write the script. In the episode, Superman shuts down a runaway nuclear reactor. This has the unfortunate side effect of irradiating him. To save Metropolis, Superman sends himself into self-imposed exile to the mountains of Blue Peak. Unfortunately, criminals take advantage of Superman's absence and purloin all manner of valuables from Metropolis. How can Superman return? Let's just say it's a typically cockamamie-but-fun solution involving lightning.

But my favorite example of comic book exile as proposed by the responses?

Yes, Planet Hulk. I like it conceptually if nothing else and it's not without a certain set of...parallels.

A secret cabal of characters in the Marvel Universe, including Tony Stark, Doctor Strange, and Professor X, all meet and decide that the Hulk is just too dangerous to remain on Earth any longer. They of course do not consult the Hulk in any of these proceedings. In a stomach-churning display of deceit and duplicity, they trick the Hulk into getting into a spaceship. At least "the deciders" leave him a recording in the ship to somewhat explain their motivations. This ship then takes him out of the solar system, presumably to a peaceful planet. Of course the hubris-laden minds that put this whole scheme together didn't account for what could go wrong. The spaceship goes through a wormhole and the Hulk lands on a hostile world full of alien monsters.

He ends up as a gladiator in an arena, complete with all of our Romanesque cultural expectations, e.g. sandals, a colosseum, and maybe Chuck Heston as Ben-Hur. No, more like Douglas in Spartacus for Hulk gathers ragtag allies in the gladitorial slave pens. The villagers of Sakaar, the name people of this world call their planet, begin to believe Hulk is a foretold savior, arrived by divine intention to overthrow the world's tyrant ruler, the Red King. Hulk leads a "warbound" pact of warriors and does just that. He even gets a wife and child out of the deal. It would appear that even though it came out of exile, Hulk has finally found his place in the universe and a new life of happiness.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Sakaar take the spaceship and try to turn it into a monument to their newfound savior. Unfortunately, the antimatter warp core in the ship's engine cracks as part of a self-destruct program. The ensuing explosion kills millions, including Hulk's wife. So Hulk does what any reasonable person would do in the situation. He calls together the warbound and heads for Earth to find those who expelled him to Sakaar in the first place. And hell's coming with him...

Thus begins the World War Hulk storyline. "The deciders" face the full wrath of an enraged Hulk, all while being utterly befuddled as to how anyone could think they did anything wrong. It does not end well for anyone.

Will my own exile inspire any literary creation? I have plans and I can only hope so. If you have any suggestions of what I should write or of other examples of great stories of exile, please feel free to leave a message in the comments. In the meantime, here's Iris with a little message:

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Found this art on Pinterest. If you're the artist and want credit or it taken down, hit me up.

So I'm back.

Don't know for how long, though. I certainly won't be doing daily posts.

Right now I'm thinking about crashes. And burning.

Why? Well, that all has to do with why I've been absent from the blog for so long. You see, Saint Joseph's College, my alma mater, my employer, and the life of my family for over 50 years, has closed its doors. As for the reasons why...well...Google them. It's something I shouldn't get into.

This past Saturday we held our last ever commencement. It was the finale, the coda to what has felt like a three month funeral. This has been a time of great sadness and loss for students, faculty, staff, and almost everyone in the Saint Joe family. For those of us who worked there, and I'll speak for myself anyway, it has been a time of existential terror. Where will we go? How will we survive?

I felt as if I were sitting in the strewn wreckage of a spaceship crash. You know, the kind seen all over the place in (sometimes) pulpier science fiction? A spaceship plummets to the surface of a planet and the crew members...those who survive the impact...suddenly find themselves on a strange or often inhospitable world. Dazed and wondering just what the hell happened, they try to gather themselves and whatever life-sustaining gear that can be salvaged from the wreckage. First order of business is survival, after all. I once shot a Lego movie about this. I set the tiny space guys in the backyard. They pulled out the reactor core (in real life, a glow stick) of their ship to use as a heat source. It was probably going to give them all radiation poisoning, but it was a question of dying from that or freezing to death. I found it quite existential for Lego.

I imagine any survivors would be both terrified and depressed. Their lives completely upended. Where are they? What happens next? Will they ever see their home again?

Lost in Space is a longtime example of this scenario. I also think of an alleged, "real life" illustration. I've read accounts of supposed witnesses to the Roswell UFO crash who encountered the last living, albeit badly wounded, survivor. The claim is that the alien transmitted a telepathic sense of terror and great loss, knowing that he would never see his home again. If you're not up for melancholy, you could take Chuck Heston's approach. After his ship and crew crash at the beginning of Planet of the Apes, he tells the other men, in true Heston style (I'm paraphrasing): "We're stuck here. The sooner we get our heads around that, the better off we're going to be."

There are other science fiction stories of ruin and survival of course. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood depicts a lone man who might be the last true human remaining after a bio-engineered plague gets loose. The Road, tells of a man attempting to guide his son through the wasteland that is post-apocalyptic America. They try to hold on to a glimmer of humanity because...well, just because. In the classic Dune, the family of Paul Atreides is shattered and he must go into exile in the desert wastes, only to rebuild his life among the Fremen and eventually crawl his way back.

I'm afraid I can't come up with many more science fiction examples. That may be because I mostly tend towards the cyberpunk milieu. If I'm lost in Gibson's Sprawl, then at least I have a mobile device to access navigation, search for instructions, and anything else one can find on the Web.

"Mainstream" literature is of course replete with stories of survival after ruin. Currently I'm reading Moby Dick. The ship is sunk and Ishmael is clinging to Queequeg's coffin in a dark and turbulent sea, but somehow he makes it. He also seems to keep covered a spark of his own humanity. Odysseus, lout though he could be, survived his own calamities (more than a few being self-generated) and returned home. You won't get much succor from Franz Kafka in The Metamorphosis, though. He'll tell you that life will likely cut you down. Camus might say that sure, you could survive, but will it really matter if you did?

While revered by English-types like me in glasses, plaid shirts, and carrying omnipresent coffee mugs, those latter two texts don't seem to resonate with readers as a whole. I wonder if that is because, culturally, we prefer the aforementioned grit of Chuck Heston's "just deal with it and move on" determination? Something like Nietzsche's "ubermensch." "That which does not kill us only makes us stronger." Is optimism hardwired in our DNA? Might make sense. If it weren't, if humans did not have a nigh unquenchable desire to survive despite any circumstance, we might have vanished altogether as a species. As a culture, we might abhor broken spirits and demand that "If you're going through hell, keep going."

I have a tendency to dismiss such platitudes as mere sophistry. Truthfully, I have indeed had dark thoughts these past months. Depression predisposes you to them. Why should I keep going? What is left? They've taken everything. Aren't there circumstances where survival really isn't your best option? Might this be one of them?

Given my discipline and the fact that I'm a writer, you might think I would take my comfort from great literature and I sometimes do. That is not what heartens me, though. To be truly inspired, I run back to my roots. I go to America's greatest cultural achievement: the comic book.

Green Arrow has always been one of my favorites. Oliver Queen is a young, pompous playboy with a selfish attitude. That is until he's shipwrecked on a tiny island in the middle of the vast Pacific. To survive, he is forced to teach himself the bow. He becomes an expert archer and when he returns to civilization, he vows never to be on the wrong side again. He becomes Green Arrow, vigilante against evil and defender of the less fortunate.

Then there's Batman. It's not really the same sort of story, but his is a profile in overcoming loss, of building yourself back better than before. He's been wronged and he's coming after those who commit wrong...and hell's coming with him.

Maybe both of these characters have a message for me. I'm scared, but maybe I need to go through this. Oh do I loathe those offered platitudes of "one door closes..." so on and so forth ad nauseum, but...yes, but...

I might one day look back and say I needed this. Though tragic, though deplorable, though as inscrutable as Waiting for Godot, I might one day find this situation as necessary. Anger may become a gift. It may motivate me to greater ends and somehow march me through this gauntlet. I hope so anyway. At least that's the best coping mechanism I've come up with thus far for this change.
By the way, I look pretty good with a mace.

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” --Paul Atreides, Dune

"You know you've got to go through hell before you get to heaven." --Steve Miller

That college photo is from commencement, courtesy of Susie Ferek Hayes.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets