The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What a great career!

I was catching up with The Oatmeal, one of my favorite online cartoon(ist)s, this evening. Mr. Oats pointed out that, as an internet-based author, he's not taken seriously--that is, if he says he's a writer, people are impressed until they learn that he works online rather than on paper, at which point they assume he's just a college kid with too much time on his hands. The idea of your job/career as a basis of your worth as a human is, I think, mostly an American concept. Europeans don't really seem to give a damn what you do; though they may ask as a conversation-starter sort of thing. If you tell a German that you shovel alligator dung for a living, he'll probably tell you about an interesting zoo he visited once. Tell an American the same thing, and you'll get "You're shitting me, right? Get it? Haha. No, seriously, what do you do?" Assuming nothing ridiculous happens in the next six days, I'm going back into the classroom. A bit earlier than I'd intended, but the time is right, and the position presented itself. When I read The Oatmeal's post, it made me think about the various careers I've had and the reactions I've gotten thereto. While I've always considered the Q&A format to be the most juvenile of journalistic methods, I'm also feeling a little juvenile, so I'll present these as hypothetical (not really) bar/party conversations I've had. Assume that each of these conversations starts shortly after introductions, when Random Person at Bar (henceforth RP) has just asked me what I do for a living. ME: ... I work at Thalhimers. (For those under 25 and/or not from Virginia, it was a big department store in downtown Richmond.) RP: That must be great! I bet you get GREAT discounts. ME: I do. RP: So which department do you work in? ME: The credit office. RP: (has lost visions of glamorous men's bathing suit model or guy who can get her makeup discounts) Oh. ME: ...I work at the Bank of Baltimore. RP: (Impressed, envisioning solid respectability)Oh! Must be great pay. Are you in the main office? ME: The pay's OK. No, I'm in the operations center. RP: (not quite so impressed) Well, still, that's a solid company. You'll really be able to build a great career path. Banking's a GREAT field. ME: Haha--sure hope so! Harsh Reality: The Bank of Baltimore was swallowed not once, but twice, and disappeared from the face of the earth, so no, it was a shitty career path. And it paid me about $21 K a year. If it had stuck around, I might have been able to build a decent career with a real salary, but it didn't. ME: ...I work at Johns Hopkins. RP: (glazed look, as if he's just met the Tsar of all the Russias) WOW! that's such a great school. You must LOVE it there! ME: It's OK. It's just temporary until I find a really good job. RP: But you must have a great job at Hopkins! ME: Haha! I'm just a clerical slave, but if I stay with the university, there are some cool positions that come up sometimes... Harsh Reality: If you grow up in Baltimore, you know that Hopkins really isn't THAT great of a school. Especially if you went to a much better school. What it IS great at doing is marketing itself--which is why the rest of the world thinks it's a great school. If you work there and you are not a doctor--and I mean the medical kind, not a mere PhD--you are considered subhuman. Oh, and it paid a whopping $24K. ME: ....I work at T. Rowe Price. RP: (look that says 'you must be crazy rich; I will totally sleep with you') Wow, that's GREAT. You must make really good money. ME: (thinking, 'wow, transparent much?)Umm, well, I'm still pretty much entry level, but I'm learning a lot. RP: (seeing illusion fade, but holding out hope)It's a great company though. And I hear their benefits are awesome. ME: (smiles and nods) Harsh Reality: Again, this job paid about $24K. Oddly, I really DO like investments; it's like playing Monopoly except that there are no little wooden hotels, and the Reading Railroad hasn't existed for fifty years. And if I'd stuck it out it would have been a good career. But: again, the pay was shite. They hire kids right out of college who are willing to work for peanuts because they want experience. Said kids think the benefits are great because they've never worked anywhere else and don't know better. Other investment companies call the place "Churn N Burn" because people burn out there after three years and go to a different firm or a different career entirely. Which is what I did... and became... ME: ...I'm a high school English teacher. RP: (warm, fuzzy look that bespeaks a missionary zeal) That's awesome. I have SO much respect for you guys! Teachers definitely do NOT get paid enough! ME: Actually, I wouldn't argue with a bigger paycheck, but Baltimore City pays pretty well. RP: Omigod, you teach in THE CITY???? Aren't you afraid? ME: (avoids telling random person that s/he is either a giant racist, a suburban asshat, or both) Why should I be? RP: But aren't the kids... ME: (cuts random person off) Teenagers like they are everywhere, yeah. I was a dick when I was a teenager; it's just sort of what teenagers do. RP: I really admire you. I've always thought it would be great to be a teacher, but... ME: You might enjoy it! Haha! (thinking 'you wouldn't last a week in my classroom, you little cocksnot.') The upshot here is that almost all of my various career paths have been something that, on the face of things, is Something of Value and Importance. Banking and finance are supposed to make a lot of money and therefore must be good careers. They're also supposed to be stable, but in reality, they're not at all. Anything to do with education is noble, although most Random Persons are more interested in Good Jobs that Make Money than they are in Noble Professions. Conversely, one of my best friends is a steamfitter. A RP at the local bar, talking to both of us, gave me the Warm Fuzzy business about being a teacher. When my friend said he was a steamfitter, RP did the head-tilt and curly-lip thing: "What's that?" He explained it to RP, who promptly dismissed him and went back to talking to me. Which was really dumb, because I might Do Something Important, but my steamfitter buddy--while he occsionally sets himself on fire at work and often has dirty hands--makes three times more than I will ever make as a classroom teacher. Because he is also a member of a very strong union, he's pretty much guaranteed to keep his job, and has actually good benefits. And while yes, education is important, so is having heat in the wintertime, plumbing and water pressure. When the hospital loses heat and your mom's in ICU, who's more important--the teacher, or the steamfitter? I was happy for the attention and all, but that chick really screwed herself out of a good deal by thinking a teacher's a better catch than a steamfitter.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

When You Are Engulfed in Do-Gooderism

Thanks to being awakened by fire engines in the middle of the night last night, and my subsequent morbid fascination with catastrophe, I ended up being awake at even weirder hours than usual, which means that my sleep schedule has been thrown off yet again. I do not understand why my body insists on doing this. I can sleep like a perfectly normal person, from, say, eleven to seven, for weeks on end, but then if that schedule is interrupted by one late night or perhaps a fire that gets me up mid-sleep, my body rallies with some kind of sadistic glee, thinking "Wahoo! Now we're going to wake up at weird times forever, because that is fun, and then you know what? We're going to be sleepy as hell during the middle part of the day when we're supposed to be all productive. This is so cool." FYI, body: this is not cool. It is irritating as hell. Stop it. Great: my body just flipped off my mind. I've got to get these two to some kind of relationship counselor. Anyhoo, after a few hours' worth of normal sleep, I woke up at 4AM, because evidently my body now believes that this is the fashionable hour to wake up. Unfortunately there is very little to do at 4AM--at least, very little that is legal--so I thought I'd read a little bit, and try going back to sleep. Also unfortunately, I don't really have any new reading material in the house, and I don't normally begin my annual read of Gone With The Wind until July or August. So, I turned to my friend the Intertubes. I figured I'd just Google (TM) something I liked, to see if I could find some excerpts, or something. I went with David Sedaris. I don't happen to have a copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames, so I searched for it. Naturally, there are about five hundred opportunities to buy it (I'll get around to that eventually), and a lot of reviews, but not much in the way of excerpts. Which I should probably have expected; obviously, you're supposed to buy these book-type things, not just get free reads online. But, I like reading book reviews anyway, particularly of things that I've read. I read the review from the New York Times, which, as per usual for that self-important litterbox liner, is positive but still condescending. If that damn paper reviewed the Crucifixion itself, they'd be happy about the whole Redemption thing, but tag it with something like "despite the beneficial aspect of salvation, the effect remained a jejune ploy for attention." I moved on from the Times. The next review was clearly an online-only sort of thing; not really an actual review, but a bullet-point list of things aimed at the sort of person who doesn't read book reviews because they don't really read, but probably have heard about various books on the bus, or in the office break room. In fact, it even includes (with bullets) pros and cons of the book. One of the "cons" was that the book is not appropriate for young readers. Since the cover art features a skeleton smoking a cig, I'm not sure who would have decided that it would be appropriate for young readers. While I've never been particularly protective of children, especially when it comes to reading matter, the idea that anyone might consider When You Are Engulfed In Flames as something for their grade-school kids just strikes me as odd. My parents, too, were not especially protective in that regard; they were both military people and I grew up in household where crap, fart, Goddamnit and the occasional shit were par for the verbal course. Nonethless, my childhood reading material stayed pretty firmly in the respectable realm of the Hardy Boys. Much as I enjoy his work now, Sedaris--had he been published at the time--simply wouldn't have made much sense to my ten-year-old self. I was always allowed to pick out my own books at the library; this one probably wouldn't have piqued my interest enough (despite the skeleton) that anyone would have needed to worry about its appropriateness. Mostly, what I find disturbing is that the reviewer felt the need to point out that the book isn't appropriate for young readers. Rather than the occasional vulgarity, I have a nasty feeling that the inappropriateness lies in the references to smoking. The huggybears have taken over our society to such a level that there's a smarmy Mrs. Grundy lurking behind every shelf at the library, stage-whispering "Won't somebody think of the children?" Protecting the children has become a national pastime to the point that it has eclipsed baseball--which, itself, was made safe for children when in the '70s major-league players were browbeaten into chewing gum instead of tobacco, since they were role models. There simply shouldn't be a need for anyone to warn parents that Sedaris isn't appropriate for children, because his writing is very clearly not aimed at children. What's next: warning parents that 120 Days of Sodom isn't appropriate for children? Anyone who can't figure that out should have been sterilized in the first place. Make Way for Ducklings isn't necessarily aimed at adults, but there's no review warning me of that--which is good, because I still think it's a charming book and I still have a copy of it. I wonder when someone will get around to censoring the Bible: after all, it gets pretty raunchy right in the first few pages. Do the math, people: Adam and Eve had two sons, and no daughters are mentioned, so...where did the rest of humanity come from, unless those two sons... I find that frankly more disturbing and not-appropriate-for-young-readers than Sedaris and deSade combined. Oh, the hell with it. I'm going to read The Tower Treasure. I can finish it in an hour, I should be able to fall asleep by then, and no one ever accused Franklin W. Dixon of being inappropriate for anybody.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Let me preface by saying that John O'Hara is one of my favorite authors. It is currently quite fashionable, in literary circles, to deride his work; we of the LitCrit circle apparently prefer stories that make absolutely no sense, a la Faulkner. Keep in mind, if you will, that As I Lay Dying contains a chapter that is comprised of one sentence: "My Mother is a fish." Evidently, in order to be meaningful, one must also be obtuse. Or, we champion the "raw, manly prose" of Hemingway, which is all effectively one simple subject/verb sentence after another--to paraphrase, "I got drunk. Bret got drunk. We drank red wine. The red wine was good." Ah, see, what skill he had! And so, O'Hara is out of fashion. Even in his own day, he wasn't loved by the LitCrits; Hemingway himself--he of those masterful monosyllabic sentences--had little use for his work. As an fan of short stories, I'm particularly fond of O'Hara's. He excelled in characterization; while Hemingway's endless parade of sad drunks were simply fictional sad drunks, O'Hara created sad drunks--and quite a few non-sad, non-drunk characters as well--who remind me of people I know. I believe this makes them what is popularly known as "accessible" characters; to me, they are good characters, because they could very well be real people. I ascribe to the idea that fiction should be believable; in order for me to invest myself in a story, I should be able to immerse myself in it as though it were reality. The reality of the story should become my own reality for the time that I spend reading it. Faulkner's crumbling aristocrats and dirty white trash characters, while based upon the sort of people that I know all too well, have no grounding in reality; they're caricatures. I can't accept them as any form of reality, even for the duration of my reading. It is thus with a heavy heart that I have lately finished one of O'Hara's last novels, Lovey Childs: A Philadelphian's Story. The book simply did not live up to the O'Hara that I have loved for years. Throughout his writing career, O'Hara was known for pulling few punches. He felt free to bring sexual tension into play when few others would, and issues of wealth (or lack of it) and social class are constant themes throughout his work. These come into play in Lovey Childs as well, but perhaps a bit too much so. There is fairly little development of the titular character and nominal protagonist. The reader learns not-very-much about Lovey; for the first half of the novel, her mother is the more developed character. At that, much of the mother's development revolves around her sexuality and a Lesbian affair with one of Lovey's boarding-school classmates. When finally Lovey takes center stage, her own characterization doesn't go much beyond one failed marriage, the murder of an acquaintance, and a one-nighter with a Catholic priest. Even one of O'Hara's familiar themes, that of social class, is toned down to the point of near-irrelevance. Lovey's family is set up as a standard-issue Proper Philadelphia one, but other than providing a point of reference, O'Hara did little with this. In his other work, the milieu of Old Philadelphia stands out and becomes a character in its own right. Here, it's effectively window-dressing; the novel could just as easily have been set in Akron. All in all, Lovey Childs isn't a bad read. Yet, I can't help but wonder if, at the tail end of his life (the novel was published in 1969; O'Hara died in 1970) the author perhaps had resorted to just grinding out another novel simply because that was what he was supposed to do.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Time for True Confessions.

I occasionally enjoy reading Stephen King. (Sweet rollerblading Christ, I hope none of my English profs down in Williamsburg are reading this.) Come on now--did you really think I spent all of my leisure reading with a cup of tea, a cat in my lap and a copy of Mansfield Park? Oh, wait. You did think so because sometimes I do. Pffft.

I enjoy King for the same reason that I enjoy horror movies. Sometimes a good scare is just damned fun. And really, there are worse novelists out there. Honestly, horror novels do tend to the schlocky, but in a world where Danielle Steele and Erica Jong exist, I think that my guilty pleasure isn't too bad after all. King's characters are usually pretty believable, and have that sort of Everyman quality that a good scary story needs. After all, if it's going to frighten you, you need to be able to imagine yourself on the streets of your hometown when, all of a sudden, everyone's undead. (Actually, I feel that way on the streets of Baltimore rather often.)

With this in mind, I checked out a copy of Full Dark, No Stars a few days ago. While I'm not going to claim that the four novellas within are successors to Fitzgerald, I'll give them some props. This is exactly the kind of book you want when you've decided that it's Saturday, you haven't got anything to do, and it would be fun to stay in bed until after noon with a book.

One of the stories involves a woman who makes an extremely unpleasant discovery about the man to whom she's been happily married for years. That one is by far the most interesting, and probably the most unsettling. The other three are, essentially, revenge stories. I'm never quite sure how I feel about revenge stories, anyway. Probably, we all like them because...well, don't we all fantasize about avenging perceived injustices, sometimes?

Of the three, though: One was still a fun story, but it was pretty much already done, if a little more artlessly, by the cult movie "I Spit On Your Grave." If you know the movie, then you won't need any more information. Another features a man who's secretly hated his "best friend" for decades and, with some supernatural help, is able to get back at the friend by destroying his "perfect" life. (And don't a lot of us want to do that, too?) The remaining story has an unreliable narrator (see, still an English teacher at heart, ain't I?) who cools his wife because she's pretty much of a nasty bitch, and suffers hideous consequences.

In all four stories, the reader ends up siding with the protagonist, despite their less-than-pleasant actions. And I think that, after all these years of surreptitiously enjoying King's work, I'm starting to understanding why my snooty profs wouldn't appreciate him. It's not that his plots are poorly-constructed, or his characters bad. It's just that...I've kinda read this before. Often. Or, in the case of one story, I saw it at a drive-in twenty-five years ago.

Also, in the bitchy-wife-gets-horribly-offed story, King uses a fictional setting that he's used in several other tales over the years. I don't like recurring devices in an author's work, and I particularly dislike having to buy into a recurring mythos. I didn't like it when Lovecraft did it with Arkham, and I'm not wild about King's Hemingford Home, either. When he's set stories in Derry, Maine, it's just a setting--but in the wake of The Stand, Hemingford has become this sort of magical touchstone. While I understand the idea of continuity, I find this one a bit contrived.

Big props, though, for his naming a "walk-on" character Rhoda Penmark. And big props for you, readers, if you know who Rhoda Penmark is.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Since Video Americain, the local video store of great randomness and much joy, went to join the Century and the Valencia in the Big Movie Studio in the Sky, my friend B. and I have been at a loss for what to do on quiet evenings. By "quiet evening," what I probably mean is that either no one's having a party, or I'm still feeling the aftereffects of a non-quiet evening the night before. Either way, sometimes it's just good to chill with a movie.

And, since both of us like old movies, or at least fairly offbeat new ones, Video Americain was just the right place. I always wondered how many actual new-release, popular type things they rented, since I'm fairly sure that most people in Charles Village are also weirdos who like B-horror from 1958.

So it was with great reluctance that we decided to explore Netflix, which at least promises to have a bazillion movies right at your fingertips. And it sort of does; but mostly they're DVDs and you can't just decide right now that you're going to watch a movie. Given my viewing patterns, I need right now.

They do have a fair amount of stuff that's immediately available and streaming, though, so we've tried a couple.

Last night's viewing: A Rage to Live.

You know, it wasn't a terrible movie. With a cast of also-rans in the Hollywood pantheon (Suzanne Pleshette and Ben Gazzara), it's better than I'd expected it to be.
See, here's the problem: I love the original novel, and you know the old saw--if you love the book, run away from the movie. In the case of A Rage To Live, it's not so much that they screw up the story, it's more that they didn't really use much of it at all. It's pretty much a movie named for a book that uses the book's characters, while doing away with 80% of the book's plot. Sort of the same way that Taco Bell is inspired by Mexican food but doesn't really have much to do with actual Mexican food.

John O'Hara's novel is fairly complex, so I'll not get into a plot synopsis, or worse, compare its plot with that of the movie; I've forced too many high school students to do that sort of thing to ever want to do it myself. Besides, since the movie's plot bears so few resemblances to that of the novel, it would be far more effort than it would be worth.

So, my question: Why--particularly in the mid-20th century--did Hollywood insist on doing this with novels? If they'd followed the actual plot of the book, it would still have been a pretty good movie. I have a feeling, since they cast minor stars in the main roles, that they were hoping to trade on the book's popularity anyway, rather than using it as a star vehicle. Thus, people probably went to see it because they'd liked the book, and probably did just what I did last night: spend most of the film thinking, "but that's not what happens!"

I don't want to imply that it's a bad movie, because it's not. It's simply that, other than character names and setting, it doesn't have much to do with the book. The same script could have been used, with different names and a different locale, without bothering to buy the rights to the novel. John O'Hara himself wouldn't have noticed any resemblance.