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Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss

This is the third and latest short film that I’ve either written or co-written with Juan Carlos Hernandez for his production company, Popcorn Sky Productions. It’s a comedy about a politically-divided family in New York City during the Trump era.

As Denise Longrie says in her review:

This amusing and enjoyable short depicts the fireworks that erupt when the Ronderos’ son Jerry (Anthony James Hernandez) comes home from college for a visit. Mom Veronica (“Ronnie”), played by Adria K. Woomer-Hernandez, lays down the law to her husband Guillermo (Juan Carlos Hernandez): no talking, not even whispering, about politics.

Although Juan was gracious enough to give me the sole writing credit for Ronnie, the truth is that much of the finished film was based on on-the-spot rewrites by the cast and crew in New York. I was asked to go to the Big Apple to be on hand, but I couldn’t afford the cost of an airline ticket plus a long extended stay at a hotel. So even though I was consulted, Juan, Adria, and Anthony had to rework the story and script to make Ronnie work well as a comedy with some serious commentary about the divisiveness in Trump-era America.

The film is 22 minutes long, but it’s a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. I think it’s both hilarious and relevant.

If you have not watched it yet, here it is, in all its YouTube glory.

Book Review: ‘From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

Cover art by Will Stoehele. (C) 2020 Del Rey Books/Penguin Random House & Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

On November 10, Del Rey Books – an imprint of Penguin Random House – published From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back, a collection of 39 short stories and one cartoon that depict events from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back from the perspectives of various supporting characters. Created by 40 writers who have written other Star Wars stories in different formats – ranging from novels, comics, and even books for young readers, this second volume in the From a Certain Point of View series commemorates the 40th Anniversary of director Irvin Kershner’s 1980 blockbuster follow-up to George Lucas’s Star Wars, aka Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

The first book in the series. (C) 2017 Del Rey Books/Penguin Random House & Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

As in From a Certain Point of View: Star Wars, the new book – which also available in e-book and audiobook formats from Random House – arranges most of the 40 stories – 39 prose, one cartoon – so that they follow the chronology of The Empire Strikes Back. And although the film’s main characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Han Solo, Yoda, and (especially) Darth Vader – appear from time to time, the writers tell tales about characters that either were onscreen but in the background (the bounty hunters on Vader’s flagship, for instance, or the Rebel controller whose one line in Empire is “Stand by, Ion Control,” or one of the many previously unknown citizens of Bespin’s Cloud City.

In some stories, we even experience the second – or fifth, if you watch the films in the series’ internal chronology – installment of the Star Wars Saga from the perspectives of a wampa, a tauntaun, and the exogorth (space slug) that our heroes in the Millennium Falcon discovered – to their horror – that “this Is no cave.”

As in the From a Certain Point of View collection that retold Star Wars: A New Hope, we also get chapters that put us in the minds of Emperor Palpatine and Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi as they ponder the future of the galaxy from their diametrically-opposed perspectives. Here, we get to see what Darth Sidious is thinking before he has his intergalactic Zoom-by-hologram conversation with Vader, and we get to contrast that with a sometimes funny, but often wistful glimpse into “Force spirit” Kenobi’s observations of an impatient and reckless Luke Skywalker rushing off to save Han and Leia and his inevitable comparisons between Luke and his father Anakin.  

From the Dust Jacket Blurb

Celebrate the legacy of The Empire Strikes Back with this exciting reimagining of the timeless film featuring new perspectives from forty acclaimed authors.  

On May 21, 1980, Star Wars became a true saga with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. In honor of the fortieth anniversary, forty storytellers re-create an iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back through the eyes of a supporting character, from heroes and villains, to droids and creatures. From a Certain Point of View features contributions by bestselling authors and trendsetting artists:

• Austin Walker explores the unlikely partnership of bounty hunters Dengar and IG-88 as they pursue Han Solo.
• Hank Green chronicles the life of a naturalist caring for tauntauns on the frozen world of Hoth.
• Tracy Deonn delves into the dark heart of the Dagobah cave where Luke confronts a terrifying vision.
• Martha Wells reveals the world of the Ugnaught clans who dwell in the depths of Cloud City.
• Mark Oshiro recounts the wampa’s tragic tale of loss and survival.
• Seth Dickinson interrogates the cost of serving a ruthless empire aboard the bridge of a doomed Imperial starship.

Plus more hilarious, heartbreaking, and astonishing tales from:
Tom Angleberger, Sarwat Chadda, S.A. Chakraborty, Mike Chen, Adam Christopher, Katie Cook, Zoraida Córdova, Delilah S. Dawson, Alexander Freed, Jason Fry, Christie Golden, Rob Hart, Lydia Kang, Michael Kogge, R. F. Kuang, C. B. Lee, Mackenzi Lee, John Jackson Miller, Michael Moreci, Daniel José Older, Amy Ratcliffe, Beth Revis, Lilliam Rivera, Cavan Scott, Emily Skrutskie, Karen Strong, Anne Toole, Catherynne M. Valente, Django Wexler, Kiersten White, Gary Whitta, Brittany N. Williams, Charles Yu, Jim Zub

Here’s a brief peek at the first story in From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes BacK:

Eyes of the Empire

Kiersten White

“Pick any of the last ten transmissions you’ve looked at. You have to live there for the rest of your life. Where are you?” Lorem said, her voice ringing through the small processing room where they all worked.

Maela admired how Lorem could multitask, sorting through data while keeping up a steady stream of chatter.

Dirjo Harch did not admire it. “Just do your job.” He deleted whatever he was looking at on his screen and pulled up the next data packet. Maela wished they could work individually. Or better yet, in small groups. She’d pick Lorem for her group. And Azier. So really, she’d make a group that was everyone except Dirjo, with his sour expressions and his pinched personality.

“I am doing my job,” Lorem said, chipper as always. Sometimes she wore her cap at a jaunty angle over her dark curls. Just enough to be off dress code, but not enough to give Dirjo an excuse to report her. Maela liked the uniform, liked what it meant. That she was here. That she did it.

A light flashed near Maela’s face and she flipped the switch, accepting an incoming transmission and adding it to the ever-growing queue. She had spent so long with the Vipers, infinite rows of them, round domes and legs like jointed tentacles. She used to stare into their blank black eyes and wonder where they would go. What they would see.

Now she saw everything.

“But while I’m doing my job,” Lorem continued, and Dirjo’s shoulders tensed, “I don’t see why we can’t have some fun. We’re going to be looking through a hundred thousand of these transmissions.”

Azier leaned back, stretching. He rubbed his hands down his pale face, clean-shaven, wrinkled. Maela suspected working on the Swarm transmission recovery and processing unit was a demotion for him, though she didn’t know why. Dirjo and Lorem were just starting their Imperial service, like her.

“Lorem, my young friend,” Azier said in the clipped, polished tones of the Empire, the ones Maela was still trying to master to hide that she came from somewhere else, “the man we report to is serving on the Executor as part of Lord Vader’s Death Squadron. Do you really think fun is a priority for any of them?”

Lorem giggled, and even Maela had to smile. Dirjo, however, scowled, turning his head sharply. “Are you criticizing Lord Vader?”

Azier waved a hand dismissively. “They’re bringing death to those who would threaten the Empire. I lived through a war none of you remember or understand. I have no desire to do it again. And Lorem, to answer your question, I’d rather stay in this floating tin can forever than visit any of the forsaken rocks our probe droids are reporting from.”

My Take

(C) 2020 Del Rey Books/Penguin Random House & Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

As was the case with 2017’s From a Certain Point of View: Star Wars, this second anthology features works by 40 different authors, each one with a unique perspective, writing style, and “hook” or plot twist. Some stories focus on Imperial “true believers” (such as Admirals Rae Sloane and Firmus Piett) who will stay loyal to the Emperor and his “New Order,” while others reveal changes of heart by young but disillusioned Imperials who are forced to see the true nature of the Empire they serve.

We also see stories that delve into individual Rebels’ personal lives during the Battle of Hoth and the evacuation from Echo Base, including the experiences of a Rebel propagandist who is trying to create a recruiting holo for the Alliance, a kitchen assistant who feels like a failure because he didn’t qualify for the combat arm of the Rebel forces, Dak Ralter, the enthusiastic – but doomed – Rebel pilot who flies as the rear gunner in Commander Luke Skywalker’s T-47 snowspeeder, and Wedge Antilles, Luke’s fellow veteran from the Battle of Yavin and second-in-command of Rogue Squadron.

Like the 2017 Star Wars: A New Hope-based volume, the 40 stories written by different writers with an array of narrative voices and distinct vantage points in From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back is a kaleidoscope of space opera tales that are entertaining yet reflect the complexities of the human experience seen, of course, from the perspective of sentient beings, droids, and even the Force in that galaxy far, far away.

Overall, the authors managed to come up with a balanced mix of action, adventure, humor, drama, and even romance that, when complemented by the presence of the film’s main characters and dialogue from the scenes in which the stories are set, works rather well.  I like how each tale is self-contained and has its own tone, viewpoint, and internal twist yet feels as if it was a scene from Empire that didn’t quite make it into the finished 127-minute film.

From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back will please most Star Wars fans, especially the ones who believe that Empire is their favorite Episode in the nine-part Skywalker Saga. I’m sure that there will be a few Star Wars fans who will find something not to like in the anthology, either stylistically, canonically, or even thematically, especially if they have any prejudices about gender equality or LGBQT issues.

I also would like to point out that when you buy a copy of From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back, you are helping to promote literacy and put books in schools, libraries, and into the hands of kids (and maybe even adults!) who have limited access to them.

As the dustjacket blurb explains:

All participating authors have generously forgone any compensation for their stories. Instead, their proceeds will be donated to First Book—a leading nonprofit that provides new books, learning materials, and other essentials to educators and organizations serving children in need. To further celebrate the launch of this book and both companies’ longstanding relationships with First Book, Penguin Random House will donate $100,000 to First Book and Disney/Lucasfilm will donate 100,000 children’s books—valued at $1,000,000—to support First Book and their mission of providing equal access to quality education.

Awesome, no?

Musings & Thoughts for Friday, November 27, 2020, or: How I Survived Thanksgiving 2020 & John Denver Gets the ‘Beautiful Music’ Treatment

Photo by Suparerg Suksai on Pexels.com

Hi, Dear Reader. It’s late afternoon on Friday, November 27, 2020, and it is a quiet one here in New Hometown, Florida. Currently, the temperature is 83˚F (28˚C) under mostly sunny skies. With humidity at 54% and an east southeasterly breeze blowing at 2 MPH (3 KM/H), the feels-like temperature is 84˚F (29˚C). The forecast for the rest of the afternoon calls for sunny skies, while tonight the skies will be clear. The low tonight is expected to reach 64˚F (18˚C).

Well, even though I wasn’t in a festive mood last night, I survived Thanksgiving 2020. Most of us – the only exception being my ex’s older son, who decided to hang out with one of his gaming friends – sat around the dining room table and ate the traditional turkey dinner (with green bean casserole, mashed sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, stuffing, and slightly-burnt cornbread). I assume there was dessert, but I didn’t see any being served. The mood in the house was calm and peaceful, but as soon as I finished dinner and my half-glass of wine, I made my way to my room and chatted with an old friend until I got sleepy – turkey and wine are great sleep aids! – and went to bed.

Today…not much to relate, except that I decided to treat myself to another album of John Denver-composed music – Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver.

(C) 2009 BSK Records

In case you don’t know, Holdridge is a renowned American composer, arranger, and conductor who has delved into many musical genres, including classical music, film scores, and pop music. He was also a long-time friend and collaborator of the late John Denver; for years, Holdridge conducted stage musicians who did the instrumental backing for some of Denver’s songs in recording sessions and live concerts. He was also the conductor present at the recording of Perhaps Love, Denver’s duet with opera tenor Placido Domingo in 1981, as well as the arranger who helped create 2013’s Great Voices Sing John Denver tribute album, along with his wife Elisa Justice, the late Milt Okun, and Okun’s wife Rosemary.

Anyway, Lee Holdridge Conducts the Music of John Denver was released 11 years ago by BSK Records and can be described as a collection of “beautiful music” covers of some of John Denver’s classic songs from the 1960s and ‘70s.  It’s a modest recording that isn’t as high-concept as Great Voices Sing John Denver or as essential as, say, The Essential John Denver; it only has nine tracks, and its appeal depends on how a listener feels about the “beautiful music” genre that was hot in the 1950s, ‘60s, and 1970s but became passe sometime in the late 1980s.

I actually enjoy this style of music when I’m stressed; it isn’t my favorite genre – classical music, film scores, standards, and what might be considered “oldies” (whether it’s show tunes, pop/rock songs from my younger days, or jazz/popular music from way before my time) are my top choices – but it fits the bill when I want to listen to mellow-yet-familiar music that will calm my nerves. You know, the musical equivalent of Xanax or half a glass of wine.

In case you’re wondering what songs are on this CD, here’s the tracklist:

1Rocky Mountain High3:14
2Goodbye Again3:42
3Late Winter, Early Spring5:25
4Annie’s Other Song3:18
5My Sweet Lady3:19
6Sunshine On My Shoulders3:09
7Follow You / Leaving On A Jet Plane4:43
8Annie’s Song3:08
9The John Denver Suite10:04
9.1Calypso
9.2Fly Away
9.3The Eagle And The Hawk
(C) 2009 BSK Records

I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who still likes “beautiful music,” which is often referred to as “elevator music.”  When I ordered the CD today on Amazon, it was out of stock (but new copies will be available soon!), but I did get – as a nice bonus from Amazon and BSK Records – the MP3 version free. (And the album is not terribly expensive…just $13.19 with sales taxes for Florida factored in.)

As I said…it’s not the best John Denver-related recording I own, but it’s not a bad one either. It’s pleasant to my ear, and as I said earlier, it soothes my nerves.

Other than that – well, I am still sad about my breakup, of course, and I gave up on the NaNoWriMo 2020 project after writing 6,000+ words because – as you can well imagine – I just couldn’t focus on coming up with a good, believable, and somewhat realistic novel set in 1944 Normandy. Not only was I fretting about my personal life, but the Presidential election, including Trump’s tenacious attempts to reverse the results, and the still-rising death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic distracted me so much that I took my eyes off the prize and just…stopped trying to force a story out of the ether (or my subconscious) and onto my Microsoft Word files.

Well, there’s always next year, right?

Digital Music Album Review: ‘John Williams Live in Vienna: John Williams/Wiener Philharmoniker/Anne-Sophie Mutter’

(C) 2020 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On August 14, Berlin-based Deutsche Grammophon (DG) – now part of Universal Music Group – released John Williams – Live in Vienna in digital and physical media (compact disc, compact disc + Blu-ray, and vinyl LP). This new album – as well as the filmed concert – marks the first time that Maestro Williams conducts the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in his long and storied career as a performer, arranger, composer, and conductor. Recorded on January on January 18 & 19th, 2020, at the Musikverein Wien in Vienna, Austria, this is also the second DG recording[1] to feature German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter as a featured solo performer in performances of the five-time Academy Award-winning composer’s memorable themes from the movies, including selections from Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the Star Wars saga, Jurassic Park, Hook, and Schindler’s List.

As I mentioned in my review of the John Williams – Live in Vienna Deluxe Edition (the one with the Blu-ray and CD), this once-in-a-lifetime concert marked the Wiener Philharmoniker’s first performance in its long history that features music composed exclusively for the movies. In the two biggest German-speaking countries (Austria and Germany), there’s a cultural bias that divides orchestral music – what most Americans call “classical music” – into two separate and often irreconcilable genres: serious music, i.e. compositions by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner; and “entertainment” music, i.e. popular music, show tunes, and movie and television themes.

And it seems that some critics and music fans in Germanophone countries, especially older ones, tend to have an “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet” attitude – an attitude that Anne-Sophie Mutter is trying to change, since she was once married to Andre Previn, the late composer/conductor who spent his latter years as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra but had, in his younger days, composed or adapted many film scores and won four Academy Awards – one less than his friend and colleague John Williams.

Considering that the Vienna Philharmonic dipped its collective toes in the waters of film music for the first time, the synergy between the composer/conductor, the featured soloist, and the orchestra was nothing short of magic, and the two performances at the Musikverein Wien – which miraculously preceded the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 by a few weeks – prove that Maestro Williams’ music not only bridges the artificial gap between the “serious” and “entertainment” genres, but that the performers of the Wiener Philharmoniker enjoyed their time together with the legendary composer/conductor, who – at the time the recording was made – was about to celebrate his 88th birthday.

As I wrote in my review of the Deluxe Edition a few weeks ago:

Of course, considering the breadth of Maestro Williams’ discography – the man has been active as a film music performer/composer/conductor since the 1950s, after all – John Williams/ Wiener Philharmoniker/ Anne-Sophie Mutter John Williams – Live in Vienna (Limited Deluxe Edition CD + Blu-ray) doesn’t present all of his iconic movie themes. Every fan of the composer will doubtlessly grouse that some of his or her favorites are not in here – I would have preferred, say, a rendition of Love Theme from Superman over Nice to Be Around from 1973’s Cinderella Liberty, or The Superman March over Devil’s Dance from The Witches of Eastwick, partly because I am a huge fan of Superman: The Movie, but mostly because I have not seen either Cinderella Liberty or The Witches of Eastwick.

But these are minor complaints, at least about the Blu-ray portion of the two-disc deluxe set. The main draw for me wasn’t precisely the musical selections – although it was wonderful noting that the piece that made me a Williams fan – Main Title from Star Wars: A New Hope – back in 1977 is included in the program, as are The Raiders March from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Luke & Leia from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. (Original Trilogy fans will note that the Star Wars portion of the program leans heavily in favor of the 1977-1983 films; no themes from the 1999-2005 prequels are in John Williams/ Wiener Philharmoniker/ Anne-Sophie Mutter John Williams – Live in Vienna, and only one Sequel Trilogy theme, The Rebellion is Reborn from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is heard here.)

Track List (Digital Edition)

Tracklist
1. The Flight To Neverland · From Hook 5:15
2. Excerpts · From Close Encounters of the Third Kind 7:47
3. Devil’s Dance · From The Witches of Eastwick 5:51
4. Adventures On Earth · From E. T. the Extra Terrestrial 10:09
5. Theme · From Jurassic Park 6:03
6. Dartmoor, 1912 · From War Horse 5:08
7. Out To Sea & The Shark Cage Fugue · From Jaws 5:08
8. Marion’s Theme · From Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark 4:02
9. Main Title · From Star Wars: A New Hope 6:25
10. The Rebellion is Reborn · From Star Wars: The Last Jedi 4:34
11. Luke & Leia · From Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 4:06
12. The Imperial March · From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 3:21
13, Raiders March · From Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark 5:45

      My Take

Although I am not a Luddite and tend, instead, to be an early adopter when new entertainment formats are introduced, I am still not enamored of “digital-only” media or streaming. It took me almost a decade to get into the habit of activating the digital codes that come with physical media releases of movies and TV shows. Only in recent years – since I moved from Miami to New Hometown, Florida in 2016 – have I warmed up to the new format and actually watched stuff I’ve added to my Movies Anywhere and Amazon Prime Video accounts.

As far as music goes, I still prefer CDs over digital albums, partly because I still like discs more – there’s something oddly reassuring about being able to see and touch physical media – but mainly because I hate being totally dependent on the Internet for my entertainment needs.

Still, I have – heavens to Betsy! – purchased quite a few digital albums since I decamped from South Florida nearly six years ago. Some – like Great Voices Sing John Denver – I had to buy because the CD version wasn’t easily available on Amazon. Many of the titles I have in my “Purchased” category in Amazon Music were included as free “AutoRip” copies included with purchases of CDs (I estimate that half of my digital library falls into this subgroup), while the rest were bought on impulse or to supplement CDs I already have but were purchased years before Amazon was allowed to include free digital copies of physical recordings.

The main advantage to having a library of digital music – or films, for that matter – is that you don’t need to insert or swap discs into a computer’s DVD-ROM drive when you want to listen to your favorite albums. This is especially true If you have one of those “all-in-one” computers where every major component is incorporated into one shell, including the monitor. Since the DVD-ROM drive is tucked in perpendicularly on the side of the PC and extends vertically rather than horizontally, I always think I will damage it because it looks – and feels – more fragile than similar drives on a laptop or a tower PC.

As a result – as much as I dislike doing so – I try to get digital versions of albums that I know will be played often. And since I am a long-time fan of John Williams’ music for the movies, you can be assured that I will listen to John Williams Live in Vienna often enough to justify the double dip.

Again, here’s a relevant bit from my previous review of the Deluxe Edition:

“I own quite a few albums –  including original soundtracks from all nine of the Star Wars Skywalker Saga films, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as Philips and Sony Classical CDs released during and after his 1980-1994 tenure as principal conductor and music director of the Boston Pops Orchestra (for which he is the Laureate Conductor). I also have several “cover” albums of Maestro Williams’ movie themes recorded by such ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Gustavo Dudamel, conductor) and the National Philharmonic Orchestra (Charles Gerhardt, conductor).

“These recordings contain many of the selections presented in John Williams/ Wiener Philharmoniker/ Anne-Sophie Mutter John Williams – Live in Vienna (Limited Deluxe Edition CD + Blu-ray), so I probably needed the CD half of this deluxe set like, well, a hole in my head.”

I suppose I could say the same thing about the digital-only version of John Williams Live in Vienna, but I do like the fact that I can listen to the music from this insanely good performance without having to fiddle with the all-in-one’s DVD-ROM drive. I can also play the album on my Amazon Fire HD or my smartphone – so long as I am in range of the house’s Wi-Fi or somewhere with a clear, strong, and free Wi-Fi signal.  

My only complaint about the digital album is that, like the CD and 2-LP version, it only has 13 tracks, whereas the live performance presented in the Blu-ray consisted of 19 selections. I can understand that the two physical media (CD and vinyl) have data-storage limits that dictate how many selections can fit into them.

The digital version, though, doesn’t have those limits, and DG has sometimes released longer versions of its albums digitally in Deluxe Editions. The label did this for Across the Stars last year; why not for John Williams Live in Vienna?

Nevertheless, fans of the  Jedi Master of Film Scores will find something to love in this stellar recording, and some listeners might even enjoy the Vienna Philharmonic’s interpretations of Maestro Williams’ music for the silver  screen so much that they will seek out some of the orchestra’s more “traditional” classical music albums. As a fan of both genres, I heartily recommend this digital version of John Williams Live in Vienna.


[1] The other DG album, Across the Stars, was released in August of 2019.

Memory Lane: Thanksgiving 1988 & Semester’s End

Photo by Tomas Anunziata on Pexels.com

Hi, Dear Reader. It’s Wednesday, November 25, 2020, and it is early afternoon here in New Hometown, Florida. Currently, the temperature is 80˚F (27˚C) under mostly sunny skies. With humidity at 62% and the wind blowing from the southeast at 15 MPH (23 KM/H), the feels-like temperature is 82˚F (28˚C). The forecast high for today is 81˚F (27˚C) and we can expect partly sunny skies for the rest of the afternoon. Tonight, the forecast calls for clear skies and a low of 64˚F (18˚C).

It’s hard to believe that 32 years ago I was living and studying in Sevilla (Seville), Spain as a participant in the College Consortium for International Studies’ (CCIS) Semester in Spain program. I was 25 and majoring in journalism/mass communications at Miami-Dade Community College (one of the main schools that made up the consortium, along with Broward Community College), and I decided to complete my foreign language requirement by taking 15 credits’ worth of classes during a 12-week study-abroad stint.

This was a photo taken in Room 8215 at Miami-Dade Community College – South Campus Student Publications Department, on the “production” side where most of the work went on during the making of an issue. This must have been snapped sometime in 1987; at left, graphics editor Robert Tamayo clowns around as Jennie Ahrens (seated) acts bemused. I am the chap in the center. I was 24 then! (Photo by Jim Linn)

Now, for most college students this would have sufficed, but I also volunteered to write articles about my experiences – and those of the other 41 participants in the Fall ’88 CCIS Semester in Spain – for my campus’ student newspaper, Catalyst. Being young, naïve, and totally clueless about the details of how I would write, edit, and send columns from Sevilla back to Miami in time to meet deadlines without the infrastructure that professional journalists had in 1988 – such as direct wire service from Spain to Miami or fast transatlantic mail service – I figured my voluntary assignment to serve as Catalyst’s first foreign correspondent would be a piece of cake.

A view of La Giralda from the bridge (which I call the “Naboo Bridge”) at the Plaza de Espana in Sevilla. Photo Credit: Pixabay

As it turns out, things did not go as well as I had planned. I spent much of my time either in classrooms at our two locations (the “old” CCIS Center in Adolfo Rodriguez Jurado Street not too far away from the Cathedral of Seville – home of La Giralda and Christopher Columbus’ tomb – and the main campus of the University of Seville, listening to lectures and discussing readings from the books we were assigned to read, especially for the Government of Spain class that I chose for the social studies part of my course load.

And when we weren’t doing the in-class stuff, the CCIS staff took us on field trips in and around Sevilla. As I recall, we went to:

  • Ciudad Italica (Roman ruins)
  • The Cathedral and La Giralda
  • The Hospital de la Caridad to see the art of Valdes Leal
  • Jerez de la Frontera/Arcos de la Frontera/Monasterio de La Rabida/Playa Mazagon
  • Cordoba (where we visited the Cathedral)
  • Granada

Because of my innate shyness, I was never enthusiastic about conducting interviews; most of the articles I wrote for the student newspapers at South Miami High and Miami-Dade Community College (now just Miami-Dade College, as the school added several four-year degree programs around 10 years ago and is no longer technically “just” a two-year junior college) were either entertainment-related reviews or op-ed pieces, although I did write for every section of Catalyst before I dropped out of college in 1989. 

I also sucked at time management, so even though I had the best of intentions when I told my journalism prof that I wanted to report from Spain while I was there, I didn’t send my first pieces back to Miami till early October, and I wrote my best pieces shortly after Thanksgiving of 1988. As a result, of the four good articles I wrote while I was still in Seville, only one made it to publication while I was overseas – in the December 1, 1988 issue of Catalyst.

The rest? Well, I sent them all in one envelope shortly after Thanksgiving – which, being a U.S. holiday only, didn’t muck around with the Spanish postal service. However, it usually took a week for mail from Seville to reach Miami, and for some reason that particular envelope – with three columns, to boot – got stuck in the Christmas holiday backlog for so long that it did not reach M-DCC South Campus (now Kendall) till January of 1989. (I ought to know, because I was the staffer who went to the campus mailroom and found it there!)

I have, in this blog, already reproduced two of the written-in-Seville pieces from the fall of 1988. Here is the last one:

We’re not quite ready to go home yet



Written in November 1988, published March 2, 1989)

Alex Diaz-Granados
Columnist


SEVILLE, Spain (CCIS Program)
The winter holiday season has arrived and here in Seville the 42 students participating in the CCIS Semester in Spain program are looking beyond the upcoming final exams and planning their return home or further European travel.

Already, they have celebrated Thanksgiving, traditionally a very homey holiday, truly away from home as they are 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of the group celebrated a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, prepared by Italian chefs at the three-star restaurant Carlino. The meal, judging by the students’ comments, was psychologically, if not gastronomically, successful.

“The group really came together,” said Sandra Langlois, a freshman from Miami-Dade’s South Campus. “It was really special for me because I am French, and it was my first American Thanksgiving. I really got the true feeling of the tradition of the holiday — togetherness.”

Now, a few weeks later, students’ thoughts are geared to either further travel throughout the holiday or their homecoming.

Melissa Miller, a senior from Lake Forest College in Chicago, said, “I’ll be spending the holidays in Vienna, Austria, so I’ll be sure to have a white Christmas, and I won’t be alone because I’m traveling with a bunch of friends.”

However, the majority of the participants in the program are ready to go home — some more than others.

“I’m ready to go home,” said Bob Holzweiss, a junior from St. Bonaventure College in New York State. “I’ve been here 12 weeks, and that’s enough.”

“I miss the luxuries of home — convenience stores and fast food joints — and also my car, my family and friends,” said Ingrid Gottlieb, a student from Broward Community College. “And I miss my boyfriend.”

Others, such as Wendy Page, a sophomore from South Campus, decided to stay for the Spring Term.

“Three months is just not enough time for me to get a full taste of the culture and lifestyle that Seville has to offer,” she said.

And although he’s leaving at the end of the semester, Fairfield University’s Mike Boucher agreed.

“A lot of good things have happened here in terms of self-discovery, friendship, independence, and sense of perspective, and I don’t think I’m ready to go home.”

Also contributing to this column is Michelle Kirby, foreign correspondent for Beacon, North Adams State College, Mass. and Mainsheet, Cape Cod CC’s student newspaper.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Memory Lane: A Reporter Remembers His Experiences in November ’88 as a Student in Seville

I used to see the Torre del Oro every day on my way to the CCIS Center when I participated in the Semester in Spain program in the Fall of 1988, Photo Credit: Pixabay

Hi there, Dear Reader. It’s early afternoon here in New Hometown, Florida on Tuesday, November 24, 2020. Currently, the temperature is 78˚F (26˚C) under sunny skies. With the wind blowing from the east at 11 MPH (17 KM/H) and humidity at 60%, the feels-like temperature is…  78˚F (26˚C). Today’s forecast calls for a high of 79˚F (26˚C) and sunny skies. Tonight, we can expect a low of 63˚F (13˚C) and clear skies.

With Thanksgiving 2020 less than two days away, I am still not in a festive mood. I have already written about my reasons for not being “in the holiday spirit” in previous posts, so I won’t repeat them here. I will say this, though: even if my relationship with the Ex-Girlfriend had been rock-solid and our love/sex life had remained as good as it was when it began, this Thanksgiving still would have been bleak. Donald Trump still won’t concede his election loss even though Emily Murphy, the Trump-appointed director of the General Services Administration (GSA) finally ascertained the results of the Presidential election and started the transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s Administration, and thousands of Americans are still being infected by the virus that causes COVID-19, which means we’ll see a huge spike in deaths here in the U.S.

Those two facts, by themselves, make me wish that I could teleport myself to a galaxy far, far away or, barring that, take a trip back into the past – preferably to a time and place that aren’t even remotely close to the past decade. (2010-2020 had relatively few bright spots for me, after all.)

This is a picture of me taken two years before I went to Spain. Photo Credit: Peter C. Townsend

As I have mentioned in previous posts about both time travel and my personal history, my college years would make the perfect era to revisit. I was, of course, younger, more energetic, and definitely more optimistic about the future. I probably would only make a few tweaks to my younger self if I could, mainly in the areas of self-confidence – especially where women, dating, and sex were concerned – and developing a thicker skin re my deteriorating relationship with my half-sister. Otherwise, I would not change anything…not even my attempt to earn a college degree despite my issues with math.

Right now, I wish that I could take the Time Travel Express back to the fall of 1988, which is when I was both a participant in the Semester in Spain program in Sevilla (Seville) sponsored by the College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS) and my college campus’ student newspaper’s first foreign correspondent.

As a matter of fact, on this day 32 years ago – my, how time flies – our 42-student group celebrated Thanksgiving at a now-closed Italian restaurant called Carlino (or Carlino’s), which was located not too far from the CCIS Center in Seviile. The staff at the center, Wendy Reven and Lisa Dolan, made the arrangements, and the whole group of young and homesick Americans – some of whom were joined by their parents who flew across the Pond for the occasion – enjoyed a turkey dinner with all of the trimmings, including mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.

I still remember that we all wore our best outfits – somewhere in a moving box from Home Depot, there’s a photo album with a picture of me in my suit and tie that was taken at Carlino’s that night – and that for one night, we felt like one happy family of gringos in a foreign land.

I also remember that I spent the next day writing, with my friend Michelle Kirby, three articles about the group’s experiences in Seville to send back to the States for publication, including the one about the soccer game that we played at Reina Mercedes Field earlier in November.

Several weeks before, though, I’d written a column that I wrote in response to a stinging letter I received from Dr. Robert Vitale, chair of Miami-Dade Community College – South Campus’ Foreign Language Department regarding the article I wrote shortly before I left Miami on September 21, 1988.

Basically, Vitale was angry that in my “I’m going to Spain” column I had not mentioned why I was going to Spain, i.e. the Semester in Spain study-abroad program and he told me, as well as the various persons he cc’d the letter to on campus, that I made it sound like I was going to Europe as a tourist.

Well, that wasn’t true, at least not really. When I wrote my draft of the column, I had included a paragraph that talked, albeit briefly, about the CCIS program and that I was going to Spain to, you know, study abroad.

The graphic that got me in trouble, even though I had nothing to do with it.

As I mentioned in my first post about my Seville experience, my friend Rogers Perez drew a caricature of me – based on a candid photo snapped by one of the staff photographers in one of those “fun in the newspaper office” moments that made working in Student Publications so memorable – and showed it to the Opinions Editor, on whose page my columns would appear. Well, Opinions liked the graphic. So did the Managing Editor. So did the Editor. As a result, the graphic was added to my column – but to make it fit in the allotted space, the “graf” about why I was going to Seville was removed.

It wasn’t my fault, but Vitale didn’t know it, so he mailed me not only my “offending” column – which was one of the two columns that the group and the staff at the CCIS Center read while I was in Spain – but that depressing rebuke, which was cc’d to my journalism professor and one of the campus administrators, too.  

This is the column that I wrote in response to Dr. Vitale’s missive, although I was careful not to mention him (or his letter) in the text:

Study abroad is more than educational: it’s an experience

(Originally published in the December 1, 1988 issue of Catalyst)

Alex Diaz-Granados
Columnist


SEVILLE, Spain (CCIS Program)

Over the past six weeks of my stay here in Seville as a participant in the College Consortium for International Studies’ Semester in Spain program, I have come to understand how challenging studying abroad really is. Several other students from this campus are also taking part in this program.

In many respects, studying abroad is no different from studying at our home college or university. We have our schedule set up much like we do in the U.S. with lectures and reading assignments.

We have midterms and finals, of course, although in some classes final exams are given at the director’s discretion. Unlike studying in the U.S., we’re learning about a different country’s history, culture, government and economic system, not by reading about these in a textbook, but by living in it.

“It’s been a great experience for me,” said sophomore Wendy Page, who will be graduating from South Campus in the Winter Term. “I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish and to be more knowledgeable about life in other countries. This program has really been a great step in that direction.”

I, too, have also wanted to come to Spain to experience European culture and history first-hand, having been inspired by all those humanities and history courses I have taken at Miami-Dade.

In addition to the thrill of reporting from abroad, I’ve found what I came looking for, and perhaps more. As I mentioned earlier, studying abroad is challenging in every sense of the word.

I am not just talking about the academic program here, although I have found it to be one of the most difficult yet satisfying ones in my college experience.

There is a great deal more involved here, classes, tests, and term papers aside.

In addition to the basic problems of living in a country with a different language, history, culture and political system, a student abroad can expect to face the following challenges:

Homesickness. This can be overcome with a positive outlook and support from fellow students and the home front. There have been days when most of us here have felt depressed, when we have mailed post cards and letters to everyone we know and no one except parents have bothered to write back.

Culture shock. Believe me, when you first travel to a foreign country, you will be hit by the oh-my-God-how-weird-this-place-is syndrome. I still get impatient with the “let’s close everything down between 2 and 5 p.m. and go home for lunch” system.

Meeting new people. A very universal challenge anywhere, but if you’re going to study-travel abroad, you must make friends both with your fellow students and the natives you come in contact with. One of the nice things about the program is that I’ve met students not only from my home campus but also from colleges and universities from all over the U.S.

Anti-Americanism. Whenever a major power like the U.S. gets to be a country with wealth and influence and the military muscle to back it, all the other nations tend to get resentful.

Thankfully, all of these things can be overcome with a little patience and a lot of determination.

Another thing that I’ve learned about the program is how to rely upon myself. Basically, I’m responsible for everything; I have to pay for my rent, my books and school supplies, monitor my own progress and so on.

It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep yourself from turning a study-abroad experience into a mere tourist excursion. It isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little readjustment of your priorities.

“I’d recommend the program to anyone who really wants to learn Spanish and get acquainted with Spain itself,” said Greg Norell, a student from Texas. “I think it’s the best way to get a feeling for the language and culture.”

The way the program itself is set up is really the key to a student’s enjoyment of the Seville experience. The mixture of academics and extracurricular activities makes studying abroad challenging yet fun, too.

© 1988, 2020 Alex Diaz-Granados. All rights reserved.

Obviously, if I could travel back to 1988, I don’t know the exact mechanics of how that would work. Would I return to my 25-year-old self in “spirit form” and basically “take over” my own body while retaining my memories of 2020? Or would two versions of me – 57-year-old me and 25-year-old me – exist in the same city simultaneously?  In the case of the latter, would I be able to avoid creating paradoxes or, even more important, the temptation to alter my past by warning my younger self about the future I left behind?

In any event, while I will accept the fact that we can’t live in the past – or travel to it – and not wallow in a pool of sorrow or self-pity, I do get some joy from knowing that I once had happier Thanksgivings – and thus take comfort in the fact that I can still remember them.

Musings & Thoughts for Monday, November 23, 2020, or: Dead End for NaNoWriMo & Unsettling News from Miami

Photo by the author

Hello, Dear Reader. It’s late afternoon here in New Hometown, Florida on Monday, November 23, 2020. Currently, the temperature is 76˚F (24˚C) under sunny skies. With humidity at 55% and the wind blowing from the north-northeast at 9 MPH (15 KM/H), the heat index is 76 ˚F (24˚C). The forecast for tonight calls for clear skies and a low of 59˚F (15˚C).

I don’t have much in the way of news. I’m still – regrettably – single and not happy about that, and I haven’t made any progress on The Tonic of Our Victory for NaNoWriMo 2020, either. I thought that having a project to work on would give my mind something…if not exactly fun…creative to focus on, I would be distracted and wouldn’t feel so…so…disillusioned about relationships, people, and life in general.

And, let’s face it, November 2020 was not an auspicious time for me to take on a write-50K-words-in-30-days challenge. When I convinced myself to sign up for this year’s NaNoWriMo contest in November of last year, we didn’t have a Presidential election, a global pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus, and I had a happier home life than I do now. Plus I was also busy with the script for what eventually became Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss, which is my favorite of the four film projects I’ve been involved in over the past 18 months.

So even though I started NaNoWriMo with the best of intentions, all of the negative energies from the breakup, having to live with a Trump-supporting caregiver, the effects of not going anywhere fun since March,[1] having to get used to sleeping on a futon in my once comfy study, and the never-ending political shenanigans of one Donald John Trump, President of the United States and Con-Man-in-Chief became a hurricane of stress and angst so powerful that even my desire to write a novel couldn’t withstand it.

So with only a week to go before the NaNoWriMo challenge ends, I have decided to not push myself to try to write 43,000 words in such a short period of time and just write as much as I can without stressing over it or punishing myself for not trying harder to work on The Tonic of Their Victory with more determination and enthusiasm. I will continue working on the manuscript, but I’m not going to do what I used to do sometimes when I was in college and write the bulk of a World War II-set action-adventure story in a couple of marathon writing sessions over the next six days.

In Other News

Juan Manuel Pereira via Facebook

Last week I was notified that my half-sister’s cousin – on her father’s side – Juan Manuel Pereira died in late October, shortly before Halloween. He was the only one of Vicky’s paternal cousins who still deigned to contact me via email to see how I was doing – mostly, I hope, because he still cared about me on a certain level, but I also suspect that he might have been passing bits of info to my half-sister, from whom I have been estranged since Mom died a little over five years ago.

It was through Juan Manuel (or, as I sometimes called him, JM) that I found out that Vicky had fallen and  broken her hip twice (which, of course, meant that she went through the same operation twice within a short period of time) and that he and his two Miami-bound brothers (Andres and Mauricio) were her main caregivers. I can’t say that I was heartbroken when I got the news about Vicky’s health issues; I am where I am now mostly because she wasn’t going to help me keep my former home and had already started making my life a living hell before I moved out to New Hometown in 2016. I wasn’t overjoyed, either – but I do think that karma bit Vicky in the behind after all the negativity and mental suffering she put both our mom and me through since we moved back to Miami from Bogota in 1972.

I’m not sure how I feel about JM’s passing, though. He was smart, elegant, and was often kind to both my mother and me. On the other hand, he did nothing to curb my half-sister’s underhanded scheme to wrest control of my half of our mother’s estate and was one of the three individuals – his brother Mauricio was another, and Vicky was the third – who knows the whereabouts of three family photos that Vicky was supposed to have made copies of so we could both have a set.  A few years ago, in one of our infrequent email exchanges, he claimed that Vicky told him that the person she gave the original photos to lost them.

I know Vicky well, and one of her least admirable traits is her penchant for lying about everything. (She is like Donald Trump in that respect!) There is no way that Vicky would have willingly handed over three irreplaceable family photos in the hands of a shady person, and since my mom was not a famous celebrity, there would have been no incentive for this non-existent thief to, well, steal them. Vicky is an extremely selfish and vindictive person, and because two of the three photos were of my father and our mom together in Paris, she knew they were valuable to me.

I think that, at the very least, JM should have asked Vicky to tell him the truth about the photos and convince her to keep her end of the bargain and have copies made so we could both enjoy the pictures. That he did not speaks volumes, although I can’t be sure if he knew that Vicky was lying or if Vicky had lied to him and he believed her tale of the purloined photos.

Well, I don’t have anything else to report today, so I will close for now. So until next time, Dear Reader, stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll catch you on the sunny side of things!   


[1] Except for one meal at a nearby Cracker Barrel in October.

Life in the Time of COVID-19: Why Are People Still Saying Coronavirus is ‘No Worse Than the Flu’?

Image Credit:COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)





Hello, there. It’s early afternoon here on Sunday, November 22, 2020, and it looks like the rest of the day is going to be gray and somewhat cool. Here in New Hometown, Florida the temperature is 74˚F (24˚C) under cloudy skies. With humidity at 83% and the wind blowing from the northeast at 6 MPH (10 KM/H), the feels-like temperature is 74˚F (24˚C). Today’s forecast calls for partly sunny skies and a high of 79˚F (26˚C).  At night, we can expect partly cloudy skies and a low of 66˚F (19˚C).

I am still not feeling the “holiday spirit” this year. Not one bit. The double-whammy of the global COVID-19 pandemic and President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 Presidential election has definitely affected many Americans in a negative way, and it just seems so difficult to carry on as usual when millions of people are infected by the  severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and over a quarter-million Americans have died from the effects of the virus on the body.

As of 11:27 AM Eastern, this is how things looked in both the global and U.S. COVID fronts:

Global Cases: 58,295,905

U.S. Cases: 12,102,101

Global Deaths: 1,383,788

U.S. Deaths: 255,959

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

10 months into the pandemic, you’d think that with the passage of time and with the death toll climbing, common sense would finally kick in in the minds of even the most resolute “coronavirus deniers” and the idiots who still – still! – claim that the wearing of masks in public spaces and the practice of social distancing are a product of “fear-mongering” Democrats and the “evil left and the media” and part of a vast conspiracy to destroy President Trump’s “perfect” economy and “steal the Presidential election” for “Sleepy Joe Biden.”

But judging from many of the comments that I still – still! – see on Facebook, I’m afraid that many of my fellow Americans seem to have gotten a nasty divorce from common sense and empathy, especially among the Trump-supporting, red-cap wearing MAGA Brigade members.

For instance, in a story posted by a Florida ABC News affiliate about a young doctor who is recovering from COVID, a woman I’ll call Triple Jay wrote this comment:

What else can we do??!! .

Its acting like a virus. This is what they do. They go around until everyone gets it. Whether you actually feel sick or not, it needs to go thru everyone. Again, no one cared about getting the flu or shutting down and it kills people every year.

In other words, Triple Jay is trotting out the typical right-wing tropes of:

  • We all need to get infected so we can develop “herd immunity.”
  • COVID-19 is not as lethal as “advertised” and can be compared – favorably – to annual flu outbreaks

And here is a comment from a woman who claims to be a retired nurse:

Retired “Nurse”:

Triple Jay absolutely I’m retired nurse never have we quarantined the healthy this was part of the election fraud and socialism

And here’s COVID-19 Skeptic chiming in:

 Triple Jay someone that understands and doesn’t listen to the media.. thank you!!

Thankfully, not everyone on this comment thread is on board with Triple Jay and her like-minded confederates. Here are some comments from folks I call Voices of Reason:

Voice of Reason #1

Triple Jay, people are going to bars and crowding restaurants like there is not a pandemic. We can start there. Our leaders setting good examples would be another great start. Trump has hosted multiple super spreader events. Lots of people care about the flu, but in a full year, it usually kills maybe 30,000 in the US. COVID has killed 250,000 in about 8 months. The worst is yet to come. The next month will be brutal.

Voice of Reason #2

Triple Jay this is not the same as the flu at all! We need to do everything we can to slow the spread so that the hospitals do not get overwhelmed. Currently many hospitals were at capacity with Non COVID patients and now the surge of high numbers of COVID patients will cause more deaths because there is nowhere to treat them. Anyone that has had family or friends with serious COVID issues will understand. Everyone needs to take precautions to avoid excessive unnecessary deaths. Wear your masks and keep socially distant so the hospitals can treat the patients.

Voice of Reason #3

Triple Jay you sound very unsympathetic unbelievable the freaking cold words coming out of your mouth SHAME ON YOU.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

And here’s my reply to Triple Jay:

Triple Jay,  what else can we do, you ask? Several things, actually. One: Take COVID-19 a bit more seriously than you obviously are doing. Two: Stop saying that COVID-19 is “not as bad as” or “comparable to the flu.” This virus has already killed a quarter-million Americans (I don’t mention the rest of the world cos you obviously don’t care about any other country) in less than a year. Three: Stop behaving irresponsibly, including writing inane (and insane) comments on social media. Four: Do everything you personally can to avoid catching COVID and/or infecting others. THAT’s what you, Triple Jay or whatever your name is, can do.

I still find it annoying and disheartening that almost a year into the COVID pandemic, there are still people who don’t take the risks – and consequences – of an infectious airborne viral disease seriously.

Movie Review: ‘Needful Things’

I rarely ever buy home media versions of movies based on Stephen King novels or stories – especially if (a) I’ve never read the original story or (b) watched the movies themselves – either in a movie theater or (more likely) on TV.

There are several reasons why I don’t “blind buy” Blu-rays or DVDs derived from the works of one of my favorite writers, but the three main reasons are:

  • Horror movies are not my favorite genre
  • Not every Stephen King novel or story gets a watchable adaptation
  • Needful Things

Back in 1991, Viking published what King said at the time was the last story he’d ever set in Castle Rock, the small town in Maine where so many other of his novels (Cujo, The Dead Zone, The Dark Half) and short stories (Granma, Nona) take place.[1] It was King’s first new novel since his time in rehab for alcohol and drug abuse, and it tells the story of an antiques store owned by a mysterious newcomer named Leland Gault. Like most of King’s stories set in small towns in Maine, Needful Things explores the seamy side of rural America and mixes it with the “Master of Horror’s” trademark blend of realism and the supernatural forces.

Now, I never got around to reading Needful Things; I meant to, especially after I received King’s Four Past Midnight, his second collection of novellas (the first one being Diff’rent Seasons) as a Christmas present in 1990. In that anthology, King includes The Sun Dog, a sort-of prequel to Needful Things about a 15-year-old boy, his Sun 660 Polaroid camera, and a mysterious, potentially deadly black dog.[2]

Like most of King’s novels, Needful Things was a best-seller, and eventually New Line Cinema and Castle Rock Entertainment bought the film rights. Producer Jack Cummins (Down Periscope, Highlander II: The Quickening) then hired Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser, to direct the 1993 film adaptation and cast Max Von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, and J.T. Walsh as – respectively – Leland Gault and four of the hapless residents of Castle Rock, Maine.

And considering how unpleasant this film is to watch, I wish Hollywood had pretended that this novel didn’t exist.

(C) 1993 Castle Rock Entertainment/New Line Cinema/Columbia Pictures

Alan: You know, guys, I moved here and I thought, Great! I’m outta the big city and I’m finally in a place where everybody isn’t gonna be crawling up everybody’s asshole every day! A place where maybe my biggest nightmare is gonna be getting some goddamn cat out of a tree! But forget that! EVERYBODY IS INSANE, EVERYWHERE!

When we first see  Leland Gault, he seems to be a charming and elegant European gentleman. He also always seems to have items that his prospective customers must have – a rare 1950s era Mickey Mantle baseball card for 12-year-old Brian Rusk (Shane Meier)…a porcelain figurine for baker Nettie Cobb (Plummer)…and an ancient amulet that can cure her arthritis for Polly Chalmers (Bedelia).

But as in King’s vampire novel Salem’s Lot, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Beneath Gault’s witty and urbane persona, something wicked this way comes.

At first, the various denizens of Castle Rock are merely curious about the shop and its owner. After all, most small towns are home to second-hand and curio stores like Needful Things. But this being a Stephen King story (adapted here by W.D. Richter), the outward peacefulness of Castle Rock is merely cover for a potentially explosive mix of corruption, envy, lust, long-simmering rivalries, unspoken desires, and murderous feuds.

All hell breaks loose – literally – soon after Gault sells a Mickey Mantle baseball card to ardent fan Brian. The card, which comes with a personalized autograph, is in mint condition and would probably go for hundreds of dollars. But no, Gault sells it to Brian for a piddling sum – and an odd request to play “a prank” on someone.

This amazing bargain is not without a heavy price, however. As the slow-paced first act of Needful Things reveals, Gault is not simply an itinerant shopkeeper from Akron, Ohio – he’s a powerful demonic force that knows all the rivalries, hatreds, and hidden desires of Castle Rock’s inhabitants.  Soon, as more customers come into Needful Things and find their “must-have” items, Gault’s not-so-playful pranks triggers off a wave of violence and mayhem that threatens to tear Castle Rock apart.

Leland: I’ve always enjoyed ladies who take great pride in themselves.

Although Richter and Heston give Max Von Sydow plenty of scenes where viewers watch an actor who played Jesus Christ (in The Greatest Story Ever Told) take the role of the Devil, Needful Things is a mediocre movie. In addition to its plodding pace, it is mean-spirited, monotonous, and not much fun to watch.

Yes, Von Sydow gets most of the film’s best lines, including a dark-humored reference to Jesus (“The young carpenter from Nazareth? I know him well. Promising young man. He died badly.”), and he turns in a decent performance.

But director Heston and screenwriter Richter can’t bring King’s novel to life on the same level as Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) or Rob Reiner (Misery, Stand by Me). Like most of the bad adaptations of King’s literary works, Needful Things focuses on the parts that evoke gut reaction – such as the murderous feud between two townswomen, or Leland’s seduction of Polly – at the expense of character development. 

With the exception of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Harris), there are no likeable characters for the audience to care about – everyone in Castle Rock seems to deserve whatever Leland Gault has in store for them.

In retrospect, Needful Things could have fared better as a multi-part TV miniseries along the lines of ABC’s Stephen King’s IT or The Stand. The film often feels as though it had been carved out from a longer, more ambitious project, with some of its characters and subplots relegated to the cutting room floor for the sake of a shorter running time. It’s also a typical 1990s horror movie – full of sound and furious explosions, signifying nothing.

I am a Constant Reader of King’s novels and short stories, and I own quite a few Blu-rays and DVDs with movies or TV miniseries based on his works. I bought Needful Things a few years ago because (a) I hadn’t read the novel and (b) I like Max von Sydow.

But considering how bleak and unpleasant this film is, I wish I hadn’t.


[1] Since then, King has written several other tales set in Castle Rock, so Needful Things wasn’t the “last Castle Rock story” after all.

[2] I never got around to reading The Sun Dog; I must confess that the only one of the four novellas I read from beginning to end was The Langoliers.

Memory Lane: Futbol & Friendship in Sevilla, 1988

Image Credit: Pixabay

Hi, there, Dear Reader. It’s Friday, November 20, 2020, and here in New Hometown, Florida it is early afternoon on a (relatively) fall-like day in the sub-tropics. Currently, the temperature is 78˚F (25˚C) under mostly sunny skies. With the wind blowing from the east-northeast at 13 MPH (21 KM/H) and humidity at 66%, the heat index is 78˚F (25˚C). The high for today is expected to reach 79˚F (26˚C); tonight’s forecast for my area calls for clear skies and a low of 65˚F (18˚C).

As Thanksgiving is less than six days away, I find myself thinking about other late-year holiday seasons of my past instead of looking forward to the one that looms, like the iceberg that sank the Titanic, ahead in the black, cold sea of the immediate future. And while it is true that dwelling on the past isn’t always a great idea – especially in times when you miss friends and relatives who have died – I find it comforting when I recall past events that were memorable because they were full of joy, excitement, and bonhomie.

For the life of me, I can’t remember where that soccer field was!

Take, for instance, the last time that I ever played a team sport outside of a video game. That happened a little over 32 years ago, when I was a 25-year-old journalism major at what was then called Miami-Dade Community College.

I must point out that I was never a student-athlete; I liked to watch sports on occasion, but having a physical disability limits my ability to play sports well, and in any case (I must admit) I don’t have the desire or self-discipline to put in the long hours of practice and physical training required to be a true athlete anyway.

Still, I did sometimes play impromptu games of either soccer – in Colombia – or touch football – in Miami – as a boy, and I enjoyed doing so, though I can’t claim I was particularly good at either sport.

Anyway…about that last soccer game…..

A photo taken of me when I was 23 years old for use as my columnist’s “sig box” in the campus student paper.

The last time I ever played soccer was in early November of 1988, when I was a participant in the College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS) Semester in Spain program in the beautiful city of Sevilla (Seville). A group of around 20 students from the 42-member Fall of ’88 contingent had signed up to play, and others decided to go and watch us to make fools of ourselves at a small soccer field called Campo de Reina Mercedes in a neighborhood a short ride away from the old CCIS Center on Calle Adolfo Rodriguez Jurado.

Here is my contemporary account of that event as I described it in one of the columns I wrote while I was still in Spain:

That bearded fellow on the grass is supposed to be me! Illustration by Rogers Perez.

In Spain, soccer is a wild, no-holds barred contest

January 26, 1989

Alex Diaz-Granados
Columnist


SEVILLE, Spain (CCIS Program)

When one is in Spain, one must do as the Spaniards do, or so we’ve been told by the College Consortium for International Studies Center staff when we ask about how to enjoy our free time here.

This applies to everything — from eating lunch at 2 p.m. and dinner between 9 and 10 p.m. to drinking tall glasses of “cerveza Cruzcampo” (the Spanish Budweiser) with tapas at one of the billions of bars in the city.

And for those of us with a desire to be athletic (even if it’s once during a 12-week term), it applies to playing sports.

Because soccer is the national sport here, it was only natural that we, too, would want to catch a little “futbol fever.”

Most of the time we watched soccer games on Spanish television, although quite a few of us went to see the Spain-Argentina exhibition game or the Spain-Ireland game, which, of course, was for a spot in the European Cup finals.

Naturally, we wanted to have our own soccer game.

Natural because over here, we see little kids playing on fields (usually hard-packed soil), making moves that would dazzle even Pele. There are also foozball tables or video games with soccer as the “main theme.”

But what really got the ball rolling (so to speak) was the pick-up game of sand-soccer at our first out-of-town trip to Mazagon Beach.

There, Juan Dura, director of the CCIS Program, and I were captains of the two teams during a most heavily contested and exhausting match (Ever try playing soccer on a sandy beach?), which my team won.

It could’ve ended there, but the word rematch spread like wildfire, and for a month all of us were looking forward to the “real” soccer game.

Although I’m not usually athletic, I was one of the most ardent proponents for the second match, having first taken a “general opinion survey” and formally suggesting it to Lisa Dolan, student activities coordinator here.

After all, “my” team had won the “sand soccer” match and I had gotten a taste of the “thrill of victory.”

Signs went up on the bulletin board, and two weeks later we had enough players on the sign-up sheet to be able to make arrangements for the Game of the Semester.

“I was looking forward to that game a lot,” said Bob Holzweiss, a junior from St. Bonaventure College in New York. “But for some people the timing was bad — they wanted to go to Morocco that Friday — so we ‘lost’ a few good players.”

Holzweiss, thinking there would be very few people going to the game, resorted to deception to ensure attendance.

“I was afraid we’d have no game if enough people didn’t show up, so I told some people there would be a barbecue afterwards.”

Well, whether it was the enthusiasm felt by the group or Bob’s barbecue that got at least 20 students to show up at the CCIS Center doesn’t matter.

We piled into a bus and headed off to the grandly-named Reina Mercedes Field (Actually, it was one of those dirt fields, with two battered goalboxes at each end.), and at 1 p.m. we were divided into two teams with me on Bob’s team.

The game? It was a wild, no-holds barred contest. Most of us had only the basic experience at this (our method being “see the ball, chase it, then kick it.”). But what we lacked in skill, we made up for it in determination and enthusiasm.

From a player’s point of view, I can say the score seesawed wildly.

And though Dura’s effective goalkeeping kept our team from scoring as often as we’d have liked, we still won, 4-3.

It was an exhausting game, too. The field was about 50 meters long, there were no out-of-bounds areas, and we’re all sedentary over here. (The few spectators watching the game thought we looked silly.)

But no one cared because we were having too much fun.

And my performance?

I didn’t score any goals, nor was I ever close to the goal with the ball. I was too busy chasing after the ball to remember everything I tried to do.

Yes, there were a few injuries, the most serious being a player socked near the eye with a badly aimed soccer ball. Otherwise, just the usual scrapes and bruises.

After the game, we all forgot our rivalry and posed for group photos. I haven’t seen any of them yet, but I can tell you this much: Behind our sweaty and dirty sweatshirts, there’s a great deal of the camaraderie that added a kick to our experience in Spain.


I wouldn’t mind having one of these again!

I did, eventually, see the group picture that I had someone take of our group for publication in the student newspaper for which I wrote this column. Of course, I still recognize many of the faces in the photo, including Dr. Dura, Bob Holzweiss (who helped me take some of the photos that were later published in a “double truck” feature story in the Catalyst in March of 1989), and the only CCISer I am still in touch with, my friend Ingrid Gottlieb. And, naturally, I recognize my 25-year-old self, sporting a beard and smiling happily with the cocky confidence and naivete of youth.

Copyright © 1988, 2020 Alex Diaz-Granados. All Rights Reserved.

Musings & Thoughts for Thursday, November 19, 2020, or: The Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past…and Present

Photo by Tomas Anunziata on Pexels.com

Hello, there, Dear Reader. It’s late afternoon here in New Hometown, Florida on Thursday, November 19, 2020. Currently, the temperature here is 73˚F (23˚C) under partly skies. With the wind blowing at 12 MPH (19 KM/H) from the east-northeast and humidity at 65%, the feels-like temperature is 73˚F (23˚C). The forecast for tonight calls for partly cloudy skies and a low of 63˚F (17˚C).

It’s hard to believe that we are only one week away from Thanksgiving 2020; clearly, this holiday season is a strange and somber one due to the COVID-19 global pandemic and a certain petulant man-child masquerading as the President of the United States’ wild ravings that he – despite all evidence to the contrary – won the Presidential election 17 days ago instead of his opponent, President-elect Joe Biden.

As of today, Donald J. Trump continues to tweet insane comments such as “Look at this in Wisconsin! A day AFTER the election, Biden receives a dump of 143,379 votes at 3:42AM, when they learned he was losing badly. This is unbelievable!” and “The Great State of Michigan, with votes being far greater than the number of people who voted, cannot certify the election. The Democrats cheated big time, and got caught. A Republican WIN!” Unwilling to concede the election, Trump veers between bragging about non-existent victories on the “vote fraud” front and retweeting the praises of his supporters, such as the comments from California Congressman Darrell Issa in an article published on the Fox News website recently:

“I believe that Donald Trump has added to the Republican Party just as Lincoln did and Reagan did and Goldwater did,” Darrell Issa said on “Fox News Saturday.” “These are lasting people still mark each of those historical figures in a very special way. And so I think when you take the party of Reagan, and then you add Lincoln, then you add Trump you get our party.” 

Not only do we have political shenanigans to worry about, but we also still have the COVID-19 pandemic still not anywhere under control. As of 5:25 PM Eastern, this is where we are on November 19, 2020:

Image Credit: COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)

Global Cases: 56,724,621

Global Deaths: 1,356,952

US Cases: 11,674,074

U.S. Deaths: 251,970

Things are so dire that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging Americans not to travel over the Thanksgiving holidays.

It’s just so freakin’ unbelievable.

On a personal note, I find it hard to believe that this will be the sixth Thanksgiving that I spend without either my late mother or my estranged half-sister. I still mourn for my mom, who deserved a less painful and stressful end than the one she ended up getting. As for my half-sister Victoria…well, now that her cousin Juan Manuel Pereira is dead she has one less person to lean on, so I don’t think her Thanksgiving is going to be a happy one.

And, as the years go by and my Semester in Spain study abroad stint in the fall of 1988 feels more and more like either a dream or something that happened to someone else instead of me, I find it hard to believe that 32 years ago I wrote four columns for my college’s student newspaper in my apartment in Sevilla (Seville), Spain and sent them back to Miami for publication.

Alas, only one reached the States and made its way to Miami-Dade Community College – South Campus (now Kendall Campus) and its office of Student Publications in time to be published while I was still in Spain. (The other three arrived in Miami after I did and were published during the Winter Term.)

This is it:

Illustration by Rogers Perez

Study abroad is more than educational: it’s an experience

Alex Diaz-Granados
Columnist


(Originally published in the December 1, 1988 issue of Catalyst)

SEVILLE, Spain (CCIS Program)

Over the past six weeks of my stay here in Seville as a participant in the College Consortium for International Studies’ Semester in Spain program, I have come to understand how challenging studying abroad really is. Several other students from this campus are also taking part in this program.

In many respects, studying abroad is no different from studying at our home college or university. We have our schedule set up much like we do in the U.S. with lectures and reading assignments.

We have midterms and finals, of course, although in some classes final exams are given at the director’s discretion. Unlike studying in the U.S., we’re learning about a different country’s history, culture, government and economic system, not by reading about these in a textbook, but by living in it.

“It’s been a great experience for me,” said sophomore Wendy Page, who will be graduating from South Campus in the Winter Term. “I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish and to be more knowledgeable about life in other countries. This program has really been a great step in that direction.”

I, too, have also wanted to come to Spain to experience European culture and history first-hand, having been inspired by all those humanities and history courses I have taken at Miami-Dade.

In addition to the thrill of reporting from abroad, I’ve found what I came looking for, and perhaps more. As I mentioned earlier, studying abroad is challenging in every sense of the word.

I am not just talking about the academic program here, although I have found it to be one of the most difficult yet satisfying ones in my college experience.

There is a great deal more involved here, classes, tests, and term papers aside.

In addition to the basic problems of living in a country with a different language, history, culture and political system, a student abroad can expect to face the following challenges:

Homesickness. This can be overcome with a positive outlook and support from fellow students and the home front. There have been days when most of us here have felt depressed, when we have mailed post cards and letters to everyone we know and no one except parents have bothered to write back.

Culture shock. Believe me, when you first travel to a foreign country, you will be hit by the oh-my-God-how-weird-this-place-is syndrome. I still get impatient with the “let’s close everything down between 2 and 5 p.m. and go home for lunch” system.

Meeting new people. A very universal challenge anywhere, but if you’re going to study-travel abroad, you must make friends both with your fellow students and the natives you come in contact with. One of the nice things about the program is that I’ve met students not only from my home campus but also from colleges and universities from all over the U.S.

Anti-Americanism. Whenever a major power like the U.S. gets to be a country with wealth and influence and the military muscle to back it, all the other nations tend to get resentful.

Thankfully, all of these things can be overcome with a little patience and a lot of determination.

Another thing that I’ve learned about the program is how to rely upon myself. Basically, I’m responsible for everything; I have to pay for my rent, my books and school supplies, monitor my own progress and so on.

It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep yourself from turning a study-abroad experience into a mere tourist excursion. It isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little readjustment of your priorities.

“I’d recommend the program to anyone who really wants to learn Spanish and get acquainted with Spain itself,” said Greg Norell, a student from Texas. “I think it’s the best way to get a feeling for the language and culture.”

The way the program itself is set up is really the key to a student’s enjoyment of the Seville experience. The mixture of academics and extracurricular activities makes studying abroad challenging yet fun, too.


© 1988, 2020 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved