A Very Big Adventure

Nearly thirty years ago Tim Burton directed his first full-length film and began his long association with composer Danny Elfman, who up till that point was best known as the frontman for the fabulous New Wave band Oingo Boingo. The 1985 film was the cult favorite Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which was based on the character Pee-wee Herman created and portrayed by Paul Reubens. Reubens had been doing live stage shows based around the character since 1980. The film is a visual and auditory delight, full of supersaturated color, whimsy and wonder and set to Elfman’s terrific score. This Rube Goldberg-machine-like sequence featuring a rousing tune by Elfman is particularly memorable.

The film proved so popular that CBS approached Reubens to reprise the character in a television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. While it was created to engage and entertain children, it had a large adult fan base as well, and the show ran for five years. The opening theme to that show was written by Mark Mothersbaugh, frontman for the group Devo, and was sung by Cyndi Lauper.

They’re All The Same

Here’s another stylish and catchy French-language pop hit from Belgian singing star Stromae, whose moniker comes from switching the syllables in the word “maestro.” All of Stromae’s videos are little works of art. Earlier this year I shared his beautiful and moving video “Papaoutai,” which I first saw on French TV when visiting Paris last year.  “Tous Les Mêmes” (“They’re All the Same”) was another number-one hit in France and Belgium recently, and it mixes delicious Latin rhythms, a hip-hop sensibility, world-weary cynical lyrics about gender stereotyping and fun visuals.

Knocked Out by Whiplash

Whiplash Close

J. K. Simmons (left) and Miles Teller in Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash

On rare and special occasions, I will walk out of a movie theater quivering with excitement about something I’ve just seen, my heart racing and my synapses tingling as my hands fumble for my cell phone, so anxious am I to call someone right away to rave about a cinematic work of art. I’ve often seen performances that moved me and thrilled me, but when a whole film is crafted with power, tension, exceptional acting and directing, a fine script, masterful editing and a thrilling story arc, I walk away transported and inspired. I felt that way after seeing modern classics like The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Brokeback Mountain, and this week I felt that kind of thrill after seeing the new indie film Whiplash, which stars Miles Teller as a promising young jazz drummer and J. K. Simmons as his sadistic mentor and tormentor.

Whiplash was originally mounted as an 18-minute short film written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, which he presented to great acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in hopes of attracting enough funding to make it into a full-length film. The gambit worked, and the full feature film was created with a tiny $3.3 million budget and went on to win 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s top audience and grand jury awards. I must warn you, it starts out at a heart-palpitation-inducing level of energy and anxiety and only builds from there. My pulse was still pounding 20 minutes after the film ended—watching it is a bit like having a 107-minute anxiety attack, so don’t expect a light evening at the movies. The film editing by Tom Cross was outstanding—there was power, energy and intensity in every moment thanks to the way Cross and director Chazelle framed and cut each scene. The cinematography by Sharone Meir was also evocative, sometimes claustrophobically close, and together Cross, Meir and Chazelle built the energy levels during the practice and performance scenes to almost painful heights.

Chazelle was himself a jazz drummer in high school, where he had an intense music teacher who was the inspiration for the character of the hectoring, threatening music conservatory jazz band leader played with astonishing power by J. K. Simmons in Whiplash. Miles Teller, who impressed critics with his performances in The Spectacular Now and Divergent, was himself a talented, self-taught rock drummer in high school, but to play the driven, obsessive, arrogant young jazz drummer in Whiplash, the normally lighthearted, enthusiastic Teller had to learn the very different jazz drumming style. He became proficient enough to make audiences believe that his character Andrew Neyman might just be a prodigious, one-of-a-kind talent, a Buddy Rich for the new millennium. His drumming scenes are riveting, and as we watch him wince, writhe, sweat and even bleed all over his drums, we know we are watching a dangerous but exciting metamorphosis. That really is Teller playing, too, though performances were teased out of multiple takes and edited seamlessly by editor Tom Cross. For several years Hollywood insiders have touted Teller as one of the young actors to watch, and he will soon be part of a major franchise as he’s been given the role of Mr. Fantastic in the new Fantastic Four reboot. He’s a fine actor, and in Whiplash he also gave the most thrilling drum solo performance I’ve ever seen on film.


This film spoke to me with particular power because I myself had an intense, bullying, sometimes violent mentor as my first choir director when I was a child. I attended an elementary school famous for its excellent choir, and couldn’t wait till I got to fourth grade so I could audition. I had been steeped in music my whole short life, attending my mother’s voice lessons with her, listening to her sing and play piano while I took my baths each night, borrowing records from the library to enjoy with her, sitting in the orchestra pit with my mom while she accompanied local musical productions on the piano and turning the pages when she played and sang at weddings. My mother’s friend Owen Goldsmith was not only a choir director but also a composer and arranger, and Mom was the first person to play and sing many of his compositions, so I would sit on the floor of his home drawing or enjoying his books of Addams Family cartoons while the two of them made music late into the night. I sang at the piano with my mother most evenings from the time I was two till I went to college, and during all my visits home until she died years later. When we got together she sang harmony, I sang the melody, and we sang everything from show tunes to European art songs, folk songs to pop songs, hymns to novelty hits. When I was 13 she married a violinist and conductor, and yet more music and musicians came into our lives, including a wonderful evening spent with singer Marni Nixon in our home the night before she sang with my stepfather’s orchestra.

When I auditioned for the choir, the tall, trim, imposingly grim-faced Mr. Kerr had me sing a few intervals and melodies while he sat at the piano. He showed no emotion but, despite his taciturnity, he was pleased with me. I was invited to join both the primary and the honor choirs. Within minutes of my arrival at the first rehearsal, it was clear that I was in for more than I had bargained for.

Mr. Kerr ran the choirs in his spare time; it was an unpaid position but one he cherished. He was primarily a fifth grade teacher famous for his friend Roscoe, a wooden paddle which he was happy to use on the bottoms of children who displeased him. He made a show of adding notches to Roscoe each time he hit a child with it. By the 1970s, he had to secure the permission of parents before he could smack their kids, but several of the “difficult” kids in my class (including a deaf boy with ADHD) were regularly smacked while I was in his fifth-grade class.

Mr. Kerr was no less harsh in his responses to any failure by choir members to follow his strict and unwavering laws. If a child showed up late to a rehearsal for any reason, he was not allowed in. The doors were locked and he could not enter. If someone missed more than two rehearsals, she was dismissed from the choir, end of story. When  people talked back, they were yanked out of place by a red-faced, bug-eyed, looming Mr. Kerr, dressed down completely and were booted out of the choir.

Discipline was harsh and consistent and we lived in constant fear of his displeasure. But he was an exceptional musical director whose singing and performance instruction still informs my performances today. There was no excuse for being sharp or flat, for missing an entrance or ending a phrase sloppily. Every eye was on him at every moment. We all stopped at exactly the right moment, held our carefully shaped vowels and only cut them off with consonants at the very last second. Breath was properly supported and there was no whining nasality, there was no swooping up to notes, and there were no “blatty” broad vowels. Phrases were meant to be held no matter how hard it was to keep them going; there were no haphazard ragged breaths. If breaths needed to be staggered, he would tell us exactly how to stagger them through each section so there were never too many people breathing at the same time, and he knew when anyone, anywhere had made an error. Any child taking a breath in the middle of a word risked sudden death.

There were no fidgety hands or wandering eyes, no looking out at the audience, no breaking focus or slacking off on energy until the end of the song when he signaled to us that we could at last stand at ease. Every child wore a spotless uniform of cornflower blue skirts and white blouses for the girls and matching light blue blazers and black slacks for the boys. Each right hand grasped the matching left thumb and our hands were held in front of us in this folded position whenever we were on the risers. Knees were slightly bent so that we didn’t lock them and faint for lack of enough oxygen flowing throughout our bodies and to our brains—usually. When someone fainted during a performance, the show went on.

We sang intricate scat-phrased versions of Bach bourrées, learned many Latin hymns and movements from various major composers’ Masses, a score of spirituals, folk and holiday songs, and the occasional pop song. Each song was explained to us carefully; we had to think about what we were singing and why, what each inflection meant, what each phrase called for in order to get the point across. When we sang “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass” our plaintive cry nearly made us weep; sometimes we even made Mr. Kerr cry. When we sang in Latin or Hebrew, he made sure we knew what every word meant. When we sang folk songs or spirituals, Mr. Kerr put them in context and explained what place they had in the lives of those who had written and sung them. And yes, most of the songs we sang in this public school choir had religious overtones, but that was never questioned in the 1970s.

We were the top children’s choir in our division and we won gold medals and blue ribbons. We sang on the radio and on local television. I was the only soloist during the three years I was in the choir, and sat with my family on Christmas morning as we listened to me sing over my aunt’s stereo speakers. It was exciting and shocking to hear myself on the air, but Mr. Kerr wasn’t about to let it go to my head.

He was determined not to let any favoritism show; I may have been given a solo and permission to join the choir early, but I was not to be given any praise or encouragement beyond that. When out of fear I once responded to his telling me that he wanted me to sing another solo with a demurral, he said fine, no more solos ever. He never offered me another. He saw what I thought was a one-time refusal to sing due to nerves as a challenge to him and as an example of my going against his directive: he was my captain and I had refused a direct order, and now I was a bad example for the troops.

I worked so hard for him, but it was never enough. I was deathly afraid of letting down my teachers or my mother, herself a teacher in the same school district, so when I was in his fifth grade class as well as in choir, I made sure my grades were better than anyone else’s. Yet he dismissed my efforts and instead praised my closest academic rival, Ricky, when he spoke to my mother during a parent-teacher conference. He spoke admiringly of what a boy’s boy Ricky was, how he wasn’t a “pantywaist” like other boys. My mother came home disgusted and offered to move me out of his class. I begged her not to; I wanted to be in his choir no matter what, and I’d live through the humiliation and anxiety I felt every day in his class rather than have him look down on me for pulling out from under his iron thumb.

Mr. Kerr was an angry martinet, but he knew how to get the sound he wanted from his choir. He knew how to make us pay attention, how to make us understand what we were doing and why, how to keep our energy up and finally how to lead us to give captivating performances.

I still resent him for reducing children to tears, screaming at us and calling us names, for hitting us and humiliating us. It was wrong and damaging. But when I consider the lessons I learned from him about how to put a song across, how to follow direction, how to support a tone and project it, and how to work with a large group as if we were one entity—he was able to teach these skills like nobody else I have ever seen. Partly we worked as hard as we did out of fear, it’s true, but mostly I believe it was because of the intensity of his focus, his dedication, and his teary-eyed ecstatic face when we performed as he knew we could. I hated his methods and don’t know whether on the whole he did enough good with his amazing choirs to balance out the harm he did to so many fifth graders cringing under his tutelage. But all the kids I knew who studied music under him knew what it was to be real musicians. His methods were disturbing and I think often immoral, but there was no questioning the loyalty or the power of his choirs.

Director Chazelle takes the stereotype of the brutal directorial dictator further than my own choir director ever did, but the questions he makes us ask ourselves will be familiar to anyone whose child is involved in a rigorous, competitive activity. Whiplash requires that we consider whether the delirious joy of creating a masterpiece that pushes an artist beyond his previous limits justifies the monomaniacal arrogance, drive and willingness to risk everything it may take in order for that young person to achieve mastery. What are the acceptable limits to abuse, debasement and ego destruction of another in the service of pushing someone beyond all understood boundaries and into a whole new realm? Can the dehumanizing pain and occasional complete ego destruction that come with breaking someone down in hopes of driving him to new heights ever be justified? How much sacrifice, humiliation and defeat should we allow anyone, let alone a very young person, to experience in order to push the limits of creation or expression or athletic prowess?

Teller is the ostensible star of this film, but the greatest thrill of it comes from the tension between himself and his co-star J. K. Simmons, who is mesmerizing and horrifying as the charismatic band leader Terrence Fletcher. He draws young Andrew in, gives him hope and builds up his ego, and then systematically dehumanizes his young protégé, giving just enough encouragement to mess with the young man’s mind before again dragging him through Hell. This disturbing character’s occasional bursts of warmth and insight and his touches of vulnerability make him one of the great villains of cinema—it’s that touch of humanity in the monster that makes him even more frightening, because then we can catch a glimpse of ourselves in him. Simmons is already on the year’s short list of shoo-ins for an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, so fine is this performance and so crucial is it to the arc and power of the story.

But it is Teller who must convince us that he has the audacity, sheer talent and burning ambition to make stardom a possibility. His face is wonderfully expressive as he shows us the gamut of emotion from fear and insecurity to modest pride to rage to shame. Teller was in a life-threatening car crash in 2007 that left him with many noticeable scars on his face and neck, scars that were not covered up for this film, and which give him a raw, real, vulnerable quality that helps to balance the moments of extreme arrogance that his character must burrow into in order to do what he has to do, but which also alienates those with whom he craves connection.

In interviews, J. K. Simmons and Teller come across as bright, warm, incredibly likeable actors, and Simmons says they had a great chemistry on the set that made it easier for them to get through the harrowing scenes in which Simmons was abusing Teller. Teller has a light-heartedness that allowed him to let all the abuse roll off his back, and Simmons is a warm, funny, modest man whose strong features and booming voice belie the affable fellow underneath. He is used to playing supporting roles and is skilled at making his costars look good. He had a long career as a stage actor and singer. Simmons played Benny Southstreet in the 1992 stage revival of Guys and Dolls with Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher, which I was fortunate enough to see live on Broadway that year. He has a fine singing voice, which he demonstrated during an episode in which he played neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger in the prison-based television show Oz. Simmons is familiar for roles such as the father in the film Juno and as the spokesman in the Farmers Insurance ads. He’s a regular on the TV series The Closer, he plays newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and is the voice of Cave Johnson in the video game Portal 2. He only became a regular screen actor in his 40s after twenty years on the stage, and he credits Sidney Poitier, with whom he acted in one of his first film roles, for being a gracious and generous mentor to him.  Seattle area readers will enjoy learning that Simmons’ sister, Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill, is a writing professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and is director of the  Community Literacy Program.

Whiplash is named for the Hank Levy jazz composition that, along with Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” is at the musical center of the film. It is indeed a wild ride that threw my head back and made me dizzy. I can’t wait to see it again.

The Odd and Intriguing St. Vincent

Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?
If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me
What’s the point of doing anything?
What’s the point of even sleeping?

—from “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent

Annie Clark, who goes by the stage name St. Vincent, is an art rock musician who, like her sometime collaborator David Byrne, former front man of Talking Heads, is strange but appealing, disconcerting yet compelling. Clark is known for lacing her lyrics with multiple meanings. She says, “I like when things come out of nowhere and blindside you a little bit. I think any person who gets panic attacks or has an anxiety disorder can understand how things can all of a sudden turn very quickly. I think I’m sublimating that into the music.”

Clark grew up in Texas and still maintains a home there as well as in New York City. As a teen she was a roadie, then the tour manager and finally the opening act for her uncle, jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, and his wife, jazz singer Patti Cathcart, whom those in the Bay Area know as the popular duo Tuck and Patti. Clark’s stage name comes from the Nick Cave song, “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” which refers to the hospital in which poet Dylan Thomas died, and it’s also a nod to her great-grandmother, whose middle name was St. Vincent. She occasionally appears on the television show “Portlandia,” and her music has often been compared to that of British art-music stars Kate Bush and David Bowie.

In an interview in The Quietus, St. Vincent explained the thoughts behind “Digital Witness,” saying “Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior. We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress. In some cases, we have this total connectivity via the internet but if we are not careful it can actually disconnect us more than we know. I’m curious as to what that is going to lead to.”

The Strength That Comes from Acknowledging Frailty

Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey
Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey

I have a deep fascination with history and historical objects that make the past more accessible and understandable to us today. I often incorporate them into my art, writing and home environment. Not a day goes by that I don’t consider how the past (either my own or the time before my existence) has shaped me. I’m always asking myself how I can bring the things and the knowledge of the past into the light and share its importance and meaning with those around me who may not know how many wonders have been created, shared, discovered and often lost. I incorporate bits of history into my world wherever I can. I fear the idea of people losing what has gone before, or failing to notice connections and patterns that could help them avoid repeating the same errors others have already made. I’m also saddened when people live without context, unaware of their place on the continuum of history.

I think each day of the people and relationships I have lost, and of the sadness I feel about the fact that part of my history died with them, too. But I also feel grateful that I have given my own child a context for her life and mine so that I can continue to enjoy my relationships with those who have gone before us by relating their stories to my daughter and letting them become touchstones and stories and elements that bind my past to her future.

Something I’m so glad to have learned along the way is that one’s relationship with people who have died (or who have simply disappeared from our lives, if not from the world) doesn’t end with their death; we can still learn from and about them, change the way we feel about them, and grow in our understanding and acceptance of (or sometimes anger toward) them long after they’re gone. My relationships with my own very difficult parents have changed a lot in the 13 and 20 years since their respective deaths. I’m grateful that despite the finite nature of their own histories, they are still a part of my ongoing history. They live on through me. People can even have meaningful relationships with those who died before we were born. Yes, those are one-way relationships, but they can still teach and inspire and help to form us, and I find that so comforting. I love that both my mother and my long-dead grandmother are living presences in my daughter’s life through the stories that I share about them. Their history becomes part of my daughter’s own life.

I suppose studying history also reminds me of how fragile and temporal we and all of our creations are, and how even the greatest among us is or was human and flawed, scared and mortal, too. Perhaps that’s why I so love cemeteries and memento mori paintings and mourning jewelry. That fascination sounds morbid, but it’s not, really. It’s not a love of death that I feel when I see such things; it’s a love of the touching human reminders people build to those who have moved them and shaped them. These are reminders to be grateful, to make the most of what exists now, to share and expand on love, to express what should be expressed, to recognize how fleeting it all is, and to acknowledge just how much power each of us has to affect others, power that we don’t like to admit that we hold because it’s scary to think of wasting such a precious thing the way we all do every day.

In the 1970 film Patton starring George C. Scott, General George S. Patton shares the following, haunting thought, which has always stuck with me: “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph — a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

I think one of the great discoveries that has come with time for me has been learning what tender little people we all are inside, and that even the most assertive and confident-seeming among us has doubts and failures and awkward unguarded spots that the armor doesn’t fully cover. There is comfort in that, not just because it humanizes great characters, but because their successes actually seem greater when I consider that they were accomplished by life-sized people who had to navigate the world just as I do, yet they found ways to do great things despite their very human limitations. They weren’t giants walking the earth, they were humans stuck in failing bodies challenging themselves to think in fresh ways and act where others only pondered. Knowing that the people I most admire are not immune from human frailty helps me to feel more compassion for them, and sometimes for myself.

David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow”

Speed the Plow

Recently I had a front-row seat at a performance of David Mamet‘s play “Speed-the-Plow” in London. The play has only three performers: Richard Schiff, best known for his role as Toby Ziegler in TV’s The West Wing; British actor Nigel Lindsay (the Jewish terrorist Levi in HBO’s exceptional miniseries Rome), whom I knew was British before the play began but whose American accent, gestures and delivery were so perfect that I doubted my own ears and eyes; and Lindsay Lohan, the ostensible star of the show, whose solo headshot graces every poster for the play.

Despite some early bad press over botched previews in which Lohan embarrassed herself by being unable to remember her lines, London reviewers have been pretty kind to her. Her role of Karen, a temporary secretary, was first performed on Broadway in 1988 by Madonna. Lohan was perfectly adequate in the first act of the show, but was painfully outclassed by her two costars—they knew better how to deliver Mamet’s rapid-fire but sometimes awkward dialog. Lohan was featured more prominently in the second act, when she was completely overshadowed by Schiff. She began speaking at an intensity level of about eight and kept her delivery right there throughout the act, never pulling back and leaving herself no way to build drama, and delivering her lines in awkward ways that showed a lack of forethought about the meaning of her words, which made them feel especially stagey. By starting out at that level of energy and earnestness, she left her performance nowhere to go. She missed all the dramatic dynamics that would have given her room to move and would have made her speeches feel more like actual dialog. She remembered her lines, but delivered many of them unnaturally, underscoring the difficulty some actors have with Mamet’s idiosyncratic rhythms and old-fashioned phrases.

David Mamet is a much better writer of male than female dialog, emphasizing as he usually does a particularly hardboiled hypermasculinity, so poor Lohan was already at a disadvantage. (Think of Alec Baldwin’s famously testosterone-fueled “steak knives” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross and you’ll get an idea of Mamet in his element.) Schiff reacted beautifully in every moment, with subtle emotions flickering across his face and just the right body language to make me feel like he was hearing those words for the first time. The third act brought Lohan back onto the scene only briefly, while Nigel Lindsay and Schiff got to share the powerfully angry chemistry of two middle-aged men engaged in a career-defining battle of wills. Their scenes together were compelling as they bantered back and forth in the way of jaded, hardnosed, behind-the-scenes players in the movie business, their strength and status shifting hugely during the course of the story. These men are “actors’ actors,” the sorts of performers who react perfectly naturally in the moment and make their costars look better in the process. Their mastery disappears into the seeming effortlessness of their performances.

Lohan was not bad, but she didn’t show the discipline required to have learned the lines well enough to seem to forget them, as the best actors do. Hers was not a subtle performance. And while there’s a great deal of macho bombast in the two male performers’ roles, they also have to show range and vulnerability behind their cynical posturing. The opportunity to see whether Lohan crashes and burns in live performance may fill the seats (and there were certainly many young female fans of hers in the audience and around the stage door waiting for her as I passed it after the play), but what made the evening worthwhile was the skill shown by her extraordinarily talented costars.

Taylor Swift: Deeper Than You Think


Recently I saw Taylor Swift interviewed on The Graham Norton Show, and she was charming and poised though she seemed a bit ditzy. She held her own, though, when John Cleese repeatedly and rudely interrupted her; she waited patiently as he totally derailed her interview and stole her segment after having had a whole segment of his own, and then she moved on with professionalism and courtesy. She has excellent manners, I thought.

The following day I heard an interview with her on NPR that showed evidence of the articulate, tactful young woman that I’d heard in previous interviews. I was impressed by her self-awareness and by her respect for and deep understanding of her primary audience demographic: teen and preteen girls. The interviewer said, “You have a huge platform among a very vulnerable, impressionable set of the population. And I wonder if you think about turning your lens outward, turning it away from the diary page, and sending a broader message to girls who would be really receptive to hearing about big ideas and the big world that’s outside. … Do you ever think about writing about other experiences, things that might turn girls away from themselves in a different way?”

Swift replied: “We are dealing with a huge self-esteem crisis. These girls are able to scroll pictures of the highlight reels of other people’s lives, and they’re stuck with the behind-the-scenes of their own lives. There’s nothing that’s gonna turn girls away from themselves at age 12. I think that it’s really important that I speak about things in interviews that I’m passionate about. I have brought feminism up in every single interview I’ve done because I think it’s important that a girl who’s 12 years old understands what that means and knows what it is to label yourself a feminist, knows what it is to be a woman in today’s society, in the workplace or in the media or perception. What you should accept from men, what you shouldn’t, and how to form your own opinion on that. I think the best thing I can do for them is continue to write songs that do make them think about themselves and analyze how they feel about something and then simplify how they feel. Because, at that age — really at any age, but mostly that age — what can be so overwhelming is that you’re feeling so many things at the same time that it’s hard to actually understand what those emotions are, so it can turn to anxiety very quickly. I’m 24. I still don’t feel like it’s a priority for me to be cool, edgy, or sexy. When girls feel like they don’t fit into those three themes, which are so obnoxiously thrust upon them through the media, I think the best thing I can do for those girls is let them know that this is what my life looks like. I love my life. I’ve never ever felt edgy, cool, or sexy. Not one time. And that it’s not important for them to be those things.”


In Flanders Fields



In Flanders Fields

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

One of the most-often-quoted poems of what was for many years known as The Great War, “In Flanders Fields” was written by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in 1915. The poem was inspired by the funeral of McCrae’s friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. “In Flanders Fields” was first published on December 8, 1915 in the London-based magazine Punch. The poem refers to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers. The popularity of the poem led to the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.


Dulce Et Decorum Est


To my mind, Wilfred Owen’s account of a mustard gas attack, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” is the greatest of First World War poems. The title comes from an ode by the ancient poet Horace, who said “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”: It is sweet and right to die for your country. Owen’s account questions the sweetness and rightness of death in battle.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen died just before the end of the war. His parents received news of his death on Armistice Day.