Archive for February, 2009

Tricksy. False.

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Gollum and Smeagol

1: Not the books

As we inch through the winter, oscillating between brief spring-like meltings and harsh Midwestern arctic blasts, the extended darkness provides great cover for powering down the brain and viewing epic films. The winter, then, is naturally the time of the year when I think of The Lord of the Rings, and the great impact it has made upon my life.

Let me get this out of the way right now, as it’s certainly going to polarize all five of you readers: I was never a great fan of the books. For some folks, that’s like saying Han shot second, or Andrew Lloyd Weber trumps Sondheim, or the Bible is cute, fuzzy and harmless, or Steve Jobs won’t be doing Macworld. Instant polarization. I read The Hobbit, appropriately, during my pre-adolescence, and later attempted the first novel in the trilogy. It was rambling, with all of this fantasy history and questing and crap. It just didn’t have that zazz. I would later read plenty of giant novels, including Fantasy that definitely wouldn’t have been written if it wasn’t for Tolkien. I appreciate his imagination, the thoroughness of his vision, but I just never hopped on board that very long train. I think it’s a matter of hitting the right reader at the right time. Sometimes the derivative work hits you first, so that the original masterpiece seems like an embryonic version of the thing that you initially discovered. This tends to really irritate the people who love the original work. It’s probably irritating you at this very moment.

When it comes to Tolkien, it has always been easy to recognize the people who are Believers. They were often half-hippie, half-nerd, with stuck-in-the-70s hairstyles. There was a gentleness to them, so that even when they spoke of “battles” and swords and wizards, you knew that they were far too passive to ever go through with it. That’s because they were bound by poetry and imagination, by the comfort of an endless tale. They tended to appreciate the epic aspects of art, while allowing themselves to sometimes become completely absorbed into the things that entertained them. I have some of those tendencies, too (with the exception of my hairdo . . . I think . . . hmm). Just look at what happened with me and the computer (see previous Megablog post). I never quite got the organic nerd, though, so the idea of a Renaissance Fair, with the puffy shirts and speaking-in-tongues and boiled-cabbage-on-a-stick and prancing about with belly-dancer finger cymbals, never, ever appealed to me. Tolkien could wait.

I grew up during the first wave of Star Wars. I was nine years old when it was released, the optimal target. With a few exceptions, science fiction and fantasy was still squarely in the realm of the imagination. Most of the films required multi-layered suspension of disbelief, particularly regarding the ability of a ship to fly through space while dangling from slightly-visible fishing line, or some alien race marching about in construction-cone helmets and speaking the Queen’s English. After Star Wars, though, technology had enabled imagination to be somewhat accurately portrayed on the screen. That is, I didn’t have to imagine it any more. Star Wars became the template for the nine-year-old-boy target audience, validating my nerdy dream-life as a legitimate consumer demographic. Anything I could possibly imagine that was related to this Lucas universe was subsequently manufactured and sold to me. I didn’t have to bother making it myself, I just had to coerce my parents into buying it. In fact, the more money a family had, the more their children were surrounded with physical manifestations of the imagination. However, imagination was being dictated to us. It was constrained to marketable items. There was a Star Wars universe, with waves of action figures and molded-plastic environments, but few of us dared to venture beyond those boundaries, beyond anything that wasn’t simply derivative of Star Wars. And none of us were rewarded for inventing Star Wars variations. If you didn’t have the cash, you found ways to make your own toys out of Legos, model parts, and whatnot. I was somewhere in between, so the desire for the Star Wars toys that I couldn’t afford drove me and my closest friends to create our own toys, comic books and even funny little movies. Yes, we were very creative. But our creativity was generally contained within the paradigm of Star Wars. No one ever seriously came up with a viable template for Han Solo’s disenfranchised brother or any version of Princess Lea that didn’t have the twin-Cinnabon hairdo (or subsequent Lea-dos). Have you ever heard of a variant imaginary droid that didn’t use the (letter(most-likely “R”)/number)-(letter(good chance it might be “D”)/number) naming scheme? If you made a robot called Franklin, it was just so obviously not part of the Star Wars universe that there wasn’t much a point to having Franklin around in the first place. If you kept Franklin the Robot, then you would have to figure out who Franklin’s human buddy was going to be, along with Franklin’s nemesis, the Franklin manufacturer, a few planets or star ships where Franklin might hang out, along with some sort of overall plot or history or anything that might motivate Franklin to do anything other than sit there and blink and bleep. Take the same robot and call it X-3PO. Holy crap, you now have a ready-made universe where your evil protocol droid (don’t bother coming up with some other name for “robot”) can wield some saber and kick some ass, and you don’t need to waste your time tediously inventing all of that other minutiae. This is the same template that Lucas himself used for the prequels (and that’s why Darth Sidious and Darth Maul sound a lot more cool and Star Wars-believable than Count Dooku, with all respect to Christopher Lee).

Star Wars encouraged us to dream, yet dictated exactly what those dreams should be.

I really wasn’t an active reader until after I had been corrupted by Star Wars. So I was already expecting things to be ready-made. Books generally allow for much more imaginative expansion than movies, so, to a degree, they were more work for my little brain. I loved The Hobbit, and later spent plenty of time in other literary worlds. Still, any amazing book needed to be made into a movie, and the best books were those that were already structured like movies, with three to five simple acts and some very obvious climaxes and conclusions. I wanted the constraints upon that world of imagination, the comfort of structure. It felt incomplete until there was an accurate film version. It all had to be turned into Star Wars, with everything clearly explained and depicted. Without that, there never seemed to be closure to a story.

As I became older, this merged with our cultural DNA – consumerism. If imagination requires some ready-made object, then the only way we can personalize that imagination is through ownership. Normally, there is nothing you own more than your personal imagination. For any sentient being, its thoughts are its own (even if those thoughts are some amalgam of sensory-input interpolations). Yet storytelling has been so co-opted by Star Wars that I have been trained to have my imagination sold back to me in the form of derivative products. Toys. Action figures. Collectors cards. Plush stuffed animals. We surround ourselves with these objects, and the simple act of purchasing them becomes a statement of what we like. And what we like is a major part of the definition of who we are. Adults don’t buy toys, though. Okay, we do, but not with the same intentions that we had as children. Now, we go to see a movie, and as soon as we leave the theater we start to anticipate the DVD release. We can’t wait to buy it and absorb it into the collection that defines us. And back to Star Wars, the bastards have been pulling our strings, carefully wound strings that date back to 1977, with an endless array of re-releases, definitive versions, and re-packagings. There are many of us who are eagerly awaiting the HD releases of the original films. If you own something in HD, then it must be a purer reflection of your soul, of how dedicated you are to your own identity.

This is not how it’s been for the Tolkien lovers. In the late-1970s, there was a good animated movie, a derivative not-great animated movie, and a pretty weird rotoscope-enhanced freak out, and none of them managed to infiltrate the consumer culture of action figures and mega-publicity. Dungeons and Dragons (the game) probably came the closest to a Lord of the Rings cash-in, but role playing was only mildly consumer-driven (yet more of an identity statement than most consumer items), and actually required real work on the part of the participant. True imagination was still respected and rewarded. The reader was a partner with Tolkien, a friend who shared in the creative process. The books became a home, so that as life progresses, as people move about the country, move through careers and families and love and loss, that safe haven could never be compromised. Until this current decade.

Even as an obvious non-believer, I was still nervously wondering how terribly they were going to screw up the movies. It’s always a shame to watch a book get turned into a puke product through crappy film making, particularly when there are so many people who have a familial relationship with that book. Books are nearly invariably superior to their film counterparts. The exception tends to be a book that was already in the gutter, such as Hannibal, in which case the movie has no where to go but up (well, in the case of Hannibal, it went sideways, into some parallel crap-plane). That’s all part of the wicked nature of our hijacked imaginations. The best books seem like they would make great movies, but it’s usually the most simple, diluted, formulaic books that have any shot of movie verisimilitude (No Country For Old Men compared with Blood Meridian). I knew from my pre-adolescent attempt at The Fellowship of the Ring that the source material wasn’t going to be easy to adapt, and we were likely to end up with either a yawner or a Nicholas Cage soft action crapbuster. At best, they could throw in Bruce Willis and just make it into a Middle Earth Die Hard, which would at least have some fun one-liners and spectacular big-screen explosions. Yippie-ki-yay, all-seeing-eye motherfucker. And in that case, it would make more sense to just get Raimi to create a sequel to Army of Darkness (yippie-ki-yay, baby).

I was already a fan of Peter Jackson, so I assumed that we could very well end up with some cross between Army of Darkness and Dead Alive. Orcs being chewed up by giant lawn mowers. Very spectacular. Most of us have been burned by the anticipation game. The Matrix was awesome, and now they’re doing two more movies. Awesome! It’s going to be so awesome to see both of those awesome movies. They are going to blow my mind, dammit. So you shell out the $10.50 to see it at an overcrowded giganto-plex with the stoked masses, and by the end of the night the lines into the restrooms are at record length, and it’s hard to tell if people are crapping or puking, and even harder to discern the product of those craps and pukes from the lukewarm celluloid paste that has just smothered your Awesome. You go through a few good burns like that, and then it all becomes an elaborate mind game. Don’t get yourself too excited about a movie. Keep the expectations at a low bar. Don’t think about it. No, don’t even think about thinking about it (impossible). Stop worrying! Relax!!!

This reminds me of my piano teacher from college. As an undergrad, I went to a large state university. It was ultimately a fantastic experience, as there was a nook for anyone who really wanted to explore any facet of higher learning. Generally, you take your core classes, but then you can add a 1-hour class here and there. First it was a theater practicum (don’t be fooled – this was in no way glorious, as it amounted to volunteer ushering). Then there was my bowling class. Yes, I took bowling, and I aced it. And I still stink at it. The best 1-hour, though, was piano. I don’t know how I finagled this, but I ended up taking piano lessons as a class. I’ve never been very good at piano. I took lessons throughout my childhood, but I never bothered to practice. For me, “practice” involved the lesson itself, so it took me years to learn any piece of even moderate complexity. For my university-level piano practicum, I wanted to study with this extremely pleasant English gentleman-scholar. My friend Jason had been raving about a Music Appreciation class taught by the gentleman-scholar. I contacted the professor, had an extremely pleasant conversation, found that he was open to teaching non-music-major students, and decided that it was time to revisit my latent musicality. However, by the time I was able to schedule a 1-hour with him, the gentleman-scholar couldn’t teach for a semester or two, and he recommended one of his colleagues. This woman was not English, not gentle, and, while generally nice and even entertaining, I could never place her into the category of “pleasant”. We worked on a Mozart sonata, and I learned a great deal about my own style, musical phrasing, and piano technique. She had received a grant to study relaxation in her students. She would video record some of her students playing, and then replay the tapes, revealing the flaws in their technique, with particular attention paid to the fluidity of the arms and wrists. Dexterity on the piano is not just a matter of moving your fingers about as quickly as possible. If you freeze your wrists, tensing them up, your overall movement is restricted. The fingers, wrists and arms all need to be loose, gentle, flowing with the music. None of this Ray Charles solid-mass stiffness (even though it worked great for Ray). She would often test my wrists as I was playing, lifting them with her finger, letting me know when there was any resistance. It was all about the flow, just as Mozart is all about the phrasing. Of course, the more nervous I get while playing, the more tension swells throughout my body. Freezing up all of my joints can help me focus on getting that one finger to be in the right place, sort of like swinging a hammer at the head of a nail. Anticipation of accuracy trumped smoothness and flow. She didn’t even need to stick her finger under my wrist. I played as if I was Iron Man, or Humongous from The Road Warrior. That was when her geniality would erode. “Relax.” Oh, I was trying. But then I had to think about both the notes, the phrasing and the relaxing, all of those facets competing and clashing. “Relax!” Okay, okay. Screw the phrasing. Yikes, there was a mistake, but, well, what’s going on with my wrists? Keep them limp, dammit. Limp limp limp. “Relax!!!” Oh, sweet Jesus. “RELAX!!!” Ahhhhhhh!

And that’s what you get for being a pseudo-music-major with your 1-hour practicum. Antithetical mind games.

So you are ultimately awash in paradox, and, for something like Lord of the Rings, you spend a lot of energy convincing yourself that this is going to be a really cool movie that is also going to totally suck. Having little investment in the novels, though, meant that the suck aspect would be more of a train wreck. In the case of the Matrix sequels, I was in the train, probably lingering in the dining car, enjoying a nice Scotch or one of those heart-clogger choco-volcano brownies, when there was a massive shudder and jolt, scattering plates and hot toddies across the tables, then a split-second of back-to-normal smoothness, a flickering of the lights before all the windows simultaneously blow in (clouds of scintillated shards filling the air, much like the Geoff Darrow-designed break-into-the-federal-building sequence of the original Matrix), the floor buckling and roof flying away, exposing the ground and sky spinning about the disintegrating car before the tooth-scraping metal-on-metal noise of the crash just obliterated all further sensation. They weren’t pleasant movies. With Lord of the Rings, I could watch all of this from the safety of a far-off bridge. It would be a terrible and bloody catastrophe, and I might lose a few loved ones, but at least I wasn’t a passenger. At least, having no great care for the books, I could simply wash my hands of the whole affair. Relax!

I saw the first film (should I bother mentioning the title? are there any of you who haven’t seen these movies, who don’t already know the titles, the stars, the international box office intake? can I just assume that you don’t need to be reminded of the title, or, hmm, perhaps I should use clever one-word titles to represent each film, such as Fellowship, Towers and King, even though acronyms tend to get the job done with less characters, as in FotR, TT, RotK (even though the brain tends to spend extra time unpacking each acronym into its respective full-word title, forcing the reader to perform some level of subliminal translation simultaneous to the normal flow of sentence comprehension, which is a lot like walking up the “Quasimodo steps” that used to be at ISU (Illinois State University)(so termed by me and Jason when we would be in a hurry to get to the bowling alley, where I would show off my 1-hour bowling class moves), steps which were extra deep, tailored only to people who prefer to walk everywhere using the low-center-of-gravity Groucho Marx comically extended stride-gait, which is just not the way to go about making a name for yourself at a large state university (if not forcing everyone into Groucho walking, then it was more likely a form of crowd control, which was a central element to any state-university public-space architecture of the 60s and 70s)), which seems like a good idea, but, given the sneaky hidden additional brain processing, I might as well acronym the acronyms, enabling me, the writer, to be both excessively acronymous and parsimonious (as parsimony is one of this blog’s many middle names), so let’s just settle on F, T and K, okay?)* with my friend Lee. He was in town, having somewhat recently transplanted himself to California (NoCal), and this was one of my few chances to connect with him, perhaps to commiserate over the imminent train wreck of F (of which, unfortunately, he would be a passenger). It was the second time he was seeing the movie, though. He had lived through the wreck and wanted to do it again. Something was up. Lee is in no way a masochist, but he was also more forgiving of the Matrix sequels, so perhaps he was compartmentalizing the disappointment and employing rapid repeat-viewing to force his brain into a state of acceptance. Or maybe he just liked the damned movie.

*(extended hyper-nested parentheticals lovingly dedicated to the late DFW)

I was perfectly transfixed throughout that first viewing, but this wasn’t Smeagol’s soul-collapsing experience of first eyeing the ring. There was no instant obsession. This wasn’t Star Wars. It was deeper. There was plenty of battling and creatures and blasting tribal drums with brass fanfare. They didn’t blow up the Death Star, though, and there were no easy clues as to which characters were going to be available as action figures. There was a bit of poetry and song, and fake English accents, and greenery and countryside. There was story. A lot of story. I didn’t know exactly what to think. This also wasn’t fine art. All of the instructions were obvious, so there wasn’t a lot of work on the part of my brain, but, beyond the ready-made and the incessant you-should-feel-like-THIS score, there was underlying thoughtfulness and depth to the characters. The story was congruous with its own history, and had the richness of a novel. I had my first taste of that comfort, the homestead of so many lifelong Tolkien fans. And, really, they had me hooked in the first ten minutes, at that moment when Sauron is defeated, does the old implode/explode, and a 40-15 hertz seat-humming subsonic sweep moans from the speaker system and sets my spine and viscera into vibrational sync. Being an A/V Guy (more on this soon), that’s all it took.

2: Viewingses

That period of my life was wonderfully transformative. I had moved in with Web, my best friend.

I had a new job that was on the cusp of becoming a career, and I had finally moved back into the city, living with my best friend, Web. Our domestic arrangement couldn’t have been better. We lived in separate apartment units, on the second floor of his grandmother’s house in a rapidly up-scaling neighborhood. This combination of proximity and independence solidified our friendship, as most of our conversations and commiserations didn’t require planning of any sort. More importantly, they didn’t require telephony. Most of my friends know that I can’t stand the telephone. A few people also know that I have a phobia of telephone conversations, sometimes so severe that I will sit there with the undialed phone in my hand, paralyzed, completely unable to press the buttons as my heartbeat becomes irregular and my breathing spirals into shallow gasps. Blame it on technology, really. In 2001 I finally bought a cell phone. I was living with my parents, putting my life back together, so the phone was an easy way to secure a nugget of privacy in the midst of being in my 30s and living at home. By the time I accumulated enough capital to collect my things and move to Chicago, I decided to forgo a land line and use the cell as my primary telephone. If any of you have contemplated doing this, here’s a little warning: You might as well just cut off your ear! I say that partially out of concern for your own well being, but, really, the only people reading this blog already know me, so if one of you switches to a cell-only paradigm, all of our future conversations will suck (even though my telephonophobia will ultimately prevent me from talking with you on the phone in the first place). Cell-to-cell connections are often terrible. They certainly were in 2002. (In fact, during the last decade we have experienced a downward trajectory in general fidelity, from scrambled cell phone conversations to hyper-compressed MP3s to the all-or-nothing dropout reception of digital television – much of our popular technology has caused us to demand nothing above mediocrity, far below the capabilities of communications and sound reproduction of the 1980s and earlier, all for the sake of carrying it in your pocket.) As I staunchly stuck to my guns, neglecting the additional purchase of a land line, most of my conversations were permeated by noise, fuzz, digital crunch and dropped connections. Combined with my poor hearing, my phone talks were like jungle expeditions, hacking through twisted brush and trying to figure out if that was the roar of a predator or the laugh of a friend. Add to this my only-child need for privacy, and the general way that telephones are devices that are specifically designed to infiltrate and dissolve that privacy. Not only do I not want to receive a phone call, I also don’t want to risk that terrible nebula of cell-stunted conversation. I dread it all. Please, send email. Email is wonderful (except when you send a catty message to the wrong person, to the very person you were being catty about, and realize 1.5 seconds after clicking SEND that you have just flushed yourself down a dark and terrible toilet of despair . . . and I’ve done this twice, folks).

Anyway, our friendship was able to flourish simply because it wasn’t constrained by the usual things that force you to schedule time with different people, have beginning-middle-end conversations over the phone (or, in my case, beginning-what?-middle-what?-huh?-umm-what?-…-trailOfDespair…-end?), or really worrying about any attempt at complete conversation in any sense. We would take turns being each other’s Kramer, knocking quickly and bursting in, barking out a few oddities, and then zipping back into the world from whence we came. We certainly had long, meaningful talks, but, as neighbors, it was perfectly fine to revel in the micro-conversation, and that did wonders for our friendship. Another thing that quickened our intertwining was LotR. Web is a journalist and certainly a reader, but he also enjoys the immersion of solid audio-visual entertainment. He’s also a pagan, and how could any pagan not love F, with its wizards and trees and elves and stinking-reeking-supercool Ranger from the North? For Web, fantasy movies and novels are opportunities for familial bonding, as he elevates his best-uncle status by encouraging his nieces and nephews to read the books before seeing the films. As I gravitated toward an honorary-family type of position, I felt it was a good time to join in and read along. Again, though, I was only generally into the novel. It was better this time, and I had a different visual palate for characters and scenes (as corrupted by the film), but I’ve never been firmly into written fantasy (beyond Neil Gaiman, who is arguably a Jack of all trades, not anything near a hardcore fantasist . . . that sounds a bit x-rated . . . you know what I mean), so I ultimately couldn’t keep up.

Web’s general enthusiasm for entertainment tends to wax and wane, as he moves his spotlight to other topics (it’s one of the things that makes him a fantastic journalist). He does have one great weakness, though. Villains. From Erica Kane to Maleficent to Mother Bates, Web loves him some theatrical villains. By the time T was released, we were both frothing over the possibilities of Gollum. And, of course, the slimy little creep (Gollum, not Web, who is the absolute opposite of slimy and creepy, and, while skinny, isn’t little) came through. In fact, Gollum was the seed for the terrible sequence of events and misjudgments I’m about to describe. Gollum is the key. Gollum is the lesson. Remember that as you read on, precious.

Gollum hits all of the Web checks for an excellent villain. Theatricality. Machiavellian misanthropy. Coin-able phrases. Also, theatricality. Sometimes it just comes down to whether or not Web feels he can accurately impersonate a villain. So we both started adding superfluous “s”es to various plurals, spoken in that tight-throated chain-smoking-squirrel rasp. Jacketses. Breakfastses. CTA transit cardseses. It was always fun to whip out a little “precious”, dangle a bit of self-reflective third person. Beyond being the pacifier of the masses, entertainment can be the glue that bonds a friendship, that allows it to flourish. Rachel enjoys a regular movie night with her friends, a gathering that started as Buffy Night. My initial relationship with Web didn’t begin until we formed the Twin Peaks Society, and those society members are still my closest friends. Even back in the days of Star Wars, that film’s proscribed creative fodder solidified my earliest true friendship (Mark and Matt, the twins from the next block). Entertainment gives us a framework of common experience, common language that we can then employ to develop other aspects of friendship. Book clubs have become more widespread, but the primary catalyst tends to be audio-visual entertainment. So I have often reveled in many of the things that titillate Web, from Twin Peaks (FYI: Bob is not one of Web’s theatrical Machiavellian fun-to-impersonate villains . . . Bob is freaking creepy) to Survivor to All My Children and, finally, Gollum.

It never occurred to us that Gollum might have been truly evil, or that reveling in some manifestation of evil might negatively affect your karmic ballast.

We didn’t even see the first two films together, with each other, in the theater. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering many entertainment-as-social-bonding films that I initially saw with the bondees . We often arrive at these movies independently, blown away by the personal targeting, the way the film seems to be created explicitly for us alone, as if we are the only people who understand it in that special way. Yes, it’s all about feeling special, and the vibes of specialness require some degree of solitary entry. So you make that connection and allow this thing to shake hands with your soul. Then you meet someone else who has had a soul-shaking, and pretty soon you’re comparing imprints. That’s the point where you either become friends or competitors. It either becomes a pissing contest of who is the bigger fan, who has the deeper connection, or it plateaus your field of communication and provides the opportunity for simultaneous specialness. Once you’ve made that bond, though, you often strive for reaffirmation. Sequels thrive on the reaffirmation of personal specialness. You go to a sequel expecting it to whisper the same love song into your soul, to make you feel that particular blush of personal connection all over again. It’s a recipe for disappointment, really. It’s the junkie chasing that first high. In the rare case where a sequel meets or exceeds our expectations, what its actually doing is making us feel special in a different way than the primary film. The Empire Strikes Back is an excellent sequel, in many ways superior to Star Wars because it is not Star Wars. This is why the LotR films are so different. They really aren’t sequels, as they were shot all at once, and presented in such a way that they form a single, seamless story. They aren’t required to play by the rules of sequels, as the specialness that started with the first film doesn’t need to be transformed or rekindled. It simply carries over into the next two installments. So by the time you finish watching all three films, you’re feeling pretty damned special.

That bond of specialness can work against future co-viewings, though. Some films create such powerful bonds between people that tremendous pressure is placed on who you choose to take with you to the next initial viewing. People who supremely bonded over F had better make sure that neither of them sneaks off and watches T before the other has seen it. This is most evident inpre -spousal “serious” relationships. The couple assumes co-ownership of the upcoming film, so if a person decides to see it first with his/her friends, it is in violation of their imminent spousal agreement. It is, in effect, an act of adultery. This is particularly frustrating to the third party, the third wheel who just wants to go see the damned movie with his friend. “Sorry, that one’s reserved.” The obligation ultimately necessitates various degrees of film mediocrity, from “chick flicks” to “guy movies” to “lowest common low-brow denominator time-shifts” (such as anything in the Phase Three stage of Eddie Murphy, with the exception of Dreamgirls, which falls into that Universally Appealing No Committment Required category of films that I never actually get around to watching), all of which fill the void suddenly created when the first-tier film is targeted for exclusive reservation. So you end up seeing Die Hard 4 or some other half-baked package, trying to work up some excitement even as you hear the thunderous bass of T emanating through the wall from the next theater over, the palpable enthrallment of the T audience seeping through and effectively bitch-slapping the rudimentary Bruce Willis time-waster, bitch-slapping you and your friend for allowing yourselves to be curbed by pre-spousal duty, and bitch-slapping anyone in a two mile radius who isn’t currently and directly interfacing with THE movie. You ultimately skulk out the back door, praying that your crap surrogate doesn’t let out at the same time as T, just wanting to get out of there without seeing any of that smugly satisfied, overwhelmingly entertained T audience. It’s either that, or you blow off your friend and go see T by yourself (thus reinforcing the initial solo this-is-just-for-me specialness thing).

Even though we were in full Gollum mode with the release of T, Web, being a good uncle, had familial obligations and first saw it with his nieces and nephews. I did end up seeing the film with friends, but they weren’t bubbling out the Gollum speak (in fact, Tom is an old-school fan of the books, one of the people who made that literary connection long ago (scroll way up to paragraph three if you need a refresher)). Then I eventually fell into a rhythm of seeing Tseveral times at a local theater, usually alone, often blasted (that’s what happens when you live two blocks from a relatively cheap cinema). When a piece of entertainment becomes a way of life, your other ways of life, such as various intoxicating elements, tend to converge. Living next door to each other, Web and I continued to froth ourselves up over the films, increasing our Gollum-isms nearly daily. 2003 became a massive build-up to the final film, permeated by frequent visits to The One Ring. Web discovered the website while researching a Tribune article. He is one of those rare journalists who manages to write about all of the things that he loves, interviewing many of his heroes (one of the last ones left on the list is the brilliant Grant Morrison, who I predict will make that Web Connection some time this year), leveraging his enthusiasm and fanboy knowledge into excellently-written prose. His LotR research also gave him a heads up on Trilogy Tuesday.

Trilogy Tuesday. It seemed more like one of my goofy ideas that would present itself midway through whiskey-drenched viewing of T. The AMC theater downtown was going to show the extended editions of the first two films (they were both being temporarily released in the theaters as a build-up to K), back-to-back, and then, at 10pm, they would display the FIRST viewing of K.

I’m not sure that you’re grasping the incredibility of this momentousness. Many people know about the crazy midnight showings of new blockbusters. At midnight, it is officially the next calendar date, and the theater is then allowed the show the movie on its day of release. Midnight premieres are festival gatherings of superfans . When I was a kid, it was a huge deal to see a movie on release day, but, even then, the first showing wasn’t until the middle of the day or the evening. Currently, a midnight premiere is standard, and you aren’t considered a hardcore fan unless you’re there. Sort of like me not having voted for Obama unless I was in Grant Park for the big Obamapalooza hoopla on election evening (sorry, we just stayed home with a bottle of wine and our projector – next best thing, with the added bonus of Judy Baar Topinka ridiculously calling “Huxtable Factor” on Obama). The Harry Potter films were winding into full force by 2003, and the Star Wars prequel atrocities were marching to their own conclusive whimper. Hardcore superfans were used to camping out days in advance just to have the bragging rights of the midnight premiere (well, they were also just plain excited to see the movies, too). Web and I had already linked ourselves into obligatory midnight co-viewing for the final LotR film. However, Trilogy Tuesday changed everything. It shattered the rules of both space-time and midnight premieres. After watching the extended editions of the first two movies, Trilogy Tuesday viewers were going to view the final film at 10pm, the night BEFORE the actual release. This was a VIP-grade trump, and there would only be a handful of people in the Chicago area who would be gold-star super-exclusive members. It was our destiny to attend.

Ultimately, Web didn’t pull any journalist-privilege favors. It was really a matter of interviewing the right person at the right time, getting clued into the business as an extra block of tickets magically appeared, and somehow ending up with two legitimate, non-comp tickets. As hardcore fans go, we were never too far over the edge. We both clearly understood the veil separating entertainment from reality, so even as we revelled in Gollum and extensively quoted Gandalf, we knew that this was ultimately a bunch of smoke, mirrors, CGI and theatrical facial hair. Some of our fellow Trilogy Tuesday attendees, though, were in deep cover. The costume contest in between films didn’t clarify matters much for these ultra-fans. There were a few folks who did amazing jobs of looking and/or sounding like elves, wizards, hobbits and other sundry Middle Earth inhabitants, including someone in the lobby who’s Gollum voice was so dead-on creepy that I couldn’t even look at the guy. There were also a lot of people who just showed up in their standard Renaissance Faire costumes (which, I do admit, isn’t too far from Standard Eowyn, but a room full of Eowyns is like going to a Twin Peaks convention and finding a gaggle of Audreys – there will be one of them who is really spot-on, and the rest will just look like alternate universe wanna-be distortions, ranging from not-quite to pathetic to yikes . . . of course, Twin Peaks provided far more dress-up opportunities for female fans thanLotR, so I won’t get too carried away with my begrudging of the parade of Eowyn ), talking about two levels too loud in sloppy English accents, yammering inanities. For some of those folks, this seemed like just another stop on the festival circuit. Or perhaps it was the inevitable culmination of their life-long Tolkien obsessions, as it was probably the LotR novels that launched their Ren Faire personas years ago. This wasn’t just a movie premiere, it was a mini-con, and every person there had either plunged the depths of fandom or was about to fall in. Web and I didn’t participate in the costume contest, but we did show up in freshly-created custom shirts (see the Gollum-Smeagol Photoshop job at the top of this blog post, which I printed onto iron-on paper and then, well, ironed on).

We did manage to participate in our own private festival-within-a-festival, packing our sacks with some very adult goodies. The magic brownies sustained us through the first film and well into the second. A flask of Scotch gave us that little boost during the assault on Helm’s Deep. Then, by the end of T, we had ingested the mushrooms. You generally need to be careful with hallucinogens. Unless you’re really used to them, it’s best to stay away from big public gatherings. If you really have to be mixing with the public, give yourself an out and don’t be forced to stay in place. Also, you should try to be around sort of “normal” people, or at least people who are dressed as people and not elves, hobbits, dwarfs, etc. So you can see that this was meticulously planned. Web said that his shrooms started to kick in during the costume contest (in between T and the mega-event premiere of K). I recall him getting happier, and then disappearing. No, I didn’t hallucinate the disappearance. He just took off*. At some point I noticed Bob, a friend from my movie-premiere past. Bob is one of those to-the-core Star Wars fans, the type that not only collects memorabilia, but creates his own domestic chain of memorabilia by naming various pets after Star Wars characters and creatures. It was no great surprise to find Bob at Trilogy Tuesday, as Bob had also been present at all of the second-generation Star Wars premiers. We used to work together at Starbucks, right around the time Lucas starting making the new batch of films. Bob said he was going to camp out for tickets and asked if I wanted to be included. Of course! He took a few days off work and actually set up a tent in front of McClurg Court (the late, great premiere movie theater of Chicago). Soon he started appearing on the radio, in the newspaper, and even on television, evidently the ultimate uber-superfan . He even talked with Ebert. It wasn’t enough to have tickets to the first showing of the new film, he had to be the first person in the city, number one, top of the mountain. In that respect, Bob, from that moment on, was a living legend. So it was natural to see him at Trilogy Tuesday, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers comped him into the event as a show of respect for his superfan celebrity (and to demonstrate the event’s VIP exclusivity).

Trilogy Tuesday Lanyard and Pass

*[Part of the phenomenal deal with Trilogy Tuesday, beyond the movies, some free gifts, pizza, a discount on concessions, having our seats saved for all three films, and the costume contest was that we were permitted to leave and come back, using the cool All-Day Pass pictured above, so we were able to have a real meal in between two of the films, and Web was able to disappear and then magically reappear in his seat just before the start of the epicly conclusive final film. The issuance of the above pass included my first exposure to the word lanyard. In fact, the organizers consistently referred to the passes as our “lanyards”, which I figured was some fancy old-world Ren Faire term for “re-entry pass”, and was more communication-ally efficient than “Ye Olde Re-admittance Certificate”. Web and I tossed the “lanyard” term around for a good year after that, both of us having been trained during our Children’s Television Workshop youth to respect and assimilate lexiconical additions (“lan” . . . “yard” . . . “Lanyard”).]

Fortunately, I was still relatively stable (relative to the Magic Brownies and Single Malt Scotch in my tummy). In fact, my shrooms didn’t really kick in until we were well into the third film.

I’m assuming you’ve all seen these movies. So you all know some of the great events of K. The lighting of the beacons is amazing, and I still feel the same wondrous chills from that first viewing. The battle of Minas Tirith is multi-staged and epic, including some absolutely over-the-top Legolas (“still the prettiest”) action. (Web and I were obsessed with a Legolas blog, depicting the elf as completely fey, vain and “still the prettiest”.) There was also the matter of the giant spider. I’ve always been a sucker for monster flicks, particularly the obviously not-human, unreasonable and destructive beasts who ravage cities, stomp and masticate screaming citizens and can only be brought down by an onslaught of army tanks and rocket launchers. You really don’t have pity for Reptilicus . He just keeps spitting acid venom and smashing Copenhagen to bits, and, even though its sad to see him blasted apart, he sort of had it coming. However, most of those beloved movies are from my youth. My very much non-hallucinogenic youth. Somewhere in the midst of Shelob’s lair, things started to get funky. There was suddenly a lot of 3D depth to the movie, and the sound became very distinct. The scattered bones moved a bit more than they should have (were they even moving at all?). Frodo was looking, um, weird, and his hair was . . . doing things. Emotionally, the entire scene had my heart firmly in my throat, but by the time Shelob (who, in my Shroom Cut, had a lot more than eight legs, folks) was in full-on eat-Frodo mode I was immersively sucked INTO the scene ala Videodrome. I was never a huge visual hallucinator , but I have had some interesting experiential hallucinations. The first hallucination I ever had, back in college, was while listening to XTC (Black Sea). I was in the band, up there on stage, making music with my idols. Today the kids do it with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Back in the day, you needed acid. K is full of moments that we would have loved to truly experience. Wouldn’t it have been cool to be Elrond, whipping out that big-assed sword and handing it to the King of Gondor? Or maybe I could have been up there atop Minas Tirith , clonking the Steward on the head and shouting “prepare for battle.” Kick-ass. Or how about that cave with the giant, very not-human, very alive and squirming and hungry spider that really wants to stick you in the gut, wrap you up and eat you? Maybe not. The moments in life chose us, though, so I was stuck with it.

I not only survived the film, I had a great time. How do I know this? As the final-final credits were rolling and the house lights dimmed up, we yawned, stretched and slowly eyed our fellow superfan travellers. It was as if we had all personally battled and defeated Mordor. Little had I realized, filtered through the brownie-Scotch-shroom gauze, that there had been a guy sitting to my left for the past 13 hours. People started nodding to each other as brothers and survivors. This guy, though, had something he needed to get off his chest.

Dude: “Couldn’t you think of something more creative to say other than ‘wow’?!”

Baked Jim: “Huh?”

Dude: “That’s all you said all this time. ‘Wooooow.’ ‘Wooooow.'”

Baked Jim: “Um.”

It was one of those accostings that takes you so completely by surprise that even your monosyllabic response can’t be anything other than an unreal grunt of a word. If I hadn’t been in such a post-baked state, I would have had one of three typical reactions.

Possible Reaction 1 (35% probability): Aggression. Years before this, I had accompanied Web to a screening of Liar, Liar, that hideous Jim Carrey vehicle. We whispered comments to each other throughout the film. Eventually, a critic in our row leaned over and told me to be quiet (this was a screening for journalists, so everyone was either a critic or a plus-one). I laughed at him and said something about the “complex dialog” being important. He reiterated the fact that I should be quiet during a movie, so I told him that we should take it outside and into the parking lot. And that was the end of that conversation.

Possible Reaction 2 (60% probability): Shame. A feeling similar to when you make what seems to be a very obvious and neutrally observational joke about kittens in a blender or a gross puss-blister or some other thing that immediately disrupts all conversation with silence and exits. Or perhaps the feeling you get after your mother and grandmother have read the blog post where you casually mention public drug abuse.

Possible Reaction 3 (5% probability): Intellectual Discourse. You nervously babble and attempt a detached meta-analysis of the moment, adopting your enemy’s commentary in some statement of admission, such as “oh, this is a problem I’ve had for some time, you’re right, and I’m sure it was pretty annoying, but, well, it can be difficult to overcome these shortcomings, don’t you think . . . but I see your point, and I think I can work something out so this doesn’t happen again . . . how do you think I could work on this?”

As it was, I was vaguely irritated, yet amused. I honestly had no recollection of ever uttering a word, but it was nice to know that, externally, I was enjoying myself. And, of course, fifteen minutes later, down in the lobby, I cogently composed about four distinct and snappy replies to the grumpy dick.

The spirit of brotherhood prevailed, though. We left that theater somewhere around 2:30 am, after a full day and night of sitting, yet there were people everywhere, energy flickering in every corner, and instead of exhaustedly slouching toward the trains, we victoriously marched out onto the sidewalks. Web and I skated into the night amidst the Gothic and modern towers, glowing in the frosty atmosphere. The Great Eye had been destroyed and we were free. Web was so sufficiently charged that he moved on into the night, while I floated back to our home, lovingly stroking my lanyard.

That event was the gateway into a multi-year track of obsession that would culminate with a most terrible calamity involving my Hawaii wedding in 2008. Read on. You’ll see.

3: It becomes personal

Attending a big movie event and creating our commemorative shirts wasn’t exactly an act of obsession. The cookies, though, really crossed the line. Web and I (along with Seka and Monica) had previously coordinated our efforts in holiday cookie baking, collaborating for cookie parties. In 2003 we just couldn’t synchronize, so our various baking projects were independently executed. Just two days after Trilogy Tuesday, Web knocked on my door with a gift in hand. He had just returned from a family cookie-making event, and this is what he brought me:

Birth of the Gollum and Smeagol cookies

How cool! I love frosted cookies, particularly those in human shape. Who doesn’t enjoy methodically nibbling the limbs from a helpless gingerbread anthropomorph? Even the putrid-green of the frosting looked tasty. And such attention to detail. Web looked on, grinning, as I inspected the cookies, with their jelly eyes and sprinkle mouths and human hair . . . um. Wait, there’s a hair on my cookie. Oh. Oh no. The cookies had hair. Go ahead. Take a look. This is just the beginning, folks.

As Web cackled (he has a contagiously lovely cackle), I shook my head and immediately set to work formulating my path of revenge. It couldn’t be immediate, but it would have to involve these inedible twin creatures. During the next few years, I brought them with me on various trips, including grad school, the beach and, as seen in the following photo, the mountains of Tennessee.

Gollum and Smeagol in the Tennessee mountains

I framed that shot, taken at Web’s beloved Short Mountain Sanctuary (FYI: the video claims that SMS is a community of gay men, but there are certainly Radical Faerie residents of all sexes), and gave it to him for his 2004 birthday (an event that was quite Gollum-saturated, including all of us singing “Happy Birthday” in Gollum voices, while a Gollum figure held his candle). Not exactly “revenge”, but a fun project. Unfortunately, the cookies stayed in my car’s trunk for years, bouncing about, breaking limbs, and aging disgracefully. I suppose I should have treated them with more respect. Take a look at their original photograph, though. How many words float through your head that have little to do with “respect”? Yeah.

The rough aging that I thrust upon the cookies made them much more repulsive to Web, so, as time passed, the “revenge” factor was ultimately realized. All I had to do was include the cookies in some otherwise peaceful event, and a dark and disgusting shadow managed to instantly taint the moment. A year later, I brought them along to Web’s immersive birthday event, prominently displaying them in all their decrepitude. Their attendance was appropriate, though, as this was our great A/V moment, our personal screening of all three extended-edition films.

Within my circle of friends, I am generally known as the A/V Guy. This has been a natural progression from my computer guy persona of the 80s. A big distinction, and one that denotes an evolutionary preference, is that the A/V Guy is rarely placed in the uncomfortable and often excruciatingly tedious positions of diagnosis and service that befall the Computer Guy. The A/V Guy just has to set everything up. It’s simply a matter of knowing your stereo equipment, how to chain things together, and having the will and focus to rapidly assemble an entertainment environment. It also helps to have access to a projector, as I did during most of the 2000s. I had started working for the Galter Library in 2001. After a few years as a library assistant, I recognized the possibilities for personal growth and applied to a library science master’s program (and today I am a professional librarian). Meanwhile, I noticed that the library had a video projector that could be reserved and checked out for a full weekend. Soon I was bringing the projector to various Twin Peaks Society events, connecting it to a laserdisc player (hey, there was no other way to watch digital Twin Peaks) and Monica’s Bose Wave. Instant theater. A few years of these projections gave Web the idea that he could transform his apartment into an event-level personal theater, and I was absolutely up to the task. He was already doing a lot of upgrading and remodeling (Sunnyside Manor was Oma’s house (his grandmother), so all investments were still within the family), so he hired a few friends to paint the place, and made sure to leave a wall completely blank and white.

During that period of environmental transformation my life was rapidly changing. I had started library school in 2003, and in 2004 I met Rachel. Then, very early into 2005, my dad became sick. It started as unexplained heart trouble on New Year’s Day, but by mid-January it was confirmed as lung cancer. That confirmation had come to me the same weekend that Web and some Radical Faerie friends started to paint, when Kale started to cover Mother. Mother had been on the wall for a few years, an extreme decoration from Pumpkinfest, Web’s annual comprehensive Halloween costume/carving party. I had become quite entwined into the intricacies of Pumpkinfest planning and execution, starting with the year that I had been Mother in the basement, scaring the Bejesus out of just about everyone (or at least creeping out a good lot of them by uncomfortably staying in character). Future Pumpkinfests would evolve into various directions, but I don’t think we ever topped Mother. So as Kale covered her up and other friends worked their transformative magic, creating a friendlier space, I distinctly remember sitting there, with the same perspective as that photograph, telling everyone about my dad. Those distinctive snapshot memories are quite persistent, and we all have them, collected into our mental photostreams , reflecting the moments when we could clearly see the tributaries of our lives, the points to which we can never return. I recall sitting in Gordon, talking with my mom on my stupid cell phone, her telling me the results of the tests, the first revelation of the cancer. The moment in Web’s living room was the next vivid snapshot in that memory stream. This is how it is when someone becomes terminally ill.

Web’s birthday LotR viewing event spanned two days, including a sleep-over, first- and second-breakfasts. As the A/V Guy who had moved his full DTS surround system into Web’s, calibrating the entire wall-sized projection event, I had prime front-couch seating. As Girlfriend of A/V Guy, Rachel was granted equal privilege. Still in the shock of my dad’s diagnosis, this had inadvertently become my first therapeutic LotR viewing. When you’re in that state of emotional saturation, any level of emotional intensity embedded within entertainment can exponentially expand, triggering unexpected levels of response. Sometimes, you just want to plunge over the waterfall, so you knowingly watch something that would upset even a right-minded person (the Schindler’s List/Fried Green Steel Magnolia Beaches factor). Other times, the emotional triggers sneak their way into seemingly low-emotion works of straight-up entertainment. The same comfort-of-home familiarity that accompanies a beloved film provides a safety zone, relaxing your guard in a darkened room, allowing your brewing emotions to release themselves into your eyeballs and nasal cavity and general aura. The LotR films have something for everyone, including the emotionally shocked and bereaved. I wasn’t prepared for such an outpouring, but once it blossomed I wasn’t embarrassed. Web had been selective in his invitations, so this was a safe and loving environment. It was a good opportunity to connect my soul to these movies. By the time Frodo sailed off toward the Grey Havens, I was silently bawling. This journey had been the exhilarating victory of Trilogy Tuesday. During that initial public viewing, my spirit was more tied to Gandalf and Aragorn , mustering for battle, philosophizing on the greater impact of such a massive story, harnessing motivation (and still tweaked from the shrooms ). This time, the trilogy carried the satisfaction of productive exhaustion. I connected with the bittersweet accomplishment of Frodo and Sam, a connection that would comfort me throughout the duration of dad’s sickness.

My dad was sick from early 2005 until March 2006, during which I viewed the full trilogy several times, discovering different stories and angles with each screening. These films tend to be more immersive than most others due to their innate fractal nature. The expanding facets of character and story depth are not really based on acting or even the screenwriting. Rather, this fractal analysis originates with Tolkien’s exhaustive creativity and attention to historical depth (based on the real history of World War II, which is a living allegory of itself, pre-programmed into our national DNA, with archetypes so poignant that leaders still attempt to leverage them for their own means, even as the world has become much more muddy and difficult to categorize). You feel the immense history behind every scene, and you start to wonder if there are other types of wizards, what really went down between the nations of elves and men, how the hobbits might have settled into the Shire, and how they ever get anything done if they’re constantly smoking pipe-weed. However, this didn’t make me want to read the books. I’m satisfied with imagining this stuff on my own, digging deep into the template, but only employing hypothesis. This is similar to the pre-ordained imagination of Star Wars, but it is much more adult, much deeper, and less dependent on Joseph Conrad-approved archetypes. And whatever historical depth you can find in Star Wars is probably due to Lucas having read LotR at some point, absorbing plot while sacrificing subtlety.

Dad’s cancer progressed. There was never much positivity in the prognosis. You grasp at single-digit changes of prognosis percentage, like fantasizing over the odds on the back of a lottery ticket. Life absorbs this new facet, and you work around it, incorporating more visits, more interaction and communication. It’s a quick way to overcome telephonophobia. Pretty soon, though, I was no longer including Dad’s sickness as a part of an otherwise manageable life. It became the sea in which we were swimming, treading water in the center of a cold ocean. We savored all the moments together, attempting to make semi-immediate, achievable plans. I wanted to watch the trilogy with him. He had never seen the films, and I wasn’t certain that he would be able to sit through even one of them without nodding off. Still, we could just watch pieces of them, a bit at a time, and take it all in. He loved science fiction movies, was a Star Trek fan back before there was a franchise, and particularly liked Westerns. I would schedule some father-son LotR time, perhaps even bring the projector for an instant A/V Guy transformation. But I also wanted to have more games of Monopoly, the game we had played together since my childhood. And then there were the family movies, decades of material spread out over several VHS tapes, transferred from silent super-8 and unannotated. As his percentage slipped below the teens, I was forced to prioritize our time, yet I didn’t want him to feel doted upon, which could be a reminder of his weakness. Too much thought. Then, the sickness made the decisions for us. For a few weeks he was having some trouble concentrating, and then his mind just started imploding. We thought it could be the drugs, or his waning appetite, but, not even very deep inside of us, we knew that the cancer had reached his brain. I made it through about a half of one of the VHS tapes of old family movies, asking him questions about long-forgotten and distant uncles and cousins, places and homes from his childhood, before he simply lost the ability to perceive what he was watching. What followed was a very intense month, requiring constant supervision. The world collapsed into itself, and my dad became a shell, this void in the middle of everything. And then he died.

We took our time in planning the funeral. He was cremated, so there was no need to hurry. Death rites can be so infuriating to people who believe in the clarity of their own particular rituals. The cremation itself was a bucking of tradition, and the long wait for a ceremony put some people on edge. We were exhausted, though. And, with the immediate family being just me and my mother, with Rachel as an honorary core member, we called the shots. My grandmother and aunt came out from Hawaii. Web stopped by and played hearts with Rachel, me and Mom. Our house was silent, yet buzzing with well-wishers and the action of preparing the funeral (while I was taking care of Dad, I was ducking into the other room to review those video tapes, cataloging all of their contents, preparing an edit list for an inevitable tribute video). While Web was designing the program, I needed to find a good poem, something . . . meaningful. Dad wasn’t a big reader. As far as I knew, he didn’t have an outright favorite poem. I tried to think of some type of verse that wouldn’t be too generic, something that came close to describing the moment. Then I remembered the LotR soundtrack.

I had been given the CD of the final film some time in 2004. I tend to either completely embrace or reject soundtracks, with no middle ground. They always seem derivative of “real” symphonic music, such as the works of Prokofiev, Beethoven and Mozart. Still, I owned the soundtracks for Star Wars, Superman and many other films from my childhood, and I played the hell out of them. As an adult, my discrimination often pre-empted even considering listening to something, particularly music from modern blockbusters. It has been a contrarian ethic that has often worked against my better judgment and taste. In LotR, though, there was that little matter of the lighting of the beacons. That scene is a great visual experience, a great idea, with a single information packet traveling across an entire country, mountaintop dominoes of fire connecting humans over a vast distance. The music, though, drives it through the roof. I used to crank the beacon song every now and then, on select mornings, blasting it through the wall and into Web’s place, and by the end of the sequence we would be gathered in one of our apartments, concert-ballad saluting with raised lighters. It truly kick-started your day.

I wasn’t going to play the beacon fanfare at Dad’s funeral. I appreciate absurdity enough that I won’t discount the possibility, but this was for Mom and the rest of my family, and we were all emotionally destroyed. However, I remembered that Dad repeatedly mentioned how much he liked Annie Lennox. This is the guy who introduced me to Black Sabbath and ZZ Top, a man who’s family car was a ’69 Plymouth Road Runner that he drag raced at US 30 Drag Strip. A sailor and a truck driver. Yet he had a soft spot for the Eurythmics, and Annie’s solo work, and generally thought that she had one of the best voices in pop music. Lennox did Into the West, the final song in K, and the lyrics just seemed too appropriate. Go ahead and read them.

So even though neither of my parents had seen the movies or read the books, we included Into the West as a poem in the program. With that act, I have folded a part of my life into those movies, so the triumph, exhaustion and warm cascade of the final credits are also an ode to my father, a remembrance. That marked a new phase of LotR entwinement. It wasn’t enough to croak out the Gollum-speak or brandish the aging cookies. This work of entertainment was officially tied into my soul. As 2006 dragged on through a swamp of numbness, as we excavated and sold my parents house, upending my own history, the need to personally invest elements of my persona into those movies intensified. There are basically two ways to fanatically throw yourself into something, particularly when it comes to a film. Consumerism is the most immediate method. The simple purchase of a “very special” DVD set stimulates an intimate connection, baring this avatar of your soul on a bookshelf display. After that, the chain of intimacy demands continuity, so you buy the books, graphic novels, documentaries, figurines, posters and all sundry paraphernalia. You buy your connection of identity. Another approach, though, is less rooted in the ritual of purchase and consumption, and more a direct act of creativity. You find ways to infiltrate the narrative, to model your life after characters and scenarios. You pretend.

So now you’re expecting me to say that I finally gave in and stamped my passport to the Renaissance Faire. Not quite. There’s only one time of the year when I truly flip from introvert to extrovert. The time of Mother. Pumpkinfest.

Pumpkinfest plans were very ethereal in 2006. Just a month before Dad died, Web lost Oma. Neither of us had a lot of energy available for entertaining. Once we started the planning, though, it really started to work itself up. It started with the seed of a costume, the notion that I might be able to pull of an actual character (and not just a performance-based absurdity). It all started with the Staff of Saruman. I saw it on eBay for a somewhat reasonable price, and quickly fantasized about assembling the rest of the robes, beard and hair needed to become the White Wizard. I’ve never enjoyed Halloween. I grew up in a religion that refused to celebrate most holidays, and that included the fun one where everyone got to dress up and collect a vast booty of deliciousness. Without the history of annual costumes, the simple idea of having to pick something out, to transform myself, scared me to the bone. It was performance anxiety, along with pure fear of the inevitable judgment cast from fellow costumed citizens. Web’s Pumpkinfest , though, helped me look at the mandatory dress-up in a very different way. It was an opportunity for creativity that tapped into long-dormant elements of my personality.

When I was young I used to put on “funny shows” for my cousins. I would duck into a back room at our grandma’s house, spending 30 minutes to prepare my act. Once I had the crowd worked up, frothing with anticipation, the show would begin. This usually consisted of me hopping and flailing about, making strange sounds, balancing, cracking jokes, being an all-around lunatic. They ate it up. I eventually expanded this into installation pieces, such as haunted houses, where I would create Jimmy Doppelgangers within a room, and then attempt to scare the Bejesus out of my semi-expecting cousins.

Web’s idea of a Hitchcock-themed Pumpkinfest was the crank that set my mind into motion, and I was soon creating a full freak-out installation in his basement. This was also a carving party, and we provided the guests with pumpkins. The caveat was that they had to go into the basement and retrieve their pumpkins from the fruit cellar. Ah, the fruit cellar. I sat in that little closet for hours, covered in a shawl, donning a grey wig, slumped over in a rocking chair with my back to the door. Guests had to reach past me to get their pumpkins, muttering various defensive proclamations, waiting for me to breathe or move. They couldn’t see my face, though, and I was sufficiently covered so that I could have very well been a prop, a lifeless and strategically placed mannequin. About 60-70 percent of them jumped and yelped as I touched their arms, just as they were reaching for their pumpkins. Some of them screamed. One of them, dressed as a giant bird (giant – the guy is 6.5 feet tall), actually squawked and hopped about. Another person, a close friend, withered, crying out in an oscillating mewl, and slowly melted straight down into the floor. So, after that initial taste of power through performance, I was hooked.

However, this meant that I couldn’t just imagine a new costume every year. It had to be an installation and a performance. A “funny show”. So every year I would be quite lukewarm about the idea of Pumpkinfest until the moment when I would imagine a specific theme and costume. Then it was full throttle. In 2006 our souls had been shaken, with very little enthusiasm left for extroversion. The Staff of Saruman changed that. After ordering it, I convinced Web to revisit his “villains” theme from Pumpkinfest past. Everything eventually coalesced into the most complex costume I had ever assembled:

Saruman playing ominous low note

In the above picture I am partaking in one of my favorite occasional activities: the playing of an ominous, low note on my severely out-of-tune old piano.

In addition to the white wig, I had glued a theater-grade mustache and beard over my own facial hair, along with the eyebrows. As the evening progressed and I became increasingly sauced, the facial accoutrements independently repositioned themselves, so I looked less like the evil wizard and more like a stinking drunk dirty old man. Overall, the costume was complex enough that I didn’t even need to act or even talk. As I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I couldn’t see anyone at all, so it was better to just keep my mouth shut, as I never really knew who I was talking with. A few of the guests got it right away, and some others understood once I had brandished the staff. The rest of them thought I was Father Time.

Gollum and Saruman. Villains and deception. How long can one mock these manifestations of evil and accursedness before there is a cosmic balancing?

4: The Balancing

I welcomed 2007 as a year of orientation. From death to the personal deconstruction of depopulating and selling my parents’ home, 2006 had wiped me out. One very high note of 2006, though, was my engagement to Rachel. It probably would have happened earlier, if there weren’t all the other massive events. The decision to get married conversationally sprouted from logic, so there was no single moment where I popped the question. I did manage to surprise her with an heirloom ring that belonged to my grandma, officially cranking up the engine of matrimony. Various plans soon unfolded, including a beach ceremony in Hawaii with all of the Hawaiian family. 2007 became a year of planning, with Rachel attending to every possible detail, excelling at organizing our union. Typical of the event, most of the focus was on her (as it should be), from the dress to the bridal shower. There weren’t many man-specific details that I needed to authorize. Well, there was one big one.

It probably started as a joke. I needed a ring, so why not choose the Ring of Power? I knew from my Staff of Saruman experience that there were jeweler-grade One True Rings out there for the LotR prosumer. This included custom, hand-etched rings in all grades of solid gold, along with the “officially licensed” merchandise (such as my staff, leaning in the corner of our living room, emanating dark energy) found on the New Line Cinema website. “Precious” mockeries fluttered about our household, yet, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a rather cool phelangean accessory. Still, it was just peripheral comedy until Rachel said, “if you want it, you should get it.”

Really?!

So my wife-to-be actually thought that the Ring of Power was a good idea, that it could be a serious wedding band that would symbolize our lifelong commitment to each other. Holy crap, what an awesome woman! It wasn’t a case of me pretending that I’m a freaking hobbit. We weren’t going to exchange vows in the midst of a tandem sky dive, or riding horses through an ancient forest, or dressed as elves/Vulcans or anything that far into the freak scale. This was a small concession with great meaning. It was a pretty cool-looking item in and of itself, and Rachel was hip to the whole idea of my wedding band being something interesting and unique. Our love would be forged in the fiery pit of Mount Doom. How could that possibly be bad?

After quite a bit of shopping (I never make a purchase decision without flagrant and mind-numbing distillation), I finally decided that the official New Line Cinema website item looked the best. Yes, a mass-produced item. The machine etching was so much more elegant than most of the other independently produced rings. And it came in a little wooden box with a certificate of authenticity that would match my Staff of Saruman certificate. So we ordered it, and for months it sat on my dresser, in that little box, waiting, whispering to me in the night as my finger ached for the completion of The Precious.

I generally just wanted to show it off, to catch someone noticing it on the train, to brandish it before Web and mock his obsequious reverence. We held to the tradition, though, so it was not allowed on my finger. That didn’t stop me from occasionally opening the box and gazing upon its orbicular brilliance, lightly running my finger over the laser-etched Tengwarian script. Beyond the playful mockery, I soon found that I no longer thought of the ring in the films. I could only think of the ring in the box on my dresser, the One True Ring, as it waited to be brought to Hawaii for our union. We would finally be united. Forever.

Rachel and I were married at Kona Village Resort on the Big Island. My aunt had worked there for many years, and my mom’s half of the family all came from the Big Island (after sailing over from Portugal in the mid-1800s). Aunty Lani is half-Hawaiian (my Portuguese is the other half), and an educator and musician. Her knowledge of Hawaiian culture and lore is amazing, as is her singing. She is quite beloved at Kona Village. It had been nine years since I had been to that island. Back in 1999, I had quickly visited Kona Village during a family trip, spending only a few hours at the tranquil oasis. We had a front-row table during the luau and Lani’s performance (you can hear her as the singing emcee here, during the kids segment). This time, for the 2008 wedding, she would be singing and playing her ukulele during our ceremony down on the beach. As we checked into the resort, letting various staff know that I was Lani’s nephew, most of them would pause a moment, trying to calculate the genetic dissonance of what they knew (Lani is half-Hawaiian) and what they saw (Jimmy is a haole with a Chicago accent). I thought it was all cute, in good fun, until I started hearing other people refer to “Aunty Lani.” Evidently, during that nine years since I had last been there, she had graduated from Lani, a Kona Village presence, to Aunty Lani, a KV icon. I am her only nephew, so I’ve been used to being the only person that should be calling her Aunty . It was unsettling, as if I was visiting my mom at work and noticing that everyone was calling her both “mom” and “mother”. So as they looked at me askew, sizing up my ancestry and how a skinny white guy could possibly be related to a robust, dark-skinned Hawaiian, I skewed it right back at them, derailed every time someone referred to MY aunty as “Aunty Lani”. Still, Aunty Lani, with her ubiquitous “Aunty Lani” status, helped us upgrade to an amazing private beach-front hale.

If any of you are planning a wedding, I must stress the mind-settling ease of the resort package deal. We showed up, enjoyed ourselves, and eventually strolled to the beach and got married. Okay, it was more complicated. And I was more of a stroller, which Rachel spent proper Bride Time getting ready. Still, so much was provided for us and worked out ahead of time that we were really able to take in the moment. I’ve heard so many tales of the wedding day experience, and most people have said that the event is often a fantastic blur, almost like those drunken hours at a party where time overlaps upon itself and the only way you’re really able to piece things together later is by anecdote and photograph. This was absolutely not the case with our wedding. I remember every detail, and, even as it was happening, I was able to take it in and enjoy it. Some of our friends were there, including Web, my best man. Web and I spent the afternoon hanging out at the resort, eating, checking out the turtles and swimming in a very snorkel-friendly inlet at the north end of the beach. Kathy and Tom appeared, and the four of us had a little beach party, snorkeling about and soaking in the calm. Pretty soon Kathy disappeared to get ready, and it was up to us guys to get ourselves into ceremonial condition. We ended up cutting it pretty close, dashing to the recreation house and quickly rinsing off the sea water. Meanwhile, The Precious was wrapped up in my locker, waiting to be handed off to Web. The moment had arrived.

I knew that Web has plenty of Coyote Trickster in his soul, so I was prepared for some sort of last-minute Smeagol-Deagol ring battle. I guess you could say that I was ready to clutch my hands around his throat until he relinquished The Precious, if that’s what it took. No hitting him on the head with a rock, though, and I’m generally non-violent. It turned out that Web was far too nervous about his Best Man duties to bother with LotR hi-jinks, beyond a few strokings of the ring and the random Gollum-whisper “precioussss”. As we assembled on the beach platform, whales breaching in the sea behind us, Web prepared himself. So did The Precious.

By this point, this deep into my tale, I can assume that you all know the tale of The Ring. When the time was right, it left Gollum and was waiting to be discovered by Bilbo. The lore of the ring having sentience was always appealing, yet always one of the more fantastical elements of the story. Out there on the beach, though, it happened. One moment, Web was holding it, readying it for the ceremony. The next moment, it had slipped from his fingers and into the sand. It didn’t just land on top of the perfect white sand. It started to bore its way down into the sand, as if on a mission to disappear, or perhaps drag us all down into a terrible sinkhole. We both stood there for a beat, mouths agape, hardly believing what was playing out before us. The ring was attempting to leave. It was making a break for it. Cinematically sinking into an alternate world of sand.

Sweet Jesus, my damned wedding ring was sinking into the sand!

Protocol be damned, I crouched down, shot my hand into the sand, and plucked that sucker back into our dominion. There were random peripheral gasps, but, in general, I don’t think many of the guests knew what was really happening. As I handed the ring back to Web, we both laughed uneasily, not due to any folly on his part, but more in recognition of a certain reality of The Precious, the breaking through of an energy we had never considered to be real. How many other fantasies stitched throughout our lives might also be able to transcend the barriers of fiction? And if the ring really did possess some degree of sentience, just what was I getting myself into?

The ring did not attempt any other escapes, and the ceremony progressed beautifully. Aunty Lani sang and cried, the conch was blown, Rachel and I were united, and ring was mine. Mine, and mine alone.

The one ring

The next morning we awoke in our hale as a united couple. The Great Event had passed, our friends and relatives had gone on to their homes and independent travels, and we were free to enjoy our Big Island honeymoon. After padding about the hale, we changed into our swim suits and walked up to the north end of the beach. It was time for a little morning snorkeling, just a bit of it, before rinsing off and drifting over to drinks and brunch. One of the beautiful things about an all-inclusive resort is that when you feel like doing anything, from snorkeling to sailing to drifting into a swirl of Mai Tais , you just do it. Every item and service is spread out before you. So we stopped at the shack and grabbed the snorkel gear, then waded out into the same inlet where I had swam with Kathy, Tom and Web just 19 hours earlier.

I have only snorkeled a few times, so I’m certainly no expert. I understand a few basic principles, and, in general, know that the biggest thing to get past is just relaxing and breathing somewhat normally. I could see that Rachel was having a rough time getting into that state. She was forcing the experience, worried that she would take water into her lungs, worried about the mask being on right, and a bit panicky in general. I was treading water with her, having her look at me to steady her thoughts, but it wasn’t helping much. She would snorkel in brief spurts, but then pop back out of the water, half-panicked, her poor eyes darting about within the mask, trying to keep things together with a half-smile. I counseled her that snorkeling can be just a matter of figuring out what works best for you, and that if she just wanted to hold her breath, using the mask to look down into the water as she skimmed the surface, that was perfectly fine. Once she understood that she wasn’t expected to actually dive down into the ocean, that she could just swim up top in the regular way that she always knew, she started to relax. Soon she was able to keep her head down for 30 seconds, and then even a minute, as her paddling feet propelled her off toward a big batch of coral and sea life. Meanwhile, as I satisfactorily watched her moving away, I felt something funny on my finger.

Now, take a moment and watch this clip. Pay particular attention to the 33-second mark.

Yes, the ring betrayed me. It actually floated UP my finger. I felt it. When I ducked my head into the water, I saw it recede into the ocean EXACTLY as Isildur had watched it slip from his life. The damned thing had waited, knowing that I would be extra diligent during the ceremony. It waited until my focus turned to my other Precious, my wife, and her well being. Then it slipped into the depths. I gulped air into my lungs and plunged in after it, but, just as it had transfixed me and Web on the beach less than 24 hours before, it had stunned me into too much of a head start, and quickly disappeared into the sand some ten or fifteen feet down. I’m generally not a great swimmer. I can move, I can dive a little bit, but I’m still a Midwesterner, a haole , ill-prepared for moderate diving within the buoyancy of ocean salt water. I pushed my self down, darting my head all about, legs flailing, inadvertently disturbing the sandy ocean floor, pulling up swirls of soft golden clouds in the transparent water. When I popped back up to the surface, I yelled out to Rachel. She was still in the head-down position, exploring her reef, and, even if she could hear me, she probably thought that I was cheering her on. By the time she turned around and made it back over to my area, I had deteriorated into a full panic.

“I lost it! It came off my finger! It’s gone!”

What happened during the next few moments could only be a miracle. Are any of you fans of the old Incredible Hulk television show? Check it out. Now, try not to think of the infinitely sad walk-off-down-the-road-of-life piano theme at the end of every show. Instead, recall the motivation for David Banner’s gamma experiments. Remember? He was in a car accident with his honey, and he couldn’t get her out of the upturned and burning vehicle. He had heard that in situations of extreme panic, the body can sometimes generate enough adrenaline to enable super-human feats of strength and wonder, such as lifting a burning car so that your honey can escape. Well, neither Rachel nor I turned green and ruptured our swim suits. However, as I desperately dove back down, again and again, the ultimate alarm of the moment completely snapped Rachel out of her own diminishing panic. Less than a minute later, she was systematically swimming over a grid, correctly breathing, focusing on the ocean floor. She had become an instant snorkeler, ultimately leveraging my panic to discard her own. Soon enough, she had become a freaking fish, moving about with complete ease, calmly dividing our search into Cartesian sectors. She eventually grew tired and went back to the beach, walking out along the rocks to help me maintain my linearity. I stayed out there for an hour, struggling through a few leg cramps (a life-long plague of my swimming), finally too physically and spiritually exhausted to continue the search. The ring was lost.

It ultimately wasn’t too big of a deal. Rachel really didn’t care about the ring itself, as long as I wasn’t too upset. I felt more stupid than anything else. I felt like an idiot tourist. I also felt that my finger really wasn’t a size-11, dammit. Still, as we continued our spectacular honeymoon, it troubled me less, and we fantasized about some kid snorkeling at Kona Village in another year or two, skimming along the ocean floor and discovering the One Ring, plucking it out just as Deagol had done centuries before. Inspecting it and freaking the hell out.

The ring was a consumer item, so it was easy to replace, and our insurance gave us a bit of money toward the repurchase. It didn’t take long for me to own my second One True Ring, the ring I’m wearing right now as I type this. I have tamed The Precious, and we have come to an understanding. I no longer mock the ring, or pretend to be Gollum, Saruman or any other manifestation of chaos or evil. The ring, size-10 and tight on my finger, reminds me to stay cognizant of my environment, to keep my mind in the moment. And, of course, it reminds me of my love for Rachel, my ongoing connectedness with Dad, and my life’s friendship with Web. Which brings us to the coda.

Remember the cookies?

The cookies make a fine Birthday Present

Yes, they’ve been lingering all this time. That photo was taken just a few weeks ago. Well, they did ultimately find their way back to their maker, presented to Web on his 40th birthday. What could be more precious than a birthday present? Well, Precious!?

Back to Daddy

Snatch : 1995-2009

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Snatch in the window

When I first met Snatch five years ago she seemed like yet another one of those fussy “don’t touch me” prissy-cats. Any attempt to pick her up was met with a long “yeowwwwwl” of protest, so I figured she was just window dressing. Then we got to know each other, and I found that it was okay to not pick her up, to let her have her space. She figured out that my lap was a nice, warm place to rest and purr, and soon enough we became friends. During the years that we lived together, I increasingly played the role of defender, threatening Tomas when he would get out of hand, making sure that Snatch had easy passage to her food, and maintaining some of her Tomas-inaccessible hiding spots. After Tomas was gone, though, I realized that the two of them, while certainly not friends, did often exist in some state of agreement. I think that was more due to Snatch’s easy nature than anything else. She was a charmer, a princess and a companion. I will miss her dearly.