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keep-calm-and-sing-christmas-songs-3( Here’s a seasonal flash fiction piece I’m posting here as a gift. Well, it’s either that or a letter from the near future. You decide. )

Invasions come in two speeds: fast and slow. Fast invasions rely on surprise and a massive use of force. Think Normandy or presidential campaigns. Slow invasions rely on stealth and subversion. The opponent doesn’t notice until it’s too late. The Kringles, as I call them, chose the latter approach.

In the halcyon age of my parents’ youth, you didn’t hear “Jingle Bells” or see so much as a strand of tinsel until December 1st. Then it was the day after Thanksgiving, a day ominously dubbed Black Friday. Then it was mid-October while the Halloween rush was still in full swing. Then September right alongside the start of the Halloween season and two decisive fronts emerged. First, national department store chains added dedicated, year-round Christmas sections. Second, dedicated Christmas stores (or, more cleverly, ’boutiques’) popped up both as brick and mortar locations and online. Soon after that, Christmas in July parties became commonplace.

Even those who did notice the expansion of Christmas thought nothing of it. Capitalism had invaded first. Steadily growing revenues and entrepreneurial efforts were to be applauded, not feared. Nobody cared that the popular hues of paint and clothing colors all came from the Christmas palette. Nobody cared that people were humming “Here Comes Santa Claus” in May, in April, in March. Easter fell with little resistance because Christianity had run its course and fruit cake still seemed fresh that early in the year. Valentine’s Day was an even easier conquest because it shared the themes of love and over spending and sweets. It even dressed in red.

The Kringles were patient and devious. It was many years before Santa Claus served as Grand Marshall in the 4th of July parades and longer still before elves wearing red and white camo marched alongside his reindeer driven sleigh on Memorial Day. Thanksgiving, of course, had belonged to them for as long as anyone could remember.

I think the worst of it all, the most terrible thing, is that nobody seems to care. We just change the ornaments on our plastic trees, swap the strings of lights on the shrubs for a different color, and wrap the next round of gifts we can’t afford. We like not having quite so many colors to choose from. (Who has time for dozens of shades of white? Snow is beautiful.) We don’t care that our delivery people all wear pointed hats and shoes. We don’t worry that the most common boys name for years has been Chris and the most common name for girls is Kristine. People say it’s just a trend. But trends don’t last decades.

How did this happen? I think the answer is right there in the lyrics and the stories. We sing our conviction that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year” and Scrooge inspires us to “try to keep it all the year.” The lights, the parties, the joy, the smiles, the gifts, the food…we adore it all. The Kringles, whoever they really are, planned their campaign well. They found a weakness and exploited it. We handed our lives over without a shot.

image_by_projectowl-d8b4evk

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Followers of this blog know what my family and friends do: the Lord of the Rings films are some of my favorites and it is certainly my favorite trilogy of films. (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is second by a healthy distance.) I had high hopes and expectations for The Hobbit trilogy. Hopes and expectations that had nothing to do with box office performance. I liked the idea of the scripts being developed primarily from Tolkien’s prelude to The Lord of the Rings, but also from the appendices and from lesser known materials with a dash (or three) of original additions. I wanted to see the parts that happen off stage in The Hobbit. I was eager for Jackson & Co’s broader scope approach.

And I was disappointed. So very disappointed. I found last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be a bloated, poorly paced, and ultimately very pedestrian film. It doesn’t even look as good onscreen as its predecessors, whether it’s the HFR shooting process or the distraction of 3D or the quality of the CGI work or something else. At its worst it is just outright silly and bad. I exited the theater with zero interest in watching it again, much less owning it, and I’m someone who not only owns the prior films, I own the Special Extended Edition of the prior films and house them in a collector’s case.

So it has been with a lot less anticipation that I’ve been waiting for the release date for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to roll around. I’ve always planned to see it, but I had much lower expectations. Nothing I’d seen in the trailers or the TV spots gave me any reason to think otherwise. If anything, much of what I saw reinforced my assumption that this installment would be just more of the same.

Then I watched this today:

Now…it’s a trailer. Trailers lie. They are something close to an art form unto themselves and sometimes bear only a distant cousin sort of resemblance to the product they are advertising. But at least it feels to me like there’s a story with a bit of depth being told here. The characters have more substance, a whiff of history to them. Fate has come knocking and there are serious choices to be made with equally serious consequences attached.

Damn it. Now I have to worry about being let down again.

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Tomorrow here at AnthoCon, my story “Unknown Caller” will be published in the anthology Inner Demons Out: Anthology Year Two (Four Horsemen). It features a phone booth graveyard.

Why?

Because phone booth graveyards are cool. Like bow ties. And fezzes.

Ok, really it started with this picture.

Phonebooth Graveyard Newark-on-Trent UK

I had been looking at photos of abandoned buildings and this shot of a phone booth graveyard in Newark-on-Trent, UK popped up in the middle. Beautiful and lonely and strange. And I thought…a phone booth graveyard? How cool! Are there more photos of it?

Yes. Lots. Because there are many phone booth graveyards in the world. Phone booths of course, as people in my generation and older know, used to be everywhere. Because there was a time not all that long ago when we didn’t all carry phones. And use them incessantly. And take pictures of our food with them. And make videos of our cats that go viral on YouTube.

You see, waaaay back then, when you were out and about and needed a phone you went and found a phone booth. You put coins in them to use them. Or maybe you had a calling card. But phone booths are rapidly going extinct. They are being hauled away except for a few being turned into aquariums or art installations. (No, I’m not kidding.) Voila! The rise of the phone booth graveyards. Here are a few.

Carlton Miniott UK - Reuters.

Carlton Miniott UK – Reuters

Phuket Thailand

Phuket Thailand

 

Kenya - Tom Barkin

Kenya – Tom Barkin

New York City - Dave Bledsoe

New York City – Dave Bledsoe

And I thought…what a great setting for a scene. But indoors someplace. Urban explorers. And they break into a warehouse filled with these things. And some of them are very old and very beautiful, because phone booths used to be works of art, not simply functional slabs of mass production. But then there’s this one phone booth….

Well, I’ll let you read the story.

While learning about phone booths, I also learned about the Mojave Phone Booth, which is mentioned in “Unknown Caller.” In the middle of what is now the Mojave National Preserve in California there used to be a lone phone booth. It was miles and miles from anything. It had been put there in 1948 for use by miners working in the area but long after the mines closed the phone booth remained. Looked like this.

mojave-phone-booth

A whole subculture developed around the phone booth. People called the number, hoping someone would pick up. People drove out to the phone booth and waited, hoping someone would call. A movie was made. Eventually, the Mojave Phone Booth became too much of a popular attraction and the National Park Service asked for it to be removed in 2000.

But it’s back…. Well, the phone number is back. But now if you call it, you are connected to a conference call. Anyone can access by calling the number. So anyone might be there at any given time.

No, I haven’t tried it. But if you want to, here’s the number: 760-733-9969.

 

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TheMostInterestingManInTheWorld_1426I often drink beer…but when I do I don’t prefer Dos Equis. That said, I like the whole “Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign. I heard the current Halloween ad in the car yesterday and thought it was pretty funny. Can’t seem to find a video or audio file of it on short notice, so here is the script that precedes the standard ending. Stay thirsty my friends.

Even out of costume, he’s still the most mysterious person at the masquerade ball.
He has successfully grown candy corn.
His scarecrow also works on tax collectors and traveling salesmen.
The last time he bobbed for apples, he got a three pound lobster.
He can also scare the pants back on to you.
When he watches the cauldron, it boils faster.
His tricks are also treats.

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Rush was the first band I really got into. It was during the Moving Pictures / Exit…Stage Left era. They were also the first big concert I attended (Power Windows Tour). My tastes changed and I wandered off after Presto, but you never forget your first as the saying goes. Every so often I wander back.

Tonight, after much too long, Rush are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In honor of the occasion, I’m posting this live version of “Tom Sawyer.” It’s one of the songs that made me a fan and still one of their best. This is a sterling performance from the Snakes and Arrows Tour. Enjoy.

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Happy Easter!

Regardless of whether you call yourself a Christian or not, may your day be happy and blessed…and may you find all the eggs and not wind up catatonic from the sugary treats.

Easter Island

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The new international trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness is out. Take a peek and then I’ll go on:

Ok. Now catch your breath. Or stop shaking your head and frowning, depending on what you want and expect from science fiction and from Star Trek in particular.

As I’ve posted before, I don’t have any problem with Star Trek going dark or into action hero mode. Over the almost 50 years (!) it has existed, Star Trek has been there, done that on just about everything. It isn’t one thing, one style, one mode. Never has been. Woven into it all along (sometimes prominently, sometimes subtlely) are comedy, horror, crime, romance, period drama, mystery, fantasy, and even the western.

So I disagree with anyone who says that J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek isn’t “real Star Trek.” Nor do I see anything in the trailers to date or the 9-minute preview that cause me to arch an eyebrow higher than Spock in skepticism. Abrams is presenting his version of Star Trek. He is drawing on the elements that he feels are strongest and/or that interest and inspire him and then leaving the rest behind.

Star Trek II PosterI recently reread some quotes from Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is still widely considered the best Trek film or certainly no worse than in the top three. He also directed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, another strong entry in the film series. Meyer said, “There are only two kinds of art…goodStar Trek VI Poster and bad. The only allegiance to the content of Star Trek that I felt owed was to that which  struck me as good. I felt that I owed no allegiance to anything that was bad, for any reason whatever. My feeling, when I was working on Star Trek II was to divide things up with that in mind. I didn’t like the costumes in any other version, so I made new costumes. I didn’t like the sets, so we reworked the sets.” He proceeded to infuse his movies with a high seas adventure aesthetic. It worked very well. Why? Because the core characters and their relationships were both recognizable from what had come before and revitalized with new ideas. So it is with Abrams.

But….

I do have one lament. It’s not even a Star Trek lament, really. I regret that so many high profile science fiction films are working solely in the action flick mode. The reason why is obvious: money. Studios fund Star Trek films because they think they have a good shot to make a lot of money every time out. They also think  that their best chance to make a lot of money is to tell big, exciting Star Trek stories with a lot of action/adventure. All of the better Star Trek films work fairly exclusively in that mode…except one. (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a time travel comic romp, is the exception.)

What we’ve wound up with is a steady cinematic diet of excitement and thrills and an almost total absence of awe and wonder. And that is regrettable. Because we could all use a little more awe and wonder in our lives, moments when we catch a glimpse of something that evokes the grandeur of the universe/Creation. Stories that remind us that we’re only a very small part of the whole, while eminently capable and driven to reach out and connect with the rest. The desire for those stories, our primal curiosity and urge to explore, is why the age old Star Trek voice over still works when read over an image of an endless star field.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Of course, it helps if you have someone with the vocal talents of Leonard Nimoy or Patrick Stewart reading those words and William Shatner does fine as well. But a very large part of Star Trek and of science fiction in general is the feeling we get when we look out at the stars and wonder what else is out there. Star Trek and other mass audience science fiction (or space based, if you prefer) films don’t feed us much of that anymore.

There’s a counterargument: You want that? Turn on the television. Stream something. Buy a DVD or Blu-ray disc.

I’ve recently started introducing my sons (10 and 7) to Star Trek and we began with the Original Series episode “The Man Trap” that aired on September 8, 1966. I streamed it from StarTrek.com. (Terrible viewing experience, steer clear.) Then I found the magnificently restored versions on iTunes and bought “Space Seed”, “The Trouble with Tribbles”, and “The Devil in the Dark.” Then I realized I didn’t want to buy them all and should look in the library and we borrowed more. After about 20 episodes, we have now moved on to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

We just watched the two-part premiere, “Encounter at Farpoint.” It tells exactly the sort of story that isn’t typically presented in the Star Trek films. The Enterprise is way out at the edge of charted space (The lure of the blank area beyond the current map never fails.). Picard and Co. have their first encounter with Q, a member of a godlike species who toys with them. They later encounter another completely unknown and extraordinary species that would probably benefit with a bit of a redesign, but is nonetheless wondrous. The Enterprise crew succeeds not by defeating a villain, but by solving a mystery, although Q repeatedly threatens them with extinction. They prove to Q that humanity is more than he/they/it assumed and should be allowed to continue to exist and explore. (We’re left to assume that the android, Klingon, and Betazoid on the senior staff, not to mention all the other non-humans aboard are OK too by association.)

There aren’t many explosions in “Encounter at Farpoint.” Everything about it suffers from it being the first time out for what eventually became an outstanding show. A lot of it isn’t good art, when placed on Meyer’s scale. Despite all of that, I was glad to see it again and be reminded of what’s been missing from the Trek films for too long.

I’m looking forward to Star Trek Into Darkness. But I would like to see Star Trek set thrills aside and evoke awe and wonder on the big screen again someday soon.

PS: I’m bemused that the YouTube screen cap for the trailer winds up being Alice Eve in her underwear, an image which sails by in the trailer. There are any number of more representative images, but I can’t figure out how to change it. Then again, I’m reminded that women who aren’t wearing very much isn’t new to Star Trek either. I also expect that Eve’s Dr. Carol Marcus will be a formidable person once we get to meet her in May.

PPS: As of 9:00pm EST it appears that YouTube has changed things and Alice Eve is no longer in her underwear at the top of this post. Instead you get Benedict Cumberbatch nose-to-nose with Chris Pine, which makes far more sense.

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