27 September 2007

Re-Cap, Part 2: Captain America Fights On!

After the Red Skull’s reappearance in issue #65, the Captain America feature in Tales of Suspense launched into back-to-back three part stories. Apparently, the readers who had written in to Marvel to complain about multi-issue stories made up a minority—or writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby just got tired of having to wrap-up every one of Winghead’s adventures in a mere ten pages. So issue #66 tosses us into a three issue mini-epic about the Red Skull brainwashing Captain American to kill Eisenhower, followed by the three-issue “Greymoor Castle” tale. The cliffhanger endings show that Stan at least realized that the title of the magazine had the word “Suspense” in it, although I have the feeling that everybody at the time called it “The Iron Man and Captain America comic book.” It really should be Tales of Action, but why invite DC Comics to sue you because of their similarly titled Action Comics?

The cover of issue #66, a split image of Iron Man facing Attuma and Captain America under the gun of the Red Skull, contains this hilarious Stan Lee ad line: “If one picture is worth a thousand words, just imagine what these two pictures are worth!” I don't know Stan, I’m guessing . . . two thousand words?

The beginning of the Red Skull arc has almost no action: Cap sits bound to a chair while the Red Skull relates his tortured past that made him the most feared man in Nazi Germany. This is a crucial moment, since it re-writes (retcons) the Golden Age history of the Skull into his “Johann Schmidt” origin that has stayed with him ever since—although later writers would embellish it, especially in “The Life and Times of the Red Skull” in Captain America #298 (1984). The name Johann Schmidt is never mentioned in this version, nor does the Red Skull’s civilian face appear clearly, but the foundation is laid: an orphan and petty criminal becomes fascinated with the Third Reich and is “discovered” by Hitler in a hotel where he works as a bellhop. Hitler turns him into the ultimate Nazi spy, and as the fearsome Red Skull he eventually wields power almost equal to Der Führer himself.

In issue #67, the Skull has a brainwashed Cap and a pack of hysterically accented SS goons—reading Stan Lee’s “vee must kill der verdammet Captains America, achtung!” dialogue gets riotous after a few panels—attempt to assassinate Eisenhower. I’m guessing it’s Eisenhower since the Skull ordered the death of the “Supreme Allied Commander.” The Skull No Like Ike.

Thankfully for the good ol’ U.S. of A., Bucky Barnes has infiltrated the SS hit squad, and wakes Cap up in time to stop the Skull’s scheming. This occurs early in the third installment, “The Sentinel and the Spy” in issue #68, so our heroes spend the rest of the remaining ten pages stopping one of the Skull's agents from getting hold of a British “vanishing ray” invention. Cap pulls a great “please don't throw me in the briar patch” reverse psychology to make the Nazi thief over-power the weapon and blow himself up. Nazis sure were easy to fool in the comics.

With issue #69, Cap and Bucky start the “Midnight in Greymoor Castle!” story arc. The Red Skull lurks behind this plot as well, although we never see him. Traitorous British scientist Dr. Rawlins, who looks a bit too much like the standard German mad-scientist, plans to use a shrinking process on America’s two greatest heroes. Oddly, we only see the shrinking used on two dummies of Captain America and Bucky in this first issue, and then Stan and Jack seem to forget all about it. Dr. Rawlins’s sister keeps begging him not to betray their people to the Nazis, but he only listens when his German superior plans to stick the poor girl, along with the captured Cap and Bucky, into the V-2 rocket he will fire onto 10 Downing Street. (Hmm, I wonder if Stan Lee had recently read the James Bond novel Moonraker.) This closes out issue #70, which also features the one of the best Tales of Suspense covers Kirby ever drew.

With the next issue, Captain America breaks free and the scientist helps him fire the rocket onto a German platoon that was about to destroy Steve Rogers’s own outfit. With the close of Tales of Suspense #71 everybody who isn’t dead ends up happy, except the Red Skull, and there’s just no pleasing that guy.

After this, the Captain America stories in Tales of Suspense return to modern-day adventures. According to a narrator box in issue #72, this was due to popular demand. You would never have guessed it from the previous letters pages—“Mails of Suspense!”—where readers seemed evenly split on whether to keep Cap in the past with Bucky or to concentrate on his newly revived 1960s version.

However, the choice was made, and issue #72 begins with Cap in the Avengers mansion, where he has just finished telling the story of Greymoor Castle to the other three Avengers. (This occurs after the famous Avengers #16, when all the founding members left, and Cap, to everyone’s astonishment, recruited three former villains to fill the vacancies. The Avengers was a daring comic for its day.) Just to make sure the readers understand that this is the contemporary, “haunted” Captain America, he broods over Bucky's death and the vanished days of World War II glory.

But wait, what’s this? The Red Skull’s image taped to Steve Rogers’s ceiling? Oh, wait, it’s Cap having a dream. I thought that Hawkeye was playing a prank.

And, yes, it’s time for more retconning! What happened to the Red Skull at the end of World War II? Steve remembers the Skull getting blown up by his own grenade, but . . . perhaps he survived? (Of course he did. He’s died more times than the combined number of marriages of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry King.) Before “dying,” the Red Skull reveals his final dreadful scheme: in exactly twenty years, three giant “sleepers” will awaken and complete the plans of the Third Reich.

Why the Red Skull didn’t activate these ingenious devices immediately, when they might have been some help to the collapsing Nazi cause, is the sort of question you just can’t ask in the Silver Age of comics. The Red Skull set them to activate in twenty years so they would match up with a 1965 issue of Tales of Suspense starring Captain America. So there. It’s pleasant to see villains with a sense of long-term planning. Maybe the Skull should have sold life insurance.

Right on schedule, the first sleeper, a wonderful Jack Kirby giant killer robot, busts out from a mountain in Germany and goes on a rampage. Cap, who parachutes down just in time to see the emergence, can’t stop it! What will happen when the other sleepers awaken in the next issue? Tune in for the next episode of “Re-Cap” with “Where Walks the Sleeper.”

Last episode: Captain America on DVD-ROM

Next episode: Captain America #1(00)

25 September 2007

Re-Cap, Part 1: Captain America on DVD-ROM

Welcome to the start of the series that I have retroactively (as of May 2010) titled: “Re-Cap: A Look Back At Captain America.” Please note that the DVD-ROM I have of these issues is no longer manufactured.

Marvel Comics has started to release back issues of its most famous titles in DVD-ROM format. Yes, on one disc you can get 500 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man for $39.99. (And you would imagine you would have to shell out forty bucks at least, right?) The comics come in PDF format, easily readable by any Mac or PC, and include all the ad pages, letter columns, etc. Heck, you can even see the slightly rusty staples on the oldest issues. For someone who loves comic book history but doesn’t want to “collect” them, this is manna from the Great Pencil & Inkers in the Sky. Forty bucks buys years of comic-book goodness, provided you don’t mind using your laptop or desktop to do your reading. (I’ve found reading the PDFs easier and more enjoyable than I thought.) And you get to read the bizarre rants of Stan “The Man” Lee in his editorial columns and some weird—and occasionally prescient—comments from readers in the letter columns

I just received my first of these DVD-ROMs in the mail, the complete Captain America. The original Captain America, Steve Rogers, appears to have died in April 2007. I say “appears” because in comics death has a tendency to mean “hiatus.” Everyone assumed that Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes were dead, and oops! they both came back to life in 2005. If those two can come back to life, then anybody can. (Which, now that I think of it would work well as an inspirational speech theme.) Then there was that famous “Death of Superman” story of the 1990s. He sure didn’t stay in the afterlife for long.

Honestly, only Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben seems immune to resurrection. If anyone at Marvel is reading this, please don’t hatch up a way to bring him back, as it would completely ruin Spider-Man’s essential motivation.

The upshot of all this is that I haven’t lost any sleep over Captain America's death. Nor should you. Losing sleep over the “death” of a fictional character is silly anyway. (Update: As of 2009, Captain America is coming back. Marvel managed to keep him dead for almost two years; impressive.)

But I’m getting off track here . . . I was talking about the Captain America DVD-ROM set.

The single disk contains every issue of the eponymous Captain America comic books series through its different volumes and numbering restarts, as well as all the hero’s appearances in Tales of Suspense, which he shared with Iron Man until the magazine officially changed to Captain America with issue #100 and Iron Man shuffled off into his own title. The DVD-ROM doesn’t have any of Cap’s Golden Age issues from the 1940s, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created the character. I would have loved to see those oldies, but Marvel apparently wanted only “current continuity” Cap in this collection.

Captain America wasn’t the first patriotic-themed superhero in the comics—another star-spangled longjohn-wearing fellow named The Shield beat him by a few months, in Pep Comics—but he was the most popular in the Golden Age. His first appearance predated American entry into World War II, but Cap was already busy busting Nazi saboteurs’ heads before Pearl Habor. He even got to slug Hitler on the cover of his first appearance. He and his teen sidekick—a requirement for heroes of the time—“Bucky” tangled with the Nazis throughout the war years, in particular a recurring adversary known as the Red Skull. But eventually the world’s greatest fighting machine was defeated by the end of the war, when patriotic heroes no longer had the same appeal. Superheroes in general lost popularity in the 1950s, and Cap vanished after a brief revival as “Captain America: Commie Smasher!” (Which would lead to a very fascinating story in the 1970s, however.)

Cut to the Silver Age; or, as editor and chief writer Stan Lee like to modestly term it, “The Marvel Age of Comics!” With the huge success of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Thor, Stan Lee decided to pull Captain America from the company’s retired file and put him back into active service. One problem: how to cover the twenty-year gap between World War II and 1964, while keeping the character the same spry age?

Solution: Retroactive Continuity. A.k.a. Retcon. The time-honored comic tradition of re-writing a character's back history. Memorize the term; you're going to hear it a lot in the next few paragraphs. In The Avengers #4, Captain America is discovered in suspended animation, frozen in ice after he fell from an exploding rocket in an escapade in the closing days of the War. His partner Bucky died in the explosion (or so we thought until Ed Brubaker re-retconned Bucky back into existence in 2005), but Cap waited, unaging, in an ice block until the Avengers located him. Cap joined their ranks, and in a few months he had his own feature in Tales of Suspense . . . with original co-creator Jack Kirby once again providing the art.

And here’s where my DVD-ROM adventures and “Re-Cap” start, with Tales of Suspense #59. Cap had made a guest appearance in the previous issue’s Iron Man story (Marvel just loved a Hero vs. Hero cover to snare readers), but with #59 he edged out the back page feature “Tales of the Watcher” and took up permanent residence. A few readers complained about losing the Watcher feature in the letters page, but according to Stan’s ripostes, nobody seemed to care about the feature until it ended. No one could argue with the great sales of Avengers #4, so the Watcher was out and Cap was in . . . permanently. Eventually Tales of Suspense would change its name to Captain America.

That first story in Tales of Suspense #59 isn’t anything to wave the flag over. Avengers #4 was Captain America’s true re-introduction to the comics world, and this issue feels as if artist Jack Kirby was stretching his muscles and getting a feel for drawing solo adventures of the hero again. These half-magazine features never provide much opportunity to develop complex plots: the story would usually start with the action already underway, and after some set-up and puns and hyperbole from Stan Lee’s pen, Kirby would send Cap into a few pages of furious fighting. It’s clear that Kirby loved drawing Captain America in action, and the dated and creaky writing and characterization can’t dim how much energy bursts off these pages—or PDF screens. Kirby’s distinctive style has timelessness that few artists can beat. He was called “The King” for a reason.

The story in Tales of Suspense #59 finds Cap sitting in Avengers Mansion on solo guard-duty one evening, still the lonesome hero only recently dragged into the modern era. A pack of dumb thugs, one of whom has mysteriously gotten hold of a metal suit of armor to defend him from Cap’s shield, decide to raid the mansion and plunder its “secrets.” Apparently no one has thought of a security system for the mansion, since the thugs break right in. But Cap cleans them right up.

This simple pattern of Cap tackling a crowd of nobodies stays in place for a few issues. Tales of Suspense #60 has the Star-Spangled Avenger battling assassins hired by his Nazi foe Baron Zemo, who had recently emerged in the pages of The Avengers as the leader the Masters of Evil. The assassins jump ol’ Winghead at a physical fitness demonstration, and Cap lays them all out. He also demonstrates the magnetic gizmos that Iron Man set into his shield, which won’t last much longer in Cap’s arsenal. In issue #61, Cap appears suddenly in war-wracked Vietnam to rescue a POW, but first he must take on a Vietcong general who happens to be a humongous sumo wrestler. This is the sort of story that hasn’t aged well, with its “Yellow Peril” stereotypes and one-dimensional look at a complex conflict.

Cap returns stateside for issue #62 in time to get jumped at another physical fitness demonstration, this time at a prison. The prisoners want to seize Captain America’s shield so they can use the magnetic gizmos in it to escape. I don’t get it either, and since Cap removed the electronic devices because they made the shield improperly balanced, it’s a moot point. Cap cleans house again. I suspect that either Lee or Kirby decided that high-tech gadgets in the shield didn’t feel right, and moved too far away from the martial arts nature of the character. Let Iron Man have the gizmos; Captain America has his prowess and never-say-die spirit.

It’s in Tales of Suspense #63 that Lee and Kirby really found their feet and pulled a change-up in style. The issue re-creates Captain America’s origin through “Project: Rebirth” in the early 1940s, and details how Bucky became Cap’s partner. Both events would get retconned so many times that Rashomon has a more singular point-of-view, but this issue remains the template for all the rectons to follow. The flashback story also signals the start of a series of Golden Age-set adventures for Cap in the magazine, which must have been a real treat for Jack Kirby to draw, reliving his early days of comic book fame. While Iron Man battled modern-day communists, Captain America could beat up on Nazis. In fact, despite his patriotic dross, Cap was far less a commie-smasher than Iron Man. To some extent this difference in the two character’s “patriotism” continues to this day.

In issue #64, Cap and Bucky take on Nazi saboteurs who have idiotically chosen to telegraph their activities through a bogus psychic act—Omar and Sando—that our heroes see through immediately. This story also features the female Agent 13, who will go on to have an interesting history complete with plenty of retcons; just wait until we reach issue #75. Issue #65 brings back on stage Captain America’s most famed nemesis, the Red Skull—but this appearance is designed to establish a new version of the character through—you guessed it—a retcon. The Red Skull who appeared in the Golden Age of comics was an American industrialist named George Maxon who worked undercover as a spy for the Nazis. This new story seems to have Maxon again beneath the mask, but the Skull claims at the conclusion that he has murdered the real George Maxon who had taken up his identity. So who is the real Red Skull? We don’t find out until next issue, when Jack and Stan unveil the “Johann Schmidt” version of the Red Skull, who has bedeviled Cap ever since.

However, this is as far as I’ve gotten in the DVD-ROM. Only some four hundred and ninety issues yet to go! I doubt I’ll regale you with reviews of every issue, however. I may get close, however.

Next episode: Captain America DVD-ROM Fights On!

24 September 2007

Clark Ashton Smith, Part IV

It sure has been a long strange trip with Mr. Clark Ashton Smith...

The last of my four article on the esteemed Mr. Smith’s weird fiction is now online at Black Gate. This final installment explores his stories of Poseidonis, Mars, and Xiccarph.

Looking over all four of my essays, I think the one of which I am most proud is the one concerning Hyperborea. It’s maybe the least accessible of Smith’s series for contemporary readers, but I think my approach to the material “opens” it up in a way commensurate with the stories’ style.

Clark Ashton Smith is a difficult author to evaluate in the mere words or a critic (a poem or a painting might do him more justice), but I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to express my opinions about an astonishing author who had a tremendous effect on me personally and who desperately needs wider exposure.

19 September 2007

Moonraker: The Guiltiest Pleasure Bond

Moonraker (1979)
Directed by Lewis Gilbert. Starring Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michel Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corrine Clery.

There are many things wrong with Moonraker.

The plot is outlandishly ludicrous. The narrative has the logic of a Road Runner Cartoon, with Jaws taking the part of Wile E. Coyote. The supposed “scientific accuracy” touted by Cubby Broccoli is a joke that elementary school children could dismantle. The desperation to sell toys to the kids deluged with Star Wars merchandize is painfully evident. Hardly a trace of Ian Fleming’s Bond survives, and aside from the title and the villain’s name, nothing of one of Fleming’s most intriguing novels makes it to the screen. And the Bond girl asks James to take her around the world one more time.

On all charges, Moonraker is guilty as hell.

Yet at the time it premiered, the eleventh official James Bond film ‘raked’ in more dough (discounting inflation adjustments) than any of the previous ones. And although it often sits at the bottom of most 007 purists’ list of film, Moonraker continues to hold a svengali-like fascination over many Bondians, more so than some ostensibly better films such as Diamonds Are Forever and Octopussy. Even people who can’'t defend it artistically admit they can enjoy it as the ubiquitous “guilty pleasure.”

On this charge, Moonraker is also, uhm, guilty.

I will leave aside my own personal nostalgia about Moonraker—it was the first James Bond movie I saw, at the impressionable age of six—as well as my ironclad credentials as a Fleming Purist/Fleming Snob and my usual resistance to “Top Ten” lists that don't originate from some guy named Letterman, and try to answer the question: “Why do I and so many others get such a thrill from watching this shallow, ridiculous, juvenile movie?”

And to that end, I present:

Top Ten Reasons Moonraker Is the Best Guilty Pleasure Bond Movie

14 September 2007

World's Worst Shipping Job

I appreciate companies that make an effort to keep packing material for shipping items to a minimum. Remember when foam peanuts and styrofoam were standard ways of packing? Now we get those strange air-bags; but at least the pressure comes off the ozone. Most items I receive from online shopping (and I do a lot of online shopping, seeing how I have esoteric tastes and need the access of specialty retailers) are packed tightly in conservative containers. Environment or not, that just makes sense, doesn't it?

And then something like this happens.

Last week, through one of Amazon.com's affiliates, I ordered a small box of 100 brass washers, the type used to hold brass fasteners for manuscripts. I don't like using brass fasteners without the washers; on their own, the fasteners can't hold the paper as tightly, and sometimes start to rip open the punched holes in the paper. I received the box of washers today in the mail, only two days after ordering them. Rapid service, yes, but I found something sort of…I don't know…odd about the packing job.

On the right is the plastic case of washers. On the left, the box in which it arrived:

There really isn't anything else I have to say, is there?

10 September 2007

I Want to Ride (Again) on the 3:10 to Yuma

That I really enjoyed this week's release of the remake of 3:10 to Yuma shouldn't surprise anyone. I already have a strong bias in favor of the Western, one of my fannish loves in movies. I’ve seen the original 1957 movie, directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. It was part of the "psychological Western" movement that developed during the decade in the wake of the success of High Noon; emphasis on stark photography (black and white and flat screen, even though in the late 1950s most major Westerns were shot in widescreen color), suspense, and character interaction rather than action. The original 3:10 to Yuma has a lot in common with High Noon in its use of a ticking clock and a hero who finds all his support abandoning him until only he remains to walk a wanted outlaw to the train station to catch the titular train—with the outlaw's whole gang waiting to gun him down. The focus is mostly on the tension between rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and the outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), whom Evans has to guard in order to get the reward money that can save his ranch. The movie isn't one of the great Western masterpieces, but it's a minor classic and well executed and performed. And it's a rare case of a film I don't mind seeing re-made.

And the re-make is definitely worth watching. Like the recent Open Range, this is an unapologetic and non-ironic Western. A Western with no excuses for the genre, no sly winking at the audience, and no joking about the setting. This is a Western folks, one of the great genres, and the filmmakers just let it play. It's more exaggerated and violent than the older Westerns, but this is true of any genre today.

Most of the original story (written by Elmore Leonard) remains, with some changes to events and characters. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) are fundamentally the same characters from the original, and the way Bale and Crowe square off is essentially the same as the Heflin-Ford conflict. The new version even repeats verbatim a few of the best scenes from the original, including the classic line of Evans asking Wade for an extra five dollars "for making me nervous." Ben Foster as Wade's right hand killer in the gang, Charlie Prince, is made a bit crazier than Richard Jaeckel in the 1957 version, but both are loose cannons kids lacking any sense of deceny—the true villains of the piece.

What the movie does change works well for 2007 audience expectations: Evans's first son is now older and plays a larger part in the movie; the town drunk played by Henry Jones in the original has essentially vanished and been replaced with nervous doctor played by Alan Tudyk; Peter Fonda (yeah!) plays a new character, a grizzled bounty hunter; the beautiful bartender of the original with the history with Wade (Felicia Farr) has a smaller role here (Vinessa Shaw) although does bascially the same task; a new action sequence takes the group esorting Wade through a canyon of renegade Apache and a railroad camp; and the finale, although keeping the spirit of how the 1957 movie ended, piles on some nice surprises.

Altogether, it's a great time with one the classic movie genres, and I think it's director James Mangold's best film to date. With it's successful opening weekend (#1), let's hope we will see some more Westerns to come galloping into the theater. The Western ain't dead, it's never been dead.

When the 3:10 to Yuma departs,
If I have the fare,
I'll be there,
I'll be there...

09 September 2007

My Eulogy at Grandmother Ruth's Memorial Service

The memorial service for my Grandmother Ruth Elliott was held today at 4:00 p.m. at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Santa Monica, the church she had attended for the last twenty years. Gathered together were most of Grandmother's family, church members, and friends. It was a wonderful ceremony (with the exception of one non-family speaker who really broke out some inappropriate messages that made more than a few people unhappy) that was filled with joy in remembrance of a woman who lead a long, remarkable life, and gave her love unconditionally to all her family and friends.

The video presentation that my uncle Phil (Grandmaother's youngest child) and I put together of her life came out quite well, despite our working until late hours the night before and feeling we would never get it finished. We scored it to a variety of music. My choices were "Vorspiel" from Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner, "Introitus" from Requiem in D Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner. Her younger brother, a pastor, performed the benediction, and his wife read out a history of Ruth's life which my mother, Phil, and Eileen had put together (with some editing help from me). Then each Ruth's four children stood at the podium and spoke about their mother, often through tears.

Afterwards, the grandchildren took the stand one at a time. Grandmother had seven grandchildren total—I am the fourth—but Dean's wife Audrey has been with the family for so long that she is included with the group as if she were blood. Scott, the oldest grandchild, was unable to make to ceremony, and Stacy, the second oldest, had to take care of her children during the service, so it fell to Kim to speak first. I spoke second, followed by Dean (who read excerpts from letters Grandmother had sent to him), my sister (who flew in from Munich) and my brother (who flew in from Atlanta), and finally Audrey.

As the most secular of an already very secular group of grandchildren, my eulogy touched on personal recollections, with some science and literature trivia thrown in. Here is the complete text, which I am happy to say was well received:
For all of you who are wondering who put all the Wagner into Grandma's slide show, mea culpa. I just got back from Bavaria.

Hello. My name is Ryan Harvey, and I am Ruth’s favorite second oldest grandson. Grandmother always called me…Ryan. Nicknames don’t have a way of sticking to me.

My grandmother was born nine days before one of the most important announcements in modern science: Albert Einstein’s publication of the Theory of General Relativity. I mention this not merely as an interesting piece of trivia, but because physics had a great deal of importance to Ruth Elliott. A particular kind of physics: the law of motion that states that when a comic actor steps on a banana peel and crashes down three flights of stairs into a pool of mud, or a southern-drawling rooster discovers that despite all his teasing of the barnyard dog at the safety zone out-side the reach of its chain, the dog can escape from its chain whenever necessary, my grand-mother will start to laugh uncontrollably.

In fact, if I really wanted to honor grandma’s favorite form of entertainment, I would not now be standing here. I would have tripped on the way up the stairs, knocked over the podium, and when I tried desperately to set it back up, would drop it on my foot, and jump around howling until I fell over in the baptismal font.

As Grandma’s favorite cartoon character [Foghorn Leghorn] would put it: “I say boy, I say, look here. That ain’t no way to get baptized. Ya’ got it all wrong.”

Well, as long as it was on TV and not happening to me in real life, Grandma would think it was a hoot.

Among my fondest memories of her was watching silly comedies at her side, listening to her lose control with the most vibrant, infectious laughter in the universe. Only my father can beat her for sustained, contagious laughter. Maybe he picked it up from her. She loved the movie It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (she always knew how many "Mads") and the TV series Fawlty Towers. (I can remember her screaming out at the top her lungs near the end of one episode: “This is the worst hotel in the world. The worst!”)

But I most remember how much she loved the South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy. She stumbled onto when I found it on TV one day, and I seriously thought we would have to hold a memorial service for her that week, she was laughing so uncontrollably. My special present to her for her 90th birthday was a copy of the film newly minted on DVD, which she immediately re-watched that night.

Of course, Grandma’s gift to me wasn’t just laughter—although that would be enough for most people. I believe she broadened my view of world because of her upbringing in a distant land under old-world colonialism: the country of Myanmar, or Burma as the British called it. I was immensely proud to tell people, even at a very young age, that my grandmother was born in Burma. Everyone else’s grandmother was born in Dunnwich, Massachusetts, it seems. But my grandmother was born in Burma. That made me proud.

Although I would often get the illogical response from people: “But you don’t look Burmese.”

Oh well.

Grandmother’s stories of Burma helped me form, at a young age, a sense of the wider world beyond my suburban windows. They also instilled in me a healthy fear of snakes. Which is enormously useful when you live in Southern California next to scrub-covered hill.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that Grandma had shared Burma with another person who had a great impact on the lives of others. A young British man named Eric Arthur Blair, unable to afford a college education, joined the Imperial Indian Guards in 1922 and served in Burma until 1927. He later wrote of his experiences in the novel Burmese Days. He wrote under the pen name George Orwell, and would later write the classic, world-shaking books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Again, I mention this not out of trivia, and not just because George Orwell is one of my favorite writers. I mention this because Grandma, although not seeming to be the sort of woman who could shake the world with her quiet sense of duty, love, and generosity, had an immense affect on the world nonetheless. She never wrote a major book. She didn’t discover the theory of relativity (although she enjoyed its effects in slapstick comedy). But she loved everyone in her life without condition, and we can see the affects here in this room. Her children, her children’s children, her children’s childrens’ children, her siblings and their descendants, and her friends who stayed close to her for over seventy years.

For all this, my grandmother counts as a world-changing woman. Everyone of us should have such fortune.

And, in closing, my Grandmother made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. I will accept no arguments on this point.

As Shakespeare said, “The rest is silence.”
The rest of the day was spent at a reception at my parents house with Indian food. It was a true celebration, not a time of sorrow or mourning, and it was heartwarming and exhilirating to see the memory of my grandmother bring us all together.

By the way, Lovecraft fans, did you catch my sly reference hidden in the eulogy? No one in that room did, but I expected that.

03 September 2007

My Grandmother Ruth

I'll have much more to say about this in a few days, when I have some time to prepare, but…

My maternal grandmother, Ruth Elliott, born Ruth Alice Wyman, died at 10:38 a.m. today of congestive heart failure after a long illness. She was born in 1915 in Rangoon, Burma, and died two and half months short of her ninety-second birthday. She was in my mother's house, in the bedroom where she had lived for the last twenty years, surrounded by family when the end came.

She was the most gentle, even-tempered woman anyone could have known, and I was proud to be her grandson.

The rest is silence.