Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

**********

But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

**********

In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

**********

I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

**********

I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

**********

That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

**********

There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.

Why I chose…Earnest and Arms

My mother died in March 2004, having outlived my father by nearly 22 years. As I often use humor to process the most intense emotions, I began to quip about “being orphaned at 37,” often adding some variant of this quote:

To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

This quote elicited many a blank look.

If pressed, I would name the quote’s author, though I did not always remember the quote’s context.

It is thus a window into my interior thought processes to realize, having completed the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers in seven days, no explanations), that the quote originally appeared in a book I selected for that challenge.

Before I explain further, just bear with me while I describe my late mother’s favorite story as a child.

Called “The Selfish Giant,” it tells the story of a giant who walls off his lovely garden from the children who used to play there, causing winter never to end in it. Only when children find a way back into the garden does spring return. That the story ends with some maladroit Christian symbolism detracts little from its overall elegance.

This VERY short tale, one in an anthology of stories I used to browse in a favorite maternal great aunt’s high-end Philadelphia apartment, was my first encounter with Oscar Wilde.

**********

I was most likely exposed to the alchemic mix of high- and low-brow that is British comedy in sixth grade, when “in the know” classmates started talking about something called “Monty Python.” Perhaps this was because the seminal comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, released just two or three years earlier, was already achieving cult status.

It is true that by sixth (or maybe seventh) grade I was regularly watching reruns of the surreally-brilliant Monty Python’s Flying Circus; it was one of a series of half-hour shows I would watch at 11 pm on Saturday nights, just before the Charlie Chan movie on Philadelphia’s Channel 48.

Around the same time, I discovered the decidedly-lowbrow (but no less funny) The Benny Hill Show. Entering high school a few years later, I happened upon the slap-dash lunacy of The Kenny Everett Video Show, the intelligent sci-fi surrealism of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the witty and well-written Doctor in the House (OK technically, Philadelphia’s PBS station WHYY was airing the 1972-73 follow-up series Doctor in Charge).

I was so enamored of this sitcom that I tape-recorded episodes 5 and 6; I still have the cassette, though I long ago taped over both episodes.

In short, by the spring of my senior year of high school, I was already an ardent fan of the broad slapstick and respect-for-audience-intelligence that defines British humor.

One afternoon that spring, I came home from school, sprawled out on our navy blue living room sofa, and pulled out a slim paperback.

Reading the paperback, I started to laugh. These were not soft chuckles or suppressed giggles. This was from-the-belly, out-loud, roll-around-on-the-floor laughing.

And I did not stop laughing until I finished the paperback a few hours later.

This is what I read.

IMG_3764 (2).JPG

That I read this comic masterpiece as part of a small-group (n=2) presentation on the works of Oscar Wilde for my senior year English class—one of the most challenging and rewarding classes I ever took—is certain. What I forget is whether everyone in the class had to read The Importance of Being Earnest or just my presentation partner and I.

He and I also read and analyzed The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel and the basis of this film, occasionally labeled noir[1] (including being screened in 2016 during NOIR CITY).

For that presentation, I freely admit that I dressed (as closely as I could with what I had) as Oscar Wilde and spoke in a mediocre British accent (yes, he was Irish…but we were presenting him in the context of late Victorian-era literature, or something). Despite my theatrics (because of them?) our presentation was very well-received by our peers. There are always critics, of course, including the one who noted that I sounded like “someone from Monty Python.”

Sorry, no photographs of me in that attire exist, nor do any recordings of my accent.

Clearly I had enjoyed this performance, though, because a few days later, my cousin and I went for cheesesteaks in a now-defunct joint just off the Roosevelt Boulevard in North Philadelphia—and I wore my Oscar Wilde attire and used the same accent. The reaction from fellow patrons, such as it was, was muted.

As for the play itself, I think it perfectly encapsulated everything I loved about British humor: it was irreverent, intelligent, silly and insightful all at the same time.

And it was laugh-out-loud funny.

Besides the ageless Dorian Gray, I would eventually read other works of fiction by Wilde: the plays Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance come to mind, as does the novella The Canterville Ghost. I enjoyed all of them, but none knocked me flat they way Earnest still does.

Incidentally, our eldest daughter read The Canterville Ghost for the first time tonight. She enjoyed so much she needed to relay its entire plot to me while brushing her teeth.

**********

Perhaps it was in the advanced United States history class I took my junior year, or perhaps it was in the (surprisingly mediocre) introductory political science course I was allowed to take at Villanova the following year[2].

At some point in my last two years of high school I was introduced to the Fabian socialists, a group of late-19th-century British writers and thinkers who advocated for needed social reforms, albeit more gradually than their Marxist counterparts. The Fabian Society, founded in 1884, morphed into the Labour Party in 1906; Labour remains one of the primary British political parties.

I was fascinated enough by the Fabian socialists that I wrote a paper (for what class, I could not tell you now, though it was probably in high school) on them. And I learned that one of their key members was an Irish-born playwright by the name of George Bernard Shaw.

Until then, all I really knew about Shaw was Monty Python member Michael Palin’s absurdist portrayal of him in a sketch in which Shaw, Wilde and James McNeill Whistler (the artist renowned for painting his mother) trade insulting witticisms directed at an unnamed King at a party.

And then I read this play.

IMG_3763 (2).JPG

I was most likely assigned it in that same high school English class, but it might have been in a college course. Regardless, I was immediately moved by its simple and direct anti-war message.

Central to the story is that Bulgaria (backed by the Russian Empire) is at war with Serbia (backed the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1885; the alliances are eerily prescient of World War I, which would not start for another 29 years.

The play begins in the upstairs bedroom of the daughter of the highest-ranking Bulgarian officer (Major Petkoff) serving in the conflict. Raina and her mother Louka share the naïve romanticism about war and the soldiers who fight in it that would itself be shattered in the trenches of World War I.

Louka tells Raina her handsome young fiancée Sergius has that day led a “cavalry charge! think of that! He defied our Russian commanders—acted without orders—led a charge on his own responsibility—headed it himself—was the first man to sweep through their guns.”[3]

Filled with visions of her fiancee’s noble heroism, she settles down to sleep, only to be startled by a man creeping into her room. He is a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs trying to escape capture. Despite the fact that he paints a far less flatteing picture of the cavalry charge and openly mocks its leader (unaware he is the fiancée of the woman whose bedroom he has entered), Raina ultimately decides to protect him. She gives him her last three chocolate creams (“Bless you, dear lady! You can always tell an old soldier by the insides of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols: the old ones, grub. Thank you.”[4]) which he ravenously consumes. Derisively (for now), she calls him a “chocolate cream soldier.”

As you might expect, over the course of the play, including the unexpected return of  her “chocolate cream soldier,” Raina rethinks her attitudes toward the nobility of war, apprehending its banal horrors more fully.

Unlike the film Johnny Got His Gun (the unforgettable backdrop for Metallica’s “One” video), which uses Grand-Guignol-style horror to convey its anti-war message, Shaw’s play is more subtle, using gentle satire and romance to make the same point. Shaw is sympathetic to all of his characters, allowing their debate to unfold without overt mockery or caricature.

Let me be clear: I am neither anti-soldier nor anti-military. I am a realist who honors the sacrifice of untold millions in wars and recognizes their occasional grim necessity.

But I am staunchly opposed to the glorification of war as the pinnacle of an aggressive form of heroism. I am staunchly opposed to government officials who have never served themselves using war as a political weapon. I am disgusted by candidates who use “Swift Boat” tactics to defeat those who have actually served in combat. To take one example: my maternal aunt is good friends with former Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland. Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm serving in the Vietnam War, was defeated for reelection in 2002 after one term in part because his Republican opponent Saxby Chambliss attacked his patriotism in the context of his votes on various post-9/11 homeland security measures. This may also have been an early example of the clannish us-vs.-them nature of contemporary politics.

As with Wilde, I would read other plays by Shaw, including Candida, Major Barbara, Saint Joan and the astonishing Man and Superman. And as with Earnest, I enjoyed them (particularly Man and Superman), just not nearly as much as I did Arms and the Man.

Honorable Mentions:

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

I read this in that challenging high school English class as well as in at least one college class. My only new thought on this masterpiece, perhaps the only work of fiction more often quoted than Casablanca, is how drawn I have always been to the character of Horatio. He is the quiet and loyal friend who tries (unsuccessfully) to get his friend Hamlet through his existential crisis and survives while everyone dies. Nice work if you can get it.

Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (International Collectors Library)

Forget that in just five stories[5] Poe essentially invented modern detective fiction. Forget the bizarre circumstances of his life (marrying his 13-year-old cousin) and death. This tortured artist was THE master of the short story (one that he felt should take no more than two hours to complete)—“the form in which the ‘highest genius’ might most advantageously exert its powers [and whose] compactness made possible both high excitement in the reader and maximum artistic control by the writer.”[6] If nothing else, Poe’s unrivaled tales of horror and suspense allowed Vincent Price to have a long and distinguished career.

Stalking the Nightmare by Harlan Ellison

Yet another collection of short stories, this time in the vein of science fiction and fantasy. Written by the controversial Ellison, these are mind-bending stories of genies and sewers intermixed with three real-world stories, including his aborted screenplay efforts for the first Star Trek movie. Actually, as good as this collection is, my all-time favorite Ellison work remains his script for the single best episode of ANY Star Trek: “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I wanted to include at least one non-detective-fiction novel, and I chose this satiric dark comedy masterpiece in a close call over John Kennedy Toole’s absurdist posthumous gem A Confederacy of Dunces. Breakfast may not be Vonnegut’s most famous novel, but it is the first one I ever read, back in the carefree summer between graduating high school and enrolling at Yale. That is probably why it has stuck with me all these years, because I associate it with one of the happiest times of my life. It is also laugh-out funny.

The Aeneid by Virgil

When my mother, our keeshond Luvey and I moved in with my aunt and cousins in the middle of 7th grade, I was thrust into a new school in the middle of a school year. The most challenging part was choosing a foreign language to study in media res. I chose Latin. Having no choice, I quickly caught up, finding that I enjoyed Latin’s logical structure. Two years later, having moved into a beautiful new apartment (just Mom, Luvey and I), I inadvertently enrolled in the sophomore Latin class at Harriton High School while still a freshman; this choice helped me win Harriton’s first ever Latin award. In that class, we read the other epic poem about the Trojan War, this one from the perspective of Aeneas, son of King Priam of Troy. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas finds himself in North Africa, where he falls in love with Queen Dido (infelix Dido). Forced by the gods to relocate (leading Dido to commit suicide), he eventually helps to lay the groundwork for the founding of Rome. After reading much of it in Latin, I read it again for a freshman-year English class at Yale, making it the only major piece of fiction I have studied in two languages.

**********

I began this post with a quote about lost parents. Let me end it with another quote from The Importance of Being Earnest:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

I do not necessarily agree with the first part (Nell is nothing like her mother, for example). However, if I can be anything like my mother, who I miss (along with my father) every day, then so be it.

Until next time…

[1] For a film noir research project, I compiled 32 published film noir lists (minimum 120 titles) and 12 smaller lists (25-119 titles); a total of 4,825 films appeared on at least one of these lists. Dorian Gray appears on five of 32 LISTS, with 6.5 total POINTS (LISTS plus appearances on “sublists” within the 32 larger lists and/or one of the 12 smaller lists). Only 889 (18.4%) titles appear on more LISTS that Dorian Gray, and only 838 (17.4%) have more POINTS.

[2] I was one of two Harriton High School seniors who, by virtue of our exceptional PSAT scores, could take one of a selected group of courses at Villanova; my equally-bright classmate took a math course.

[3] Shaw, Bernard. 1984. Arms and the Man. Definitive Text (originally published 1898). New York, NY: Penguin Books, pg. 7.

[4] Ibid., pg. 16.

[5] The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, The Purloined Letter, The Gold Bug, Thou Art the Man.

[6] Silverman, Kenneth. 1991.Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, pg. 166