A Good Row

Wednesday night I had a good row.

This isn’t always the case.

A good row isn’t always possible because of things outside your control—the weather, first and foremost.  You can steel yourself against heat and cold, but if the river is choppy and there’s white caps on the wakes, you’re going to spend the whole time just trying to stay upright.

Same if there’s heavy wind.

Then there’s your crew.  If you’re rowing with someone who’s significantly better than you, you might have a hard time keeping up.  With someone less experienced, you’ll have to hold back.

Sometimes it’s the boat—the oars are rigged too high, or you’ve positioned your footplate too far away.  

Then there are things within your control that can disrupt a row—maybe you had a bad day at work and you’re not able to leave it on the shoreline.  Or you’re tired, or you’re hungry, or you’re just not in the mood.

Sometimes, all the external and internal conditions are perfect, and it’s still hard.  You feel like you’re dragging the boat every damn meter, and all your adjustments make everything worse.

And then sometimes—like Wednesday night—it’s effortless.

Wednesday started off precariously—the high school rowing practice went long, forcing us to start late.  There’s always chaos when one group is coming in as another is going out. 

I’d been irritated by the normal grind of my workday, and as it had been forecasted to rain, I worried that we’d end the row soaking wet and further annoyed.  In the fray of the boat change, I’d forgotten to adjust my equipment to my height.

I’d also forgotten my water bottle.

My doubles partner Beth is at the tail end of a long recovery from shoulder surgery, so she wanted to take it easy.

That worked for me.

Then we got out on the water and everything changed.

The late summer was heavy and humid, but I didn’t feel it.  We were in near perfect sync, and we were working hard, but it didn’t feel like it.  The needed equipment adjustments didn’t matter. 

I was relaxed.  My mind was floating.  The petty cares and worries evaporated.

And yet somehow we were having one of the best rows of my life.  We kept up with bigger boats and stronger rowers.

When I realized it, I got back into my head—I started to try.

“Relax,” Beth said.  “Don’t pull.”

Don’t ruin the flow, she meant, and she was right.  We were dancing with grace, and I was about to push and ruin it.

I backed off.

I’d been about to make the simple hard.

Instead we glided into a postcard-perfect sunset.

Afterwards, I felt spent and satisfied and fulfilled.

I slept like a rock that night.

A good row is like a good day at work, or a good piece of writing, or a good conversation—undemanding instead of grinding, smooth instead of awkward, unexpectedly deeper than our normal superficial days and interactions.

I wish I could tell you exactly how we did it, but I can only say that sometimes the muse finds you.

If only you could bottle it and sell it—or make an app to call it up at will on your phone.

But until someone does, we’ve just got to recognize these moments and appreciate them when they come.

Meet John Doe (1941): The Start of the Stanwyck and Cooper Magic

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Meet John Doe (1941)

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up for the first time in 1941 to make Meet John Doe.

Though new to one another, both had experience working with director Frank Capra.  Cooper and Capra had made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.  Stanwyck and Capra had made four previous films together, and he always proclaimed Stanwyck to be his favorite actress.

The film opens when reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is fired from her job when new publisher and aspiring politician D.B. Norton buys up her newspaper and cleans house.

She sits down to her typewriter and bangs out her final column in a red hot fury—she’s got a mother and two younger sisters to support, and she’s a damn good reporter cut from the roles only to save a few bucks.

Her final column causes an outpouring of support from the paper’s readers—she’s published a letter to the editor from a mysterious John Doe, an anonymous man who vows to jump off a building to his death on Christmas Eve to protest society’s ills.  The paper is flooded with people wanting to help John Doe by giving him a job.

Her former editor drags her back into the newsroom and demands the identity of John Doe.

The only problem—there is no John Doe.  Ann made him up.

And the city’s rival newspaper is accusing them (correctly, it turns out) of fraud.

Enter Gary Cooper as Long John Willoughby, a hobo and former bush league baseball pitcher the newspaper hires to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Barbara Stanwyck sizes up Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941)

Ann writes more letters in John Doe’s name, and soon the fake John Doe is giving speeches and inspiring the nation to “love thy neighbor.”

He’s also falling in love with Ann, though he worries that she sometimes forgets that he isn’t really the idealistic John Doe she made up in her head.

Meet John Doe was the final Frank Capra film released before he went overseas on a special assignment from President Franklin Roosevelt.  He shot a series of seven war documentaries called Why We Fight used to recruit soldiers and convince the public of the necessity of war.

And yet Meet John Doe has the same mix of cynicism, hope, and despair that Capra put into It’s A Wonderful Life, which he and Jimmy Stewart made in a fog of post-war disillusionment.

As John Doe’s movement grows, the vultures start circling—politicians see potential voters in the non-political John Doe clubs, and Ann herself goes from a woman struggling to keep her family fed in the wake of her father’s death to one wearing fur coats and diamond bracelets paid for by her publisher.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)

In the final scene, Willoughby is as forlorn and disgusted as the John Doe he has spent the film pretending to be.  Politicians have corrupted his movement and he believes Ann has betrayed him.  After being exposed as a fake, the members of the John Doe clubs have rejected him and gone back to lives filled with petty fights instead of loving their neighbors.

The only way he can prove that his movement is real and good is to take the Christ-like path of dying for his message.  He climbs to the top of the roof of the tallest building in the city and prepares to jump off, just as Ann wrote in her original fake letter.

But Ann is there, pleading for a chance to start again—both their romance, and their movement.

Will John stay and fight or will he jump?

You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out.

As Meet John Doe is available for free for Amazon Prime Video subscribers in the United States, you have no excuse not to watch it tonight.

Meet John Doe (1941) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Forget the Marvel Multiverse. I Want A World Where Diana is Now Queen

I’m not an expert on the multiverse.  I do know it’s different from the metaverse, which as far as I can tell is just people running around with huge virtual reality goggles on pretending they’re at the beach when they’re actually walking down the street in a snowstorm.

Or it might be living in the internet.

I’m not sure.

But it doesn’t matter, because we’re here to talk about the multiverse, which, as best I understand, is a scientific theory that postulates that there are multiple universes.  All the various parallel universes that you could exist in live within the multiverse.

It also has something to do with the Marvel superhero movies, but we’ll leave that alone for now.

All this talk of the multiverse got me thinking as I spent the week watching the coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s death and the national mourning in Britain. 

So let’s explore some alternative universes, shall we?

Many of this week’s tributes refer to Elizabeth II as The Accidental Queen

When her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 so he could marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, the crown passed to his brother Bertie, who became King George VI (as depicted by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech).  When he died in 1952, the crown passed to his twenty-five year old daughter Elizabeth.

And thus began the longest reign in history.

If Edward VIII had not abdicated, the crown would’ve passed to his children.

But here’s the thing—he never had any.

So the ultimate result would’ve been the same—upon his death, his niece Elizabeth would’ve taken the throne.

Elizabeth II was not an Accidental Queen.  Her father was an Accidental King.  As Edward VIII outlived his brother, Bertie is the one who never would have reigned if Edward VIII had done his duty.

Edward VIII’s abdication stole two decades of freedom from Elizabeth II and Philip.  Two decades when Philip could’ve completed his military career, two decades out of the spotlight, and two decades where she could’ve given her children more attention.

In this multiverse,  Elizbeth II becomes Queen in 1972 at the age of 46 and still manages to reign for half a century. 

In the long arc of history, this is barely a blip. 

But it would’ve made quite a difference, I’d say, to Elizabeth Windsor and Philip Mountbatten.

Imagining these alterative universes in the multiverse is fun, isn’t it?

Let’s explore another.

If you were one of the 750 million people watching Charles and Diana’s wedding on July 29, 1981, surely you thought of the day we witnessed last Thursday, when Elizbeth II’s crown would pass to the next generation.  (As a lifelong royal watcher, of course I watched Charles and Diana’s wedding.  I was 35 days old, but I watched it from the crook of my mother’s arm.)

So let’s go digging around in the multiverse and pull out the universe where Charles put aside his feelings for Camilla.  Instead of forcing Diana to live in a marriage that was “a bit crowded,” he committed himself to making what was essentially an arranged marriage work.

The universe where the Queen and the rest of the family supported the young and naïve Diana, and found a way to coexist.

A universe where Charles learned to love his wife, and to be proud instead of jealous of her beauty and the world’s adoration.  A universe where things didn’t get so out of hand, where they never divorced.

A world where Diana didn’t die at 36 in a horrific car wreck at the hands of the paparazzi.

In my multiverse, the fairy tale promised that day in July 1981 comes true.

Imagine last Saturday with Charles taking the oath to become King with a still radiant sixty-one year old Diana beside her husband.

Imagine the People’s Princess becoming the People’s Queen.

No one would be calling for Charles to abdicate in a rush to get to the reign of William and Kate.

The Fab Four of William, Kate, Harry, and Meghan would’ve never ruptured—Diana simply wouldn’t have allowed it.

You may tell me there couldn’t possibly be a universe like this.

You may tell me I have no understanding of what the multiverse actually is.

You’re probably right on the first, and definitely right on the second.

But scientists say that the number of universes in the multiverse is literally “humungous.”

So why can’t Diana still be alive and married to Charles in one of them?

In that multiverse, tomorrow they will mourn Queen Elizabeth II.

Then they will turn to the future and say, “Long Live Queen Diana.”

Upcoming Events!!

I’m thrilled to announce that I will be giving 3 talks this fall/winter at the Penn Hills Library. If you missed either of my first two talks, you’ll have a chance to catch them in October and November. In December, I’m debuting brand new material.

Right now, there is no need to formally register on the Penn Hills website. I’ll update you here on the blog if that changes as we get closer to the dates.

Mark your calendars and I hope to see all of you there!


Bogart and Bacall…the Lives and Films of Hollywood’s Greatest Romance

Thursday, October 6 @ 5:30 pm

The love affair of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall  should have been doomed.  They faced a twenty-five year age gap, a jealous wife, and neither had grown up in homes with happy marriages.

Come hear the story of how Bogart and Bacall overcame every obstacle to becoming Hollywood’s greatest romance and making a fistful of iconic films in the process.  As Bacall herself rightly said, “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”


Hollywood Uncensored:  Rediscovering The Pre-Code Films of 1930-1934

Thursday, November 3 @ 5:30 pm

Many think classic films are stuffy relics of a bygone era when families ate dinner together every night.  Yet early talking films shocked audiences with their boundary-pushing depictions of violence, drinking, and sexually liberated women.  After a backlash, a code was enacted that strictly dictated Hollywood film content.  These “pre-code” films are enjoying a renaissance with modern audiences.  Come learn the history and charm of the pre-code era, and leave with a list of must-see films.


The Dueling De Havillands:  Hollywood’s Juiciest Sibling Rivalry

Thursday, December 1 @ 5:30 pm

Sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were both accomplished actresses, starring in such classics as Gone With the Wind and Rebecca.  They also had a lifelong feud.

What was fact and what was exaggerated to sell magazines?  Did Olivia rebuff Joan’s congratulations when she won an Oscar?  Did they go years without speaking after Joan made a cutting public remark about Olivia’s first husband?

And why did the 101 year old Olivia sue the 2017 series Feud over its portrayal of her relationship with her sister?

Find out in this 40 minute talk that celebrates their lives and films.

Unfortunately, “The Razor’s Edge” (1946) Is Deadly Dull

Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power
The Razor's Edge (1946)

The Razor’s Edge might have been a different film.

Legendary producer Darryl Zanuck served in both World Wars.  He enlisted as a teenager in the U.S. Army and saw European action in World War I.  By the time the second World War rolled around, Zanuck was an Oscar winning producer who could’ve gotten out of his service or at least stayed stateside, but he insisted on documenting the fighting in active war zones and making patriotic films.

When he returned, he bought the rights to W. Somerset Maugham’s penultimate novel and intended to make a prestige film about man’s search for meaning.

Zanuck originally hired George Cukor to direct, but he and Cukor disagreed on the direction of the main character.  Progress stalled, which was fine with Zanuck—he was waiting for Tyrone Power, who’d enlisted in the Marines, to return home from the war to play the leading role.

When Power came home, Cukor and Zanuck had parted ways and Cukor was engaged in another project.

Cukor—who wanted Maugham to write the screenplay—would’ve made a different film.

We’ll never know if it would’ve been a better one.

Tyrone Power plays Larry Darrell, a man with existential questions after a fellow soldier sacrifices his life to save his in World War I.  Larry wants to marry his sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), but though she loves him dearly, she wants reassurances that he will commit to adult responsibilities like an office job and having children.

He prefers to loaf—his term—around.  Eager not to lose him, Isabel agrees to delay their wedding while he travels alone to Paris to find himself.  When they reunite after a year, they’re as in love as ever but at an impasse—he wants her to live as a questing pauper with him, and she wants a husband who wears a tie to work and earns a salary high enough to buy her fine dresses and a nanny for their eventual children.

He’s content to go on as they are, but Isabel gives him an ultimatum—settle down or lose her forever.

Larry travels to India to learn from a guru, and Isabel marries a rich man.

As the film progresses—scene after never-ending scene—we watch the years unfold as Larry marches toward enlightenment while studying with mystics and doing manual labor to make enough money to survive.

Meanwhile, Isabel and those preoccupied with worldly concerns are dashed against the rocks of fate.  Isabel and her husband lose their fortune in the stock market crash of ’29, and cast their friend Sophie (Anne Baxter) out of their inner circle when she becomes an alcoholic after her husband and baby are killed in a car wreck.

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter

Look—intellectually, I get it.

Larry is essentially walking the path to sainthood—he heals the sick, cares for those less fortunate, and might as well have taken vows of poverty and chastity.

The problem is that sainthood is deadly dull.

The only time the film is remotely interesting is when a jealous Isabel bears her fangs after Larry announces he is marrying Sophie.  Even then, she has no real reason for jealousy—Larry is merely marrying Sophie to save her from her alcoholism.  As anyone who’s ever known an actual alcoholic can predict, his efforts are unsuccessful.

Gene Tierney as Isabell in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney

It’s true that Anne Baxter had a lovely Oscar-winning performance for supporting actress, and that the film garnered 3 other nominations including best picture.

It’s true that 1946 was filled with important films that grappled the trauma of coming home from war—The Best Years of Our Lives won the Oscar for best picture that year.

It’s true we should care about the plight of such people.

But for me, The Razor’s Edge doesn’t pierce the skin.

The Razor's Edge (1946) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  1. TCM Website: https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/87754/the-razors-edge#notes
  2. Darryl Zanuck Bio: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fil.067

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Twin Towers in Textbooks

The Twin Towers, New York City

The first time I saw New York’s Twin Towers in a textbook, my heart stopped.

My best friend’s kids were showing me their history textbooks for the upcoming school year, and when I flipped through to the very end, there was a brief section on 9-11 that included a photograph of the Twin Towers.  (The photograph wasn’t from 9-11; these were elementary school kids.  They didn’t show them burning or falling.)

And I looked at the kids and realized that for them, 9-11 was history.  They weren’t born 21 years ago on that violent and awful day.

They could read about it in a book, but they could never understand.

They weren’t there.

I was a junior at Penn State and watched the whole thing unfold on a movie screen in the student center, surrounded by students as dazed and confused as I was.

In the days and weeks and months that followed that moment, the world—and life itself—felt uncertain and unsettled.

“In a time of particular uncertainty…” they would say on the news.

They said the same thing during the early days of the pandemic.

But the idea of “a time of particular uncertainty” is a myth we tell ourselves, because the most cursory reading of history shows that every moment is uncertain.  And every untimely death to one close to us reminds us that no one is promised tomorrow.

Or even today.

Events like 9-11 or the pandemic throw that stark reminder right in your face and don’t allow you to look away.

I started this post by writing that Nina’s kids couldn’t understand because they read about 9-11 in a book.

But the truth is, though I lived through it live, I watched 9-11 on a television screen.  I called everyone close to me and they picked up the phone.

I could never understand.

I wasn’t there.

And what of the ones who were there, in the belly of the beast?

Who died in terror in the towers that day?  Or the ones who survived?  Or the ones in New York who watched the smoke and flames as the once tallest buildings in the world crumbled in a day.

Or the fire fighters and the police who ran toward disaster while everyone else ran away?

They were there.

Do they understand?

I don’t see how they could.

Never Forget, we say.

To me, that’s not a cry for revenge or a warning to hide under your bed from the terror of the world.

It’s a reminder that 9-11 is part of our collective American history now—as much as Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag, or the Gettysburg Address, or the assassination of JFK.

A reminder that the world is full of heroes and villains, and that every generation must fight to preserve the ideals of peace and justice against the forces of evil that live in the human heart.

So we put 9-11 in our textbooks, we mark where it happened as sacred ground, we document it in museums and grapple with it in art.

We didn’t have to be there.  We don’t have to understand.

We just have to remember.

“The Awful Truth” (1937) of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937) opening poster

The Awful Truth made Cary Grant.

Though he’d been acting in films since 1932, he was little more than an attractive plug and play leading man, indistinguishable from most of his contemporaries.

He needed a director and leading lady who could bring out his unique charm.

He found them in Leo McCarey and Irene Dunne.

McCarey was an alcoholic Irishman who barely had a script together when filming began.  Though this made Grant, Dunne, and supporting actor Ralph Bellamy anxious, it gave them great freedom to improvise in rehearsals.  They played around and tried new things, allowing Grant to refashion his training as a child acrobat into superb screwball comedy.

McCarey and the writers would figure out scenes on the fly or the night before (though perhaps the true extent of this spontaneity was exaggerated after the film became a huge success) and it makes for a light and airy film that dances from scene to scene.

Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937)
Cary Grant screwing around

Today, Irene Dunne is often referred to as the “female Cary Grant,” but it would be more accurate to call Cary Grant the “male Irene Dunne” as she was the bigger star in 1937—already a two-time Oscar nominee and a triple threat singer, actress, and comedienne.

Either way, there’s no doubt they were comedic mirror images of one another.

Two beautiful people who didn’t quite know how beautiful they were, so they relied on wit and charm instead of coasting on looks.

Both Grant and Dunne were incapable of losing their dignity on screen, no matter how screwy their characters were acting.  Their characters have a way of seeming to raise an eyebrow to the audience, letting you know you’re all in on the joke together.

Onscreen, they were a perfect match. 

The Awful Truth is the first—and best—of their three films together. 

They play Lucy and Jerry Warriner, a married couple who decides to divorce when each suspects the other—with ample evidence—of infidelity.  In the famous opening scene, Jerry is at a tanning bed, getting some manufactured sun to convince his wife he’s been in Florida.

He returns home in the early morning and doesn’t find her waiting for him—instead, she breezes in, dressed to the nines with her handsome music teacher.

Jerry’s not buying her story about a broken down car that forced them to spend the night together, and she’s not buying that he spent the week in Florida—especially when the oranges he gives her are stamped with “California.”

Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937)
Irene Dunne

So off to divorce court they go, where they fight over their dog Mr. Smith, played charmingly by Asta (who’d made doggy fame in The Thin Man and would go on to star again with Grant in Bringing Up Baby).  When the judge decides that Mr. Smith will choose who he wants to live with, Lucy cheats by tempting him with a dog toy.

Such is the state of the Warriner’s marriage—a sophisticated game of verbal tennis and constant one-upmanship.

Lucy is thrilled to be rid of Jerry.

Or is she?

In a race to prove who can get over the other first, both Lucy and Jerry find new lovers pronto.  Jerry moves from a silly dance hall girl to an heiress, but Lucy finds an Oklahoma oilman played to perfection by Ralph Bellamy.

Bellamy is a supporting actor who never got the girl or his name above the title, but greatly improved nearly every film he was in.  On paper, he’s the better man for Lucy—earnest and wealthy, she’d never have to wonder if he was really in Florida.

And the awful truth is that he bores her to tears.

Cary Grant, Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth (1937)
Grant, Dunne, and Ralph Bellamy

Soon enough, Lucy and Jerry are trying to win each other back without letting on that they care a bit.

And the awful truth is that neither one of them has changed a bit, and that the only thing worse than being together is being apart.

It’s impossible to name the greatest screwball comedy ever made—trying to rank films like The Lady Eve, My Man Godfrey, and His Girl Friday is a pointless task, but The Awful Truth is always in the conversation.

The Awful Truth is as funny and universal today as it was in 1937.  It’s got nothing in it that would offend modern audiences.  Jerry and Lucy are on even ground, formidable opponents that each give as good as they get.  It doesn’t dissolve into insanity like Godfrey or Bringing Up Baby.

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937)
Irene Dunne, Asta, Cary Grant

It’s more like a comedy of manners—imagine Jane Austen writing a screwball comedy, and you’ve got The Awful Truth.

The Awful Truth was beloved by audiences and critics alike, the rare comedy that was showered with six well-deserved Oscar nominations, including Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Best Actress (Dunne), Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Director (McCarey).

Leo McCarey was the lone winner for Best Director.

Despite their long careers, neither Dunne (5 nominations) nor Grant (2 nominations) ever won an individual Oscar.  (And criminally, Dunne was never awarded an honorary Oscar.)

Decades after they’d worked together, Cary Grant said of his co-star, “Irene Dunne’s timing was marvelous.  She was so good that she made comedy look easy.  If she’d made it look as difficult as it really is, she would have won her Oscar.” 1

The same could be said of him.

And that’s the awful truth.

The Awful Truth (1937) Verdict:  Timeless:  Watch It Tonight

Sources

  1. Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.  2020.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Bulletproof Weeks

Matt Nathanson, Carnegie Music Hall, September 1, 2022

As best I can remember, I’ve been a fan of Matt Nathanson since around 2003.  He’s an American singer-songwriter who’s got twelve studio albums and a rabid cult following, but he’s never hit mainstream radio.  This is partly by choice, as he made one album for a major label in 2003 called Beneath These Fireworks, but decided that he wanted to remain independent and retain more control over his music.

If you know him at all, it’s likely because of the country duo Sugarland.  They covered his song “Come on Get Higher” on their 2008 album Love on the Inside.  Two years later they recorded the duet “Run” that appeared on Nathanson’s Modern Love album.  Sugarland and Matt Nathanson sang it live at the 2010 CMA Awards.

I’ve seen Nathanson half a dozen times over the years, starting at the now defunct Rex Theater in Pittsburgh, a casualty of the pandemic.  He’s energetic and puts his heart and soul into every performance.

But this is the story of the song he wouldn’t sing. 

In 2008 he recorded a song called “Bulletproof Weeks” on his Some Mad Hope album.  It’s a breakup song—the kind of breakup that leaves scars that never quite heal.  I know I saw him tour Some Mad Hope, and I can’t remember if he sang “Bulletproof Weeks” back in 2008.

But by 2015, he was touring his new album Show Me Your Fangs, and he when he solicited requests from the audience, someone called out “Bulletproof Weeks.”

It’s a great song, and I wanted to hear it.  But he got a look on his face, and he said quite candidly that he didn’t sing that song anymore because it was too painful.

And so we all moved on, and I figured I’d never hear “Bulletproof Weeks” live again.

But there’s a final plot twist.  In my first concert since the pandemic, I saw Matt Nathanson last Thursday night at the Homestead Carnegie Library and Music Hall, the same venue I saw him when he declined to sing “Bulletproof Weeks.”

It was a tour that was celebrating the 15th anniversary of Some Mad Hope.  He told the story of each song on the album as he sang them.  The album was primarily the true life retelling of a torrid affair he had in 2005 that ended badly and nearly wrecked his marriage.

He said that back then he was a narcissist and an asshole, and believed he couldn’t change.

“But that was a long time ago,” he said. 

And then he played “Bulletproof Weeks.”

As best I can tell (since he’s quite private about his personal life on the internet) he’s still married to the same woman and they now have a twelve-year old daughter.

He changed when he thought he couldn’t, his wife forgave when she probably thought she couldn’t, and I heard a song live I never thought I’d hear again.

When does a story end?  How does it end?  Are you at the end?

You just never know.

Blinker and the White Noise Machine

In happier times…

Last week I read that white noise machines are they key to restful sleep.  The author was spouting off all the conventional sleep hygiene advice—consistent bedtime, black out curtains, and lowering the temperature.

The white noise machine is also conventional advice, but this guy was all in on it, boldly proclaiming that you “weren’t even trying” to get good sleep if you didn’t use one, and ordering everyone to try it that very night.1

I’m lucky that as a general rule I don’t have trouble sleeping (the book was actually about writing, and went off on this tangent into the importance of sleep) but he convinced me to give it a try.

That night I carried my Alexa into the bedroom and told her to play a sound labeled “rain on a tent”—not technically white noise, but I always sleep best when it’s raining.  As soon as the sound came on, Blinker’s ears pinned back as she looked around in terror. 

She raced from the room.

I figured she’d be back.  I’ve had Blinker since December 2017, and every night since then she’s slept in bed with me, usually right on my chest.

No doubt she’d get used to the unfamiliar noise and come back into the room.  After all, she’s heard real rain before.

As for me, the rain sounds worked brilliantly—at first.  I was completely out in minutes.

But I was restless—and a few hours later, I woke up with the feeling something was wrong.  I glanced over at the clock—3 a.m.

The fake rain was still raining.  The room was nice and cool.  The pillows were soft.

Everything was perfect.

But no Blinker.

I got up and searched for her.  I found her downstairs all huddled up in the corner of the living room.  When she saw me, she slinked out and started a pathetic little cry.

I didn’t need to speak cat to know she was asking me why I let the monster sound chase her from the bedroom.  I tried to get her to come upstairs, but she wouldn’t budge.

Instead, I returned and turned off the rain maker.  I went back to look for her, but she met me halfway up the stairs, a little bounce in her step.  She peered around the room, and when she was assured the monster making the noise had been banished, she jumped up on the bed.

Peace restored…

I laid back down with no rain, no white noise, just a kitty who climbed on me like always and purred and purred and purred with gratitude over the restoration of our routine.

Together again.

We both slept like babies.

We will never speak of the white noise machine again.

1For those wondering, the book in question was “Someday is Today” by Matthew Dicks.

The Bachelorette Could Learn A Thing From “Ex-Lady” (1933)

Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933
Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933

The thrill of Ex-Lady (1933) is watching twenty-five year old platinum blonde Bette Davis in her first starring role honing what would become her trademarks—smoking her way through every scene, an insolent hip first walk, and a stare as fatal as any death ray.

Ex-Lady would’ve been impossible to make just two years later, when Hollywood began censoring the subject matter of its films.  There’s no on-screen sex or violence in Ex-Lady, of course, but it’s a subversive film nonetheless in its wry take on marriage.

Davis plays Helen Bauer, a commercial artist who has no problem letting her boyfriend Don (Gene Raymond) stay the night without putting a ring on it.

In fact, she insists that he doesn’t.

It’s not because she doesn’t love him.

It’s because she doesn’t want to be a wife.

Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933

In the beginning, Helen’s independence was a turn-on for Don.  If she’d hinted at marriage when they first got together, he’d have gone screaming in the other direction.

But hard to get has always been a winning strategy, and he’s ready to settle down.

Too bad it was never a strategy for Helen—and she’s not ready.

When he insists, Helen explains, “I don’t want babies.  When I’m forty, I’ll think of babies.  In the meantime there are twenty years in which I want to be the baby and play with my toys and have a good time playing with them.”

By toys, she means her career, and parties, and picking out her own furniture without having to please anyone else.

Marriage, to Helen, means compromise.  And she’s not ready to do that.

She sees marriage as dull, and believes that once she becomes a wife, the romance will die.

But Don wears her down.

She marries him—and that’s when the trouble starts.

Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933

When she has a career triumph while his is floundering, he resents her.  And it turns out marriage is rather dull for Helen—she still wants to go out, and Don wants to stay home and read the paper. 

Then Don gets a wandering eye, and Helen stays up all night waiting for him to come home.  When he does, she demands to know where he’s been.

Then the horror hits her—she’s become a nagging, jealous, scolding wife.  The one thing she never wanted to be.

Bette Davis smoking in bed in Ex-Lady 1933

To Helen’s mind, the only solution is for them to live separately.  Continue dating, but see other people as they wish.  Don agrees, but both are miserable with the situation—but too stubborn to admit it.  Through it all, their love for one another shines through—Davis and Raymond have a nice chemistry that never fades throughout their arguing and teasing.

Marriage—can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

The film showcases all the delights of the pre-code era—boundary-pushing, a sexy undertone, and a brisk pace.

As 67 minutes, Ex-Lady takes half the time of a bloated episode of The Bachelorette.

And it’s a hell of a lot more modern.

Ex-Lady 1933 Verdict:  Timeless:  Watch It Tonight

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Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933