Adios, Burn Notice

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The last episode of Burn Notice airs tonight. After tonight there will be no new opportunities for Sam Axe to charm soulless psychopaths with his alter ego Chuck Finley. We will never again marvel anew at the ability of Fiona to blow up entire blocks of warehouses on the Miami River without anyone even batting an eye. Michael Westen, long-abandoned burned spy, won’t be there to save the little guy from the big bad wolf or break our hearts with his loneliness. He will exist only in reruns. There won’t be anything new under the clear, South Florida sun.

Miami was the one character on Burn Notice that I could always count on. Each episode was a glossy postcard from the city I call home, despite the fact that I haven’t lived there full-time for many years. Coconut Grove looked luxurious and exotic. The Keys held close to their wild mystery. The blue waters of Biscayne Bay rivaled those of any advertisement for a Caribbean getaway that might have played during a commercial break. The Marina at Dinner Key reminded me that the best boats are those owned by your friends who invite you to come along.

Where Miami Vice was dark and broody, Burn Notice, at its best, is bright and buoyant. Crockett and Tubbs lived in the shadows of after hours clubs and the glare of pink neon. Michael, Sam, Fiona, and Jesse operate in the crystal clear light of day. Burn Notice always felt like Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. If, after robbing the rich to feed the poor, Robin Hood and the Merry Men had gone for tapas and mojitos.

Burn Notice wasn’t always perfect. The times when it lost its way were exactly those times when the mood got too dark, the setting too remote, the mosquitoes too nasty. Fortunately, they always found their way back to South Beach, Key Biscayne, and Coral Gables. Sam was there to mix a rum drink and Michael took the Charger out for a yogurt run. Through it all, Michael and the gang looked great, did good, and taught us all some useful tips on modern spy craft.

There’s another reason Burn Notice means so much to me. When I was traveling (a lot) for work, I read (a lot) of books that were readily available at the airport. Lucky for me, that included the Burn Notice serials by Tod Goldberg. Little did I realize that a few years later, I would get a call from that very same Tod Goldberg telling me I had been accepted into the MFA program he runs at UCR-Palm Desert. Being a part of this program has changed my life in all of the best ways. Burn Notice doesn’t get the credit for that—I do—but I’ll never forget the breadcrumbs on the trail that led me to where I am today.

I’ll watch the final episode tonight. I’m sure I’ll cry, because I always do. But anytime it’s snowing and I’m feeling homesick, I know exactly where to turn.

Ft Lauderdale Beach

Is Crazy Contagious?

coffee cupsWhen you quit your full-time, benefits paying job and tell people that you want to be a writer they, understandably, look at you like you’re crazy. Which is okay, because you are crazy. All good logic dictates that this is would be classified as a bad idea. Or, at the very least, not very smart. Then when you decide to go to back to school and get a writing degree the men in white jackets really start to circle. In two easy steps you have gone from a person who receives money on a regular basis to a person who pays money on a regular basis. Again, on paper, not very smart.

But paper is exactly where the alchemy starts to happen. I started writing—on purpose, with a purpose—and reading, and talking about reading and writing critically with my professors and classmates. I was spinning my own intellectual gold. And no, I can’t write a check with that gold just yet, but I have a real shot of doing something that makes me profoundly happy.

That sounds incredibly hokey, even to me, and I’m a person who cries at TV commercials. But in addition to the work I am doing, I’ve met some truly amazing people, who, like me, are doing this crazy thing that makes no sense. One friend in particular had a story like mine. She was working at a good job making good money with a 401(k) plan and medical insurance. And she quit. Just like me.

“I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” she said when we first discovered our shared insanity.  “I needed to make a clean break from my old life to my new one.”

Exactly.

IMG_7681Recently, she and I visited Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home in the Hudson Valley. Irving built his charming little cottage on the banks of the Hudson just north of New York City at a time when he was one of the most famous men in America. The tour guide, a historical interpreter in period dress, explained that strangers would walk the wooded path and knock on his door uninvited.

Sunnyside

“I guess they hoped some of the genius would rub off on them,” she said. She laughed. My friend and I joined in, but only as polite cover because we didn’t want to be found out.

“Our Washington Irving,” she said, always referring to him as ‘our’ Washington Irving, “…was the first American to earn his living solely from writing.” The guide explained that he had tried his hand first at the family business and then as a lawyer. But neither really stuck.

My friend and I exchanged glances again. Her eyes got wide and I caught a glimpse of a recognizable spark. I knew we were thinking the same thing. No, not that either of us would be the next Washington Irving, but that sometimes going all in does pay off. Even Irving had to be brave—or crazy—enough to try.

Inside Sunnyside, in the room with Irving’s desk and built-in napping spot, the guides tell the story of Washington Irving and a famous letter he sent to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, as the fable goes, was struggling to find anyone to publish his stories. He sent them to the famous man of American letters for feedback. Irving replied with an encouraging letter urging Poe to not give up and to keep writing. And, as every 8th Grade English student knows, Poe did.

The postscript to the story is that later someone asked Irving about what he saw in Poe.  He replied something like this: “The stories were strange and I’m not sure I understood them, but I never want to discourage anyone from writing.”

I, like our friendly guide in her enormous hoop skirt, am paraphrasing, but the sentiment remains the same. Irving knew this writing thing is a crazy business. He also knew that sometimes all it takes to keep going is a kindred spirit to smile in your direction. In my case, I not only have some amazing new writer friends, I also have an incredibly supportive family and my old, dear friends who probably knew all along I would do something like this.

Sure, we’re crazy. Sure, it might blow up in our faces. But I don’t think so. One of my oldest friends, who was with us for the tour at Sunnyside, took our picture by Irving’s gazebo. “It’s the two writers!” she said when we looked back at the digital images from that day. When I look at the picture I do see writers, but I also see alchemists, mad scientists, and yes, strangers knocking on Irving’s door hoping some of the genius rubs off.

Safari, so good.

I love safari adventures. I mean, I’ve never been on one, and I’m not much for outdoorsy-type things. I hate bugs and have a debilitating fear of snakes. So maybe I should be more precise: I love the idea of safari adventure. Or maybe even more precise: I love the idea of safari adventures as presented by Disney’s Jungle Cruise and Banana Republic. Not the Banana Republic we have today, oh no. The Banana Republic we had in the 80s when there were actual, antique British Jeeps displayed in stores and filled with t-shirts with elephants and zebras on the back. Mosquito nets hung from the ceilings and some of the clothes and accessories were legit army surplus. I bought a surplus utility belt that was olive drab and put a heavy emphasis on the utility part of utility belt. My mom bought a flight suit-styled jumpsuit in all three colors: khaki, gray, and, of course, olive drab. Sometimes she borrowed my utility belt. 

banana republic

I owned a pith helmet. Seriously. I wore it to band camp. Don’t judge me. I wasn’t the only one. It was Ft. Lauderdale in the 80s; if you weren’t wearing a Banana Republic t-shirt, you probably were wearing one from Panama Jack. Panama’s and pith’s keep you cool in the tropics. Mine was pink. (You can buy one all your own on eBay.)

I have always maintained, and will continue to do so, that my dream job is boat captain on Disney’s Jungle Cruise. I know how you stop a rhino from charging. Take away his credit card. I could maneuver the boat past Schweitzer falls to share with happy, tired, sweaty park goers a “sight rarely seen by human eyes: the back of water!” (I am not the only person who loves the Jungle Cruise. Check out this awesome tribute site.)

The Explorers Club, a new play from Nell Benjamin, was, for me, the theater equivalent of riding the Jungle Cruise while wearing a Banana Republic t-shirt and a Panama Jack pith helmet. The play certainly lives up to reviews: “Comic gold!” raves the Daily News. “Wildly Funny!” says Variety. But, for explorers and safari adventurers like myself, it is so much more.

IMG_0437It has everything: a ground breaking female adventurer, a native from a lost city, uptight Englishmen, and a guinea pig named Jane. The cast is beyond fantastic, the play is hysterical, and the set decoration is my posh Victorian safari dream come to life. There are shrunken heads behind the bar, a magnificent globe in the corner, and a stuffed walrus, amongst other things, on the wall. (Being a thoroughly modern production, they encourage you to take pictures of the set and share them on the social media platform of your choice. Voilá!)

I recently read an article about the newly remodeled Four Seasons in the Serengeti in Tanzania.  It takes like twenty-nine hours to get there, but, once you’re there, you don’t have to ride in a bumpy jeep or sleep in tent. The hotel pools are next to some of the watering holes. The elephants come to you! And so do the cocktails. The explorers in The Explorers Club would be so proud.

Unfortunately, the price of such an adventure still requires a Royal sponsor or, at least, an internet guru’s fortune. So I’ll just turn on The African Queen, pour myself a tumbler of scotch, and pop on the pith helmet. Or maybe watch those YouTube clips of The Explorers Club one more time.IMG_0443

Haunted Amusement Parks

All amusement parks are haunted. I mean, seriously, is there any other kind? Maybe the big theme parks like Disney World or Knott’s Berry Farm pretend not to be, but certainly there aren’t any in any Scooby Doo episode that I’ve ever seen. But Knott’s Berry Farm does become Knott’s Scary Farm every Halloween and even the Magic Kingdom undergoes a Jack Skellington-sponsored temporary makeover.

It’s July. Why do we care about haunted amusement parks? Shouldn’t we think about this kind of stuff in October when the nights come sooner and the wind whispers through the changing leaves? Right now, from Playland in Rye to Kennywood in Pittsburgh, every regional, half-forgotten, whole-heartedly loved park is running at capacity with only hints to the secrets and mysteries hidden beneath the midway.

I just finished reading Joyland, a new novel by Stephen King. It’s a coming of age story set in the 1973 fictional world of Joyland, an old-school park on the beach in North Carolina. There are broken hearts, murder, and the ghost of a long-dead girl in the park’s only dark ride, the Horror House. It is a sentimental, scary, and fast-ride of a book.

Mo-Mo The Monster

Mo-Mo The Monster

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Whether or not you believe in the supernatural, every park has its own ghosts. For some it might just be the nostalgia of the rides that you loved that are no more. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? Six Flags Over Georgia’s Mo-Mo The Monster?The Alfred Hitchcock Show at Universal Studios Florida? Okay, maybe the Hitchcock show wasn’t much, but you get the point. For others, it’s the memories of old boyfriends or the lost days of childhood. The stolen kisses behind the shooting gallery or the queasy feeling of one bite too many of cotton candy.

For me, the most haunted park of all isn’t even there anymore. All that’s left of Opryland USA, other than memories of thousands of weary park goers, is a parking lot. Sure the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and the Roy Acuff Theater are still there, but the corkscrew tracks of the Wabash Cannonball and the white-water rapids of Grizzly River Rampage are gone.

I worked a summer at Opryland when I was eighteen. It was the easiest seasonal job for a college student to get. Even so, I doubt there were many summer jobs where the kids worked harder. We sweat it out in the summer heat. We herded patrons to safety when the lightning warnings went off. (Note: The last place you want to be in a thunderstorm is floating through a water ride.)

oprylandWe waved at the Opryland Railroad every time it passed. The waving was a job requirement. Even in the behind-the-scenes areas where only employees were allowed. If you could see that train and the people on the train could see you, you damn well better wave. People got fired for not waving at the train. Every Red Tag would tell you so. (The full time employees had red nametags. Us regulars had black ones.) More often than not, the day-to-day grind of the park meant I couldn’t work up a smile, but I waved. Every time. I waved.

That summer I learned every word to God Bless The USA, the final number at the Country Music USA show. I saw Cynthia Rhodes make a triumphant return to an Opryland stage after having a fictional abortion in Dirty Dancing and a real-life wedding to Richard Marx. I sold t-shirts next to the Little Deuce Coupe and took tickets at the Grand Ole Opry.

I think about Opryland every time I visit a theme park or a fair. I know how long those hours are and how hard it is to be polite to the twentieth person who asks for directions to the bathroom when you’re supposed to be on your break. I thought about it all as I read Joyland. Stephen King can tell a story for sure, but the magic is in the connection he makes with the reader. This reader, at least. The Dickensian ghosts of summer past. Of my summers’ past. As the owner of Joyland puts it in his speech on the first day of the season: “This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don’t already know that will come to know it. Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun.”

Roller coaster rides last less than five minutes. You spend more time drying out from a water ride than you actually spend riding it. Even a slow turning Ferris wheel eventually stops to let you off and make room for the next person in line. The memories of those days take up space in the dusty attic of your mind long after summer fades into fall. Those ghosts, Casper-friendly or Freddy Krueger-frightening, are the crazy alchemy of the carnival. It’s “carny from carny” as King would say in Joyland.

Like I said, every amusement park is haunted.

…And Justice For All

As a lawyer, people have often given me presents emblazoned with images of Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice. Her image is familiar to us all, lawyer and non-lawyer alike:  a lady, sometimes blindfolded, often not, holding scales in one hand and a two-sided sword in the other. We are trained as lawyers—hell, as people in a civilized society—that justice must be served. Sometimes that means that guilty people go free, but hopefully, more often it means that after a trial based on reason, fairness, and truth, the guilty are held accountable. This is justice. This is the rule of law. This is the type of treatment we would hope to get should we find ourselves faced with similar circumstances.

Justice is served. Justice is meted out. Justice protects and justice punishes.

I started thinking about the concept of justice last week while listening to an interview with Gillian Flynn on Goodreads about the ending of her book Gone Girl. She said people hate the ambiguity in the accountability of the characters at the end. Readers tell Flynn they are looking for justice.  “This book isn’t about justice…There is nothing in that book that has any hint that there is going to be justice.” She boils the ending down to the relationship between the husband and wife, Nick and Amy: “There is no justice. Being in love isn’t about justice. The ending is about two people who are each other’s match, for better or worse.”

Then Boston happens. A piece and the peace of a city—a country—blow up, literally and figuratively.  President Obama immediately promises that those responsible for the bombs will “feel the full weight of justice.” After 9/11 President Bush similarly promised to “find those responsible and bring them to justice.”

What does that even mean? It is just a timeworn cliché heard everywhere from the White House to crime procedurals on television?

It certainly doesn’t mean fairness. There is nothing fair about what has happened. Like other cases of brutal, violent crimes, there is no modern form of jurisprudence that could possibly make up for the pain and suffering of the murdered and the injured and their families. For me, it doesn’t mean righteousness or fury, either. Violence should not, in my opinion, beget violence.

For the lawyer in me, justice means accountability.  The person responsible is demonstrated to have committed the crime and faces the penalty for that crime. He (or she or they) is provided with the protection of the rule of law our democratic society demands. Then, when everything is weighed on Justitia’s scales, he is held to account and the action of her sword is swift.

For the other me, the me who gets up every day, goes to the grocery store, the mall, the library, the post office, and countless other ‘soft targets’, I don’t know that the ideal of justice can be served. I can only take comfort in the fact that the numbers of people who care, the people who help, the people who run towards the danger, tip the scales in their direction. I can keep going. I can keep laughing. And listening to Metallica. And reading. And writing. And going. And doing it over and over again.

For better or worse.

Lawrence of Arabia

I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time yesterday.  Yes, the first time.  So I couldn’t tell you how the restoration has affected or, in fact, restored the print.  That also means that I have never seen the movie in widescreen, TV format, letterboxed, or anything other than a giant screen at my local mega-plex.  So don’t ask me how different the movie felt in scope or scale.  I have no idea.  But I’m sure it was way better than it would have been on my TV at home.

What I can say is that viewing Sir David Lean’s epic tale through the sweeping deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in 2012 as opposed to 1962 must be an incredibly different experience.

In 1962, how many moviegoers had ever seen color pictures of vast deserts and wicked sand storms?  These days the images from Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom are so commonplace that an entire generation has grown up watching the action streaming live directly into their homes.  When the British commanders plot their battlefield strategy on a blackboard in a tent, how many recognized the name Haifa, a city we have seen suffer Palestinian attacks and Hezbollah rockets on the evening news?

The echoes from the past of Lawrence of Arabia ring as loud and clear in our post-Arab Spring world as the calls of the Bedouin women bidding farewell to the Arab army in the movie.  As I write this, Turkey is launching shells at Syria.  In the movie, the final battle is to wrench control of Damascus from the Turks.

One of the major struggles in the film is for Arab independence from colonial forces.  Lawrence pushes the Bedouins to unite across tribal lines urging them to find strength in their commonalities, not division in differences.  This same story line has played out in our modern headlines in Iraq with conflicts between the Sunnis and Shiites and elsewhere across the Middle East as democratic elections sometimes spin into battles of ancient tribal conflict.

In the end, the Arab Council in Lawrence of Arabia is unable to get along long enough to achieve much of anything once they take Damascus from the Turks.  One tribe controls the power plant.  Another is in charge of the waterworks.  Yet another is responsible for the telephone network.  Needless to say, nothing works and no one works together.  As the lights go out in the British general’s office and there is no running water at the POW hospital, I am reminded of the images of “post-liberation” Baghdad.

I went to see Lawrence of Arabia as a student of film, notebook in hand, ready to make copious notes on things like shot composition, story elements, or screenplay motifs.  I did that.  And yes, those things are interesting and the shots of the scorching heat as they cross the sun’s anvil of An Nafud are remarkable.  But what I wasn’t expecting was to leave the theater thinking critically about the modern problems facing the region and how, as with so many things, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Tower on Sunset

My first memory of Los Angeles is December 11, 1986.  I am a junior in high school. In the time-honored tradition, my dad and I have flown here from Ft. Lauderdale to “look at colleges” – specifically USC.  My mom didn’t make the trip and I don’t remember why.

From far-off Florida, Hollywood is the center of my universe and the Sunset Strip is mile marker zero.  I know for a fact that it was December 11 because when I tuned the rental car radio to KNAC 105.5, the radio station of record – the New York Times of metal, Tawn Mastery was playing “Livewire” in honor of Nikki Sixx’s birthday.  For a girl with Motley Crue, Def Leppard, and Aerosmith on constant rotation, this is one of those moments when the clouds part and a singular light shines through accompanied by an angelic chorus.  I am with my people – and my dad.

I don’t remember a heavenly light shining on the rented Lincoln as we drive down Sunset, but I do remember Dad pulling into Tower Records.  We take pictures of Tower and the Whiskey, the Rainbow, and the Roxy.  He buys me a copy of Kerrang! Magazine and I pick up a KNAC bumper sticker.  (This bumper sticker would haunt me years later and result in a $200 ticket but that’s a story for another day.)  I save the plastic, yellow bag with giant red block letters to take home to show my friends because we don’t have Tower in Florida; we have Specs and Peaches Records.  (One of Marilyn Manson’s first jobs was working at the Peaches in Ft. Lauderdale.  That’s before he ditched the Spooky Kids and spent most of his time hanging out in front of the Button South.)

Who cares?  Why am I talking about this all these years later?  Because today I saw Rock of Ages and – despite many not awesome things about the movie – there on the screen, in full Technicolor, was the Tower Records on Sunset in all its glory.  (There are indeed some awesome things besides the recreated Tower – like Sebastian Bach from Skid Row and Extreme’s Nuno Bettancourt in the crowd scene at the end and Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx.)

It’s not a great movie, but those were great times.  Axl Rose was still in a band with Slash, Eddie Van Halen didn’t play in a band with his son, Nikki Sixx was having a birthday and Tom Cruise was Maverick, not Stacee Jaxx.

I didn’t go to USC, but I did eventually make it LA.  Unfortunately for me, I arrived one month before Nirvana’s Nevermind hit Tower’s shelves and everything changed.

Bingo!

My first post was titled, “Fun is Where You Find It’ for a reason:  I actually believe it.  And sometimes you stumble upon something so fantastic you just can’t believe your own damn luck.

That is precisely what happened to me tonight.  During an unrelated conversation involving two incredible writers and a cross-Atlantic table tennis rivalry, an offhanded suggestion was made to try the restaurant at the Ace hotel in Palm Springs.

“It’s a diner-y – not too expensive – fun, cool kinda place.”

This totally undersold the evening we ending up having at Kings Highway because tonight was BINGO night.  And not just any bingo, but Sissy Bingo with Linda Gerard.  We knew we were in for something special when she said “Let’s play some f-ing bingo” (my edit, not hers) and then proceeded to fill the gaps in the games with classics from the American song book including Night and Day & Come Fly With Me.  Two things you need to know about Linda Gerard – first, she can belt out those numbers like nobody’s business, and second, she somehow manages to make BINGO totally cool and fun.

Sadly, neither of us got BINGO, but it didn’t even matter.  So if you’re ever in Palm Springs on a Monday – Bingo starts at 7:00 at the Ace hotel.

The one, the only, Linda Gerard.