Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fondly Remembering Giving Up Things For Lent

First appeared on Blogcritics.


fish1 Christians across the world go to church marking Palm Sunday to celebrate Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem to a heroic welcome and the start of Holy Week. It is the most important and holiest week of the year for Christians, and it is one of solemnity and glory. It also marks the final week of “giving up” things, with Good Friday being the last day of abstinence and fasting (the first is Ash Wednesday which begins the Lenten season). During this time Christians go without certain things to honor the memory of Jesus and his time spent in the wilderness fasting and praying.


fish2

As a child I was always compelled to give up the obvious things – candy, cookies, and other treats. I also vividly recall that we did without meat on Fridays, and this was never seen as something negative in my house. In those days Mom would pick us up from school on Friday afternoons and we would go directly to the local fish store, where we would usually wait in line to pick up the makings of that evening’s dinner.

Sadly, I cannot even find a “fish store” in my neighborhood anymore. These days if I want the kind of attention (as to type of fish, weight, or cooking instructions) my mother got years ago, I will have to go to my big supermarket, wait on line at the fish counter, and hope I get someone who knows what he/she is doing. In my store there is also an adjacent sushi counter, where a Japanese chef seems to be always slicing and dicing things and serving people (I don’t eat sushi or anything else that is not thoroughly cooked).

My children have no idea what a fish store is, nor do they have experience with going to a butcher (also sadly gone), or a local drug store (unless you count CVS or Rite Aid as something “local”). These things are as foreign to them as a phone booth or a Sony Walkman, but then I digress.

I used to look forward to going to the fish store with Mom. While waiting on line, I gawked at all these huge fish hanging from hooks coming down from the ceiling. The sign “fresh caught” in the window always made me think that those men in white blood-splattered aprons went out on some boat, fought and caught these huge monsters, and brought them in for display. Also the counter was high and set atop large glass tanks filled with ice and fish, their eyes seemingly magnified as they were pressed up against the glass and ready to be in Mom’s frying pan that night. Then there was the smell of the place – it seemed as if I had walked onto a fisherman’s wharf or a fishing boat. Also, there always were the fish being fried that were sizzling on the stoves off to the side of the counter that added to the odd fecund aroma of the place.

These days we have been having fish on Fridays – and my kids are not as fond of it as I was. They don’t like the “smell” or the odor that lingers in the house after cooking. I have stumbled upon frozen fish sticks as the best thing for them – apparently if I tell them that they are eating chicken fingers and provide copious amounts of ketchup, they don’t know the difference.

My kids have been good about giving up other things though. They have given up toys, electronics, and sweets in various combinations over the weeks of Lent. They have also been ready to do extra chores like folding wash, vacuuming, and dusting. They do understand why they are doing it, and there is a feeling of satisfaction that they are not only giving things up because they’re supposed to but because they want to do it.

Lent is something like a second chance at all those New Year’s resolutions. All the things we promised to give up on January 1st – and were back to indulging in by January 2nd – are out there to be revisited. This year I gave up my most favorite and delicious indulgence – ice cream. Not having it all these weeks has made me realize that I don’t have to go back to eating it on Easter Sunday or perhaps ever again, but I probably will because passing any Carvel store has induced hunger pangs and memories of old Tom Carvel saying, “Cookie Pus” in his TV commercials.

I remember other kids complaining about Lent years ago, about not liking fish or giving up sweets, but I never felt that way. As I have gotten older I have appreciated Lent more each year because it reminds me that there are so many who do without all year long, and that it is a way of remembering. It also is a good thing for my children to recognize how it feels not to have something they like and understand that there are people all over the world who are hungry, thirsty, and in need all the time. This makes the idea of almsgiving necessary and compelling not just 40 days a year but all year long – my daughter will volunteer at the local senior citizen’s center every Sunday to accomplish this.

fish3As Lent ends there is the joy that Easter brings, but there is also the memory of what we have done in the 40 previous days. I know my kids will happily go back to their iPods and iPads, not miss in any way folding laundry or vacuuming, and long for a fish-free odor in our kitchen. But having grown used to fish on Friday, I’m not certain that I want to relinquish that weekly meal that brings back great memories of long ago in that fish store holding Mom’s hand and imagining the exploits of those men who bravely brought that dinner to our table. I think I want to hold on to that for a while longer at least.

  Photo credits: the-works.net, salemquincy .org, zekosgrill.com

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Flash Fiction: Lazarus of the Four Days

First appeared on Blogcritics.

laz-1“I am an old man now,” he thinks as he stares out at the Bay of Larnaca, remembering when he died 30 years before.

“Bishop,” asks a young woman, “are you okay?” Lazarus turns to her, his face framed by Cape Kiti and the turquoise sea beneath it.

“Yes, my dear.” She is holding the hand of a young boy with eyes as blue as the sky above. The child’s eyes remind him of his friend, the one who raised him from the dead.

“Go on now,” the old man says, “I’m fine.” As the woman and the boy depart, Lazarus glances at the Salt Lake and remembers the old woman who denied him grapes on a hot day. He cursed the lake behind her and turned its fresh water to salt, and Lazarus always regrets this one angry moment.

He walks down to the village and sees the fishing boats coming in from the sea. He recalls Paul and Barnabas visiting him once long ago, declaring him Bishop of Kition with much fanfare. Lazarus still does not feel worthy of this title, but he has healed people both physically and spiritually, or so they tell him.

He goes into his humble house, shutting the door and hooking it to prevent unwanted visitors from entering. There is always someone seeking his company, but more than anything they want to know his secrets, but there are none – except for those four days when he had died and been in the world of the dead.

Lazarus looks at old trinkets on his desk, ones that remind him of his sisters Martha and Mary. When he saw Paul and Barnabas they told him that his sisters remained in Bethany, with no one bothering them. That was long ago and he wonders if they are still alive. He has often thought about going back to his home town, but there is the memory of the reason why he left – their enemies wanted to kill him as they did Jesus.

He shivers as he thinks of the day Jesus died on the cross. He had already been pursued by Roman soldiers and the Temple Guard since the day Jesus brought him back from dead, and John had taken him to a safe house where he could wait for a time without fear. In this small dark place his sisters came to see him one last time. 

Jesus was arrested last night,” Martha said. Mary fought back tears. 

“Today he was condemned to death by Pilate.” 

Lazarus shook with anger. “But they can’t; he is the Christ!” 

Despite the dangers outside, the three siblings raced to the scene of the crucifixion, but Martha and Mary prevailed upon Lazarus to stay secluded in the distance behind trees. They proceeded forth and stood with John and Jesus’s mother Mary, wailing as Jesus died on the cross. 

Lazarus cried silent tears as he fell down against a tree, but suddenly he had an awakening. He thought, “If he could raise me from the dead, he can raise himself too!” 

He didn’t stay in Jerusalem to see that happen. The day after Jesus died his sisters arranged passage to the sea, where he boarded a ship that took him on the first and last voyage of his life. He would learn of Jesus’s resurrection from a traveler long after he arrived, falling on the rocky beach and screaming to the heavens in joy.

After making some tea, Lazarus answers a knock at the door. It is a stranger dressed in dark robes. “I need to speak to you, Bishop. I am in great need.” Lazarus invites him in and offers him tea. They sit at a simple table, the cups of tea steaming between them. “Where are you from, stranger?”

laz-3The man stares down at his cup. “Some say that you once died and came back to life.”

Lazarus nodded. “Yes.”

“They say you were raised from the dead by Jesus of Nazareth.” 

“Yes, everyone here in Kition knows my tale.”

“And it is said that you never smile, never laugh, never enjoy these precious days given to you by your friend? If that is true it saddens me.”

“But it is true in only that I knew something from the other side, something I still cannot fathom or reconcile in my mind.”

The man lifts his head and removes the dark veil from his face. “You have had 30 years to do this, but you could not comprehend the great gift.”

Lazarus sips his tea. “I am grateful for what I could do for others, building his church here and spreading his word. That is as it was meant to be.”

“Yes, but should you not have enjoyed life more fully, as God your father intended?”

“Perhaps, perhaps I should have smiled at the children, should have danced at weddings, enjoyed more fruit of the vine, and embraced life more.”

“In my name, if nothing else, old friend.” Lazarus tries to focus his old eyes, and then recognizes Jesus sitting there before him. He drops to his old knees, clasping hands together, crying as he screams, “Please forgive me, Lord.”

laz-2Jesus lifts him without moving from the chair, and Lazarus is sitting again at the table and shaking. “Your good works here in Kition are many, and you have done well with your ministry for others, old friend. I just wish you had done more for yourself.”

“You went down there among the dead, my Lord. You know what I saw!” 

Jesus rises from the chair. “All the more reason to embrace life.”

“Now, it’s too late for me.”

“Rise, Lazarus, and this time come forth with me.”

“But where are we going, my Lord?”

“We will celebrate in Paradise.” Jesus holds his hand and Lazarus rises, leaving his old frail body behind. 

*

 When the villagers found their beloved Bishop Lazarus the next day, it was said by all that he had died with a smile on his face.

  Photo credits: wikiart.org, stspress.com, suitqaisdiaries.com   

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Flash Fiction: Nothing to Kill or Die For

First appeared on Blogcritics.

nothing 2 They left the elevator and walked silently in the hush of the hallway. Once inside the spacious rooms of the apartment, she kept looking around and he asked, “Something wrong?”

“No,” she said raising her eyebrows, “but you really live here?”

“Yeah.”

She went to the fireplace and stared at pictures of a young blond boy on the mantel. “This you?”

nothing 1He pulled off his hoodie and removed the Guy Fawkes mask, revealing darker hair and more matured facial features. “Yeah, I’m Rich.”

She laughed. “That’s obvious.”

“No, that’s my name.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Fitting! I’m Abbie.”

“I’m surprised that you walked here from Columbus Circle with me wearing the mask.”

“I liked your voice,” she giggled.

“Uh, thanks.”

“But why’d the doorman let you in like that?”

“He knows me well,” Rich said. “He also saw me wearing it earlier today.”

Abbie walked to the window and looked out over the autumn scene in Central Park. “Any parental units around?”

Rich fell onto a large leather sofa and kicked off his sneakers. “No. Dad’s in London on business and Mom’s in Fiji. They’re divorced, of course.”

“Right. Well, my Mom’s in Queens and Dad’s in Coney Island – also divorced!”

“Ah, we have something in common then,” Rich said.

Abbie unzipped her jacket separating the peace sign woven on it and sat on a plush red chair. “So, why were you at the protest?”

Rich looked up at the ceiling. “I go because of my friends.”

“Friends who live here?”

“No from school – Harcourt Hall!” 

“Holy crap!” Abbie said standing up. “I go to a public high school.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Look, I thought we were kindred spirits.”

Rich stood up and touched her arm. “When we were walking into the building, you didn’t think I lived here, huh?”

“I was just along for the ride!”

Rich took her hand and they walked into a lavish room with a large mahogany bar and chandeliers. “This is where we entertain – correct that, where my parental units entertain.”

“I thought they were divorced. “

“Yes, but for appearances they do lots of events together. It’s all phony and everyone knows it but doesn’t care.”

Abbie ran her finger along the bar. “Look, I live in a small apartment in Ridgewood with my mother. This is way out of my league.”

Rich laughed. “What league? Hey, we’re on the same team, Abbie.”

She flipped her long red hair over her shoulder and stared at him. “Why were you really there today?”

He turned away from her and walked toward the window. “My friends and I go because we’re not necessarily okay with everything our parents do.”

“But you’re okay living here?”

He turned to her. “Yeah, I guess. Why were you there today?”

Abbie stared at him with stern green eyes. “I want to change the world.”

Rich’s face glowed. “Hey, I want to show you something.” She followed him down a long hallway into his bedroom. There were Alien, Predator, Halloween, V for Vendetta, and Saw movie posters on the walls. 

“You’re into some weird stuff, huh?” she asked, noticing various horror action figures gracing several shelves.

“I guess. What do you have – One Direction and 5SOS posters in your room?”

“Seriously?” She bent her head to one side. “Are you on drugs?” 

“No, but I could use a beer. Want one?”

“I’m 15, Rich.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t drink. How old are you?”

“I’m 16 and don’t drink much either.”

“Right, I hear Harcourt guys like to party.”

nothing 3“All lies, but hey, I want to show something.” He directed her attention to a large painting of a man playing a white piano.

“Who is that?”

“Lennon.”

Abbie crinkled her nose. “The Russian Revolution guy?”

“No, John Lennon.”

“Oh, yeah, that Beatle guy who’s working with Kanye West, right?”

Rich walked toward her. “No, that’s McCartney, another ex-Beatle.”

“Oh, yeah, I hear grandma talking about them.”

He touched her arm. “He composed a great song called ‘Revolution’ and it tells about changing the world.” 

“Oh, yeah?” her eyes brightened.

“Yes. Also, this painting was inspired by a picture of him singing his song ‘Imagine’ and that’s about living in peace.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But how can you have a revolution and peace too?”

Rich sighed. “I don’t know, but he also sang ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and stuff like that.”

Abbie glanced up at the picture. “Sounds like a complicated guy.” He led her over to his extensive state-of-the-art media center and her eyes opened wide. “This is amazing! I have to share an ancient laptop with Mom.”

He touched a button and “Imagine” started playing. She leaned her head on his shoulder and listened to it with her eyes closed. He put his arm around her and rested his cheek on top of her head. When the song was over they didn’t move but stood there silently swaying for a moment. Finally he whispered, “What do you think?”

She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “It says everything.”

“Right outside here one night, someone shot and killed Lennon.”

“Oh, no,” Abbie said, crying some more.

“I think that’s why I feel a connection to him. He lived in this building too.”

“Oh, wow!” She wiped the tears from her red cheeks with the backs of her hands. A buzzing noise came from her jacket pocket, and she took out her phone. “Mom’s texting me. I have to get home.”

“I’ll walk you to the subway.”

nothing 4 *

They went outside and across the street to Central Park. “Let’s sit here for a minute,” Abbie said.

They sat on the wall and looked out over the park. He extended his hand and she held it. Despite the sounds of the city behind them, leaves fell from trees and people walked along oblivious to the noise. “Nice and peaceful here. Nothing to kill or die for, right?”

She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Yeah, maybe.”

Photo credits: rarelee.com, panoramio.com, eil.com,tuningpp.com

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Tommy John Surgery – Three Words No MLB Pitcher Wants to Hear

First appeared on Blogcritics.

tj2 Back in 1974 when Los Angeles pitcher Tommy John had a 13-3 record before hurting his elbow, who could have guessed that the surgery Dr. Frank Jobe performed on him would save his career? More importantly, this surgery, which repairs the ulnar collateral ligament in the medial elbow by replacing it with a tendon from another part of the patient’s body, has gone on to be performed on numerous college and professional athletes and has saved many careers.

With the down time after the surgery usually taking at least a year, Tommy John surgery has become a thing that pitchers wish they never have to consider. Those words alone send shivers through the spines of fans, managers, and team owners, especially when connected to key pitchers upon whom a team has invested many dollars and hopes of success in that season.

According to MLB.com, 15-20 MLB pitchers undergo the procedure each year; however, a survey suggested that numbers are even higher – with “25% of MLB pitchers and 15% of minor league pitchers” undergoing Tommy John surgery during their careers. Recently it was announced that Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers would undergo the procedure, effectively ending his season. New York Mets pitcher Josh Edgin is reportedly deciding whether to take time off or have the surgery, and Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees, who has a slight tear in his elbow, has decided to move forward and pitch anyway after resting and nurturing the elbow all winter.

tj1Just yesterday another Mets pitcher, Zack Wheeler complained of “tendinitis” in his elbow, but the team is downplaying it by saying Wheeler has experienced this condition throughout his career and that it is nothing of concern to them. Believe that one and I’d like to show you several bridges over the East River for sale. The overriding question is not whether or not a pitcher should get this surgery, but rather why have so many pitchers reached the point where they even have to consider it? MLB provides an answer of sorts on its website:
There are a number of factors that contribute to the likelihood of having Tommy John surgery or another arm injury. The single most important factor is daily, weekly and annual overuse. Other factors include lack of rest, pitching while fatigued, poor mechanics, playing catcher when not pitching and playing on multiple teams at the same time. There are also certain behaviors which may increase your likelihood of an arm injury, including throwing curveballs and sliders, pitching multiple days in a row and throwing at maximum effort.
Back when an injury cut Tommy John's 1974 season short, pitchers worked differently than they do today. Many starters were in a four-man rotation, which would mean approximately 40 starts per year. In those days pitchers were being charted (as to pitches thrown, etc.), but no one was pulling John or Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton out of a game because he reached a 100-pitch-count. Relief pitchers may have been called upon every day, and perhaps both games of a doubleheader if necessary, and in general less pitchers seemed to be getting hurt in those days.

Today managers are quickly out to the mound once a pitcher reaches 100 pitches. With a guy like recently returned from Tommy John surgery Matt Harvey of the New York Mets, his manager Terry Collins has been watching each pitch and no doubt saying a novena. On the other side of town, Yankees manager Joe Girardi is probably praying too and holding his breath each time Tanaka lets the ball go. So in this world of more coddled pitchers – pitch counts, innings limits for a season, and five-man rotations – why does it seem like more pitchers are getting hurt?

Can we believe the MLB explanation, or is it the coddling itself that may be part of the problem? An old friend (who is an even older Brooklyn Dodger fan and now a Mets fan) lays blame not only on the coddling but the type of pitches the pitchers are throwing. He notes that the split-finger fastball is the worst thing that a pitcher could ever throw.

He and I are no experts, but an article in USA Today lays the blame on velocity; too many pitchers are throwing as hard as they can on every pitch or almost every pitch. Perhaps the radar gun is the worst thing that has happened to baseball in the last twenty years. In Matt Harvey’s second start of spring training, people voiced concern because his pitches were around 93 mph, when in his first start they were closer to 99. Trying to hit the highest number is probably the best way to blow out an arm.

Dr. James Andrew and Dr. Glenn Feisig of American Sports Medicine Institute (who perform the Tommy John surgery) basically agree and give this advice to pitchers for avoiding the procedure:
Do not always pitch with 100% effort. The best professional pitchers pitch with a range of ball velocity, good ball movement, good control, and consistent mechanics among their pitches. The professional pitcher’s objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun.
Seems like a sound approach, yet apparently pitchers are not listening as they try to make their mark, get their teams wins, and perhaps achieve personal goals in strikeouts and victories. Whatever the case, pitchers are getting hurt at an alarming rate. One might hesitate to call it an epidemic, but the news each day seems to involve some pitcher coming up with a sore elbow or arm.

Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver has an idea of how pitchers can avoid injuries – pitch more. He notes that back in his day three hundred innings a season were not unusual and no one was counting his pitches. The way they conditioned their arms back then was the old fashioned way – they pitched.

tj3Whatever your feelings about the situation, pitchers are going down for the count now and it is alarming. We will have to wait to see how many pitchers will get hurt this season even though they are under the watchful eyes of managers and pitching coaches. As fans we want to see healthy pitchers, and while strikeouts and velocity are exciting, there has to be a balance that provides an opportunity for that pitcher to get back out there for the next start.

No pitcher wants to hear the words “Tommy John surgery” and the long recovery time it entails. It may have saved hundreds of players’ careers over the years, but it is also something that maybe can be avoided if things change. My feeling is let’s get rid of the radar gun, pitch counts, and innings limits and find a way to get pitchers healthy and doing what they do best – pitching!


  Photo credits: nydailynews, getty images, flickr.com 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Missing Flight MH370 – The Mystery Continues But the Story Remains Personal

First appeared on Blogcritics.

mh4 On the one year anniversary of the missing flight MH370, there is much talk about the “mystery” surrounding its disappearance. A newly released report by investigators does little to clear up the many questions surrounding the Malaysia Airlines jet’s disappearance. In fact, besides the revelation that one of the two black box batteries had not been replaced before the flight, there is little that offers any clues as to why the plane disappeared.


One of the biggest questions has always been about the captain and crew. The report puts to rest any skeletons in the closet regarding this aspect of the mystery.
"There were no behavioral signs of social isolation, change in habits or interest, self-neglect, drug or alcohol abuse of the captain, first officer and the cabin crew."
The report goes on specifically regarding MH370's captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
"The captain's ability to handle stress at work and home was good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict or family stresses."
So, the smoking gun in this report would seem to be the battery never being replaced. The report says,
“The battery of the underwater locator beacon on MH370's flight data recorder expired more than a year before the plane's disappearance.”

mh3 If this is indeed a smoking gun, it is low caliber at best. There is a possibility that even without the battery’s replacement that the battery may have still been functional; additionally, the battery in the other “black box” on board (the cockpit voice recorder) had been replaced as scheduled and was presumed functional. Of course, all the reports in the world are basically nothing more than salt in the wounds to family and friends who have been waiting a year now for concrete answers.


Despite all the official proclamations and media coverage, this story is a deeply personal one. The people who await answers are struggling with this new report and all the other things that bombard them as the media picks up this story again on the anniversary of the plane’s disappearance.

mh5Offering little solace to the victims’ grieving loved ones, there have been many theories regarding the plane’s disappearance. Many of these have been heard before, but the standard one that seems mostly accepted by many investigators is that the plane went south out over the Indian Ocean where it ran out of fuel and then crashed into the sea. One of the problems with this theory is the lack of debris. You would think at least one seat cushion or one life vest would have been found. With a tremendously large jet such as this, it is almost inconceivable that there would be not a shred of evidence from the plane (as has been the case in many other plane crashes at sea).

The most bizarre of these theories (and believed by a small percentage of the public) is that aliens abducted the plane. This has to be the most incongruous and insulting to the loved ones awaiting word on the victims; however, some of the other theories are no less worrisome and this includes the plane being taken over and flown to a remote location by terrorists with nefarious purposes for the jet or that this plane was the one that actually was shot down over the Ukraine (and not MH17 as was widely reported).

mh2None of this speculation does anything to help the grieving loved ones. These are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, husbands, children, domestic partners, or friends who have waited a year and have heard nothing tangible from officials. Admittedly, that is a vast ocean out there and extremely deep waters, and searchers have an overwhelming task looking for the proverbial needle – not in one haystack but more like a field of haystacks.

The prospect of finding something after all this time remains dim and, as the theorists keep stirring the pot, it will no doubt only exacerbate the pain and anguish of the loved ones. They keep waiting for an answer that never comes, and some of them still hold out hope for finding survivors. No matter how futile this seems, faith and love coalesce to do things to one’s heart and mind. Of course, there is an inescapable truth that they cite that keeps them hoping – as long as there are no bodies, no wreckage, and no evidence, there is a slim chance that some of the passengers could have survived.

mh1When I think about this missing plane it always reminds me of the TV series Lost – a show about a plane that went down with some of its passengers surviving on a deserted Pacific island. Maybe the grieving loved ones are thinking about this as well, and we on the outside might call it crazy or wishful thinking; however, love has nothing to do with facts and figures and more to do with the notion that where there is nothing to the contrary one has hope.

Over the past year I kept thinking some debris would be found somewhere. I kept hoping that it would wash ashore on Australia’s west coast and that it would give these people closure. That has not happened yet and, since this is not a TV series but a reality beyond someone’s worse nightmare, the pain for these people will continue. We can only hope that investigators find something soon in that vast deep ocean,  but for now the mystery continues.

  Photo credits: epa, getty images, corbis, express.co.uk, wikipedia   

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Dies – Now Off to That Undiscovered Country

First appeared on Blogcritics.

spock 2 Sometimes when you hear of a famous person dying, it is like turning another page in your life; however, when I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s passing away, it felt like the closing of an entire book.

Growing up watching the original Star Trek series, it was impossible not to be affected by the weekly mission to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Though the voice over is done by Captain Kirk (as memorably played by William Shatner), there is also the feeling that the final frontier came into our living rooms courtesy of the green-blooded half-human Vulcan named Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who somehow managed to make “alien” a positive word. 

Spock’s logical but amiable alien nature certainly opened viewers up to the notion that all beings from outer space were not out to destroy us (as in War of the Worlds) replace us (as in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers), or give us a dire warning (as in The Day the Earth Stood Still). The character of Spock required viewers to reassess all pre-conceived notions – such as pointed ears were a sign of evil and someone from another planet was a dangerous alien. Credit Nimoy’s portrayal as one that imbued the character with wry humor (a raised eyebrow alone would be negative commentary on something a human did), acerbic wit, and a grudging pinch of humanity thanks to the blood of his human mother.

Many of us fondly remember Spock’s hand signal (index and middle finger spread apart from ring finger and pinky) and the words associated with it: “Live Long and Prosper.” They seem like a mantra now, not just for his character but also for the entire series. The promotion of harmony among all beings – not just humans on earth but all creatures across the galaxy – struck a nerve with young people like me who were coming of age and feared a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Star Trek jumped forward to the 23rd century when Earth was an integral part of the Federation of Planets. All beings within the federation worked for a common cause and co-existed peacefully with some of them living and working together on ships that crossed the quadrants of space. To be sure there were always those surly Klingons, Romulans, and other belligerent races ready to cross the neutral zone and start up a confrontation (anyone thinking that sounds like the Cold War is right), but those conflicts qualified the importance of tolerance and working cooperatively for the common good of all planets.

A vibrant cast of characters existed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, especially the skipper played with gusto by Shatner. It is hard to imagine a more easy to imitate characterization (usually for laughs), but I wanted to be Kirk anyway because he was the focus of the show, the guy who got the glory and usually the girl. However, looking back on it now I think I also wanted to be Kirk because he had the indispensable Mr. Spock by his side. With such a great friend and colleague, Kirk seemed fortunate indeed.

spock 1There were the other diverse characters: Dr. “Bones” McCoy (played with panache by DeForest Kelley), chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), the all business but beautiful Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the Russian Ensign Chekhov (Walter Koenig ), Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), and the Chinese helmsman Sulu (George Takei). These main characters were joined week after week by many other characters from distant planets and galaxies, and it became so commonplace that as a kid I took for granted that in the future all would be as uncomplicated and peaceful as series creator Gene Roddenberry showed us in the Star Trek universe.

Unfortunately, the original Star Trek series only lasted three seasons, but through all those episodes we were left with a lasting impression regarding race, gender, equity, and power. Kirk and company were not free to just blast away aliens and planets – the Prime Directive kept them in check every time. If Kirk contemplated stepping out of bounds, Spock was always there to reel him in before he did too much damage.

A situation often utilized in the series involved Kirk “beaming down” to a planet and leaving Spock in charge. If you were the captain of any ship, you would want someone as capable, dependable, and loyal as Spock to take over whilst you were away. Spock’s logic kept things clear and by the book, but Kirk’s impetuousness also was seen as the human element that made him a better leader overall.

Spock’s nature as half-human and half Vulcan always tortured him as much as it helped him to understand the shenanigans of the humans he observed. When someone got emotional and Spock’s eyebrow would arch and he would utter “Fascinating,” well there was probably not a better reaction that could have summed up the proceedings. Spock at times seemed the outsider looking in at humans, but the fact that he was part human would be revealed in subtle ways, such as his happiness (and revealing smile) when he discovered Kirk had not died in one episode.

Spock would live on after the series in Star Trek movies, and Nimoy would also direct two of them and other films, including the seemingly incongruous but very funny Three Men and a Baby, and Nimoy also became known as a serious photographer, but Spock would hover over him throughout his life and as he got older Nimoy not only accepted his alter ego but embraced it. Perhaps one of the hardest moments to take for true fans was when Mr. Spock died at the end of the second movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, giving up his life to save Kirk and crew. The first time around the scene was extremely hard to handle because it felt like we lost a friend, but even in subsequent movies after Spock was resurrected there was no way to forget that loss of someone who more than anything remained a friend to the end to Kirk (and all the fans who were watching).

Now Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock are off to find that undiscovered country, or as Kirk once said when asked what course they should take, “Out there!” Space may be the place where heaven is or where God resides, but it is also a state of mind that leads the human consciousness to contemplate not just what it can see but what it can imagine in infinite wonder. Nimoy’s Mr. Spock has inspired generations to be logical but within reasons, to be loyal to those we call friends, and to wish people well with a greeting of “Live Long and Prosper.” Now that Nimoy is gone he leaves behind the image of Spock with his hand signal, a reminder that there is not just what we know out there in the universe but stuff beyond what we have ever dreamt could be.

spock 3When summing up Nimoy’s life, perhaps his old cast mate George Takei said it best: “Leonard played an alien, but he was the most human individual I ever met.”

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy and know that Mr. Spock will “Live Long and Prosper” in the minds of your fans now and forevermore thanks to your indelible portrayal.


  Photo credits: corbis kipa, startrek.com, wikipedia   

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Movie Review: Birdman – What Happens When a Faded Movie Star Does Broadway?

First appeared on Blogcritics.


bird1 The film Birdman has the “feel” of heft to it – it seems as if you are expected to associate gravitas to the proceedings basically from the first few seconds. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is a middle aged actor known for playing super hero Birdman in a blockbuster film and its sequels (the obvious reference to Keaton’s turns as Batman). Now he is having an existential crisis of the most extraordinary kind – Birdman is an alter ego who keeps whispering less than sweet nothings in his ear as he tries to survive the premier of a Broadway show with him as star to restart a fading career.

Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu keeps banging us over the head with behind the scenes wrangling in a New York City theater, where Thomson is staking his already floundering reputation on a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” There are moments of literal drum banging as Keaton navigates a sticky path of getting the play right before the curtain rises. Along the way his difficult relationship with his daughter, formerly drug addicted Sam (played as a sharp NYC cookie by Emma Stone), and other actors provide the conflicts that our hero must overcome in order to succeed, but his greatest problem is his inner conflict with the always hovering Birdman.

bird3Iñárritu has established the setting and time and place well, and it doesn’t hurt that he has also stacked the deck with some really terrific supporting players – Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakas and others help keep things going – but the wildcard is the addition of Edward Norton’s Mike to the cast of Thomson's play that throws him into a tailspin. He knows Mike is a fantastic actor but all his baggage (and relationship with Watts’ character Lesley) seem to threaten the future of the production.

Antonio Sanchez’s drum score is both jarring and compelling. It is sort of a thumping heart that Thomson refuses to acknowledge is beating out of control. Thomson can flash brilliance in a scene, but then fall apart in his dressing room. All the while the Birdman alter ego is just steps away, giving him either the best tips or the worst advice on how to ruin a career (and a show).

Norton has a history of being a difficult actor to work with, and Keaton has his skeletons with the Batman films, and there is a tongue-in-cheek sort of referencing to these real world tidbits that audiences are going to either love or hate. The problem here is that the script (written by Iñárritu and several others) drags the story along at times, and there is not enough of that explosive kind of scene when Norton’s character throws a glass and goes postal during a rehearsal when none of his fellow actors are prepared for it.

bird2A play within a play motif is always difficult to pull off, and here it just seems more like a device to get us where we need (or ostensibly don’t need) to go. All of this is not just an attempt to capture the conscience of the king (in this case Keaton’s Thomson) but to sort of free him from his restrictions, allowing him to perhaps once again soar as Birdman – both literally and figuratively.


This is Keaton’s finest film performance (though my favorite remains Beetlejuice), and Norton and Stone are right behind him with complex, attention getting acting in key scenes. Together they should have knocked the ball out of the park, but I kind of feel that they only got a triple out of the whole deal. Credit or blame Iñárritu’s choppy hand-held cam style of directing that gets the feel of behind the scenes of NYC theater but never really captures its essence.

bird4In my opinion something is missing here even though there is much to admire, but in the end Keaton and his co-stars’ performances are going to win the day. Don’t be surprised if Stone and Keaton take home Oscars (Norton should win but I feel it’s J.K. Simmons’ year for Whiplash). While I am sure that Iñárritu is seriously in the running for Best Director, as with Norton I think this someone else’s year – in this case Richard Linklater for Boyhood.

Go see Birdman if you want to see great acting and get a feel for what happens in NYC theater, but be warned that you may be checking your watch as I was doing throughout. That is not an indictment but more a reality check. During the much longer Boyhood I never looked at my watch even once. Maybe this says something about both films or probably it’s just more about my proclivities as a movie goer at this point in my life.

Photo credits: imbd.com, wired.com, screenrant.com, entertainmentmonthly.com