Grappling With the Instinctive – and Unnecessary – Fictionalization of History

I recently watched Michael Mann’s Public Enemies for the first time since its 2009 theatrical release. Based on Bryan Burrough’s excellent 2004 book of the same name, it narrows the focus of the sprawling book to the cat-and-mouse game played by bank robber John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, special agent in charge of the Chicago office of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation; it added “Federal” in July 1935. The film, despite middling reviews, is beautiful – Director of Photography Dante Spinotti had photographed my favorite movie, L.A. Confidential, 12 years earlier – well-acted and generally entertaining.

If, that is, you are unconcerned with historical accuracy.

This is both the blessing and curse of being a close student of history: it becomes increasingly hard to swallow the changes, large and small, filmmakers make (or are required to make) when presenting anything “based on a true story.” The YouTube channel HistoryBuffs, researched and narrated by the remarkable Nick Hodges, brilliantly compares “actual” history to “cinematic version” history. We both recognize some license has to be taken at times to translate history into the language of cinema; there is a line between pure documentary and “based on true story.” But – we also agree there is an even clearer line between fact and fantasy.

I had hesitated to watch Public Enemies again because of the head-scratching decisions Mann – an otherwise masterful director – makes. The most egregious one comes at the very beginning of the film. After a reasonably accurate reenactment of the September 26, 1933 Indiana State Penitentiary prison break, orchestrated by recently-paroled Dillinger (played with insouciant charm by Johnny Depp), we cut to a scene in which a man is being chased through woods by armed gunmen.

The clear implication, reinforced by later dialogue: this action takes place roughly contemporaneously with the Indiana prison break.

Leading the armed men is Christian Bale, as Purvis. The man being chased is called “Floyd” and told to halt. Instead, “Floyd” wildly shoots back at his pursuers with a tommy gun – excuse me, a Thompson submachine gun. Bale then fires twice at “Floyd” from a high-powered rifle. Approaching “Floyd,” now prone on the ground and bleeding profusely from a fatal chest wound, Bale looks down at him and says, “Pretty Boy Floyd, you are under arrest.”

“Charles. Charles Floyd. And who are you?”

“Melvin Purvis, Bureau of Investigation…”

Bale does a creditable job recreating Purvis’ South Carolina accent, and Channing Tatum looks a lot like the real-life Floyd. And the scene plays out reasonably accurately.

Well, except for two huge problems.

One, Floyd was fatally shot in a cornfield near Wellsville, OH on October 22, 1934 – three months after Dillinger died in Chicago. In fact, Floyd was named “Public Enemy No. 1” after Dillinger’s death. So, the later scene in which a just-arrested Dillinger says to Purvis, “You’re the man who shot Pretty Boy Floyd” fundamentally makes no sense and, frankly, insults its audience.

And, two, while Purvis was the leader of the group of men who cornered Floyd in the cornfield, no contemporary newspaper accounts say it was PURVIS who gunned down the bank robber with almost superhuman eyesight and accuracy. Instead, as the official Associate Press account puts it, “four Department of Justice men and four East Liverpool policemen” fired at least 50 shots at Floyd, without naming a specific shooter. Purvis did exchange words with the dying man, but all the newspaper records is the latter telling the former “I am Floyd.”[1]

My best guess is that this inexcusable rewriting of history serves two purposes: to quickly establish Purvis as “heroic Bureau agent” and to remind audiences that Dillinger and “Baby Face” Nelson (aka Lester Gillis) were not the only outlaw bank robbers in the early 1930s. A passing reference to the 1933 kidnapping of William A. Hamm, Jr. and a few unnecessary scenes featuring Alvin “Creepy” Karpis of the Barker-Karpis gang presumably serve the same purpose – though Giovanni Ribisi captures Karpis’ oddness well. But that begs the question: why does Bale’s Purvis ask Tatum’s Floyd about “your associate Harry Campbell,” when Campbell was affiliated with the Barker-Karpis gang?

No, sorry. There are better ways to introduce Purvis – like the scene in which the young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) names Purvis head of the Chicago field office. Floyd simply serves no purpose in this film. And, if you casually throw in him and Karpis, why leave out Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, or “Machine Gun” Kelly?

Even more frustrating is that other events in the film, like the battle of Little Bohemia and the killing of Dillinger, are accurately portrayed AND are masterclasses in suspense and visual storytelling. Well, except, while Purvis and Nelson did exchange gunfire at Little Bohemia, Nelson did not die there, as the film portrays; he died seven months later (November 27, 1934) in Willmette, IL – albeit in a gun battle with Federal agents.

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This blurring of the line between fact and fiction for the sake of “art” has been rattling around in my brain roughly since the now-famous July 2017 conversation in which Nell suggested, as we discussed our financial situation, “Why don’t you write a book?” Being an ardent reader of mystery fiction (and everything Stephen King as ever written) that was the type of book she had in mind: one that would sell many copies quickly. But, as we all know, this post had already popped into my head…and the rest is literal history awaiting a reputable and understanding publisher.

I completed the manuscript of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own in late January 2021; a full printout, on which I am making occasional edits while I await word from literary agents (not looking good there) and publishers (early days still) sits in a battered red folder just to my left as I type this. As I researched it, meanwhile, I learned more about a wide range of fascinating and colorful “characters” who lived in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s: my maternal grandfather Samuel Kohn – police officer and tavern owner; Herman Modell – politician and lawyer who arranged my adoption; my paternal grandfather Morris Berger and his baby brother Jules – successful merchants who died far too young in the 1950s; and Eddie “Psycho” Klayman – heroin addict and convicted arsonist. Also living in Philadelphia then was crime novelist David Goodis, who frequented the type of “seedy” taverns Samuel Kohn ran for about a decade after he retired from the Philadelphia Police Department on October 9, 1953.

This is why, even while I was still writing Interrogating Memory, I occasionally scrawled notes for a related book. These particular notes are on the back of a paper placemat, folded then folded again, from the Limerick Diner, most likely jotted down when I visited Philadelphia in August 2019. Kudos to anyone who can translate my handwriting into English – or any other known language.

Some combination of Nell’s strong preference for fiction, wanting to have at least one “follow up” book in the works, and genuine curiosity about whether Goodis patronized any of my grandfather’s taverns, inter alia, convinced me a historical crime novel (or just plain novel?) featuring these people – or characters inspired by them – was my next project.

At first the idea excited me. Philadelphia has been remarkably underutilized as a setting for fiction of any kind, let alone crime fiction, at least in comparison to other large American cities. Moreover, these people – other than Goodis – were substantive parts of my history. And while Interrogating Memory captures the broad sweep of my family history extremely well, with as much historic context as I could fit, it was simply not possible to expand any particular event, or events, beyond a few pages at most. Enough literary agents have metaphorically frowned at the high word count as it is.

As intrigued as I was, however, I simply could not find the story connecting these persons/characters.

I still cannot.

Sure, I could see an opening scene in which an aging Modell – no longer Assistant City Solicitor – drives south along the recently-opened Atlantic City Expressway in the late 1960s to meet with my former-cop grandfather to discuss…something or other. Maybe it related to Goodis, or The Boy in the Box, or my recent adoption, or suspected arson, or…who the heck knows? I certainly do not.

The more I probed, the more stuck I became…until it finally dawned on me:

For all intents and purposes, I was already writing this book. Perhaps not with fictional interactions between characters loosely based on real people involved in an impenetrable mystery – but I was telling these people’s stories as completely and accurately as I could. Philippe Garnier had already told Goodis’ life story as well as anybody likely ever will. Moreover, as I have already noted with films like Public Enemies, I know the historical details far too well to be comfortable – satisfied? – fictionalizing them.

Call this a limitation of my imagination, if you like.

I prefer to think of it as a victory for pure, unadulterated history over the fictionalized version.

**********

Hold on, hold on, I can hear some of you saying. Aren’t you being hypocritical again?

How so? I respond.

Just take a look at your DVD collection.

My DVD collection?

That’s right.

What about my DVD collection? suddenly recalling the Doctor Who episode “Blink.”

Well, you have Hammett, The Public Eye, The Cotton Club and all four seasons of The Untouchables, among others.

Yeah, and…?

And those three movies and the television series do what exactly you just said – wrote – whatever – you disdain: turn real-life people into “characters” in a work of fiction. Not to mention all three movies currently have a middling 6.5 rating on the Internet Movie Database (“IMDb”); unlike Brian DePalma’s 1987 film version of The Untouchables (7.9), which you despise for its grotesque historical inaccuracy, these are not even particularly good films.

OK [I nod with understanding], I begin to see your point.

To address your valid critique, let me begin with Nick Hodges’ concise demonstration of just how much a work of pure fiction DePalma’s film is. I will not deny that purely as a work of art, The Untouchables is magnificent – stunningly photographed, well-written and ably acted. The problem, though, is that DePalma allows his audience to believe that what they are watching is the actual history of the arrest and conviction of Al Capone on charges of federal tax evasion in 1931 – when it is not even remotely that. I do not know if this is laziness, greed, cynicism or a mixture of all three – but it is despicable, in my view. It is disinformation, no more, no less.

Whoa there, little buckaroo! You hate the film, but you love the television series? Really? Aren’t they based on the same book written by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley?

Well…yes. But – outside of the two-part pilot, the television series at best winked and nodded at historical accuracy, cheekily inventing nonsensical, if highly entertaining, storylines very loosely based on real people. Walter Winchell’s stentorian voiceovers (“Chicago, 1932. Eliot Ness and his Untouchables something something Frank Nitti something something bootlegging”), notwithstanding. DePalma peddles history, Desilu Productions peddled entertainment. I enjoy the series as a work of pure fiction starring a made-up character named “Eliot Ness.” Moreover, it would take years for historians finally to correct the record, rightfully elevating Frank Wilson and his associates in the Treasury Department as the real “heroes” of the Capone conviction story. You can somewhat excuse Desilu, but there is no excuse for DePalma.

Hmm, maybe. But what about the three other movies?

OK, let’s take each in reverse order.

Like the television series of The Untouchables, The Cotton Club does not pretend to be anything than a fairy tale VERY loosely based on real life persons and the eponymous Harlem night club. In fact, the movie – which I think is magnificent, whatever the critics say – was inspired by James Haskins’ 1977 “pictorial and social history” of the famous club, not by specific events. At some point, I plan to write a HistoryBuffs-like post separating cinematic fiction from historic fact in this film, so for now I leave it at that.

The Public Eye, meanwhile, tells the story of a rumpled, cigar-chomping tabloid news photographer in 1940s New York City with a knack for getting to the scene of major events before anyone else. The character’s named is Leon “Bernzie” Bernstein, but we know from the gorgeous opening montage of developing black-and-white photographs he is a fictionalized version of Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee. The usual explanation for the name change is that director Howard Franklin could not get the rights to the name “Weegee” from the executors of his estate – or something like that. But, again, that means this film is upfront about being a work of fiction, not a history lesson.

The same goes for Hammett, based on the 1976 Joe Gores novel of the same name. The obvious difference, of course, is that the actual Dashiell Hammett, eking out a living writing crime fiction short stories in San Francisco in 1926 – the film implies his story “Dead Yellow Women” had just been published, which happened in September 1925 – is the film’s protagonist. Again, however, the film carefully states this is pure fiction –imagining what Hammett returning to detective work might look like. That said, the novel (which I have yet to read) and film probably come closest to how I envisioned my 1950s Philadelphia novel.

So, my imaginary critics respond, you give a pass to pure fiction based on “real” history in some cases, but not in others. Why are you so hard on Mann and DePalma, but not on the other directors and producers?

Because, as I have said, Mann and DePalma allow their audience to think what they are seeing is near-documentary history, counting on them not to investigate – excuse me, interrogate – for themselves. The others do no such thing, effectively conceding what they show are works of pure imagination.

Again [please do not interrupt me], perhaps I lack that particular form of imagination. Maybe it really is a curse of literalism: once I learn “true” history – or do my best to parse out the truth among various versions of that history – I find it more difficult to enjoy a fictionalized version. Unless, as in the case of the three DVDs you found snooping around our entertainment center, the works are so blatantly fictional, that – as with “Eliot Ness” – I can reassure myself I am watching an invented character named “Dashiell Hammett” or “’Dutch’ Schultz.”

Plus – and this is the best part – even when I knew some of the history going into the film or television series, each one of them inspired me to learn even more about them, to question – sorry, interrogate – the actual history behind the stories. In some ways, yes, this now makes it harder to watch these movies – but only somewhat.

[Now I grimace, knowing what is coming next]

Oh, ho, Mister – pardon me, Doctor – high-and-mighty judge of history-based cinema! You admit even a film like The Untouchables serves an important purpose if it gets viewers to learn the history for themselves? Your lack of consistency is remarkable.

It would appear that way, yes. But only IF – and this “if” is in neon letters three-stories high – IF anyone in the audience bothers to check a film’s “facts” for themselves. Sure, for works of pure fiction like Cotton Club, Hammett and Public Eye, they may well do so. But if they walk out of the theater or get off the sofa thinking they have already learned the real history, what is their incentive to, say it with me now, interrogate that notion? Anyone who does, good, great, I am wrong, and DePalma and Mann have done a service.

Hmm, mayyyybe.

**********

And so on.

You get the idea.

Here, then, is the larger question with which I continue to grapple.

Why do we feel compelled, when we learn of some interesting event or person or whatever, to immediately turn that thing into a work of fiction? Why is the actual thing not sufficient on its own merits?

“Oh, what a great novel that would make?” we think or say.

Is it that we associate “history” with boring classroom recitations of names and dates, with dull documentaries and film strips, with droning lectures and dusty old books?

Perhaps – but the explosion of history-based, fact-checked (kinda sorta ish) videos on YouTube suggests otherwise.

Is it that we simply prefer entertainment to knowledge?

Possibly – Hollywood has been churning out questionable “based on a true story” films since at least The Birth of a Nation in 1915. And that is about two millennia after epic works of propagandist history like The Aeneid.

Is it a question of protecting the – reputations, privacy, legacies, families, something – of actual human beings?

This may be a bit closer to the mark, as we saw with The Public Eye – and as I learned from my own struggle to balance the privacy of living individuals with accurate history in Interrogating Memory…and continue to do on this website.

Is it something about the production of cinema itself, the need to condense complex historical narratives into something that can be filmed on a reasonable budget in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable length?

Here I confess I am a bit more sympathetic to the filmmaker and the constraints imposed upon her/him. However, this is also where my darkest fears vis-à-vis Interrogating Memory emerge. Forget getting published by a reputable firm. Like many, if not all, writers, I would love to see my work turn into, say, an HBO or Netflix mini-series; a feature film probably would not be long enough. In the very next thought, though, I dread the cuts, changes, condensations and compromises that may ensue. Too many excellent works of history have been butchered on the screen – large and small – for me to be wholly comfortable with such changes. For better or for worse, however, this is not something I need to worry about anytime soon.

Or is it something to do with the lure of fiction itself? That somehow an imagined retelling of real events – or fiction based even loosely on those events – has more emotional or psychological or epistemic or philosophical reality than a straight recitation of those events?

Basically, I am asking whether we learn more about ourselves and our world from “stories” or from history? I am now the wrong person to ask, because I have found no pleasure in fiction – the printed form, anyway – for years now. There is so much “true” history yet to be learned that literature – produced by writers who can make any character do anything they want at any time – bores me now. Non-fiction writers like myself are necessarily and correctly constrained by verifiable – or, at the very least, carefully-sourced – facts. Plus, there is one way and one way only our narratives can proceed: as they actually did. The best we can do (and here I speak – write – whatever from years of direct experience) is arrange those facts – carefully selecting some and setting aside others, no matter how interesting – in the most entertaining, even cinematic, way possible. Fiction writers, by contrast, have no such constraints, but that also means – I argue – they can manipulate us into reaching any conclusion they choose, whether those conclusions are conscious or unconscious.

Let me stop here, before I sound even more like I am condemning all fiction. I am not. I have hundreds of cherished volumes on a few dozen bookshelves downstairs from my cozy home office to demonstrate the opposite.

Rather, what I am questioning is the deeply-ingrained need to fictionalize history. Or to rearrange that history to fit the “rules” of literature and cinema – simplify, condense, embellish and – when necessary – embroider for the sake of narrative flow and maintaing audience interest.

And – to be brutally honest – the best and most talented writers among us gravitate naturally and perhaps inevitably toward fiction. The flip side of its lack of “real-world” constraints is its tabula rasa nature: a blank canvas awaiting unfettered imagination filtered through raw talent. The ability to create an entirely new tale from scratch (yes, yes, with inspiration from the “real” world) is rightly lauded and celebrated as great art. There is also a great deal to be said for not knowing, as one could with a work of non-fiction, what happens next. Here, those seemingly arbitrary authorial choices make the difference.

So, I conclude by flipping the script.

Maybe, just maybe, the problem is not with history, or with non-fiction generally, but with history (and non-fiction generally) writers. Maybe the skill sets of the historian – the meticulous, plodding, tedious reconstruction of the past by any means necessary, resigned to the ultimate incompleteness of the enterprise – and the writer rarely overlap. Maybe Truman Capote – who purportedly invented the “non-fiction novel” in 1966 with In Cold Blood – truly is sui generis, and the rest of us are just trying to catch up.

Or maybe it is time genuinely talented writers turned their attention away from “the great [fill in nationality] novel” and toward the hard – and, trust me, it is hard – work of writing “novelistic” non-fiction. Compelling, page-turning, gripping non-fiction.

Is Interrogating Memory such a work?

I think so, but – as with a parent discussing a child – I am more than a little biased.

And now I am going to rewatch Mobsters. This should be interesting.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Mylander, William H., “FEDERAL AGENTS KILLED ‘PRETTY BOY’ FLOYD; NO. 1 ENEMY FELL IN HAIL OF RIFLE, PISTOL AND MACHINE GUN BULLETS; OFFICERS CAME UPON FLOYD AT LONELY FARM; Over Fifty Shot Rang Out As Officers Halted the Criminal’s Flight; FELL MORTALLY WOUNDED; Dying Man Asked the Officers Who Tipped Them Off About His Whereabouts,” Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, PA); October 23, 1934; pg. 1

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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Five weeks into our mandated isolation, we have settled into a helpful weekday routine. Nell is awake by 8 am or so to let our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever Ruby out of her crate—where she prefers to sleep—so she can frantically inhale breakfast out of her green ceramic bowl. Nell then takes Ruby out for the first time then gets our daughters out of bed and pointed in the direction of breakfast. Morning class starts at 9 am and runs until noon or so.

Once they have eaten lunch, our daughters are free until sometime after 2:30 pm—meaning they retreat to their respective bedrooms either to catch up with friends electronically or to spend time on various electronic devices. If the weather is nice enough, Nell sends them outside; our older daughter is perfectly happy to go for multi-mile runs, while her younger sister will reluctantly spend time on one of our three porches.

Around 1 pm—just as the alarm on my iPhone goes off for the first time—Nell flicks the switch on my coffee maker, which I set up the night before to make exactly eight cups of a half-caffeinated blend; for her own initial caffeine fix, my wife chooses between her Keurig machine, blue and white ceramic tea pot, and espresso pot. Once my coffee maker beeps its completion, she pours some into my navy-blue Yale mug and the rest into my daily-washed L.L. Bean thermos. She brings the mug of coffee upstairs and places it atop the light brown three-drawer Ikea chest I use as a bedside table.

I thank her, groggily. On rare afternoons I rouse myself immediately, but most mornings I doze off for a short time. By 1:30, though, I have generally completed my ablutions and gotten back in bed to check my iPhone. This also the hour each day Nell and I have to ourselves to converse as adults. After flicking through—and mostly deleting—my e-mail, I turn to Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire to read about the latest mischegoss, political and otherwise. I generally read the stories aloud; it is one of our inside—jokes is not quite the right word—that for members-only stories (I happily pay the nominal subscription fee), I lean over to tap her on the shoulder, saying in my best stage whisper, “This piece is only available to Political Wire members.” To which she responds, “Oh, thank God.”

While I intend to start my class at 2:30 pm, by the time I finish Political Wire, check the home page of FiveThirtyEight.com, the latest polls, my website and Twitter (“OK, who is yelling at me now?”), it is usually at least 2:15 pm. I shower and put on a pair of light tan or brown khakis and a button-down shirt, also from L.L. Bean, or a polo shirt if it is warmer; I need to exude some modicum of authority while teaching our hormonal pre-teen daughters.

Downstairs, I tidy the kitchen and living room a bit before having my, umm, breakfast—some form of whole grain cereal with a glass of orange juice and any leftover fruit smoothie Nell may have made. “A bit” means I gather every dirty mug, glass, dish and eating utensil—as well as the pot(s) and/or ceramic spoon rest on which used teabags get placed—and put them in the sink to wash later. I usually wipe down the kitchen counters as well.

Pouring a second cup of coffee from the thermos, I start to gather our daughters into either the living room or the “classroom.” Meanwhile, Nell retreats to our bedroom for some peace and quiet. When she is not napping, she watches videos on her iPhone. One such video teaches how to cut male heads of hair; indeed, she has been eyeing the ever-shaggier mass of curls above my neck the way a butcher eyes a large rack of ribs.

Around 4 pm, Ruby—who has been chilling with Nell—comes padding downstairs to begin to alert us to her impending 5 pm supper. If she is genuinely frantic, though, I call a short break to take her into the backyard. “Daddy” class is generally over between 4:30 and 5:30, after which I feed Ruby if necessary, then take her—and me—for a proper play in the backyard.

This has become my daily “exercise” routine. To make the repeated throwing of a small stick interesting to me, I try to throw it underhand so that it loops over a branch some 15 feet above the ground extending some ten feet over the yard, maybe 20 feet from where I stand. Complicating these throws are smaller branches growing around this thicker branch. Ruby finds this game absolutely delightful, as she gets to scamper up and down the steep, dark-soiled incline that runs from the edge of our yard five or ten feet up to the shared driveway. I try to keep the stick out of this driveway, despite how infrequently cars drive over it, but my aim is not always true.

I make this “shot” maybe 30-40% of the time. When I do not, I poetically berate myself out loud—trying to exercise the brain as well as the body. For example, after missing one recent shot I let out with, “Denied! Dejected. Depressed. Defeated. Determined!” Generally, though, I simply ring a series of changes on “Utterly awful. Tragically sad.”

As I wait for Ruby to return, affectionately emitting variants of the word “dingus” when she momentarily loses track of her stick—though she always gets a hearty “that’s a good girl” when she finally does what she went out there to do, I try to keep from standing still. I jog in place or do jumping jacks or simply jump and down. At times I do a kind of St. Vitus dance of waggling limbs and bobbing head, getting the blood flowing and my heart rate elevated.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this spectacle, Ruby has slowed down enough to head inside, albeit still with some moderate cajoling—and perhaps a toweling of the paws at the bottom of the stairs. This is also accompanied by a kind of reductionist Beat poetry: repetitive reformulations of words like repugnant, repulsive, repellant, reprehensible and reprobate.

Heading into the kitchen to wash my blackened right hand, I begin to tackle the dishes in anticipation of Nell making dinner. Every other day of late, this means loading and starting the dishwasher—always all-but-empty when I finally go to bed, even if that means I wash the dinner dishes by hand. So be it.

By 6:00 pm—6:30 at the latest— I am settled in my office to work for a few hours, while Nell and the girls eat dinner in the living room and watch either Disney Channel or Nickelodeon on our big screen HD television. However, more often lately they eat quickly and disappear back into their respective girl-caves, freeing Nell to watch diy Network.

The understanding is that Nell and I will reconvene in the living room just before 8 pm to watch MSNBC for a few hours (well, not most Fridays), interspersed with the 9 pm bedtime of our younger daughter. “If you are getting up,” Nell will say to me, “will you tell younger-daughter to brush her teeth. Pleasethankyou.” We often use the maximum live program pause of 25 minutes allowed by our television, albeit with the fringe benefit of allowing us to fast forward through commercials.

Between 9:30 and 10:30, Nell takes herself upstairs to bed; I follow shortly after with Ruby to spend some quiet time with her. Once Nell has turned off her bedside lamp, Ruby and I wander back downstairs; she either goes into our older daughter’s bedroom or outside one last time. At which point I get to work completely cleaning the kitchen, including readying my coffee maker for the following afternoon. They say Duke Ellington played orchestras like an instrument: that is how I wield the kitchen sink faucet and its two-setting detachable nozzle. I conduct a symphony in multiple water temperatures, vigorously scrubbing to my own internal beat with sponges and my bare hands, with the dish towels a second movement. Lately, I know not why, I have been using my left hand—which until recently was a kind of decorative appendage—for most of the counter-top scrubbing; maybe I want to rewire my heavily-left-dominant brain. Or maybe I just want to keep things interesting.

Along those lines, my sense of smell has vastly improved of late. Minimal exposure to outdoor allergens is likely the cause; I particularly noticed the opposite effect when I ventured out into the world on Thursday, as you will read below.

With the kitchen now ready for the morning, I check in our older daughter, old enough now to brush her teeth and put herself to bed on her own—and then I grab a jar of Skippy Natural peanut butter, a spoon and a fresh SodaStream in my commandeered green bottle (perhaps adding a squeeze of lemon and/or lime) and settle into my office. There I work until the wee hours of the morning. A long hot soak in a bath or a short hot shower later, I settle onto the white sofa to wind down with informative-yet-entertaining YouTube videos on our television. Drifting off to sleep for a brief time, I rise with the dawn—who knew sunrises are as lovely as sunsets—to drag myself upstairs to bed properly.

Rinse. Repeat.

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When I awoke on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, I learned a new four-letter word: ants. As has happened in previous springs, we have an infestation. However, as of Friday, they had mostly disappeared. As bad as they are, however—and as itchy as I have been via power of suggestion—this was nothing compared to the revolting infestation of pantry moths I tackled alone one summer nine or ten years ago; they had planted eggs in a basement-stored bin of dog food we still had from our former golden retriever. I still shudder with disgust thinking about it.

Perhaps to escape the ants, our older daughter had gone for a 2+ mile run in the neighborhood that morning. This remembrance of the outside world may have triggered her suppressed cabin fever. Otherwise, I cannot explain the madness about to befall us.

Tuesday is “family history” day, so we read aloud from completed chapters of the book I am writing. On this particular day, I began by tracing the history of the idea of the book, establishing inexorable chains of historic events running in both directions as one uncovers more—and more accurate–information.

Film noir personal journey

At some point, I noted my father’s time as a member of Philadelphia’s La Fayette Lodge No. 73, Free and Accepted Masons. This triggered something in our older daughter, as she yelled something about the Illuminati then drew this:

Illuminati

Once I dealt with this marginally-relevant interjection, our younger daughter read aloud the first page-plus of Chapter 1. Clearly, she and her older sister—who LOVES to read—have been immersed in The Hunger Games franchise lately, because the latter kept saying, “I volunteer as tribute” to read.

Meanwhile, I do not remember what set that same daughter on this path, but the next thing we knew she was telling her younger sister, in a grating cartoonish voice, “I baked you a pie!”

I baked u a pie

This was only the beginning, though.

When it was our older daughter’s turn to read, she calmed down and read. At one point, however, she misread the first name of my paternal grandfather Morris as “murple,” and it was as though someone had flicked the crazy switch.

It is possible she got this nonsense word from an episode of her beloved The Amazing World of Gumball. Whatever its source, for the next few days, she could not stop herself from loudly proclaiming the following ditty in the same cartoonish voice,

I baked you a pie!

My my my!

You did?!? What flavor is it?

Murpleberry!

Are there any other ingredients?

Yes, the sweet dreams of the children of Santa Claus!

I honestly thought it was going to be the “children of Saturn” the first time she regaled us. According to Nell, she has since used the variant “sweet tears.”

Somehow, we made it through the pages I wanted to read and adjourned for the day, but not before our older daughter had scrawled “I SEE YOU” in bright red letters on a piece of three-hole notepaper for her younger sister.

I had planned to eat leftover beef stew for dinner, but Nell threw me a curve by taking the bechamel she had made the previous day, adding what remained of our shredded cheese, and pouring it over cooked whole wheat penne. I could not stop eating this faux macaroni and cheese out of its pot, it was that delicious. Later, though, I did heat up some beef stew and eat it over some of the cooked penne left out of the pot.

You see why I need to keep jumping up and down in the backyard every afternoon.

**********

On the morning of Wednesday, April 15, 2020—the day our stimulus payment landed in my checking account—our younger daughter inadvertently missed two online meetings of her 4th grade class. When I came downstairs that afternoon, she calmly told me what had happened before bursting into tears; what I quickly realized was that thought she would be in trouble with me.

She was not remotely in trouble with me, which I made very clear to her.

Once “Daddy” school began on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, we settled into the living room to watch Episode 4 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, which broadly covers the years 1929 through 1934. At one point, I paused the program to explain the stock market crash of 1929 as best I could.

Otherwise, we watched in companionable silence—until about halfway through the nearly-two-hour-long episode. I forget what set our older daughter going again—perhaps it was her joyous cries of “Kashi” at the snack she had just obtained from the kitchen. At any rate, from the blue sofa, where her younger sister was snuggled under a comforter, I heard, “At least she didn’t offer to bake a pie.”

Really, kid, really?!?

And with that we once again tumbled down the murpleberry pie rabbit hole…though we did manage to complete the episode. Shortly after this, we received official notice from the Town of Brookline that protective masks are now required any time we leave our homes.

Dinner that night was leftovers, with me eating one of the two cauliflower crust frozen margarita pizzas I had purchased at CVS a few weeks earlier. They are tasty enough when you eat them, but the aftertaste is nasty.

**********

When I came downstairs on Thursday, April 16, 2020, I was a bit confused what day of the month it was; Nell had not been sure if it was the 16th or the 17th, so she left out the second digit, neglecting to add it later.

InkedApril 16_LI

The girls and I settled in the living room to finish watching Border Incident, which we had begun the previous Thursday. After its gruesome finale, I showed them the opening and closing scenes—the latter featuring some of the most striking chiaroscuro lighting I have ever seen—of He Walked By Night. At the start of these final scenes, the main character—and villain—has a small dog in the apartment in which he hides from the police. Our daughters were frankly more concerned with the fate of the dog than of its owner, even as they kind of wanted him to escape. He does not; it is unclear what becomes of his dog.

My plan then was to use a darkened room to experiment with photographing persons and things, comparing the traditional three-light schema—key (front), back and fill (side)—to the sparer cinematography often associated with the classic era of film noir. However, at that time of day—and it was a sunny day—it was not possible to make any room sufficiently dark, so we will try another time. Instead, we returned to the living room to watch the opening scenes of the Weegee-based 1992 film The Public Eye.

At that point—shortly after 4 pm, I believe—I was prepared to dismiss class for the day, given how long Wednesday’s class had been and how long I anticipated Friday’s class would be. Our younger daughter actually wanted to continue watching the film, but her older sister indecisively hemmed and hawed for a few minutes. Once I made clear class was no longer in session, though, she beat a hasty retreat into her bedroom.

As much as her younger sister enjoyed the film, meanwhile, once I pointed out Stanley Tucci, then a relative unknown, who plays a major role in The Hunger Games films, she became distracted by her love of the series; she has been falling asleep many recent nights listening to Audible recordings of the books. That was my cue to dismiss class for the day.

I then girded myself to drive to our local CVS to pick up refills of two of my four prescription medicines. It feels weird to put on socks these days, let alone a face mask and clean white rubber gloves, but I did so. I moved Nell’s Pilot onto the street before driving away in my Accord—this way both cars were started at least once this week.

Earlier that day, Nell had told me how many items were NOT available from the Wegman’s online shopping service, with cheese and breakfast cereals among the most notable. Thus, when I arrived at CVS, I hopefully looked through the refrigerated section—no cheese of any kind. I did grab a family-sized box of Honey Nut Cheerios…as well as three flavors of Haagen Dazs ice cream (butter pecan, dulce de leche, strawberry); one bag each of Doritos, Fritos and Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips; and a package of Fig Newtons. I generally try to limit my intake of junk foods, but these are not normal times. Plus, I get to jump up and down in the backyard nearly every day…have I mentioned that?

Tossing some non-food items into my overflowing plastic basket, I got in the line, separated six feet from each other patron, for the prescription counter; I am convinced strips of blue tape will be the future symbol of this era. Two white plastic folding tables blocked direct access to the counter: the card-swipe machines sat atop the tables. When it was my turn, though, I was only permitted to pay for my prescriptions—which, thanks to good health insurance, only cost $1.18 in total—there. I paid for the remainder of my items at the storefront registers and left.

Briefly debating with myself, I decided to brave our small local Star Market. As I parked along the side of the building, I noticed an array of orange traffic cones and those ubiquitous strips snaking away from the main entrance. However, nobody stopped me as I walked into the relatively-empty store. I found it well-stocked with cheese and cereals, so I purchased a wide variety of the former and two of the latter.

When I arrived home, marveling at how few cars were on the road at what used to be called “rush hour”—and having been heartbroken driving by a bar and restaurant owned by friends—Nell set to work washing the outside of nearly everything I had purchased. She repeated this process at 6:45 or so when our Wegman’s order arrived—26 plastic bags filled with varying degrees of skill.

For dinner, Nell made use of some salad greens about to rot and to prepare a delicious turkey taco salad; our food-contrarian young daughter had mini-burritos with melted cheese. Then, after the evening routine I detailed above, I completed the PowerPoint slides I needed to teach the history of folk rock Friday afternoon. This task took me until 3:00 am, after which I folded the laundry which had again accumulated on the blue sofa.

Knowing I needed to be awake at 9 am for our younger daughter’s virtual state-mandated annual Individual Enrichment Plan meeting, I sacked out on the freshly-laundered cushions of the white living room sofa and went to sleep.

I did not bother to set the alarm on my iPhone.

**********

I first stirred just after 8 am, when Nell awoke and fed Ruby. At 8:29 am, Nell took Ruby out for a walk. Exactly one minute later, the alarm on the iPhone Nell had left on the classroom table, went off…loudly.

That was my cue to go upstairs to bed until my presence was required, first turning off Nell’s alarm. At 8:57 am, Nell woke me up with a start, and I wandered sleepily downstairs, hoping this would not be a video meeting.

It was…but because other people could only hear Nell if she plugged her headphones into her laptop, I became a proxy participant only. I was perfectly content to sit on the white sofa—Nell sat on the blue one—and fiddle with a Rubik’s cube. At one point, I shuffled into the kitchen to replenish my water—it seemed foolish to drink coffee then. As I returned, not realizing Nell’s microphone was on, I belched.

Loudly.

Oops…sorry

The meeting went well, meanwhile, ending just over an hour after it began. Our younger daughter elicited all manner of deserved praise for her sunny disposition and hard work, and it was agreed she no longer required occupational therapy. Parental obligation behind me, I put myself to bed for real. Nell awoke me at 2 pm, so class did not begin until 3:16

Before presenting the 220 slides—many one slide broken into seven or eight slides to maintain flow—I sketched out how rock and roll, infused by musical genre or cultural influence to create each branch, rapidly expanded after 1964.

Rock and roll branches

Rock matures

Folk Rock

Early in the presentation, I had to reprimand our daughters for discussing The Hunger Games rather than pay attention to their loving, hard-working father. I appreciate that by Friday afternoon, it is hard to focus…but, c’mon The Byrds were freaking awesome!

Here are highlights of their reactions:

  • They were disturbed by how facially-hirsute The Beatles—“They used to be so cute!”—became in the late 1960s
  • The gyrations of R.E.M. band members in the “Wolves, Lower” video—an example of a later band heavily influenced by The Byrds—disturbed them.
  • They were quite taken by the young Joni Mitchell—finally, a woman! In fact, they were riveted by this video.
  • Our older daughter reacted positively to “The Sound of Silence”: “I know this song!”
  • They reacted to The Graduate—which both daughters thought sounded like the title to a horror fil—with “Who’s Dustin Hoffman?”
  • That same daughter decided Neil Young was pretty unpleasant. Profound influence aside, I agree: he just always seems to be angry about something.
  • She also liked “Marrakesh Express

As I was teaching, meanwhile, our older daughter was making herself hysterical “drawing” family members with her eyes closed:

Drawing 1 April 17

Drawing 2 April 17

Drawing 3 April 17

It took over two hours, but shortly after 5:30 pm class was dismissed—bringing week five of home schooling to an end.

For dinner, Nell decided we should lay off meat for a few days, so she made a mouth-watering asparagus and green pea risotto. At 8:30, we settled onto the white sofa to watch episodes three and four of season three of Broadchurch.

And that was that.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…