Book Review: ‘Wacky Packages’

(C) 2008 Abrams ComicArts & Topps Company, Inc.

On June 1, 2008, Abrams ComicArts published Wacky Packages, a collection of the first seven series of Topps Chewing Gum Company’s irreverent trading cards that featured parodies of American consumer goods. Created by a team of artists that included Art Spiegelman (Maus), Norm Saunders, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, and Tom Sutton, Wacky Packages became a fad in the early to mid-1970s and, for a while, were the only Topps trading cards that outsold the company’s best-selling baseball cards.

Spam becomes Cram in this Wacky Packages sticker from 1973’s Series 5. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

According to the introduction by Art Spiegelman, the story of Wacky Packages began six years earlier; in 1967, Topps introduced a series of punch-out cards which were designed by Spiegelman and painted by Norm Saunders. The original 44-card run – of which 14 cards were withdrawn from the production line – ended in 1969, perhaps because some companies – such as Leaf Brands – sued Topps for making fun of their products.

Fortunately for kids of the 1970s, including me, Topps revived the Wacky Packages line in 1973, this time as peel-and-stick stickers. The concept was the same, and once again Art Spiegelman was one of the main instigators behind such “Wacky Packs” as Cram, Band-Ache, Weakies, and Gadzooka Bubble Gum.

General Mills probably was not terribly amused by this Wacky Pack that transforms Wheaties into Weakies. But at least it did not sue Topps when this sticker came out in 1973. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum.

I was 10 when I was introduced to Wacky Packages by one of the kids I hung around with in the Miami (FL) suburb of Westchester. My mother and I had moved back to the U.S. from Colombia one year earlier and I was still relearning English, but even then I thought Wacky Packages were the most hilarious trading cards I’d ever seen.

And, like many kids my age, I just had to have them.

“Where,” I asked my friend, whose name was Patrick, “did you get these?”

“Oh, at the 7-Eleven on 97th Avenue,” Patrick said, in reference to a convenience store located just five blocks away from our houses on SW 102nd Avenue.

My mom didn’t see the humor in this parody of Band-Aid bandages. Then again, she’d never been a 10-year-old boy in the United States, either. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Co.

Southwest 97th Avenue was, even then, a busy thoroughfare, and I wasn’t yet gutsy enough to walk from my house to the 7-Eleven store alone. So every week, I’d ask either a trustworthy friend or my mom to get me five sets of Wacky Packages for a quarter. The retail price for one set was a nickel, so I usually asked for five at a time so I could build my collection of stickers quickly.

In 1973, a nickel’s worth of Wacky Packages consisted of:

  • two Wacky Packages stickers
  • a puzzle piece with a checklist
  • a piece of Topps Chewing Gum

Among my small circle of friends, the norm was to buy one quarter’s worth of Wacky Packages at a time, though other kids in the neighborhood (usually older ones who earned money by mowing their neighbors’ lawns or washing cars) could buy more than that. One kid, whose father was a doctor, became the talk of the block when he bought an entire unopened box of Series Two Wacky Packages at that 7-Eleven store (which has been replaced by another business) for the princely sum of $5.00 and 4% Florida sales tax!

Later, as I grew older and bolder, I learned how to follow a relatively safe route from Point A (my house) to Point B (the 7-Eleven store) on my own. My mom wasn’t thrilled at first, but after I reassured her that I could cross 97th Avenue on my own without getting myself killed, she eventually consented, even though she couldn’t understand my fascination with Wacky Packages.

(Mom was raised in Colombia in the 1930s and 1940s, so she was immune to the charms of Mad magazine or its competitor Crack’d, the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges, or the digs at America’s consumer culture in the Wacky Packages.)

My mother eventually became such a good sport about my newfound hobby – collecting Wacky Packages – that she even bought me an unopened box of Wackys as a surprise gift. She even spent several hours carefully peeling off the stickers from their sheets and placing them in a notepad that was just the right size! And for several years, that “Wacky Pack Pad” was one of my most treasured possessions; I took it everywhere I went – even when I went back to Bogota to spend summer vacation with my grandparents.

I am not 10 years old anymore, but I still think this Plastered Wacky Pack is hilarious! (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

From 1973 to 1977, I collected Wacky Packages, although by the latter date I was already moving on to other interests, including (by the fall of ’77) Star Wars. I still have a few “loose” unpeeled stickers somewhere in my storage bins, although my treasured Wacky Pack Pad is no longer in my possession. I’m not sure where it ended up; it could have gotten “lost” when Mom and I moved to a brand-new townhouse in Fontainebleau Park in early 1978 and a couple of our boxes ended up missing. There’s also the possibility that I gave my Wacky Pack Pad to my cousin Silvia, who was visiting us in Miami from Bogota during our last summer in the Westchester house.

The Book

As the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death gets closer, I often find myself thinking about my childhood years, especially the happy period when we lived at the house on 102nd Avenue. I was nine years old when Mom bought that house and 14 when she sold it (a decision which I never really agreed with but had to accept, to be honest with you), and even though we had our share of troubles then, those were my happiest years as a kid.

Maybe this bout of nostalgia, I suppose, is why I’ve been leafing through Wacky Packages, a 2008 hardcover volume published by Abrams ComicArts, an imprint of New York City-based Abrams, a publishing house that specializes in art-related books, especially titles about movies, television, and other pop culture subjects.

I love the artwork (by Norm Saunders) in this Purina Cat Food parody from 1973. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

Wacky Packages—a series of collectible stickers featuring parodies of consumer products and well-known brands and packaging—were first produced by the Topps company in 1967, then revived in 1973 for a highly successful run. In fact, for the first two years they were published, Wacky Packages were the only Topps product to achieve higher sales than their flagship line of baseball cards. The series has been relaunched several times over the years, most recently to great success in 2007.

Known affectionately among collectors as “Wacky Packs,” as a creative force with artist Art Spiegelman, the stickers were illustrated by such notable comics artists as Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Jay Lynch, and Norm Saunders.This first-ever collection of Series One through Series Seven (from 1973 and 1974) celebrates the 35th anniversary of Wacky Packages and is sure to amuse collectors and fans young and old. –
 From the dust jacket blurb, Wacky Packages

Published late in the spring of 2008, Wacky Packages is a hardcover book that presents the 323 stickers of the first seven series that Topps published in 1973 and 1974. As a result, this professional version of a “Wacky Packs Pad” features not just the common stickers that most of us ’70s era-kids owned, but also some of the rare stickers that were not widely produced back then and are now extremely hard to find.

Jiffy Pop Popcorn gets a Wacky Pack send up in this Series 2 sticker, Gyppy Pop. I didn’t quite understand the word “gyp” at age 10, but I still found the artwork to be laugh-out-loud funny. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company.

Wacky Packages is not, like Abrams ComicArts’ similarly formatted books about Star Wars trading cards from the Original Trilogy, a book with a great deal of behind the scenes commentary by the people who worked on the 1973-1974 series of stickers. Whereas the Star Wars-related books provide readers with captions under the trading cards, the 323 Wacky Packages of Series 1-7 are reproduced, one per page, with no cutlines.

That’s not to say, however, that the book has no text. Wacky Packages features an introduction by Maus creator Art Spiegelman, who was a college student when Topps was publishing the second batch of the new Mad magazine-inspired product parodies in 1969 and needed a part-time job at the trading cards-and-gum company to stay in school and thus be deferred from the draft during the unpopular Vietnam War.

Not only is Hawaiian Punch parodied here, but The Godfather also gets a wink-and-a-nod in this 1973 Wacky Pack. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company.

In his introduction (which in the first edition is billed as “an interview”), Spiegelman gives readers a lively and detailed look at the genesis of the Wacky Packs, including a look at how  he recruited other comics artists to come up with zany stickers along the lines of Busted-Finger Candy, Drowny Softener, and Hawaiian Punks Juice.

Some products, like 7-Up, were almost insoluble puzzles to return to over and over, hoping to find an amusing angle that might work. We settled for the uninspired 6-Up since these were not ideas one would brood over for weeks – they were things one would work for full minutes, hoping one’s inner dolt would turn up something suitably irreverent. It was all done as Part of a Day’s Work, much like the way the early comic books were made: they certainly weren’t made as art, they weren’t sold as art, and they weren’t thought of as art. Wacky Packages just formed an island of subversive underground culture in the surrounding sea of junk. 

The book also includes an afterword by the late Jay Lynch, a respected humor writer and essayist who was one of the many artists who collaborated on Topps’ Wacky Packages line. In it, Lynch names more of the behind-the scenes talents who created the wonderfully irreverent and memorable stickers that poked fun at American consumer culture and were the bane of many elementary school teachers in the early 1970s.

You know, I still think that Wacky Packages are funny! (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

Abrams ComicArt made the book’s dust jacket with paper that mimics the look and feel of the wax paper packaging Topps uses to store its cards, stickers, and stick of gum in. Even the way the publisher’s blurb is printed on the inside flap is done in the same font and style as in the wrapper. 

If you – like me – were a kid who grew up in the 1970s and collected Wacky Packs, then this book was made for you. Along with a follow-on volume, Wacky Packages: New, New, NEW, it will allow you to see all of the stickers you had in your collection, as well as those you did not.

Blu-ray Box Set Review: ‘Star Trek: The Compendium’

The DigiPack packaging of Star Trek: The Compendium. (C) 2014 Paramount Home Media Distribution

On Tuesday, September 9, 2014, Paramount Home Media Distribution released Star Trek: The Compendium, a four-disc box set with two reissued Blu-ray discs (BDs): the 2009 Star Trek “Kelvin reboot” and a “new and improved” home media version of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. Coming out less than a year after Paramount’s original home media release of J.J. Abrams’ “alternate timeline” take on the conflict between a young Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and a genetically-enhanced “superman” from Earth’s past (Benedict Cumberbatch), Star Trek: The Compendium was a major course correction on the part of a major studio after a bungled home media release of a Star Trek film.

When Paramount Pictures’ Home Media Distribution division released the Blu-ray edition of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek in the fall of 2009, it created several editions which varied in price. Some, like the one-disc edition, were low-priced but still offered a standard set of extra features like an audio commentary track and a couple of making-of featurettes. Others were multi-disc sets with an additional extra features disc and a third disc with a digital copy and a “Star Trek D-A-C” game trial. 

Paramount also created  more expensive versions as exclusive offers for Target and other retailers, but in all of them the extras on the feature film disc, including the commentary track, were standardized.

In 2013, a new team took over Paramount’s Blu-ray department and incurred the wrath of many Star Trek ans by dividing the extra features, including the enhanced commentary and most of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, and parceling them out to iTunes, Walmart, and Target. 

As The Digital Bits’ Bill Hunt said in his June 23. 2014 column,:

“[M]any of you will no doubt recall that, back when Star Trek Into Darkness was first released on Blu-ray, we here at The Bits were critical of the way all of the special features content was split up and given away as exclusives to different retail partners, making it nearly impossible for fans to get all of the extras..”   

Paramount Listens!

Fortunately, Paramount paid attention, and after inviting Hunt to discuss how the studio could improve the home media release of Star Trek Into Darkness, reversed course. Under pressure from the studio, Paramount Home Media Distribution created a better version of its Star Trek Into Darkness BD set.

The result: the 4-BD “Star Trek: The Compendium” box set. 

Star Trek: The Compendium

Star Trek: The Compendium is a 4-BD box set comprised of 2009′ Star Trek reboot, the 2009 extra features BD, the Imax edition of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. and all of its extra features finally rounded up in the extra features BD. This disc also has several new extras, including a look at the props used in the film and a gag reel.  

(Star Trek: The Compendium also included the now-expired code for Paramount’s Ultraviolet digital HD download or streaming versions of both films. These allowed viewers to watch the movies on HD TVs, computers, tablets, and smartphones. The codes expired September 9, 2016.)

The DigiPack

The 4 BDs come in an attractive black-and-silver DigiPack case. There’s an almost 3-D rendition of the USS Enterprise next to the “Star Trek: The Compendium” logo.  Since the reboots are set in an alternate timeline based on Star Trek: The Original Series, the logo is rendered with the font used in the 1960s TV show’s main titles.

The BDs are stored in two-disc holders in the inside “covers” of the DigiPack case. Star Trek and its extra features disc are “stacked” on the left inside cover, while Star Trek Into Darkness’ two BDs are on the right inside cover. The top disc overlaps the bottom one and helps hold it in place. However, it’s advisable to make sure the discs are tightly secured so they don’t get loose in the DigiPack during handling.


As far as content goes, Star Trek: The Compendium focuses more on fixing the self-inflicted problems in the original Star Trek Into Darkness BD release. Accordingly, 2009’s Star Trek is essentially a repackaged version of the 3-BD edition without the “Star Trek” Xbox free game trial/digital copy. No new extras were made, nor was Star Trek reissued in 2016 along with Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond.

The Star Trek Into Darkness Blu-ray, on the other hand, includes the IMAX edition of the 2013 blockbuster that reimagines the scenario of the original TV series’ 1967 episode “Space Seed” and its feature film follow up, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Though writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof received flak for bringing back Khan Noonien Singh instead of creating an all-new story, Star Trek Into Darkness is the franchise’s most successful film, earning over $460 million worldwide.

Although Paramount didn’t go the “Director’s Cut” route and add deleted scenes, it chose the IMAX-enhanced edition of Star Trek Into Darkness in lieu of the regular theatrical release version. The characters and the plot are the same, but when Abrams’ incorporates the scenes shot with the bigger IMAX cameras the picture fills the entire screen. This makes the viewing experience more immersive, especially on larger TVs connected to home theater sound systems.

As mentioned earlier, one of the more controversial issues that dogged the original BD release of Star Trek Into Darkness was the decision to not include a commentary track on the various editions. This has been remedied by the inclusion of the iTunes exclusive enhanced commentary track. 

This feature is reminiscent of Warner Home Video’s Maximum Movie Mode in which filmmakers use the Picture-in-Picture function to insert video clips or other visual aids to share insights into the making of their movies. Here, Abrams and various members of the production crew discuss various elements of Star Trek Into Darkness and how it was made. Sometimes the commentary focuses on the technical aspects of the special effects and music. 

In other sequences the producers have humorous exchanges about tips of the hat to Star Trek II and where the seat belts on the bridge chairs are stowed when not in use.

The other extras blend the featurettes from 2013’s retailer exclusive releases and some all-new ones created for Star Trek: The Compendium.  Some, like “The Enemy of My Enemy” and “The Klingon Home World,” were included in the general release BD set. Others were available only in the Walmart or Target exclusives. In all, there are 20 featurettes in the 2014 Star Trek Into Darkness bonus disc.

Star Trek: The Compendium is not a must-get re-release for casual viewers who already own the original BD or DVD releases of the two Abrams- directed “Star Trek” films. There’s no new plot-twisting footage in either Star Trek or Star Trek Into Darkness, so buyers who aren’t into audio commentaries or behind the scenes probably don’t need this set.

For die-hard Kelvin Timeline fans, though, Star Trek: The Compendium is Paramount’s atonement for a poorly conceived business move and making Star Trek Into Darkness worth getting for the approximately 30 minutes’ worth of eye-popping IMAX footage and the complete collection of behind-the-scenes extras.

Star Trek is one of Paramount’s (and CBS Studios’) crown jewel franchise, so it is nice to see that studio executives paid attention to reviews and corrected the Blu-ray division’s mistakes.

Star Trek; The Compendium – List of Contents

Disc 1

  • Star Trek in high definition
  • Commentary by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof and Roberto Orci

Disc 2

  • To Boldly Go — Taking on the world’s most beloved science fiction franchise was no small mission. Director J.J. Abrams, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, producer Damon Lindelof, and executive producer Bryan Burk talk about the many challenges they faced and their strategy for success.
  • Branching Pods:
    • The Shatner Conundrum
    • Red Shirt Guy
    • The Green Girl
    • Trekker Alert!
  • Casting — The producers knew their greatest task was finding the right cast to reprise these epic roles. The cast, for their part, talk about the experience of trying to capture the essence of these mythic characters. The piece concludes with a moving tribute to Leonard Nimoy. A New Vision — J.J. Abrams’ vision was not only to create a Star Trek that was a bigger, more action-packed spectacle, but also to make the spectacle feel real. Every aspect of production—from unique locations to the use of classic Hollywood camera tricks—was guided by this overall objective.
  • Branching Pods:
  • Savage Pressure
  • Starships — Abrams and production designer Scott Chambliss were careful to pay tribute to the design of the original Enterprise, but they also wanted to make it futuristic and cool for a modern audience. This chapter focuses on the unique stories behind the creation of the film’s starships.
  • Warp Explained
  • Paint Job
  • Bridge Construction Accelerated
  • The Captain’s Chair
  • Button Acting 101
  • Narada Construction Accelerated
  • Shuttle Shuffle
  • Branching Pods:
  • The Alien Paradox
  • Big-Eyed Girl
  • Big Bro Quinto
  • Klingons
  • Drakoulias Anatomy 101
  • Aliens — Designers Neville Page and Joel Harlow talk about the hurdles they faced creating new alien species, recreating the Romulans and Vulcans, and designing the terrifying creatures on Delta Vega for the new Star Trek.
  • Extra Business
  • Confidentiality
  • Branching Pods:
  • Klingon Wardrobe
  • Planets — From the frozen landscape of Delta Vega to the desert plains of Vulcan, Scott Chambliss and the art department had a number of radically different planets to create. Abrams’ desire to shoot on real locations whenever possible led the production team to a number of strange and surprising locations.
  • Branching Pods:
  • Props and Costumes — Property master Russell Bobbitt had the unique challenge of designing props that were both true to the original series and pertinent to today’s technology. Likewise, costume designer Michael Kaplan talks about how he designed costumes that paid homage to what came before yet were relevant and timeless.
  • Branching Pods:
  • Ben Burtt and the Sounds of Star Trek — When famed sound designer Ben Burtt was hired to create sounds for the first Star Wars film, he took his inspiration from the original Star Trek series. Burtt jumped at the opportunity to pay tribute to the sounds that sparked his career with the sounds he created for the new Star Trek.
  • Score — As a fan of the original series, composer Michael Giacchino embraced the challenge of creating new music for Star Trek while preserving the spirit of Alexander Courage’s celebrated theme.
  • Gene Roddenberry’s Vision — J.J. Abrams, Leonard Nimoy, previous Star Trek writers and producers, and scientific consultant Carolyn Porco describe and commend the optimistic and enduring vision of Gene Roddenberry.
  • Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
  • Starfleet Vessel Simulator — Explore extensive data on the U.S.S. Enterprise and the Romulan ship, the Narada. Submerse yourself in breathtaking 360° views and close-ups and review detailed tech information.
  • Gag Reel
  • Trailers

Disc 3

  • Star Trek Into Darkness IMAX Version in high definition
  • Enhanced Commentary

Disc 4

  • The Voyage Begins… Again — Go behind-the-scenes as filming begins on the next Star Trek adventure.
  • Creating the Red Planet — Experience the creation of a never-before-seen alien world, as featured in the action-packed opening sequence of the film.
  • Introducing the Villain
  • Rebuilding the Enterprise — See the design and construction of a bigger, interconnected Enterprise set.
  • National Ignition Facility: Home of the Core — Location shooting at the National Ignition Facility.
  • Attack on Starfleet — Go behind the scenes with the cast and filmmakers and witness the creation of the shocking attack on Starfleet Headquarters.
  • Aliens Encountered — The design and application of alien makeup.
  • The Klingon Home World — Discover the stunning world of Kronos, and see how the filmmakers reinvented the Klingons for a new generation.
  • The Enemy of My Enemy — Find out how, and why, the identity of the film’s true villain was kept a mystery to the very end.
  • Vengeance is Coming — A comprehensive look at the design and production surrounding the black ship.
  • Ship to Ship — An in-depth and thrilling look at the filming of the iconic space jump sequence, which both defied the laws of physics and pushed the limits of visual effects.
  • Mr. Spock and Mr. Spock — Leonard Nimoy makes a cameo appearance and reflects on his history with Trek.
  • Down with the Ship — Discover the stunt & VFX work involved to make the Enterprise roll over.
  • Kirk and Spock — Explore the dynamic relationship between the film’s heroes.
  • Brawl by the Bay — Sit in with Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch as they revisit their intense preparation for the film’s breathtaking climax.
  • Continuing the Mission — An inspiring look at the partnership between the film’s crew and the organization that assists returning veterans to find meaningful ways to contribute on the home front.
  • Unlocking the Cut — A discussion with the film editors about their monumental task.
  • The Sounds of Music (and FX) — A discussion with film composer Michael Giacchino and sound designer Ben Burtt.
  • Visual Affection — A comprehensive look at the creation and implementation of visual effects.
  • Safety First — A prank pulled on the cast.
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • NEW! Deleted Scenes
  • NEW! Gag Reel
  • NEW! Fitting the Future — A look at the film’s out-of-this-world costumes.
  • NEW! Property of Starfleet — Sourcing and tracking the film’s myriad props.

Life in the Time of COVID-19: Entertainment is Key to Maintaining Sanity

(C) 2008 Abrams ComicArts and Topps Chewing Gum Company

Living in the time of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is, to put it mildly, quite a challenge for most people, especially those of us who live in the United States. As I write this on the afternoon of April 10, there are 1,673,423 confirmed cases worldwide, with the U.S. in the not-so-great spot of being No. 1 in number of people with COVID-19: 486,490, of whom 18,002 (the size of an average infantry division in the Army) are dead. And although there are signs that the “curve of infection” is leveling off in some parts of the country, the number of cases (and fatalities) is still climbing.

The COVID-19 stats as of 1414 on April 10, according to Johns Hopkins University.

I have been practicing “social distancing” since March 6, 2020; for me, my daily routine is not all that different from that of before the pandemic. With rare exceptions to get a haircut, go see an occasional movie at a nearby theater with The Girlfriend, or go to the nearest branch of my bank to cash a check, my life has not really been affected…much.

So far, the biggest sacrifice I’ve made recently is to forgo the use of the Internet while The Girlfriend works from home. With the Internet carrying far more traffic than normal, our household of five has to deal with s-l-o-w connections and less band-with than usual. Four of us need to use the Internet for work or school at any time of day, but three people absolutely must be online during school/business hours, because that’s how many Wi-Fi connected computers can be online at one time. If a fourth computer attempts to get on the wireless connection, it will knock the one with the weakest connection offline. And because that computer happens to be the one that most needs to be connected for remote-office work, I don’t use the WiFi until after five in the afternoon.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

That does not mean, however, that I can’t use my PC at all during the day. Like most computers with built-in wireless connectivity, my Lenovo All-in-One can operate on “airplane mode.” So while I can’t access the Internet, look up information on, say, the Internet Movie Database, or stream video from my Movies Anywhere or Amazon Prime Video accounts, I can at least use Word to write, listen to music on my Amazon Music app, or even read ebooks that I’ve downloaded to my Amazon Kindle app.

A partial glimpse at my Amazon Music app’s list of purchased albums.

Admittedly, I overlooked the “airplane mode” function on my computer; I’d never needed to be offline on purpose before, so I didn’t even think about it until a week into our county’s “lockdown” and the new routine at home. But once I figured out that I could, at the very least, use Microsoft Word in offline mode, I was less upset about the no-Internet-until-5 PM restrictions than I was at first.

Even though I love my day job as a screenwriter and blogger, I sometimes get restless when I can’t check in on my friends on social media or read articles or other people’s blogs online. I’m so used to being connected that I get antsy when the Internet goes out or I have some restrictions placed on my use of it. (In the early 2000s, when the average connection was through conventional phone landlines, I could not log on until after 11 PM so my mother would be able to use the phone; this didn’t change until 2006, which is when I convinced her to get a DSL connection for our house.)

I can probably write another screenplay along the lines of A Simple Ad on Movie Magic Screenwriter 6.0. on offline mode, but I have not been inspired lately.

To maintain my sanity in these trying times, I try to find as much joy as I can from various forms of entertainment. Some, of course, are dependent on my use of a computer on airplane mode, and they include the following activities:


I have a small selection of computer games in my hard drive, most of which I’ve bought on Steam. Because I was so used to being connected to the Internet all day long, I had forgotten that most, if not all, of those games can be played offline. So, as of late, I’ve been spending my offline hours playing some of my favorites, which include a Steam-revived Silent Service II, a World War II submarine simulation originally published by the late, great software company MicroProse in 1990.

Screenshots from Silent Service II.

I also learned that I can play Sid Meier’s Civilization V, the fifth entry in the series of world history sims that began with the original game published in 1991 by MicroProse, which Sid Meier co-founded in 1982, when I was still in high school and half-a-decade before I got my first home computer.

Screenshots from my latest session of Sid Meier’s Civilization V.


Of course, I try to not limit my entertainment options to gaming. I also like to read fiction, non-fiction, and art books related to pop culture. Sometimes, of course, I read books (either new purchases or ones that I’ve owned for decades) in order to review them in my blogs. But most of the time, I read for pleasure and to continue learning new things, especially about history.

The first book in Rick Atkinson’s trilogy about the American Revolution. (C) 2019 Henry Holt & Co.
I have owned at least two copies of this book since the mid-1970s. (C) 1994 Simon & Schuster
When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I collected Wacky Packages stickers. (C) 2008 Abrams ComicArts and Topps Chewing Gum Company (TCGC)
I also collected Star Wars trading cards! (C) 2015 Abrams ComicArts and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

If my office’s layout was optimal, I probably would watch movies on my personal TV/Blu-ray combination. Unfortunately, the way my desk is placed (almost in the center of the room rather than flush against a wall), it’s not easy or pleasant to indulge in this particular pastime. I was given the smallest of the rooms for my “mancave,” so not only is the layout awkward (I can see the TV because it’s on a wall mount, but I have to look over the top of my monitor in order to do so), but space is limited and I feel extremely confined. It’s a good thing I’m not claustrophobic, otherwise…..

At least I can, if I so choose, go to another room and read there. And sometimes I do. But I can’t really watch movies, at least not in a fashion that is comfortable and enjoyable. So that’s one entertainment option that’s closed off to me, at least during The Girlfriend’s working hours.

But, yeah, these are First World problems. And like I said earlier, I do have ways to kill time during these strange, scary, and challenging days of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘No hay novedad’: Life in the Time of COVID-19

Screenshot from today’s session of Sid Meier’s Civilization V.

Hi, there. Welcome to another edition of A Certain Point of View, Too, my new blog in WordPress. As I write this, it’s almost six o’clock on Thursday, April 9. Here in my corner of Florida, it’s 84 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) under mostly sunny skies. It’s early spring, but here in the Deep South we’re in the subtropical zone, so it’s already beginning to feel like summer.

As much as I wanted to get another review done for either of my two blogs (I still plan to keep writing on the original A Certain Point of View blog; it’s already becoming a challenge to do two blogs at the same time, but I’m not about to turn my back on a project that I started in 2010 and is still getting page views and AdSense revenue.), I didn’t. I woke up tired, depressed, and unmotivated, so instead of writing, I spent most of the day playing Sid Meier’s Civilization V as Darius of Persia.

A screenshot of a late-game look at Persian-dominated Africa; Sid Meier’s Civilization V has an “Earth Map,” but it doesn’t let you start in historical locations. As you can see, my Persepolis is located on the Gulf of Guinea, or, in this case, the Bight of Persepolis. I have quite a large empire; I control most of the African continent, plus I have colonies in Australia and even one city in North America.

I suppose I should have tried to concentrate on writing a couple of blog posts, but sometimes I find it incredibly hard to focus on “serious” writing. I don’t know if it’s because I’m frustrated with the whole coronavirus thing or just mentally and emotionally tired from all of the changes in my life since April 2010.

Consider, over the past 120 months, I’ve had to deal with my mother’s long (five years!) final illness, her death, a foreseen but undesired estrangement from my older half-sister, a prolonged (but successful) fight in Miami-Dade County Probate Court over Mom’s estate, and a whole slew of unforeseen changes that sometimes still frustrate me.

So yeah, sometimes I get melancholic and have to resort to my go-to means of entertainment to get through the day: Books, games, and my downloaded digital albums on my Amazon Music library. In a situation where I have to use my computer on Airplane Mode, I am thankful that I can play Civilization V or listen to my tunes without being connected to the Internet. (I can’t, sadly, access my Movies Anywhere account in offline mode, so if I want to watch movies in my office, I have to do that on my TV/Blu-ray combo…which, because of the layout of the room, is not optimal.)

So, yeah. Today I slacked off and indulged my inner gamer.

Ah, yes. The haughty Maria Theresa of Austria is one of the great rulers I have to compete with as Darius I of Persia. I love the graphics created by the Firaxis/Take Two team that designed and programmed the fourth sequel to 1991’s Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Tomorrow is another day, as the lady says in Gone With the Wind. Hopefully I will feel better about things and, as a result, be more creative…and productive.

Documentary/Music Special Review: ‘Great Voices Sing John Denver’

Placido Domingo (left) and Placido Domingo Jr. perform Perhaps Love in a segment of Kenneth Shapiro’s Great Voices Sing John Denver. (C) 2013 Great Voices Film Company and CDK Films

Great Voices Sing John Denver (2013)

Written and Directed by: Kenneth R. Shapiro

Produced by: Elisa Justice, Milton Okun, Rosemary Okun, Peter Primont, Kenneth R. Shapiro, Mark Shimmel

Music Arranged and Directed by: Lee Holdridge

Music and Lyrics: John Denver

Starring: Danielle de Niesse, Placido Domingo, Placido Domingo Jr., Rodney Gilfry, Denyce Graves, Nathan Gunn, Thomas Hampson, Daniel Montenegro, Barbara Padilla, René Pape, Matthew Polenzani, Patricia Racette, Shenyang, Stuart Skelton, Dolora Zajick

Great Voices Sing John Denver, a film written and directed by Kenneth R. Shapiro, premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on October 13, 2013.  Produced by Elisa Justice, Milton Okun, Rosemary Okun, Peter Primont, Kenneth Shapiro, and Mark Shimmel, this award-winning documentary about the making of the eponymous CD album in which 15 stars of the opera world pay tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter, actor, humanitarian, and environmental activist John Denver.

The poster for the award-winning film Great Voices Sing John Denver. (C) 2013 Great Voices Film Company and CDK Films

Shapiro’s film, which followed the “dropping” by MPE Music of the Great Voices Sing John Denver album by four months, is a combination of interviews with the artists corralled by the late and great Milt Okun, who not only had produced many of Denver’s albums and Placido Domingo’s first foray into the pop music world, Perhaps Love, in which the Spanish tenor not only sang Annie’s Song, but also performed the title song as a chart-busting duet with John Denver.

A publicity clip posted to YouTube by Great Voices Sing John Denver.

John Denver and opera fans alike have something to look forward to as we go behind the scenes of the creation of the new CD called ‘Great Voices Sing John Denver’. Legendary music producer Milton Okun, along with arranger and conductor Lee Holdridge, bring some of the most famous names in opera to sing John Denver’s famous hit songs. Featured artists include Placido Domingo, Danielle de Niese, Matthew Polenzani (singing in English and Italian) Patricia Racette, Rene Pape, Nathan Gunn, Dolora Zajick, Thomas Hampson, Rod Gilfry, Denyce Graves, Shenyang (singing in English and Mandarin) Daniel Montenegro, Placido Domingo Jr., Stuart Skelton and Barbara Padilla. Each artist got to select the song they wanted and share with us their reasons. – Publicity blurb on the Blu-ray packaging, Great Voices Sing John Denver

In this award-winning film (it won the Spirit of the Independents Award at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in 2013, and Milt Okun, his wife Rosemary, Elisa Justice, and director Shapiro shared the Best Producer of a Documentary award at that year’s Madrid International Film Festival in Spain) Shapiro presents the artists in 15 interview/performance vignettes that combines each singer’s recollection of how and why the songs were chosen with a full presentation of the song. All of the songs in the Great Voices Sing John Denver album are performed in the 90-minutes-long movie, albeit not in the same order as in the recording.

The main film is divided as follows:

  • Perhaps Love (Placido Domingo & Placido Domingo Jr.)
  • This Old Guitar (Rod Gilfry)
  • Rhymes and Reasons (Daniele de Niese)
  • For You  (Matthew Polenzani)
  • Goodbye Again  (Daniel Montenegro)
  • Like a Sad Song (Dolora Zajick)
  • Fly Away (Stuart Skelton & Barbara Padilla)
  • Calypso (Nathan Gunn)
  • Sweet Surrender (Thomas Hampson)
  • The Eagle and the Hawk (Dolora Zajick, Daniel Montenegro, Rod Gilfry)
  • Sunshine on My Shoulders (Denyce Graves)
  • Follow Me (Rene Pape)
  • Shanghai Breezes (Shenyang)
  • Leaving On a Jet Plane (Patricia Racette)
  • Annie’s Song (All Artists)
  • Credits

As I mentioned earlier, the songs in the film version of Great Voices Sing John Denver are the same ones in the album, with arrangements by composer/arranger Holdridge, who had collaborated with the late John Denver in various projects, including serving as arranger in some of Denver’s best known albums, as well as directing the ensembles that performed the orchestral backing in 1981’s Perhaps Love. The only differences, besides the audio/visual format, are the track order and the placement of the Italian- and Chinese-language covers of For You and Shanghai Breezes in the Extra Features section of the home media edition of the film.

Extra Features:

  • Shenyang’s performance of Shanghai Breezes in Mandarin
  • Matthew Polenzani’s performance of Per Te (For You) in Italian
  • Six Featurettes
  • Trailer
  • English subtitles (main feature only) 

My Take

I first heard the Great Voices Sing John Denver when it was “suggested” to me by my Amazon Music app last fall; I had just purchased The Essential John Denver on CD and added the free digital “AutoRip” copy to my collection of digital albums. As part of my Amazon Prime membership, the app was allowing me to listen to the tribute album gratis (for a limited time, naturally), so out of curiosity, I added Great Voices Sing John Denver to my playlist.

Now, I’m not a big opera aficionado. Although I am an avid listener of classical music and have listened to many overtures, incidental themes, and famous arias (Nessun Dorma and Ride of the Valkyries come to mind), I have only seen one of the classic operas in toto, and that one is Bizet’s Carmen. It’s not that I hate opera; I don’t. I just have not taken the time to immerse myself fully in that genre.

But because I do like the songs of John Denver, and because I appreciate great voices when I hear them, I found myself loving the album more each time that I listened to it. As a result, when the “free listen” period (which I guess was 90 days) ended, I decided to purchase the digital edition (Amazon didn’t have the physical disc for sale) and add it to my permanent music library.

I was so taken by the album, which I believe was one of Milt Okun’s final recordings before he died in 2016, that I also purchased the film in three different formats: Blu-ray, digital (on Amazon Prime Video), and DVD.

Before I watched Great Voices Sing John Denver for the first time in January, I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be merely a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the album with video clips featuring short excerpts from the songs as they were recorded? Or would it be an “old” MTV-like  collection of full-on performances mixed with excerpts from interviews with the singers and the producers?

Based on the information on the Great Voices Sing John Denver website, I was more or less convinced that that Shapiro’s film would be more of a complement to the album rather than a collection of music videos filmed during the recording sessions. I mean, nowhere in the film’s promotional blurb does it say, “watch complete performances of John Denver’s great songs in our movie.”  

A video of the original 1981 recording of Perhaps Love, featuring John Denver and Placido Domingo.

At best, I figured we’d get a full version of Perhaps Love, which is the best-known song done in this “opera singer meets pop” style in the Great Voices album. (As Lee Holdridge says in the film, the song and eponymous album kicked off the “popera” genre; after Perhaps Love became a best-selling album, it ushered in other acts that featured classical opera singers singing non-opera music or mixing pop songs with operatic arias. If not for Milt Okun’s alchemy with Perhaps Love, listeners probably would never have been introduced to The Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli, or Josh Groban.)

To my relief, it turns out that the film Great Voices Sing John Denver showcases full performances of the 15 English language tracks heard in the MPE Music album (Shenyang’s Mandarin cover of Shanghai Breezes and Matthew Polenzani’s Italian-language rendition of For You/Per Te have been relegated, inexplicably, to the Extra Features portion of the DVD/Blu-ray).

Official trailer for Great Voices Sing John Denver.

The film, like the album, features a We Are the World-style rendition of Annie’s Song. Technically, this is a collage of separate individual performances edited to sound like one single recording. This is because by this point in the film’s shooting schedule, the featured singers were scattered throughout the world due to their commitments to concerts or opera performances on their professional schedules.   It is not just a beautiful climax to the film, but also a correction to the snub given to John when the We Are the World video was made. (Denver had sent word to producer Quincy Jones that he would like to be included; the request was denied because the singer was considered to be not “pop music” enough for an invite.)

You don’t have to be a devotee of opera or an avid John Denver fan to enjoy this film or the album that inspired it. When I was a kid growing up in Miami in the 1970s and early ‘80s, Denver was at the zenith of his career, so I was familiar with (and liked) many of his songs. I wasn’t a huge fan then; some of my friends were, but even though I had an eight-track tape of Denver’s 1976 Greatest Hits compilation album, I was too musically immature to appreciate how talented the man was. (And in an inexplicable lapse of good musical taste, when my eight-track deck finally wore out after the format had gone out of vogue, I never replaced that Greatest Hits tape either with a cassette or compact disc reissue.)

It’s only recently that I “rediscovered” John Denver’s songs and musical artistry, and since late summer of 2019 I have purchased The Essential John Denver and two other albums on compact disc. I also have, in addition to Great Voices Sing John Denver, two live concert DVDs, 1995’s The Wildlife Concert and a later release of one of Denver’s late 1970s concerts in Japan.

I love them all, but I have to admit that Kenneth Shapiro’s film about the making of the 2013 tribute album is the one I watch most often. Not only is the presentation technically well-done, but the interviews with each of the singers are both fascinating and revealing.

For instance, we learn that the acclaimed Metropolitan Opera singer Dolora Zajick has sung some of the opera repertoire’s most famous roles but had never sung a pop song as a professional vocal artist. Germany’s Rene Pape grew up in the Communist eastern half of the then-divided nation during the Cold War. As a result, he was not exposed to John Denver’s songs until German reunification in 1991. And Barbara Padilla admits that when she was six, she bought the album Perhaps Love for her mom as a Mother’s Day gift, but she was the one who listened to it most.

I recommend this award-winning film to anyone who enjoys great music. Yes, it will appeal a great deal to either fans of John Denver or are familiar with the artists recruited by Milt and Rosemary Okun, Elisa Justice, and Lee Holdridge. But, honestly, Denver’s music and lyrics are appealing to wider audiences, a fact that Holdridge alludes to when he reminisces about telling Denver that his songs were, in essence, great folk songs in the vein of Stephen Foster. “Americana,” as Holdridge says.

I heartily agree with that assessment.

To order a copy of Great Voices Sing John Denver, you can go to the official website for the film here.

Fiction Break: Excerpt from ‘The Best Years of Our Lives…Supposedly’

Illustration: Pixabay

In August 2018, a few weeks after I self-published Reunion: A Story via Amazon in paperback and Kindle e-book editions, I flirted with the notion of writing a sequel in which the main character (and narrator) of that story is confronting some of the challenges that many fifty-somethings face as they go through middle age and deal with relationships, career ups and downs, and the deaths of their elderly parents,

For about 10 days or so during that hot Florida summer, I imagined how my literary alter ego would deal with the loss of his beloved mother and – as in Reunion – some of the experiences that I went through in high school. I didn’t have a plot outline or a grand plan, really; I wanted to let the story reveal itself to me as I wrote it, which (in a nutshell) is how Stephen King says he writes his stories, too.

I was making good progress, I thought, until I made the mistake of telling The Girlfriend what I was writing and asked her what she thought of my concept.

Now, with other folks, including my late mother and my older half-sister (from whom I am now estranged), whenever I sought feedback (even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear), nine times out of ten the responses would be:

Hey, that sounds like a great idea, Alex! Go for it!”

“I really like your concept. Go ahead and do a first draft. When you finish it, then we’ll see if it works.”

“Interesting. Can’t wait to read the story when you finish it.”

My significant other is not like that. Not one bit. Her reaction?

“No, Alex, that’s too depressing. Nobody wants to read such a sad story.”

Well, I gotta tell you. That took the wind out of my sails, figuratively speaking. I was so disappointed by the shocking lack of enthusiasm from The Girlfriend that I simply saved what I had as a .doc file on Microsoft Word and set it aside. I didn’t even consider plugging away at the story anyway – which is what I would have done when I was younger and a bit more cocky about my writing and storytelling abilities.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

Anyway, I still have that .doc file in my hard drive, so I thought that for today’s post I’d share the beginning of The Best Years of Our Lives…Supposedly with you. It’s still a rough draft, mind you, and I’m not quite sure where the story was heading; all I remember about the story possibilities is that I considered following the template from Reunion, i.e., a story-within-a-story. It worked for me when I wrote my tale of unrequited love and lost opportunities; it might have worked with the continuing saga of Jim Garraty and his circle of friends.

Okay. Here goes. And remember: if you like this, or if you don’t, let me know in the Comments section below.

Photo by Octoptimist on

August 2016

There’s almost nothing sadder, I think, than standing in the middle of an empty two-story  townhouse that has been stripped bare of its furnishings, decorations, even carpeting. In fact, right now I can only think of two other things that are more depressing – at least for me. One is the end of a relationship you think would last forever but was actually built upon a sandy foundation. That’s something I’ve gone through twice in my 51 years on Earth – once at 16, when I was a sophomore at South Miami Senior High and broke up with Kathy Bennett, my first serious girlfriend, after I found out she was interested in another guy. It happened again sixteen years later, when my then-wife Carrie Tellado-Garraty said to me matter-of-factly over a dinner of Chinese take-out from Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine – one of our favorite restaurants in Manhattan – “Jim, you know, you’re a sweet, sweet guy, but I’m just not in love with you anymore. I want a divorce.”   

The other item on The-Absolutely-Worst-Things-That-Can-Happen-to-Anyone list is watching helplessly as Alzheimer’s Disease steals a beloved parent’s memories and ability to think, speak, read, even remember her own beloved son, and eventually her life. It took a little over five years for this, the most common type of dementia, to take Mary Ann Garraty, nee Gallagher, my 86-year-old mother to the grave, but not before inflicting a thousand indignities upon a once-beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, and fiercely independent woman. Before Mom’s long Via Dolorosa marked by a progression of calamities that included a long bout of depression;  a lazy 30-something home health aide named Violeta who never stayed with Mom the full six-hour shift on Sundays; and a nasty fall from a wheelchair that resulted in a  fractured right ankle which frightened my mother so badly that she never voluntarily got out of her sickbed, I had thought that my dad’s death in Vietnam at age 46 – he was an Army helicopter pilot whose luck ran out during the Tet Offensive in 1968 – had been the worst instance of bad fortune that could have afflicted our small family. Mom’s final years convinced me otherwise.

As a one-time Army brat and, later, a restless young man who earned a scholarship to Harvard University, I’m somewhat accustomed to moving from one place to another. Before Dad’s Huey was shot down over a far-off place called Ban Me Thuot a week before my third birthday, the Garraty family had already moved twice, the last time being in October of 1966 when my father got orders to report to Fort Benning in Georgia for refresher training before being sent to South Vietnam. After his death and burial at Arlington National Cemetery in the spring of 1968, Mom decided to move to South Miami to live close to Maw-Maw Gallagher, who had tired of snowy and icy New England winters and moved to Florida in 1960. Mom stayed put in her house near Southwest 56th Street – better known to us as Miller Road – until her passing; I did not. Since June of 1983, I’ve lived, studied, and worked in Boston, Washington, D.C., and, finally,  New York City.

Nevertheless, just because I have moved around a few times, that doesn’t mean I like it. I didn’t like it in 1968, when the movers “accidentally” lost a box full of my late father’s personal belongings, including his beloved baseball pitcher’s glove and a scuffed ball signed in 1954 by Jackie Robinson and Hank Bauer of Dad’s equally beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. I also didn’t like it when I moved to the Boston area in ’83; I had had to leave most of my stuff at home in South Florida because the cheap one-bedroom apartment I found in Charlestown was relatively small. It was not much larger than some of the double rooms I’ve stayed in at cheap motels at various times in my life, and Mom convinced me that my books – an assortment of novels, a 1966 green-and-beige set of the World Book Encyclopedia  (plus the annual Year Book supplement volumes) that Dad had bought with my education in mind, and all of my non-fiction tomes about World War II  (including Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far) – was more of a necessity for a history major than, say, my modest but cherished collection of Kenner Star Wars action figures and vehicles. I wasn’t thrilled with that assessment; I’d started collecting almost as soon as Kenner released them in 1978 and had gotten my hands on all but a handful of the figures which were available at the time of my graduation from South Miami Senior High that summer.  But the apartment was small, and after taking a few minutes to think about it, I reluctantly agreed to leave them at home. (A few years later, when I was able to afford a larger apartment in the same neighborhood, I drove down to Florida from Massachusetts to get more of my things, including my Star Wars figures. Much to my dismay, I found out that Mom, who wasn’t aware of the sentimental value those figures had for me, had decided to donate the whole kit and caboodle to the nearby Goodwill store.)

So, no. I’m not terribly fond of the moving process. Not in the best of times – and far less in the worst of times.


My mother died in her sleep at 5:15 in the morning of July 19, 2015. She went to what William Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns” according to her oft expressed wishes: at home, in her own bedroom, surrounded by her personal belongings and in the company of loved ones. My cousin Cristina – my mom’s youngest and favorite niece – had come to South Miami all the way from Seattle to be with her Aunt Mary Ann. My best friend since fifth grade, Mark Adams Prieto, sat on a chair we’d brought into Mom’s bedroom from the living room; his eyes were puffy, red, and brimming with tears for the woman he’s called his “second mom” since we were both eleven years old. Kate, a 40-year-old registered nurse from Catholic Services’ hospice clad in clean, wrinkle-free navy-blue scrubs, hovered near my mother’s deathbed; her stethoscope hung down over her chest, oscillating gently from side to side as she gently covered Mom’s face with a faded blue-white bedsheet. Father Garcia from Catholic Services stood off quietly in the far corner of the room; he’d given Mom the last rites – the Anointing of the Sick, the Penance, and the Viaticum – per her wishes, which we had often talked about long before her last illness. He looked tired; the nurse had called him on her smartphone around midnight, when  it was painfully obvious that Mom was fading away. He’d given her the final Sacraments then, but Cristina, who is usually an extremely calm and collected person, became distraught and Father Garcia’s quiet and soothing grandfatherly manner was the only means to calm her down.

As for me?  I was there, too, standing at the foot of the bed and feeling a cold tide of sadness and loss unlike any other that I’d felt before.

I don’t know, even now, how long I stood at that spot, looking down at the dark brown carpet of my mom’s small bedroom. It was old, and although it was about as clean as the home health aides and I could keep it, there were spots where the tufts of brown yarn were no longer there, and you could see the grey-beige underlay – what is known in the carpet business as “padding” – that separated the carpet from the gray concrete floor of the room. In the past – the long-gone days of Ago – Mom would have fretted over what she called “bald spots” on the carpet of the room that she had once designated as the guest room. Now, of course, if Mary Ann Garraty was complaining about the carpet or that she had died in the guest room rather than in the larger master bedroom on the second floor of the house (a move that was forced upon her by her primary care physician when she could no longer walk up and down the 14-step staircase that led upstairs), she was doing so in Saint Peter’s reception area, Valhalla, or wherever it is that we go to when we die.

Surprisingly enough, as incredibly sad as I was inside, outwardly I was as calm and collected as if I were standing in front of my WOH-3010 (History of World War II, 1939-1945) students at my university in New York City. Mom was not particularly fond of excessive emotional displays; in her later years, especially, she was somewhat reserved, almost stoic. Outward displays of grief – such as my cousin Cristina’s quiet but seemingly uncontrollable sobbing – made Mom extremely uncomfortable when she was alive. I don’t know why; my maternal grandparents had been boisterous and voluble even in their last years, and they had not raised Mom with the notion that Gallaghers never cried. The one time that I’d asked her why she was so stoic – especially at funerals and other sad occasions – she said, “Because, Jimmy, I don’t like the drama of it all.” She said it calmly, quietly, in the same tone of voice you’d probably use to say, “I like the color blue,” or “The Earth is round, not flat.”

 I don’t like the drama of it all. I’d always – well, almost always – heeded my mom’s wishes as best as I could. So even though I was suddenly faced with the reality that I was – at the age of 50 years and two months – an orphan, I would honor my mother – whose small, frail, white-haired remains lay only a hand’s-breadth away, her face mercifully covered by a faded bedsheet – by keeping my emotions in rein.  

“Professor Garraty?” I heard someone say, and I snapped out of my reverie. It was Nurse Kate, the RN from the hospice service. She looked at me with a mixture of sympathy, expectancy, and weariness that reflected the sixteen hours that had passed since Mom had slipped into a semiconscious state between this world and the next. “It’s time to call  the funeral home so they can pick your mother up. Do you wish me to do it for you?”

I tried to open my mouth and say, “No, I’ll do it,” but the words would not come. Instead I nodded like an automaton. I must have looked pathetically helpless, but Kate just gave me a look that conveyed, Don’t worry, I’ve got this. Pulling her Samsung Galaxy smartphone out of one of her scrub top’s pockets, the nurse in the navy-blue wrinkle-free uniform walked past me and out of Mom’s bedroom, no doubt calling the hospice center on speed dial as she walked out into the living room and out of earshot to call for the ambulance that would take my mom on her last ride out of the house she’d called home for 47 years.

Father Garcia, whose patient endeavors to soothe my distraught cousin had finally borne results – Cristina now sat on one of the chairs in the room, staring silently at the popcorn ceiling as if trying to see Mom’s unfettered soul ascending to Heaven – shuffled  slowly toward me, shook my right hand firmly, and uttered an understandably hasty “God bless you, Professor Garraty. Rest assured that we all think you did the best you could for your mother during her last years, and that her soul is now at rest, in the company of Our Lord and with all those who have gone on before us, including your father.” With that, he made a sign of the Cross with his right hand – “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” – said a few more pleasantries, and shuffled off, hopefully heading to his rectory for a well-deserved rest after a long and tiring night and early morning.

    I looked over at the chair where Mark, my best friend since we were fifth graders at Kinloch Park Elementary School back in the Seventies, sat, slumped down as if he, too, were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His well-manicured hands covered his face; I don’t know if he didn’t want to see Mom’s bedsheet-shrouded corpse or if he was trying to hide his tear-streaked face.  From where I stood, I noticed, perhaps for the first time, that Mark’s once dark brown hair was beginning to turn gray, and that a dime-sized bald spot had appeared just off the center of his head. Life’s a bitch, we used to say jokingly as we walked in the crowded halls of our alma mater, South Miami Senior High School, and then you die. Looking at the scene before me – my beloved mother lying dead in her bed and covered up with one of her faded blue-and-white bedsheets; my cousin Cristina staring into space like a character in a Grade-Z movie; and my childhood bestie slumped down on his chair, his clothes rumpled – as mine surely were – from the long day’s journey into this sad and terrible mid-July night – that old saying echoed endlessly in my mind, albeit with a new twist:

Life’s a bitch, takes your loved ones away from you in horrible, painful ways, and then you die.


Two hours later, two men from the transportation company that serves the Van Ordsel Family Funeral Chapels and Crematory arrived at the house to take my mother’s body away. The sun had risen at 6:40 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but it hid behind a dark-grey curtain of cumulus and stratocumulus clouds heavily laden with rain. Father Garcia was long gone and was probably now asleep in his bed at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church’s rectory. But Kate, the registered nurse from Catholic Services’ hospice unit, had stayed behind, keeping watch over my mother’s mortal remains and offering whatever comfort she had to give to those of us who were grieving. It was Kate who let the guys from Van Ordsel – a thickset, grey-haired Cuban named Alfonso and a slimmer but still formidable “anglo” guy with thinning black hair and a hangdog expression that seemed to have been on his face since the day he was born – in through the front door. They wore uniforms very much like those of your average ambulance driver and entered the house pushing a gurney on which they would take Mom from her deathbed and off to the funeral home. They didn’t rush – they made the passage from the foyer to my mother’s bedroom slowly, pushing the gurney carefully so it would not crash into any of the furniture or bang against the walls in the narrow hall that led from the living room, past the downstairs bathroom, and into what I now thought of as that room. Not Mom’s room, not the “future guest room,” and certainly not “the room where Mom died.”  I looked at Alfonso and was about to offer – however halfheartedly – whatever assistance that I could, but the man simply shook his head. “Don’t worry, sir,” he said with a slight but still noticeable Cuban accent, “we’ll take care of your mom for you.”

 Alfonso and his co-worker disappeared into the now silent bedroom where Mom’s body lay in deathly repose. Mark, Cristina, and I stood in a ragged row in front of the living room sofa, looking for all the world like a trio of shell-shocked GIs after a firefight in the bocage country of Normandy in the summer of 1944. Kate, her navy-blue scrubs still miraculously wrinkle-free, stood alone by the open front door and watched as the first raindrops of a mid-July rainstorm began to fall outside.


The next few days were hot, humid, and – typically for South Florida – alternated between periods of bright sunshine in the morning and torrential downpours punctuated by frequent lightning strikes and loud BOOMS of thunder that could be heard for many miles away from where the bolts of electricity struck the rain-soaked ground. In between the inevitable flurry of signing documents and filing reams of official and non-official paperwork and the sad but necessary rituals that follow a loved one’s death came the inevitable bouts of anger, sadness, anxiety over the future, and a heightened sense of my own mortality.

And like most adult children who take care of an ill elderly parent knowing that Mom or Dad is not going to get better, I felt a sickening mix of relief and remorse: the former because I didn’t have to fret about making sure that the home health aides were turning Mom in bed every two hours to avoid the development of bedsores, or deal with the minutiae of meal planning, dispensing of medications, or fight the waves of anger and sadness that washed over me every time that Mom confused me for my long-dead father or kept me awake for long hours because she refused to take her nighttime pills. (“You’re trying to poison me, Jim! I already took my sleeping pills an hour ago!” Mom shouted at me – on more than one occasion – so loudly that I thought the next-door neighbors would hear and call 911.) The latter? After a parent dies under circumstances like my mom did – at home, with a son or daughter who is the primary caregiver, there is a natural tendency for one to look back at the past and obsessively examine and re-examine every decision one made during the past few years. Did I hire the right home health agency? Did I request a sabbatical from my teaching position in New York at the right time? Did I make sure that Mom ate enough nutritious food to keep her health from declining prematurely? Did I spend enough time with her before her dementia robbed her mind so thoroughly that she barely knew who I was? Had I been too impatient, too harshly judgmental with her when she forgot to use the Kindle e-reader that I bought her for Christmas in 2009, just a few months before her physical and mental health went down the proverbial tubes? Those questions nagged at me for far too many hours at night – and even during the day – in those first few days after Mom died. They still haunt me now, though not as often as in that hot, muggy, and stormy July of 2015.   

Review of YouTube Short “Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss” (Denise Longrie)

This is a review of “Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss,” a film that I wrote last year and was filmed by Juan Carlos Hernandez early in 2020.

Reviews of Old and New Stories. Mostly Old


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.

…Which means, of course, there will be a knock-down, drag-out fight, and among this Cuban-American family, that requires be a rehashing of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Guille describes how the “cabrón Kennedy” blew the whole thing. Jerry isn’t so sure Kennedy’s actions made much difference, that it was doomed from the beginning.


However, this film examination is not facile. These people love each other. Despite their differences, they still care for one another. Jerry brings home treats for his folks, items that delight them. He’s greeted with, “How’s school? Are you eating enough?”

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Blu-ray Review: ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (Multi-Screen Edition)

Official Disney Movies Trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Digital and Blu-ray Release

On Tuesday, March 31, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (BVHE) and Lucasfilm officially released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on two Blu-ray formats, 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) and the older High Definition (HD) Blu-ray discs (BD) in several combinations, including a Multi-Screen Edition with two HD BDs and an insert with a Movies Anywhere digital code for download or streaming. (Other editions include the 4K UHD/HD BD three-disc combination and the exclusive-to-Best Buy Limited Edition Steelbook, which is essentially the 4K UHD/HD Blu-ray set packaged in a metal case with slightly different artwork on the front and reverse covers.)

Promotional photo of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Multi-Screen Edition 2-disc set. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The physical disc release came two weeks after The Walt Disney Company, corporate parent to both BVHE (which is Disney’s home media distribution arm) and Lucasfilm, issued director J.J. Abrams’ 2019 film, which not only concludes the Sequel Trilogy that includes Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), but also completes the nine-film Skywalker Saga.

Lucasfilm and director J.J. Abrams join forces once again to take viewers on an epic journey to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the riveting conclusion of the seminal Skywalker saga, where new legends will be born and the final battle for freedom is yet to come. – Back cover blurb, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Blu-ray.

Like BVHE’s other Star Wars Multi-Screen Edition HD Blu-ray releases since 2018, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker dispenses with a DVD Standard Definition disc. (As far as I know, the last Star Wars film released in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which made its home media debut in March 2017.)  Thus, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a two-disc set that includes:

  • Disc One: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Feature Film)
  • Disc Two: Bonus Features
  • Digital Code Insert (Redeemable at Movies Anywhere)

Disc One contains the feature film directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Abrams with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (based on a screen story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Abrams, and Terrio). With an approximate runtime of 142 minutes (the second longest in the overall franchise), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is presented in 1080p high definition widescreen format, with four language tracks (English 7.1 DTS-HDMA and 2.0 Descriptive Audio, plus Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks), and subtitles in English (for the deaf and hard-of-hearing), Spanish, and French.

Disc Two contains the Bonus Features, which include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • The Skywalker Legacy, a feature-length documentary that gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the final film of the nine-part Skywalker Saga
  • Passana Pursuit: Creating the Speeder Chase
  • D-O: Key to the Past, a featurette about the new counterpart to R2-D2, BB-8, and C-3PO.

There are several other featurettes, including one about actor Warwick Davis, who reprises his Return of the Jedi role of Wicket the Ewok, and his son Harrison, who plays Wicket’s cub in a cameo set on the Endor moon.

 My Take

Overall, Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm make a good team when it comes to home media releases of the 11 (so far) Star Wars features. The art chosen for the slip cover is reminiscent of Drew Struzan’s art for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with a similar Light Side/Dark Side design featuring many of the heroes of the Resistance (including Poe Dameron, Finn, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, R2-D2, C-3PO, and BB-8), with Rey and Kylo Ren (the film’s central characters) dominating the central focus point of the cover art.

The audio-visual content in the two discs is digitally mastered for the best home viewing experience. On even a basic home theater system with a five-speaker setup and a 40-inch (or larger) HD TV set, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker looks and sounds great. The film’s dazzling color palette (which is used to good effect to help depict several different worlds with unique Flash Gordon-like environments) comes to the fore in high definition 1080p resolution, while the movie’s John Williams score and sound effects by Skywalker Sound’s Matthew Wood and David Acord combine seamlessly with the stunning visuals by cinematographer Dan Mindel and the special effects crew at Industrial Light & Magic. 

The bonus features are also nicely distributed among a movie-length “making of” documentary and several shorter behind-the-scenes featurettes. The Skywalker Legacy is a solid and often entertaining look at the return of J.J. Abrams to the Star Wars franchise and the creation of The Rise of Skywalker. All of the major cast members are interviewed, and viewers will see how Lucasfilm was able to give General Leia Organa enough screen time to give her a fitting send-off, even though Carrie Fisher died in December of 2016 and thus wasn’t available to participate in the film’s making.

Because Disney-owned Lucasfilm produced the behind-the-scenes material for the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Skywalker Legacy avoids such touchy topics as how Fisher’s death adversely affected the development of the final installment of the Sequel Trilogy. There is no mention of the movie’s original writer-director team, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, who had been hired by Lucasfilm in 2014 along with The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson as part of the Sequel Trilogy’s creative dream team. Under circumstances that aren’t quite clear, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy fired the Jurassic World duo, citing creative differences, and asked J.J. Abrams to complete the Trilogy.

So if you’re looking for controversy and backstage drama in The Skywalker Legacy, forget it. Lucasfilm, like any corporate entity (and especially one that is in the entertainment industry), is not going to air out its dirty laundry, and certainly not in a bonus disc that is intended for general audiences.

Personally, I’m fine with this, but I suspect that there are many Star Wars fans (especially the ones that don’t like Kathleen Kennedy) who would have liked a more nuanced account of how Abrams had to be asked to direct a film that had been assigned to another director during the planning phase of the Sequel Trilogy in the wake of George Lucas’s retirement in 2012 and the subsequent sale of Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company.

The Best Buy-exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook houses one 4K UHD Blu-ray and two HD (regular) Blu-ray discs, including the feature film and the bonus features disc. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The only disappointment I have with the extras is the absence of a director’s commentary track by J.J. Abrams in the feature film. Unlike Steven Spielberg, who is a willing participant in behind-the-scenes documentaries but never does director’s commentaries, Abrams has recorded such tracks for other films, including Mission Impossible III and Star Trek. The “basic” edition of Star Wars: The Force Awakens also does not have a commentary track by Abrams, although the more expensive 3D Collector’s Edition does. Thus, Abrams is one of three Star Wars directors (the others are Gareth Edwards of Rogue One and Ron Howard of Solo: A Star Wars Story) who have not given fans more insights about their entries in the Star Wars lore. Contrast this to Star Wars creator George Lucas, Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ Dave Filoni, or even Rian Johnson, all of whom have contributed commentaries to the home media releases of their Star Wars films.

But, in the bigger scheme of that galaxy far, far away, this is a minor gripe on my part. Overall, Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm delivered a fine home media release of the last Skywalker Saga film. To their credit – and perhaps as a way to brighten Star Wars fans’ morale in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic – Disney and Lucasfilm allowed retailers to ship out units of the Blu-ray (4K UHD as well as HD BD) earlier than the March 31 “drop date.” I had my set by the Thursday before the announced release date, and so did many others.

Promotional photo of the exclusive-to-Best Buy Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, a 27-disc Collector’s Set. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

I have three different editions of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, including the 4K UHD version, because I ordered the Limited Edition Steelbook and the Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga box set, both of which are Best Buy exclusives. I can’t review the 4K UHD discs until we set up the UHD TV and compatible Blu-ray player, but at least I’ll have them ready to try out on the day that that is accomplished.  Overkill, it may be, but I feel it’s a good idea to have a few spare copies handy in case a disc gets scratched or lost.

My Growing ‘Star Wars’ Movie Collection

On Wednesday, April 1, UPS delivered my latest addition to my constantly growing Star Wars home media collection, the exclusive-to-Best Buy Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, a 27-disc box set with the 4K Ultra-High Definition (UHD) Blu-ray editions of the nine “Skywalker Saga” Episodes, as well as the “regular” High Definition Blu-rays of Star Wars: Episodes I-IX and nine more Blu-rays containing the bonus features, one for each of the movies set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

Promotional photo showing the contents of the Best Buy exclusive Star Wars; The Skywalker Saga box set. (C) 2020 Best Buy, Inc. and Lucasfilm Ltd.

A few days earlier, the U.S. Postal Service had delivered two different editions of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home media release. One is the “basic” Multi-Screen Edition, which consists of two Blu-ray discs (BDs) and an insert with the Movies Anywhere code for a digital copy.

The “Multi-Screen Edition’s slipcover for the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Blu-ray/Digital Code combo. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

The other edition is the Best Buy-exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook, which houses a 4K UHD BD with director J.J. Abrams’ 2019 Sequel Trilogy capper, an HD BD with the same film, and a second HD BD with Bonus Features.

The Best Buy-exclusive three-disc Limited Edition Steelbook contains the 4K UHD and the HD Blu-ray releases of Episode IX, as well as a digital copy code for Movies Anywhere. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

As you probably inferred from this post’s lead, these three new arrivals are just the latest additions to my collection of Star Wars Blu-rays and DVDs.

Previously, in late November of 2019, in advance of the theatrical premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I bought Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s reissues of Episodes I-VI, which are repackaged and relabeled one-disc Blu-rays with the same content (right down to the menus, language options, and commentaries found in the 2011 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-rays.

Promotional illustration showing the 2019 Multi-Screen Edition reissues of the first eight Skywalker Saga films. I only bought Episodes I-VI. (C) 2019 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

Before that, I acquired the Steelbook Edition of Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi. And before that, I’d bought Multi-Screen Editions of Solo: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a film for which I also bought a Steelbook Edition.)

Prior to 2016, which saw me move from my hometown of Miami to another city in Florida, I had already every Blu-ray edition offered by 20th Century Fox, including the 2015 Limited Edition Steelbooks of the Prequel and Original Trilogies, as well as the 2011 and the 2015 Star Wars: The Complete Saga multi-disc Blu-ray box sets.

Promotion for 20th Century Fox’s final reissue of the Star Wars Saga from November 2015, six weeks before Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studio released Disney-owned Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens in theaters. (C) 2015 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

I suppose some people might think I’m a little mad, but I’ve done this with all of the pre-BD formats Star Wars films were released in (except for laserdisc, which is the one home media device that I never purchased). When Star Wars was first released on DVD in 2001 in the 2-disc set of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, I bought each film in individual 2-DVD sets.* And starting with the 2004 Star Wars Trilogy 4-DVD set, I purchased the two 2008 Trilogy sets, mainly because Lucasfilm had updated some of the scenes in The Phantom Menace, but also because I’m a completist when it comes to my favorite movie franchise.

  • I no longer have the individual-film DVDs that I purchased between 2001 and 2006. Some time after my mother got seriously ill in 2010, I decided – stupidly – to give those first six Star Wars DVDs to the then nine-year-old son of one of my mom’s aides. At the time, I reasoned that since I had the 2008 box sets, I could afford to part with my original DVDs. Now I regret doing that, but I thought it was a good idea at the time.

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