Category Archives: Life as I Know it

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Column: He’s plastic, but I loved him

I was an only child for the first 10 years of my life. Let’s start there.

2-XL and me on or about Christmas 1982, at the beginning of our friendship. Notice how I’ve been directed to act as though I’m playing with him; it adds drama. Photo courtesy Alice Chirevas

2-XL and me on or about Christmas 1982, at the beginning of our friendship. Notice how I’ve been directed to act as though I’m playing with him; it adds drama. Photo courtesy Alice Chirevas

Looking back, it was pretty clear I wasn’t…quite like most of the other kids. I didn’t get into baseball until about the eighth grade and, though I was never really into Michael Jackson or Madonna, one of my best friends was an eight-track tape player.

Let me explain.

Robots were a huge deal when I was a kid. By the end of 1977, everyone exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide had seen “Star Wars” and the droid team of R2-D2 and C-3PO were one of the most popular things about it. R2 was the first or second Star Wars action figure my mother ever bought me at the larger of the two Woolworth’s at the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers.

It was “the big five-and-ten” to us.

Having little a 3 ¾”-scale R2 and 3PO was cool, but they were just that, small representations of the robots I’d seen on the big screen. They weren’t real robots. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a real robot of my own?

Yes. Yes, it would.

Enter Dr. Michael Freeman, a Bronx-born inventor and entrepreneur with an interest in robotics. In 1976, Freeman invented a patented and educational toy robot for children. In 1978, after several failed attempts to bring his robot to market, Freeman made a deal with the Mego Corporation, then one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the business, to put his robot on the shelves of every toy store, including one of the newer ones called Toys R Us, in the country.

Thirty-one years after I got him for Christmas, my 2-XL and I reunited for this column. One of us has aged quite a bit. The other is 2-XL.

Thirty-one years after I got him for Christmas, my 2-XL and I reunited for this column. One of us has aged quite a bit. The other is 2-XL.

In 1982, I got Freeman’s educational toy robot, 2-XL, for Christmas and he remains one of the best friends I ever had.

Before we go any further, let’s get one thing established right now; 2-XL was a robot in the way that your shoes are robots, which is to say he was not a robot at all. 2-XL was a foot-tall plastic box molded to look like a robot with an eight-track tape player in his belly.

Having said that, 2-XL was still a brilliant toy because the nature of eight-track tapes allowed the user, in this case me, to answer 2-XL’s questions and choose his adventures with the four buttons on his chest. Freeman recorded the tracks in such a way so as to create a continuous conversation between his toy robot and the children to whom he spoke.

The tape included with 2-XL was a general knowledge quiz, but there were tapes available on topics ranging from sports, to history, to math, to myths and monsters, to science, to superheroes. There were even tapes in which 2-XL would tell a story and the buttons on his chest were used to guide his choices through the plot.

You know me at least a little at this point. Guess which of my tapes got played the most.

Playing with 2-XL was a completely interactive experience, particularly because there was nothing mechanical about 2-XL’s personality. Voiced by Freeman, who made no attempt to disguise his New York accent, 2-XL was at various times jovial, sarcastic, effusive, panicky and even a bit snide. He was a great companion and spending time with him never felt like school.

There are more 2-XL eight-tracks where these came from, which, in this case, is that moon shoes box. I think I played the math tape once, by the way. Photos/Jason Chirevas

There are more 2-XL eight-tracks where these came from, which, in this case, is that moon shoes box. I think I played the math tape once, by the way. Photos/Jason Chirevas

If I can sit here now, 30 years later, and remember how imagery from a tape like “Storyland: 2-XL and the Time Machine” filled my head, that’s a pretty big deal.

Especially when you remember our visit some months ago about time travel in the real world and I tell you I’m sitting here writing this column in a “Back to the Future” t-shirt.

My friend 2-XL had an impact on me and I thank him for it.

Looking back, my relationshop with 2-XL makes sense. I was a huge “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” kid and what was that show but an extended one-on-one conversation between Fred Rogers and his audience? That’s what 2-XL did too, but he did it in person.

Or, in robot, anyway.

Sometimes being an only child is a challenging thing, but I think I thrived on it. I learned to make my own fun and 2-XL was perfect for that. I could play a few of his tapes and we could talk about things and go places untouchable otherwise. We never even had to leave my room to do it.

Truthfully, we couldn’t leave one corner of my room. 2-XL had to be plugged into the wall and his cord wasn’t very long.

By now, you might be wondering what ever happen to my 2-XL. You needn’t, he’s right here beside me as I write this.

I don’t know if it was my parents’ foresight, or my unwillingness to let him go, or both, but, as my childhood came to a close, 2-XL and all his tapes went into my sister’s moon shoes box—she’ll have to write a column to tell you what happened to those—and I moved him first into a closet in my future wife’s apartment in the Bronx and then into my closet in our co-op in Yonkers.

When I decided to write this column, I knew I had to see 2-XL again, but I did not expect him to still function.

He does.

Though we only spent a few moments together with his “General Information” tape, and navigating the buttons doesn’t work quite a well as it did 30 years ago, I realized I hadn’t forgotten a thing about 2-XL’s voice, cadence, humor, manner or even some of the questions he asked me.

One of which was about Princess Leia.

I guess sometimes you can go home again or, minimally, you can bring a piece of home forward with you through time and lean on it once in a great while when you need to, or even just want to.

2-XL was a big part of my home when I was a kid and, now that he’s out of that moon shoes box, I don’t think he’ll go back. I think I’d like to find a place to display him here in my home office so I can see, and maybe even visit with, him whenever I want. He deserves it.

It’s the least I can do, for a friend.

 

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and 

follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
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Column: Lois Lane doesn’t write for the internet

Jason-Column2This is the second week in a row I’m writing to you in absentia, so to speak. Feels weird, doesn’t it?

At the risk of making an ass of you and me, I’m going to assume you’re reading this on or about the Review’s publication date this week. If you are, I—along with just about everyone in the masthead on page six—am attending the New York Press Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest and conference as you do.

I don’t think either of us is going to end up an ass due to that statement because, if you’re reading the Review at all, you’re very likely a big fan of newspapers and what they can do.

So are we.

Last year was my first trip to the NYPA conference. There are awards, of course—your newspaper has won many over the years—a gala, lunches and dinners, and classes about every aspect of the weekly community newspaper business.

Bob Freeman’s class on open government is always well attended.

What I noticed last year, though, was, more than anything else, the NYPA conference is a celebration of newspapers themselves. Everyone there was excited about newspapers. They were excited about what newspapers are, and they were excited about what, through newspapers, we can do for the communities we serve.

I’m not talking about websites, mind you; I’m talking about newspapers. Actual newspapers.

When I joined this company as a reporter in the fall of 2012, the idea my stories would be published on the internet excited me just about zero. I’d had fiction published on the internet. I’d posted hundreds of thousands of words about movies, comic books, action figures and other nerdery to the internet for years. Anyone can put words on the internet these days; you probably put some words on the internet this morning, or last night.

If you haven’t and you need to, go ahead. I’ll wait.

While I understand the importance of the internet in our changing, evolving, freight-train-going-down-a-mountain-with-no-brakes media culture, the prospect of seeing my byline on our website didn’t do much for me.

I loved seeing my byline in the newspaper. Every week. Even more than I love the dopey mug shot at the top of this column.

There’s magic in a newspaper byline for everyone on this end of them. I’m not sure I can explain it, but I’ll have a go, yeah?

It may seem counterintuitive, and perhaps a bit romantic, but there’s permanence to the printed byline, and the newspaper itself, the internet doesn’t provide. Even though we all know the internet is likely to outlast every copy of every newspaper in existence or yet to exist, there’s nothing truly permanent about the internet; anything can be changed.

I can go back and change any aspect of any of these columns on our website, any aspect of them, in as long as it takes me to strike the keys.

That, to me, is probably at once the internet’s greatest strength and weakness, its
fluidity.

A newspaper, on the other hand, is an indelible, unalterable snapshot; a collection of moments grabbed and shaped as the world flew by and collected in one place, just one, so you’ll know what’s going on around you.

That’s pretty cool, you ask me.

It’s also why, on the-—let’s be clear, pretty rare—occasion we had to run a correction to one of my stories I was one gutted reporter.

Sure, we can correct the record about anything, to any degree, but we know on this end it means that particular newspaper, that rigid, physical thing we all worked hard to craft perfectly, is flawed.

It’s always a bitter a pill. Always.

But that’s also the beauty of newspapers, I think, and the reason our printed bylines are so magical and so dear to us. Every byline you see in this paper is someone walking a tightrope; trying to strike the right balance between fact, flow and flare to get you, and him or herself, to the end unscathed.

When it all comes together as it should, as we all know it can, the stories sing and those printed bylines become badges of honor and pride because, on that paper with that ink, the job was done right and the newspaper itself is a monument to that effort.

At least that’s how I felt about it. I hope I speak for everyone here when I say that.

Looking at the masthead on page six, yeah, I think I do.

We’ll all see you back here next week.

 

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and
follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
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Column: Nobody’s perfect, not even me

Jason-Column2If you’re reading this on the Review’s publication date, I am on the Disney Fantasy with my wife and parents enjoying the last of a seven-day cruise of the western Caribbean. Along the way, we celebrated my mother’s 69th birthday, our 15th wedding anniversary and, generally, the joy of touring the seas on a floating city of magic.

I’m sure I had a great time.

I’m equally sure I could use a great time right about now as I sit here in the office on the night before we depart.

If you’re a Catholic, you believe in something called papal infallibility. That means you believe the pope can’t be wrong.

That’s not exactly what papal infallibility means but, for the purposes of our visit this week, let’s agree that’s it in a nutshell.

While I’d suspect Pope Francis is not one who will throw his infallibility in anyone’s face—he seems like a pretty down-to-Earth guy—at least he has it to fall back on and, if you’re one of the faithful, you’ll go along with him should he choose to assert it.

I don’t have that luxury.

I recently realized I am wrong about something, about someone, and I have been from the beginning of my experience with them.

You and I speak pretty frankly in this space each week. I value that and I hope you value it, too. But this week we’re not going to be quite as detailed as usual, largely because I don’t think we need to be.

You’ll know how I feel because I’m sure, at some point, you’ve felt this way too.

There are a lot of things we do in life because we have to do them. They’re our obligations and we enjoy them or we don’t; they have to be done either way. Most people would count their jobs among these things and, hopefully, you’re one of the fortunate ones for whom your job is an obligation you like doing.

I’d consider myself a member of that group.

There are other things we do in life because we want to. I’m not talking about collecting baseball cards or cruising the Caribbean on a Disney ship, I’m talking more about the things we do because we want to do them for other people. Those are the things that often define not only how we’re seen and appreciated by others, they can also shape how we see and appreciate ourselves.

When viewed that way, are they really things we do for others? I’d say so, but I think it’s a delusion to believe in absolute altruism. We do for others to fill a need in ourselves.

Not saying that’s a bad thing, just saying it’s a thing.

When we invest in others outside the realms of friendship or romance, we usually do it because we see a place where we can be of service. In doing so, I think we hope what we bring to that particular table will be noticed, appreciated and, in the best of scenarios, we will get to see the fruits of our labor as the person in whom we invested overcomes or improves or achieves or does whatever else they set out to do.

They overcome. They improve. They achieve. And so do we.

This all sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? I’ll tell you what—and I hope you already know this—when it works, it is great.

Of course, in order for these investments to work, we’ve got to back the right horse, so to speak. The people in whom we chose to invest, for lack of a better word, need to be worthy of it.

What if they’re not? What if we’re wrong?

Well, then you end up where I am now; acutely aware of my own fallibility.

As I believe I’ve lamented in this space before, I’m going to turn 40 this year. That’s pretty far along in the game to butcher a character judgment as badly as I have. It makes me question myself to a degree with which I’m not particularly comfortable.

So what are the answers?

I think I’ve learned that, when I returned to an active, gainful life after 12 years on the sidelines telling people I was working on a writing career, I needed to feel like I had more to offer than news stories about the Village of Mamaroneck. While I’m proud of the work I did while I was on the beat there—and I hope those folks feel I did them a service—I think, looking back, I wanted to somehow validate my squandered years, to contribute to my new endeavor in ways perhaps those around me weren’t positioned to do.

And so I did, or tried to, and it didn’t pay off at all.

Lesson learned, I suppose, but not about life or anyone no longer in mine so much as about me.

I can still make mistakes—big ones—and there’s still room to grow and people from whom to learn.

I’ll invest again, I’m sure. But next time it’ll be from a stronger position.

Thanks for reading. We’ll talk about something fun next week.

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and
follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
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Column: Writing has ruined me for reading

Last week, Editorial Assistant Annarose Russo and I had a discussion about our inability to read anything, in that case a press release, without mentally applying the tenets of AP style.

That’s what we use here at your newspaper, by the way. It’s the reason you read things like, “The mayor said there are more than 50 potholes on Main Street,” rather than, “The mayor said there are over fifty holes on Main St.”Jason-Column2

Once you’ve reported, and especially once you’ve edited, in AP style for a while, you can recognize it when you see it in other publications immediately.

Or at least I can, and I hardly think I’m special.

Unfortunately for me, my adherence to AP style has grown and spread. I tweet in AP style. I almost always text in AP style, especially if I’m texting a current or former colleague.

If I don’t, they’ll know. But would they care?

Probably not; it’s not like I’ve had people chide me for texting colloquially. No, this is more a me thing. I know how things should be according to AP style—the rules I live by as the deputy editor of your newspaper—and I have to write them that way.

So, that’s all pretty straightforward. I work in AP style, so it bleeds over into other writing I do, day-to-day.

But here’s something you may not realize and, frankly, it makes my life—and I’d think the lives of all writers—more difficult.

When you know how to write, it is extremely difficult to read the writing of those who cannot.

Now, I’m not so much talking about emails and texts. I think we all accept a certain degree of informality there, whether we’re slaves to AP style or not. I’m talking about other professional writing; writing for which I know someone was paid.

When that’s bad, it makes me angry.

What do I mean by bad? I don’t mean fiction with a clichéd or holey plot and I don’t mean editorialized or effervescent journalism, although those are all bad too.

I’m talking about things like passive voice, adverbs, speech tags other than “said,” haphazard—or invisible—commas, an utter inability to properly place a semi-colon, capriciously shifting POV and exclamation points.

All exclamation points!

Well, nearly all.

When you know what you’re doing as a writer—which, by the way, you learn far more by writing badly for years than you do any other way—your tolerance for published ineptitude erodes to a pitted nub.

I’m well aware this may all read like snobbery, but the reality is it’s largely jealousy. Few writers are as published as they want to be—I’m no exception to that, certainly from a fiction standpoint—so it can be quite irksome to crack a paperback and not escape the first page before my eyes trip over a sentence ending in a preposition or reading something she exclaimed or he said proudly.

It’s a downer for all writers. You don’t have to take my word for it, either. Ask the writers around you, they’ll tell you.

But, for me, the problem runs deeper.

When it comes to my fiction, I’ve settled into what is called New Pulp by its participants and its all-too-few readers. To put it succinctly, new pulp is stories and characters suggesting the tone and texture, if not the trappings, of the works of men like Robert E. Howard, Lester Dent and the various Maxwell Grants.

Don’t know who they are? You won’t like this stuff. But that’s OK, you don’t need to know or like Sailor Steve Costigan, Doc Savage or The Shadow to understand my plight.

Because New Pulp is such a burgeoning, niche subgenre, not everything published under its auspices is, you know, good. Or even particularly professional.

Not long ago, I bought a New Pulp book—a print book, mind you, not even an eBook—about an adventuring aviator and his group of helpers tasked with rescuing a powerful man’s daughter from a remote island.

So my thing.

Except the book was unreadable. I threw it after Chapter Three.

And that’s part of my overall dilemma. I’m extremely grateful New Pulp exists and there’s a market for it at all but, when I read and throw things like that book, I feel it damages the subgenre as a whole and, by extension, its potential for success and, by extension, my potential for success.

I’m not convinced this entire visit won’t leave you thinking of me as a snob. I suppose maybe I just wanted a bit of sympathy for me, Editorial Assistant Annarose Russo and all of us whose job, and we would say calling, it is to pound these keyboards in just the correct sequence that will properly inform and entertain you.

If I was going to put a positive spin on all this, I’d say you know you’re a writer when most reading becomes insufferable.

That’s positive, all right; positively frustrating.

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
Jason5

Column: Where’s my time machine? I want to go home

Jason-Column2This past weekend, I watched two movies from my embarrassing backlog of wrapped DVDs, “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup,” both starring the Marx Brothers, released in 1932 and 1933 respectively.

In this space over the past weeks, we’ve discussed my love of “Casablanca,” trains and my discovery of neckwear at an early age.

The bow tie went down a storm last week, by the way. There will be others.

Tuesday is my wife’s late night at work, so I watched the latest round of “Carson on TCM,” in which Conan O’Brien introduces full-length interviews from the old Johnny Carson “Tonight Show” with people like, taking examples from last night, Bob Hope, Truman Capote, Bing Crosby, Tony Randall and Lauren Bacall.

You see where I’m going with this?

The first thought one might have about someone with interests like many of mine is nostalgia; I want to relive my childhood, or else things I saw when I was growing up.

Hold on, though; I’m going to be 40 in November, folks, not 70. I’m Generation X. If what I feel is nostalgia, I’d yearn for things like parachute pants, “Square Pegs” and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But I don’t. I don’t even miss deely bobbers. I hope no one does.

So, what is it?

It seems to me I’m nostalgic for someone else’s childhood, for an era not my own. Is that all it is though, nostalgia? It can’t be if I never experienced the things involved in the first place, can it?

I have a leather jacket based on the aviator barnstormers of the 20’s and 30’s. That novella I keep mentioning? It’s set in 1953. The next one I’m going to write will be based in the 30’s and have its roots in the pulp magazine heroes of that time.

Hey, fellow Gen X-ers, remember The Spider? The Shadow? Doc Savage? Of course not!

Wait, what about the first three Star Wars movies and all the Indiana Jones films. I love those, don’t I?

Yeah, but they’re based on the serials of the 30’s. Crap.

So, what it is with me, anyway? Am I just a man out of time? I have no idea, to be honest.

I can easily sit here and say, well, I should have been born in the 30’s, or perhaps the 20’s so I could really appreciate the culture of the 30’s. That would be an easy answer.

But would I have wanted to live through the Depression? Would I have wanted to leave my blood, and maybe my brains, on Omaha Beach?

I don’t know, maybe I would have. Maybe, like so many people around back then, I would have just got on with it, got through it, somehow. Maybe that’s something that’s missing today. I’m not sure I see many people around me willing to just get on with it.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve reached back in time for, or perhaps been pulled back in time by, most of the things that interest me. When I look at what the 1930s version of the future would be, it seems a whole lot cooler than what we ended up with in a lot of ways. Not all ways, of course—people aren’t dying like clockwork at about 60, for example—but, I don’t know, there was such romanticism about things like aviation, trans-Atlantic travel and what one might see at the next World’s Fair.

Today, I have a little glass slab in my pocket on which I can access all the knowledge in the known universe and I don’t bat an eye unless it takes too long for someone’s Instagram photo to download into my Twitter feed.

I won’t go so far as to say I think things were better back in the 20’s and 30’s for two reasons. First, I wasn’t there. Second, I’m sure things, on the whole, are far better now in most respects. That is, hopefully, the nature of the human race; we move forward inexorably, with stumbling blocks along the way.

Miley, for example.

What I will say is there’s something about that bygone era that appeals to me, draws me to it, in ways I don’t think anything still to come ever will.

Perhaps unfortunately, I don’t think we were able to zero-in on exactly why that is during our visit here this week, but I think if we agree it has something to do with the promise of a fantastic future based on the exploration of new technology backed by simpler virtues and ideals, I think I’m good with that
for now.

 

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and 

follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
Jason5

Column: I’ve always been a tie guy

I wore a tie to school most days in my junior and senior years of high school.

Public high school. In Yonkers.Jason-Column2

Looking back, I think it was my way of being different, or standing out. I could never have been one of those kids with Technicolor hair or a piercing where there shouldn’t be one, and these were the days before people were issued tattoos soon after they cleared the birth canal, so I guess it was ties or anonymity for me.

I say that, and I think it’s true; like most kids in high school, I wanted a way to be an individual but, really, I think it was simply a matter of ties were me.

It’s a bit of costuming, isn’t it? Especially at that age. If I’m really going to psychoanalyze my younger self, I think it was a way to put a little barrier, no matter how thin and silken, between the rest of the world and me.

The blanket was Linus’ security, but it made him stand out. Good grief, what irony.

Sort of an odd adjunct to my high school ties. I wasn’t the only one who chose neckwear in my class. There was another kid, called John Peterson, who wore ties, too. He was a nice, quiet guy; he and I were lab partners once in chemistry and, for that period, they were literally the ties that bind.

John was killed in a car accident during our senior year. I didn’t know him that well, but, after that, I sort of felt a bit like my ties were a tiny bit about him mixed in with all of me.

My tie wearing didn’t end in high school.

Once I ventured out into the cold, cruel world of retail employment, I continued the habit, often wearing a tie to my job at Tower Video in Yonkers. There is no more Tower in Yonkers, or anywhere else, but, if you remember it, it was about the least tie-inspiring, or requiring, place of business you could imagine this side of a cock-fighting ring.

Again, the ties made me stand out against all the tattoos and studded tongues. It was around this time I realized that, though I’d never be considered one of them, I always got along with, and was accepted by, the “alternative” set.

You probably heard them referred to as freaks.

By the time I left the workforce in 1999, I was reporting for a tiny wire service in the federal courthouse in Newark. The other, I would say real, reporters in the newsroom wore ties every day, of course, so mine didn’t really stand out anymore.

Oh well.

Some years later, I was in the middle of the extended…sabbatical, let’s call it, that I’ve referenced in this space before. In those days, I was supposed to be creating fiction every day but, as I believe we’ve discussed, there’s nothing deadlier to a writer’s productivity than his own home, the clothes he slept in and no deadline.

One of the things I did in the rare times I was productive during that period was get dressed, shoes and all, as though I was going to work somewhere. Even though somewhere was the far corner of the living room, dressing the part helped and, by now you know, dressing any part for me involved wearing a tie.

I arrived here at your newspaper in September 2012. Any of you who may have seen me at meetings or events, or met with me, while I was on the beat in Mamaroneck will likely not remember I was often wearing a tie, but I sure do. Those early days were a jarring transition back into life for me; there was no way I was going to do it without my silken strips of security.

Of course, up until now we’ve been talking about your standard necktie. But that’s about to change.

There’s a crime writer whose work I quite admire called Christa Faust. She’s also an occasional Twitter pal of mine. Her father died not so long ago and, through the magic of Twitter, those of us who follow Christa were aware of his struggles as well as how much she loved him. In passing, her father, who from what I can gather was an iconoclast, left a collection of bow ties behind and, as a way to preserve them and a piece of who he was, Christa has found new homes for them with those of us whose honor it will be to wear them into the future.

And so, when I finish this column, I’ll get ready and head up to our Port Chester office wearing an actual bow tie for the first time in my life. I suspect I don’t have much in common with the man who used to wear it, but he helped create and shape someone I respect and he had his daughter’s love and devotion until his last moment.

That’s someone who deserves a legacy, I think, so I’ll do my part, however tiny, with a bit of costuming.

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
Jason5

Column: Time enough at last to write

Jason-Column2Those of us who write for your newspaper do so under a constant, rolling deadline. As soon as we file what we need to for one week, the deadline for the next springs to life and begins to loom.

That’s what deadlines do; they loom.

I’ve mentioned the novella I wrote in the latter part of last year in this space a few times. That was written under a deadline, too; one I just managed to hit, after some adjustment.

Deadlines are useful for two reasons. First, they drive the writer’s sense of urgency to accomplish. Second, they, hopefully, force the writer to manage time in such a way as to achieve the writer’s goals.

That’s looking at deadlines in the best light, I’d say. Mostly, deadlines just make writers hate their lives and themselves for ever thinking writing in any sort of professional capacity was a good, or even feasible, idea in the first place.

But what if all we had was time to write?

There’s a great “Twilight Zone” episode, I think in the first season, called “Time Enough at Last.” In it, Burgess Meredith plays a man who wants only to read, but never has enough time to do it. When the apocalypse comes, as it often did in the Zone, Meredith survives, locked in a bank vault, and ventures out into the ruined city to find most of the books in the public library still intact. Before he can read a single page, though, his glasses slip from his face and break on the rock-strewn ground.

“That’s not fair at all,” he said. “There was time now. There was all the time I
needed.”

He then bursts into tears, the only life he could have had, the only one he would have wanted, ruined.

Fade out.

Ah, The “Twilight Zone.”

Anyway, as writers, we yearn for the sort of life Burgess Meredith wanted in that story. What if there was time enough at last to write, and do nothing but write? What could we accomplish in that world?

Well, that world doesn’t exist. But there is a way, it seems, to create a wormhole through the one we’ve got.

In a recent interview with Pen.org, writer, poet and journalist Alexander Chee said his favorite place to write is on a train.

“I wish Amtrak had residences for writers,” he said.

That got the social media wheels turning.

Before long, New York-based writer Jessica Gross, inspired by Chee’s interview, and Amtrak collaborated to test pilot the first Amtrak Residency, which has become the hashtag du jour among writers in recent days.

Gross traveled to Chicago and back, with no appreciable layover, on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. Thirty-nine hours in which she had nothing to do, nothing to worry about, but write, watch the scenery roll by, write, let the train rock her to sleep, write, meet her fellow travelers over a meal…

Write…

In the early stages of our relationship, fall of 1996 maybe, my wife and I took Amtrak to Atlanta to visit her family. It was about an 18-hour journey each way, as I recall. We were in coach on the way back, which was nice, but we were able to afford a sleeper car on the way down there and that was probably the best travel experience of my life.

I wasn’t doing much writing in those days; we were still sort of discovering each other then, but, looking back on it now, I can easily see how hypnotically otherworldly the opportunity to write on an extended train journey, in my own little private rectangle of space, would be.

Indeed, an Amtrak Residency would be amazing.

We talked about different forms of time travel in this space several weeks ago and I think this would be one of the best ones. The nature of a journey creates a natural deadline—the train must arrive at the station eventually—but, until then, there is only the journey, the inexorable rocking, lulling forward movement. The writer along on a journey like that, one in which mind, body and train travel together at the same pace, has the movement and the progress overland as a sort of enveloping metronome the writer can feel as well as see and hear. The words and the train progress together.

Most non-writers fail to realize much of writing takes place while the writer is doing other things. The view from an Amtrak sleeper car fosters the kind of writing that requires no moving parts as much as I’m sure it inspired Chee’s and Gross’ fingers to create words.

I have other novellas in me; I can feel them. It would be quite something, I think, to get well acquainted with one of them as the rails led me through a wormhole in this world. There would be time enough at last to write.

At least for a little while.

 

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and 

follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
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Column: Everybody comes (back) to Rick’s

Jason-Column2Last Friday, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I went to see “Casablanca,” my favorite movie of all-time, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers. It was the fifth time I’ve seen “Casablanca” in a theater. As I watched, rapt as ever, something happened that’s never happened to me before and it made me realize that, each time I’ve seen the movie, I’ve been at a different stage of my life and, as such, I think I’ve interpreted, and been affected by, certain aspects of it differently.

I first saw “Casablanca” in a theater in 1992. It was also the first time I saw the movie at all and, looking back, I can’t be thankful enough that’s how I first experienced it. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, my 12th grade economics teacher, Frank Egloff, took us to see the movie in New York City, where it was playing for its 50th anniversary.

What did that have to do with economics? Nothing; Mr. Egloff just thought we should see it.

I’m glad he felt that way because that day changed my life.

Before then, my experience with black-and-white movies was limited to “King Kong” on Thanksgiving and the first 10 minutes of “The Wizard of Oz.” The things I remember most about seeing “Casablanca” that first time were the incredible dialog and scene in which Victor Lazlo, with Rick’s nodded ascent, leads the French café patrons in singing “La Marseillaise,” drowning out the drunk Nazis, who tried to take over Rick’s Café American, as they did everything else, with “Die Wacht am Rhein.”

That scene gave what my best friend and I used to call The Feeling; that tingly swell you get at a particularly cathartic scene in a movie.

I also remember Mr. Egloff talking to the bus driver about “Casablanca,” and other old movies, on the way back to school. It made me wonder what else might be out there for me to discover.

Seeing “Casablanca” that day was indeed the gateway to a deep and abiding love of classic film, and film in general, that defines me to this day. It also made up my mind that I wanted to write for a living; somehow, some way that’s what I wanted to do. I’d always written, of course, both in school and out, but my introduction to dialog and those characters that day convinced me I wanted to be a part of words and storytelling in some capacity for the rest of my days.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do up until then. It was either run guns to Ethiopia, fight in Spain on the loyalist side or be the guy who drove the tour tram around the Bronx Zoo.

The next time I saw “Casablanca” in a theater was later that same year, 1992, when it came to the little theater in Bronxville, which is still one of my favorites to this day. That time, I saw it with my soon to be first girlfriend and two other friends. That viewing taught me two things; Claude Rains’ Capt. Louis Renault was my favorite movie character ever—still is; I watch him more than anyone else in the film—and it’s awesome to share something you love with someone you love.

That last bit would serve me extremely well in later choosing someone to actually marry because, as you’ve recently read in this space, that first girlfriend had 12 break-ups and two years of angsty tumult in store for me.

Not even “Casablanca” could overcome that, and just as well.

The next time I visited Rick’s on the big screen was quite special in two ways.

First, I saw it at Radio City Music Hall, one of the grand palaces of American exhibition, and, second, it was the first time I saw “Casablanca” with my wife.

She’d also seen it during its anniversary re-release, though she lived in Atlanta at the time, and was already a fan.

We’d recently started dating, as I recall, so this would be sometime in the summer or fall of 1996. With that viewing, I learned one very important thing. There’s more to life than what you’ve known.

Between my first relationship and my second, “Casablanca” viewings at home were a way to cheer myself up for one reason or another. As of that screening at Radio City, the movie, and maybe life, was something to celebrate again. And it has been ever since.

We saw the movie again, this time as a married couple, of course, just a year or two ago at the City Center in White Plains. Nothing cathartic to report about this viewing except it was round about that time I realized, if you watch closely, Capt. Renault is never really a bad guy; he never really sides with the Nazis. He subtlety counters and digs at everything Maj. Strasser says from the start.

If sarcasm, wit and guile in the face of oppression can be their own form heroism, I’m in pretty good shape.

That brings us to last Friday. As you’ve probably guessed by now, seeing “Casablanca” on the big screen with like-minded people on Valentine’s Day with my soul mate was pretty damn special for me. It was the most I’ve enjoyed the experience since the first time, but there was that new thing that happened I mentioned earlier.

When Lazlo led “La Marseillaise” this time, I teared-up and I’m not sure why.

Maybe it’s because I understand love of country more than I used to. Maybe it’s because I have a better appreciation for the freedoms I enjoy that others around the world can’t.

Or maybe it’s because, 22 years after I first saw it, I’ve gotten to a place in my life—and as a person—in which I can just let a moment like that in to affect me how it will. I hope that’s what it was.

The best relationships are the ones that can still surprise you.

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and
follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
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Column: Go to the dentist, will you please?

Jason-Column2I’m one of those guys who won’t go to the doctor for anything. Don’t you hate guys like that? I know my wife does. I suspect everyone’s wife does.

I’m also one of those guys who’s going to be 40 this year, and even I have thought now is probably a good time to start doing some maintenance.

In my defense, I think I come by my stubbornness honestly, which is to say it’s hereditary, which is to say it’s not my fault.

My father, who, until a point, was also one of these guys, has acquired some renown for what he was willing to do to avoid, or otherwise shrug off, the need for a doctor. There’s a famous story in our family about a time one of my father’s molars was bothering him to such an extent he removed it himself with nothing but a pair of pliers and masculinity.

That’s 100 percent true, folks. I saw the tooth, roots and all. It looked like something you’d see in a Tex Avery cartoon.

So, that’s the stock from which I come. While my father’s do-it-yourself attitude had served him well in some areas—he’s a self-taught master repairman of just about anything—I’m not sure it was the best idea in terms of his body and health.

And yet that was my attitude, too, until a couple weeks ago.

Shortly after Thanksgiving 2013, I started feeling, let’s call it a sensation, in my gums on the lower left side. I believe I was sitting in the wonderful new Alamo Drafthouse theater in Yonkers when I first noticed it. It progressed from there to bite pain on that side, followed by periods of burny pain that sometimes required a couple of Advil before I could proceed with my day at your newspaper.

As we all do these days, especially those of us who dismiss going to the doctor or, in this case—shudder—the dentist, out of hand, I spent a lot of time on the Internet trying to diagnose my problem.

Pooling the full diagnostic powers of WebMD and Editor-in-Chief Christian Falcone together with my own, I determined I had a gum infection and, in a separate but perhaps related issue, that my lower left wisdom tooth had shifted, crowding and irritating my other teeth.

Yes, I still have all my wisdom teeth. What did I do when I was about 19 or 20 and they were coming in to enormous, throbbing pain that lasted weeks, you ask?

I sucked it up and got on with the business of renting movies to people.

Thanks, Dad.

Needless to say, my wife told me to see a dentist the moment I made the mistake of telling her what was going on. No, I thought, I want to beat this myself. I’ve read about the home remedies and treatments for a gum infection. I’ll tackle it myself and not only avoid the dentist, but I’ll know I won. I won and the infection lost. Then, and only then, if I decide to have the wisdom tooth extracted, it’ll be on my terms, not those of some lousy gum infection, which I knew didn’t stand a chance against warm salt water and my will.

This is how men think, ladies. Isn’t it great?

In my defense, the salt water and diligence with which I used it did hold whatever was wrong at bay, to some extent. The burning flare-ups of pain got fewer and farther between, but they still happened and, after the first McDonald’s chocolate shake I’ve had in a couple years made me see stars, I jacked it in and decided to seek the care of a professional.

Remember, I’m going to be 40 this year. I remember it because I think of little else these days. Forty without a doctor or a dentist to my name.

At that rate, what on Earth will 60 look like, assuming I get there?

If you’re a guy like me, here’s what I want you to take away from this if you take anything from it because it’s something I wasn’t expecting. Going to the dentist, and I believe I found a good one, that first time—I’ve been twice, so far—was instant peace of mind and taught me I’m not alone in this problem, nor will I be for any future problem.

As soon as I filled my prescription for antibiotics and pain reliever, I felt like, hey, these pharmacy guys are here to help me win this fight, too. As soon as I took my first doses, I realized what a complete fool I’d been to wait and try to tackle the problem myself.

Especially since, hey, I was right; it was a gum infection and a case of reversible pulpitis in my lower left molar, third from the back.

Finding out you’re right is never a bad thing.

As I sit here now, finishing up our weekly visit, I do so with no pain and a second course of antibiotics making sure the infection stays dead. I’m going back to the dentist next week for other, long overdue maintenance and repair work-—nothing major, thankfully—and, I have to say, I’m more looking forward to it than not.

If I’m going to be here at 60 and beyond, I don’t want those years to be full of trips to WebMD, or whatever the holographic implant equivalent will be at that time, and fretting, even if it means I never get to do something as spectacularly awesome as extract my own molar with a pair of pliers and my own willingness to get the job done.

Still need to get to a doctor for a check-up.

Maybe I’ll wait until I’m actually 40 for that.

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and
follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas

 
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Column: Can we separate the art from the artist?

I’m a movie nerd. That’s the first thing you need to know.Jason-Column2

I’m a fastidious detailer and curator of my enthusiasms. That’s the second thing you need to know.

Those things being the case, I maintain a top 10 list of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a living document; I’ve made changes to it over the years.

At present, Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” is No. 10 on the list.

On Feb. 1, Dylan Farrow, 28, Allen’s adopted daughter with actress Mia Farrow, wrote on open letter published in the New York Times in which she challenged the world at-large, Hollywood in specific and some of his most recent and closest collaborators, to acknowledge Allen sexually abused her in 1992 when she was seven years old and treat him accordingly.

Allen received a lifetime achievement award from the Hollywood Foreign Press at this year’s Golden Globe Awards.

Some on the Internet were quick to say Dylan Farrow’s accusation is nothing new; it was a major issue in the custody battle between Allen and Mia Farrow that ended in 1993. The couple split in 1992, at which time it was revealed Allen, 56 at the time, was in love with 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s daughter, adopted prior to her relationship with Allen.

Mia Farrow was awarded custody of the couple’s three adopted children following the custody battle and Allen was denied visitation with Dylan. Connecticut prosecutors believed there was probable cause to believe Allen molested Dylan, but declined to charge him in order to spare Dylan the pain of a trial.

Allen married Previn in 1997.

While Dylan Farrow’s allegations may have been old news to some, particularly those who follow the personal lives of celebrities for sport, they were new to me and I’m not at liberty to do anything but believe her.

So now what?

If Allen raped Dylan Farrow in the attic of their Connecticut home as she describes in her open letter, does that mean “Annie Hall” isn’t at once the prototypical, atypical and deconstructionist romantic comedy?

No, I’d say it still is.

Does it mean that movie, or “Take the Money and Run” or “Manhattan Murder Mystery” are less fun or funny?

I’d have to say yeah, maybe it does.

And that’s the problem with trying to separate the art from the artist. We can do it, but, if we’re critically thinking, feeling human beings, we can’t help but let what we know about the people who create our great works creep into our thoughts as we partake in them.

In fact, I would say, as we consume and analyze the work of someone as artistically and critically revered as Allen, it is our duty to make the connections and ask the questions about what aspects of his life have informed and shaped the work.

As uncomfortable as it may be to do it, perhaps a new analysis of Allen’s films in light of Dylan Farrow’s open letter is a worthy endeavor, particularly those works created after 1992. What might someone like me, who didn’t know about the abuse until now, see that he didn’t see before?

Am I someone who’s going to take that journey and ask those questions?

After all, I knew Allen had fallen for Soon-Yi Previn at the time it was revealed, that didn’t stop me from delving into his older films in my earlier 20’s or going to see many of his moves since.

I know Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl in Jack Nicholson’s house in 1977, but it has never stopped me from enjoying “Chinatown,” “Death and the Maiden” or a number of Polanski’s other films and look at some of the subject matter there.

Most of what we’ve seen in the days following Dylan Farrow’s letter revolves around whether or not her allegations are true and whether or not, if true, Woody Allen deserves the accolades for his art he has received. I’m not interested in that debate because, as I said above, I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of Dylan Farrow’s memory; I must accept it as she presents it to me.

And she has.

So now my relationship with Woody Allen’s films is different. Damaged? Certainly. Over? I must admit, probably not.

But that’s what comes with the passion of our enthusiasms. They can change before our eyes, even though they remain the same, and what they say to us and how we deal with them can, in fact, be colored by what we know about the people behind them.

As it should be?

Reach Jason at jason@hometwn.com and follow him Twitter @jasonchirevas