This post runs a bit longer than usual, because I wrote much of it while re-watching the film for the first time in many years. And I watched it because after reading this review of a Ray Bradbury story that was clearly inspired by Ray Harryhausen (the special effects genius) I just had to. If you don’t need the detailed commentary, you might want to scroll on down to my Conclusion.
Jason and the Argonauts is based on the Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Jason was the son of the king of Thessaly. His parents and at least one of his sisters was killed by the usurper Pelias. Pelias misunderstands the prophecies of his soothsayer, and tries to eliminate all of the heirs of the king of Thessaly. Just before he murders the eldest daughter of the king in the temple of Hera, a shadowy figure who he believes is a priestess (though she is actually the goddess Hera herself) tries to warn him away from this path. When he kills the king’s eldest daughter anyway, Hera tells him that one day a man with only one sandal will usurp him. She also warns him that if he kills Jason, the son of the king himself, that he will also be destroyed. Then she vanishes, along with the the third child, another daughter of the king.
Before I summarize the rest of the plot, there are a whole lot of subplots that were left dangling in this movie implying that there would be a sequel, and I’m just a little bit annoyed that no one has done anything with that.
Anyway, the story that follows is frequently intercut with scenes of Zeus and Hera (and a couple of other Olympian gods) discussing the happenings on Earth. In some of those scenes human history is portrayed as a board game between the gods. It is an interesting conceit that is used in a lot of other mythological-based movies in later years. I think this one happens to play out better than many of the others.
Back to Jason’s story. Twenty years after the bloody coup, King Pelias is riding his horse near a river, is thrown from said horse, and a passing stranger jumps into the water to save him. The stranger loses his shoe in the process of saving the man, and quickly identifies himself as the long lost son of the previous king on his way to take back his throne. Perlias realizes who Jason is before he introduces himself, because he has spent twenty years waiting for the man with only one sandal. Jason, on the other hand, never asks the name of the man he rescues. And never becomes the slightest bit suspicious that the man he rescues has a camp staffed with a lot of guards in royal armor and a rather large number of scantily clad entertainers. Nor does Jason, who is sworn to kill the man who killed his father and has been king of Thessaly for 20 years, recognize the only son of said king when he is introduced to him by name.
Despite all of this obliviousness, we are still rooting for Jason who wants to pursue another prophecy that Pelias ignored: that at the end of the world there is a tree, and hanging from the branches of that tree are the skull and skin of a golden ram with magickal powers that will ensure a long and successful rule to the man who captures it. Jason holds a contest, and several characters from Greek myth win a spot on his crew. Because the shipwright Argos builds his ship, he names it the Argo, and with a figurehead that looks like the goddess Hera, they set out looking for the Golden Fleece.
Hera is only allowed to help Jason five times, and Jason manages to burn through those five helps in less than half the movie. This gets into one of those infuriating questions, because part of the set up of Jason’s life from back when he is a baby is Zeus decrees that Jason will kill Pelias and take back his father’s kingdom. So why the heck does Zeus tell Hera she can only help Jason the five times?
I need to be honest here: those questions didn’t occur to me during the dozens and more times I watched this show on various local TV stations from the mid-60s through the 70s. The incredible battles with the giant bronze statue of Talos, the harpies, the seven-headed hydra, and the skeletal warriors all loomed much larger than any plot inconsistencies. Special effects master Ray Harryhausen owned this movie, and many of his special effects still stand up 56 years later.
One of the men who competes in Jason’s ad hoc Olympics and gets a berth in the crew is Pelias’ son, Acastus. Once again, it’s unclear why, when all the greatest athletes and warriors of Greece come to compete in the games, no one recognizes Acastus as King Pelias’ son and happen to mention that fact? Anyway, Jason now has a large crew of bronze-skinned manly men. About half are dressed in tunics with extremely short skirts, like Jason. The other half in loincloths that look kind of like baggie briefs.
The Argo sets sail, without a clear idea of where they are going, and their provisions run low. Hera directs Jason to the Isle of Bronze and warns them to take only food and water. Hercules and Hylas (who had become friends during the games when Hylas defeated Hercules at a discus challenge using a bit of cleverness) find a valley filled with giant bronze statues, in the base of which are hidden giant pieces of jewelry. Hercules decides to take a giant brooch pin because he thinks it will make a fine javelin, and the statue Talos comes to life and starts chasing them. The giant looms and menaces the entire Argo crew. When they try to flee, he intercepts the boat at the harbor mouth, shaking all of the men out of the boat and braking the ships mast and the figurehead of Hera.
Hera tells Jason to look to Talos’s ankle for his weakness. In the next fight, while the other Argonauts yell and scream and run around distracting the giant, Jason sees a stopcock in the ankle of the giant, runs forward and unscrews it. Even when I was a kid, I never understood why Talos simply stands there, staring down at the Argonauts and sort of swiping at them with his sword. Why didn’t he just start stomping on them like ants? Anyway, magical fluid pours out of Talos’ ankle, the bronze statue goes stiff and falls over, apparently dead. Also, clearly crushing Hylas.
But somehow the rest of the crew never saw that, so we are given to understand that during whatever length of time the subsequent shipbuilding montage takes place, Hercules wanders around yelling out Hylas’ name. Once the ship is repaired, Hercules refuses to leave without Hylas. The rest of the crew refuses to leave without Hercules, so Jason has to call on Hera again. She warns him that this is the last time she can help, but he insists, so she addresses the crew directly, explains that Hylas is dead and that Hercules now has another destiny to pursue, and that they must sail to another island and consult the blind prophet Phineus.
So off they go. We see Phineus (played by Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor) living a sad existence in a ruined temple. People from a nearby village bring him food every day, but harpies attack him each day, eating the food themselves and leaving him only scraps. This is how Jason and his crew find him. They are all, by the way, now dressed in matching white tunics (still with extremely short skirts) and matching armor. I have no idea where they were keeping this change of clothes, because the ship, as depicted, is barely big enough to hold the crew sitting at the oar seats. There aren’t any cabins below decks or anything. No wonder they ran out of supplies!
Anyway, Phineus explains that he misused his gift of prophecy and Zeus cursed him with the harpies. Phineus will only help Jason if he frees him of the harpies. So the crew arrange a trap, then build a cage for the harpies. Now that Phineus can eat in piece (and torment the harpies), he tells Jason that the fleece is on the Island of Colchis, which can only be reached by sailing between the clashing rocks (which destroy any ship that sails through). Phineus’ vision doesn’t tell them how they can survive, but he gives him an amulet that he says is the only other help he can provide.
They sail again, find the clashing rocks. They aren’t sure what to do, then see another boat sailing between the rocks, and then see boulders start falling down and destroy the ship. Jason insists the gods want them to sail through, so the Argonauts start rowing. The boulders start falling all around them. There are a lot of frightened reaction shots. Jason gets angry and throws Phineus’ amulet into the sea.
Up on Olympus, Zeus is smugly watching the ship in danger and says something to Hera about it being too bad that she can’t intervene any more. Hera moves a piece on their game board, a sort of merman figure that looks suspiciously like the amulet Jason just threw into the sea. Triton, son of Poseidon, rises up out of the sea and holds the rocks back. The Argo sails under one of Triton’s armpits, and all is well. I think we’re supposed to assume that Triton’s arrival doesn’t violate the rule that Hera could only intervene five times because Phineus’ amulet was involved. It’s not clear.
Anyway, they find the wreckage of the other boat, and clinging to the wreckage is a woman. And thus we meet the third female character out of the entire film who has lines of dialog! Medea tells Jason she was sailing from Colchis (though not why) and tells him that the King of Colchis is Aeëtes. When they make shore, Medea tells them which way to go to reach the city, then walks off in a different direction, telling them she must go a different way.
After Jason meets Aeëtes, the king invites him and the Argonauts to a feast, and we see Medea again and learn that she is the high priestess of Hecate. Midway through the feast, Aeëtes reveals that he knows Jason has come to steal the fleece, because Acastus has betrayed them. This is when Jason finally learns that Acastus is the son of Pelias. So the Argonauts are locked up and sentenced to die. Medea goes to the idol of Hecate, her goddess, and asks what to do. The statue doesn’t answer.
This is another place that as a kid I was trying to figure out why we don’t see Hecate. Why isn’t she up there with Zeus and Hera and Hermes and the other gods watching all of this?
Medea decides that she can’t betray her heart, so she drugs the guards, steals the keys to the jail cells, and lets Jason and his crew out. I have to pause here to say that as a kid I had no problem believing that Medea had fallen in love with Jason during the voyage. As an adult I have some questions, though. I mean, yes, Jason looks really hot in that mini skirt, but there was an entire crew of men, most of which are all equally hot and just as sexily going about their nautical duties in equally revealing tiny skirts.
Doesn’t matter. While Medea was arranging the jailbreak, Acastus has snuck out of the palace and gone to the sacred tree to steal the fleece himself. I guess he was planning to take the Argo and sail it all by his lonesome back home to dad? We never learn the details of his plan. Medea leads Jason and his crew to the tree, where they are confronted by the 7-headed hydra. And this is when we see that Acastus has already been killed by the hydra. Jason manages to stab the hyrda in the heart. They take the fleece and flee.
Aeëtes and a bunch of soldiers are closing in. One soldier shoots Medea with an arrow. Jason uses the fleece to heal her. And all of the enemy soldiers apparently just stand around waiting to see what the fleece does? It isn’t clear. Jason picks two of his crew to face Aeëtes and send Medea with the others to fetch the boat. I don’t know if Aeëtes never thought to seize the ship, or if we’re expected to assume that the Argonauts have to fight to get it back.
Anyway, Aeëtes had called on Hecate when he found the dead hydra and saw that the fleece was no longer there, and fire had come down from heaven and burned the hyrda. Aeëtes had his soldiers gather the teeth of the hydra. Now that he has confronted Jason, who is accompanied by only two of his crew, does Aeëtes have his larger group of soldiers attack? No, he monologues for a moment, then throws the teeth onto the ground. From the ground seven skeletal soldiers armed with swords and shields rise, and they attack.
This fight scene seems to be everyone’s favorite part of the movie. And it is fun. As far as it goes. Jason’s two companions get killed. So far as we know only one skeleton is taken out when its skull is chopped off. But the way Jason “defeats” the remaining six is to leap off a convenient cliff into the sea. He survives the dive, and the Argo is conveniently nearby. The skeletons jumped off the cliff chasing Jason, and apparently despite being magical skeletons, they don’t float.
Jason has reached the ship. He and Medea kiss, and we cut to Olympus where Zeus tells Hera to let them enjoy this victory while they can. There is a bit of philosophizing, then the end credits roll.
The film follows the myths rather more faithfully than one would expect from Hollywood. The section with Pheneus and the harpies comes straight from the original Greek saga. Traditionally the Golden Fleece was guarded by a dragon whose teeth would transform into skeletal warriors. Talos (who in the original isn’t encountered until after Jason has obtained the fleece and is sailing home) is killed by the removal of a plug in his ankle. The Greek Tragedy trope that the more you try to fight destiny or prophecy, the worse things go for you is illustrated in some of the character arcs. It could be argued that Medea’s inexplicable quick fall for Jason comes from the myths, too, since in the saga, Hera persuades Aphrodite to send Eros to make Medea fall for Jason, and much later when Medea finds Jason plotting to marry another woman, Jason reveals that he knew Medea was acting under the spell from Eros the whole time.
Even without knowing the myth, viewers saw many, many hints for a sequel in the script. I mean, it ends with Zeus literally saying that the rest of the adventure is yet to come.
It’s clear the studio was hoping this would be a hit and they could have some sequels. And clearly they would have had to bend the myths further to do so. In actual Greek myth Jason never becomes king. He and Medea try, but things don’t work out. Medea tricks Pelias’ daughters into killing their father, but Acastus becomes the King of Thessaly (because he doesn’t die on his voyage with Jason in the myths). Jason and Medea have a falling out that gets even bloodier than the murder of Pelias. Eventually Jason and his new allies do kill Acastus, but Jason’s son is the one who ends up king. And it’s all very messy.
Alas, the show, while not being a flop, exactly, didn’t do that well in theaters, as I mentioned above. But the film influenced other mythic films to follow. The much later film, Clash of the Titans depicted the gods of Olympus moving mortals, monsters, and other gods around a map of the world as chess pieces on a board precisely the same way this film did.
The film’s big cultural impact derives from being played so frequently on television during the 60s and 70s. Back in the day when most people had access to only three or four channels, it was possible for a movie like this to be put in heavy rotation and get seen by a large segment of the population. So there are a lot of people, maybe 40 years old and up, who have very fond nostalgic feelings for this film. While watching it this week I found it still a fun popcorn movie, though it requires a pretty big dose of credulity to overlook some plot details. To be fair, those inconsistencies aren’t worse than many other movies—particularly those made in that era. the fight scenes with the stop motion monsters are a bit cheesy—in many of the shots the harpies and the hydra look like they are made out of brightly colored modeling clay. The bronze giant and the skeletal warriors stand up a lot better.I made more than a few comments above about the skimpy costumes the men wear throughout the film. And I have to confess that that part contributed to the film’s appeal to me, even if I didn’t realize why when I was very young. I do quite clearly remember thinking it interesting how many of the men were shown with hairy chests. In other movies and TV shows at the time, if men were shown shirtless, their chests were almost always completely hairless. It is worth pointing out that while Medea is often dressed in a flimsy diaphanous gown that doesn’t conceal much, most of the men in the movie are showing a whole lot more leg than any of the women ever do.
The film had a big impact on my conception of mythic stories and epic fantasy. Until I re-watched it this week, I didn’t realize how much of what Zeus and Hera had to say about the nature of the relationship between the gods and humans had soaked into my own feelings on those topics. Just as the way prophecy is treated in the story has continued to inform my own fantasy writing on the topic. And the fact that most guys my age at the time loved the film, it was one of the few bits of fantasy I could talk about at school without invoking the teasing and bullying. Thank goodness I never mentioned those hairy chests, though!
The film was released in a time before Best Dramatic Presentation had become a regular category of the Hugos. Also during an era when any work published in the 12-ish months prior to the actual WorldCon was eligible. And because of its release dates, it would have technically been eligible in either 1963 or 1964. It didn’t make the short list in ’63 (and the category was No Awarded that year). And the category wasn’t offered the next year. Given that the film didn’t become popular until later, that isn’t a surprise. Which is too bad, really. I think many would agree with me that the skeleton fight alone would have deserved all the awards.
Fortunately, while my father was a horrible dad, I lucked out with two wonderful grandfathers, and one stupendous great-grandfather who played important parts in my childhood. While I’ve written about my two grandpas before, I’ve only mentioned my great-grandpa in little tidbits. So, for this Father’s Day, let’s remedy that… Read More…
First, Birds: So, the saga of the bird feeder continues. Quick refresher: over a year ago I put up a bird feeder on our veranda in a spot where I could watch birds that visited it from my living room window. We got so many birds coming to the feeder that my husband decided we needed a web cam so I could get pictures more easily and/or check on it from the office. Much to my delight the number of birds kept increasing, we had cool species like Stellar Jays showing up, it was very cool. Until just before Halloween, when the amount of birdseed consumed each day suddenly dropped for, then a few days later I learned why as an immature Cooper’s Hawk landed on my railing. Over the course of the next many weeks I witnessed the hawk snatching chickadees and juncos and sparrows out of midair in the vicinity of the feeder and then all the little birds stopped coming.
The level of birdseed in the feeder didn’t go down between the last time I topped it off just before Thanksgiving up to New Year’s Day. I cleaned out the feeder and tried scattering some feed on the deck and different locations, because I still very occasionally saw little birds on the deck. I cleaned out the feeder and put a very teeny amount of seeds in it.
Since then, I have seen pairs of small birds (usually pairs of juncos, but occasionally a pair of chickadees) show up on the veranda together and they have all adopted a similar strategy: one bird perches in one of my larger lavender plants, or on the branch of a nearby tree, the other hops around on the deck for a couple of minutes picking up seeds. Then the one that has eaten will flit to the spot where the buddy bird as been keeping watch, and the buddy bird flits down to the deck to peck at seeds. They trade off like that, one standing lookout the other eating, a few times before flying away.
Very, very occasionally a pair will take turns at the actual feeder, but it is clear that they all feel safer down on the deck where they have the planters and other things as cover.
I haven’t seen the hawk since late November.
I’ll keep scattering birdseed on the deck for now.
Dining: When we moved from Ballard to Shoreline, we decided to try to make some changes in the way we did things around the house. One of those changes was that I wanted us to sit down and eat one meal together at the table every day. The old place had not had adequate counter space or cabinets, and the way the kitchen was arranged, our table wound up being supplemental counter and storage space. So we almost never could clear it off enough to have a meal at the table. We instead would use the TV trays (or folding tray tables, as some people call them), or just each of us eat separately at our computers.
I admit that one reason that I wanted to make this change was the incredible guilt I felt at the dozens and dozens of tablecloths I found squirreled away in a couple of the closets. Tablecloths that had never been removed from their packaging. At least two of which I recognized as ones that were bought before my late husband, Ray, died. In 1997.
Michael had one change to my original proposal that we start using the tablecloths and eating at the table: he wanted to haul all the vinyl tablecloths to Value Village, and only use actual fabric cloths. Mostly because he just preferred fabric ones. Anyway, we got rid of all the vinyl ones, which left us with only a couple of fabric ones. We have since acquired a number more, some of them I think of as seasonal, some aren’t.
But we have eaten at least one meal at least six days out of every week at the table since moving. And the fact that on weekends we often eat two or three at the table in a single day, I think lets us off the hook for the nights that we go out instead of eating at home.
One of the things that means is that we have to keep at least half the table clear most of the time. That is a bit of a challenge, given that the table is really the only horizontal surface of any size near the front door, but we’ve been doing it.
So far, whenever we are cleaning for company, it never takes more than a few minutes to clear the table, pull off the tablecloth, wipe down the table, and pick out and deploy a clean cloth. And I can’t tell you what kind of happy goosebumps I get every time.
Haunted by Expectations: We have a certain number of habits about how we clean and keep the house that cause the voices of my grandmothers to occasionally admonish me. Both my nice Grandma and evil Grandma had very strong feelings along the lines of “a place for everything and everything in its place” and it’s amazing how much of that stuff got engraved in my neurons.
So, for example, t-shirts and laundry. A few years ago, thanks to a care label that came on some t-shirts we bought on Red Bubble (each with artwork that had be created by friends), when I did laundry I would pull those t-shirts out of the wash while transferring laundry from washer to dryer. Those t-shirts were put on broad hangers and hung on the shower curtain rod to dry.
About six months after I started doing that, I noticed that some other cute graphic t-shirts which we had purchased as a sci fi con around the same time as the bunch from Red Bubble were noticeably much more faded. As in, they looked years older in comparison. So I stopped running any graphic t-shirts in the dryer. They all get pulled out and hung up on the shower curtain.
When I started doing this, Sunday was our laundry day, and the t-shirts were often still damp when we needed to shower Monday morning, so Michael would move all the hangers to the end of the towel rod & take his shower (since he went in to work much earlier than I). And then I would, after finishing my shower, move them all back up to the shower curtain rod and spread them out to finish drying.
At our new place, for various reasons, Friday evening is when I do laundry, and the t-shirts wind up hanging in the bathroom all weekend. If one of us decides we need a shower, me move them, then put them back. Until Monday morning.
Neither of us puts the t-shirts away Monday morning, mind you. We just leave them hanging in a bundle on the towel rod. Michael often chooses one of the shirts hanging there to wear to work that day. While I don’t wear t-shirts to the office, on Monday night, when I come home and peel off the office drag, I’ll pick a t-shirt, sometimes from the ones hanging up, somethings from my drawer, to wear while kicking around the house.
The upshot is that the t-shirts that were washed last laundry day often hang in a bundle on one of the towel rods all week long. Unless one of us is suddenly inspired to put them away, the pile slowly dwindles as we wear some from it, but there are usually still about three hanging on the towel rack by the next Friday evening when I carry up a new pile of damp t-shirts from the laundry room.
Both my Grandmothers would be appalled. My Nice Grandma, if she saw it, would give me that look and ask, “You know, it only takes a couple of minutes to put things away, right?” Whereas my Evil Grandma would say something like, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t expect you to understand how important cleaning is, since your mother was atrociously bad at housekeeping. I remember one time…” and a story implying that my mother was not only insane but also morally corrupt on a Lovecraftian level would follow.
And some mornings while I’m rushing to get ready to work, I hear one of the other of those voices in my head, wanting to know why I don’t just put the t-shirts away.
And while my Nice Grandma’s version of the question does sound perfectly reasonable, we often forget that the inverse of the question is just as reasonable: “What is the harm in leaving them hanging there, clean, dry, and within easy reach, for a few days?”
Yeah, putting them away (folding and separating them into my chest of drawers of Michael’s, putting the empty hangers into the hall closer) is probably only a two-spell-slot task… most mornings I don’t know how many slots I’m going to need that day. And getting myself dressed and out the door with my lunch packed and everything else I need for the day are tasks that much be done. Putting away the t-shirts? Not an imperative.
Some times I realize I have the slots and the time and let’s get this done now. And that’s great. But I have to remember that it is okay to prioritize.
I have mentioned many times that I am a packrat from a long line of packrats. Other people might refer to us as hoarders, and certainly some family members leaned more toward that end of the spectrum than others. After Grandma died, for instance, my mom and her older sister found at least five “spare” microwave ovens squirreled away among the thousands of boxed up things stuffed in every closet of Grandma’s home. One of those microwaves my Aunt recognized immediately, and not just because of the scorch marks, as one that my Aunt had thrown away when it suffered a major electrical problem.
For years after Grandma’s death, mom and her sister have been ocassionally producing weird things that were packed up at Grandma’s that they hope that one of us will take and use.
My maternal-maternal great-grandfather (who insisted all of us kids call him ‘Shorty’ rather than Great-grandpa) died when I was 14 years old. At the time he and Great-grandma lived in a little house that was about a three minute bicycle ride from our home. Grandma and all of her brothers and a huge number of the grandchildren (Mom’s first cousins) and great-grandchildren (my second cousins) came to the small Colorado town for the funeral and to help with the arrangements. Great-grandma went back to southwest Washington to live with Grandma, then she died a year later.
Because of a couple of photographs, we know that during the first Christmas after Shorty’s death, that Grandma and Great-grandma decorated a tree in Grandma’s house with a combination of Great-grandma’s ornaments and Grandma’s. As far as any of us know, Great-grandma’s ornaments then stayed boxed up and unused for the next 32 years. When Mom found them, they were still in the original box packed inside a bigger box with other things of Great-grandma’s. There was a note attached to the outside of the box in Grandma’s handwriting that said, “Mother’s decorations.” Inside the box Mom found a handwritten retail receipt from the little “five-and-dime” store that had once been in the tiny Colorado town where I was born (And where Shorty and Great-grandma lived for a bit over 20 years). It had a date: December 1956, and noted that the ornaments were being sold at half price because two of the glass ornaments broke during shipping.
Mom split them up, with myself and one of my cousins getting three each. Mom kept four for herself.
I suspect that the reason they sat unused in that box for all that time was three-fold. The first Christmas after Great-grandma died, I suspect Grandma was just too sad about them to use them. The next dozens of years if Grandma thought about them at all, she probably decided not to use them because she was afraid they would get broken, and then she wouldn’t have these things of her mother’s any longer. And I think the third reason is that the longer they stayed boxed up, the less often Grandma even remembered they existed.
The last phenomenon is one I became accutely aware of during the move 20 months ago, as I kept finding boxes of things squirreled away in the old house that I had forgotten we had.
This is one of the reasons I insist, no matter what colors and theme we’re doing on any Christmas, that Great-grandma’s three ornaments always go on our tree. As kitschy and ordinary as they are, they represent my Great-grandma and make me remember happy times with her whenever I look at them. But the other part is that I don’t want them to sit in a box unseen for years. There is no point keeping them if they aren’t going to be seen and used. Their only value is in being seen.
Yeah, if one ever got broken, I would be upset. But I would also remind myself that for 19 years they gave Great-grandma (and anyone who visited her during the season) a bit of holiday cheer, and for 10 years and counting they have contributed to my Christmas cheer. That’s a pretty good return on G-grandma’s original investment of less than a dollar.
First, twenty-two years ago at a holiday potluck at work, the subject had somehow turned to shopping for parents, and I mentioned that I didn’t always know what big present to get my Mom, but there was a particular kind of candy that she loved and I had been buying her a box of it every year since I was a teen-ager, so there was always a point during the opening of the presents when my Mom would pick up the box and realize what it was and grin. A new co-worker expressed shock and disbelief, insisting that any mother she knew would be irritated to get the same thing every year. She further insisted that my Mom must be faking the enthusiasm for the candy.
Second, twenty years ago, I visited Mom for Christmas and drove her to Grandma’s for the big Christmas Eve shindig Grandma used to throw. At said shindig, Mom received a present from one of the other relatives that was an enormous (and ugly) knick-knack. It was taller than any table lamp that Mom owned. And Mom had just recently moved into a smaller place specifically because she was trying to get rid of stuff. Mom had said thank-you to the present, but the look in her eyes had clearly communicated to me, “What am I going to do with this?”
During the almost hour long drive back to her house, there was a point when Mom went really quiet for a moment, then asked, “Where am I going to put that thing? I mean, it’s so big!”
I made sympathetic noises, but otherwise didn’t have an answer.
She suddenly grabbed my arm and said, “Promise me you won’t get me things like that! Give me candy, or cookies, or candles—things I will use up! If you don’t know I need it or will use it, please don’t spend the money!”
Third, seventeen or eighteen years ago, Mom had mentioned needing a specific thing for the kitchen, and I had found it, but it was in a weird, truncated pyramid-ish shaped box. And while I was trying to decide how to wrap it, I noticed that the broad base of the box was almost exactly the size of the box of those candies I have been buying her for Christmas since I was a kid. So with some wadded up newspaper and a lot of tape, I turned the two things into a large, retangular package, then wrapped them together.
Christmas Eve was at my Aunt’s that year, and Michael and I drove Mom to it. During the gift opening, one of the kids of one of my cousins had distributed everyone’s presents as piles beside each of us, and it had turned into a bit of a torn paper frenzy. I had watched Mom getting quieter and more sad looking as the evening progressed. She hadn’t been feeling well that morning and had almost decided to stay home for Christmas Eve, so I thought that she was feeling worse. I quietly asked a few times if she needed something.
There was only one present left beside her chair—my two-in-one box. Everyone else was finished, and one of the kids asked Mom if she was going to open her last one. She sighed and said something that sounded quite a bit less than enthusiastic. She picked it up into her lap. She turned it around looking for an edge to the wrapping. And when she did, the candy jiggled inside its box—making a distinctive sound she recognized.
Mom’s eyes lit up like search lights. She turned the box again and looked at the tag to see it was from me. She grinned at me. “I know what this is! I know what this is!” And then she tore the paper off like a tornado of ninjas attacking a castle. She liberated the box of candy from the rest of the present and exclaimed, “You didn’t forget my candy! My son didn’t forget my candy!”
Michael had to point out that there was another part of the gift she might want to look at. She was glad that I’d gotten her the kitchen thing, but she was clearly more happy about the candy. And she was enthusiastic the rest of the night.
So, my Mom really does like it when I give her that candy every year1.
Fourth, as long as I can remember, Mom has loved hot tea. She loves nothing more than to curl up with a new book and a cup of hot tea and spend the day reading. For various health reasons, she can’t do caffeine any more. So the tea needs to be herbal. Unfortunately, when most of the rest of the people in Mom’s life think “herbal tea” the go for camomile3. Mom doesn’t dislike camomile, but she gets tired of it after awhile.
So every years I look for interesting herbal teas for Mom other than camomile. Last week I found two boxes that looked interesting while I was out shopping. I went to a rather large number of stores that day. When I got home, there was a lot of stuff to put away. And when I was finished, I couldn’t find the two boxes of tea.
I searched all the shopping bags. I looked around the house. I looked in the pantry with my teas. I looked everywhere. I confirmed on the printed receipt that I had paid for the tea. I decided that when I and the person at the store were bagging my groceries, one of us had accidentally pushed the boxes aside.
The next day I headed out shopping again with a list of people I needed to get gifts for. At the first store I went to the back of the car to get a shopping bag. And there was a shopping bag from the day before with four things in it. Two of which were Mom’s tea. Fortunately, nothing in the bag was perishable, so I didn’t waste anything by forgetting some groceries in the car overnight.
So there will be several presents under Mom’s tree from me this year. And now you know what three of them are. And I’m pretty sure as soon as Mom picks them up, she’ll know what they are, two. Ever since that one Christmas, I have made sure that the box of candy was wrapped by itself, so it would be no surprise to Mom what was inside.
But surprise isn’t the point of that particular present.
1. One time when I told this story, a friend who is also a mother and grandmother told me that there was a type of salt-water taffy she liked, and anyone who bought her some of that for Christmas was a winner in her book.2
2. Another person (who also happens to be a mom and grandmother) pointed out that while it is undoubtedly true that Mom likes this favorite candy of hers, by the time I was an adult and I still gave her a box of the candy every Christmas, the candy had become a symbol. “I have absolutely no doubt that every Christmas when she opens that box, she looks up at you and she doesn’t see you as the grown man you are. She sees her little boy—how you looked as a small child. That isn’t a box of candy, to her, it’s a box of memories of her baby.” I suspect she’s right.
3. One time my Aunt found a big boxed set of “herbal teas” in the gift box aisle at Walmart. Except they weren’t herbal. When you read the small print on the box, the teas were all regular black tea4 with artificial flavoring. So the “camomile” was regular black tea with some kind of camomile flavoring. And the “hibiscus” was black tea with hibiscus flavoring. And the “elderberry” was black tea with flavoring and so on.5
4. Loaded with caffeine.
5. The set included I think it was 8 little tins, each of which had the name of the herb in question, and then behind each tin in the box was a little foil packet with three of the skankiest looking oily tea bags. And they all smelled absolutely awful.6
6. Mom begged me to take it home. Michael and I had a lot of fun throwing it away.
This isn’t going to be my typical Saturday post where I talk about news stories that either I missed for this week’s round up of links or new developments. I’ve already made a couple of pretty personal posts this week, between my birthday and remembering my late husband on his birthday just a few days later.
And tomorrow would be my dad’s birthday, if he were still alive. Which doesn’t make me sad, by the way. It fills me with a bit of dread, because I suspect there will be communications from some of my relatives that I’d rather not get. I can’t use the phrase that one friend made me practice saying right after Dad died so that I wouldn’t make people who were just offering condolences but didn’t know our history wouldn’t feel bad: “We weren’t close. We’d hardly talked in forty years.” Depending on which family member is reaching out, that comment is likely to get an angry, “Well, whose fault is that?”And I’m dreading it because I got such comments (and confrontations) on Father’s Day and on his previous birthday. Maybe I need to memorize this Stefan Molyneux quote and say that back to any of them who trot out the admonishments that it isn’t healthy for me not to grieve or not to forgive or whatever. The former is the mostly darkly funny, because I did grieve the total lack of a loving, functional father decades before my actual dysfunctional dad died. I took myself to therapy because I realized that many of his abusive behaviors and attitudes were manifesting in my own relationships. I didn’t want to turn into him, so I got therapy and dealt with it, and yes, part of my healing process was letting myself grieve for the relationship that could have been. To grieve for kind of childhood I didn’t have.
I know most of them are doing it because they worry about me. unfortunately, some are doing it because they need validation for their own feelings, or validation of the rationalizations that let them look the other way while those of us living with him were subjected to the abuse. Anyway, being angry at them doesn’t solve anything. I will probably do what I did with most of the messages that came on Father’s Day: ignore them.
But, completely unrelated: I was pointed to some cartoons by an artist I had not previously been aware of, and while checking out his web site, I found this interesting thing he created last March: My Mother Was Murdered When I Was a Baby. I Just Found a Photo of Her Funeral for Sale Online. It reminded me that there are many other ways that one’s childhood can be dysfunctional. But also, it reminded me of a bit of advice I received from one of my lesbian aunties (not an actual aunt) back around the same time I was seeing the therapist. My childhood was bad, yes, but I survived it. Not everyone who suffers domestic violence does. So, while I’m grieving what I didn’t have, I should remember to be thankful that I lived to make a better adulthood for myself.
But once I got them to listen, they all loved it, too.
I played that album a lot. But vinyl records lose fidelity over time because each time you play them the physical needle that has to run through the groove to vibrate because of the shape of the groove and translate those microvibrations into sound also wears the groove smooth, slowing destroying the sound. I played it enough that, a few years later when the second movie came out and I bought the soundtrack album for it, I could hear the difference in some of the repeated themes, and bought myself a fresh copy of the first album, played it once to make a cassette tape, and put it away. I also made a tape of the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack and stopped listening to the vinyl album. I listened to both cassettes often enough that eventually I had to get the albums out again to make fresh tapes.
And yes, eventually I ended up with a vinyl version of the soundtrack for Return of the Jedi. For many years after that, I would only occasionally play the vinyl albums, relying instead on the homemade cassette copies when I wanted to listen to them. I did this with a number of sci fi movie and TV series soundtracks through the 80s and early 90s: buy the vinyl album listen at least once while I made a cassette copy, then put the album carefully away and listened to the cassette as often as I liked. And I really enjoyed listening to the music for movies and other shows that I loved.
And then along came compact discs. I started buying new music on disc, and as I could afford it, if I found CD versions of favorite old albums, I would buy them. At some point in this period of time, I found a disc that was titled, “The Star Wars Trilogy” as recorded by the Utah Symphony Orchestra (the originals had all been done by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Williams) for a very reasonable price, and I bought it.
In 1997, 20 years after the original release of the first movie, a set of three 2-disc Special Edition sets of the soundtracks for all three of the original Star Wars movies were released, so I finally picked up the full soundtracks on CD. These sets had considerably more music than had been included in the old vinyl albums. They had also been remastered. Each of the discs was printed with holographic images of the Death Star and other ships from the universe. Each set came with a mini hardbound book with notes about the music. They were cool. I listened to them fairly frequently for a few years.
When I first acquired what they called at the time a Personal Digital Assistant (a Handspring Visor, to be specific), it came with a disc of software to help synchronize your calendar and contacts with your Windows computer. When I upgraded a couple years later, the new disc of software included a copy of Apple’s new music manager, iTunes (the Windows version), which you could use to put music on your PDA. At the time I often listened to music while working on computer by pulling discs out of a small shelf unit I kept in the computer room and stuck in a boombox we kept in there. The little shelf held only a subset of my library, as the rest of our discs were in a much bigger shelf unit in the living room next to the main stereo. So I grabbed some of the discs from the small shelf, stuck them in the CD drive on my Windows tower, and let them get imported into iTunes. That was the original core of my current iTunes library, from which I created my first playlists—imaginatively named “Writing,” “Writing Faust,” “Writing II,” “Layout An Issue,” and “Writing III.” And several tracks from the aforementioned knock-off Star Wars Trilogy disc were included, because that was the only Star Wars music disc I kept in the computer room at the time.
Many years later, I usually listen to music from my iPhone. I had thought that I had imported all of my music from disc into the iTunes library years ago, and most of the time I buy music as downloads, now. I have new playlists which include the Star Wars theme or the Imperial March. So I thought it was all good. I hadn’t gone out of my way to listen to the entire soundtracks of the original movies in years. I have continued to buy new soundtracks for movies I love. I tend to listen to them for a while, and then pick some favorite tracks that go into playlists.
Because of some articles I was reading about the upcoming films in the Star Wars franchise, I decided that I should re-listen to the original soundtrack, and was quite chagrined to discover that, even though I thought my entire iTunes library was currently synched to my phone, all that I had was the knock-off album. (And the wholly downloaded soundtracks from The Force Awakens and Rogue One.) I was even more chagrined when I got home and couldn’t find the original albums in my iTunes library on either computer.
So I went to the big shelf of CDs in the living room (which my husband was actually in the middle of packing), and snagged the three two-disc Star Wars soundtrack sets and carried them up to my older Mac Pro tower (because it still has an optical disc drive). I now finally have the albums on my iPhone. Sometime after we finish the move, I’ve going to have to go through playlists to replace the versions from the knock-off album with the authentic score. Because, that’s what I should be using!
Also, clearly, after we’re all unpacked at the new place, I need to go through the rest of the discs and see what other music which I thought was in my library is still sitting trapped in a physical disc which never gets used any more so I can import them to the computers. I mean, our stereo doesn’t even have a disc player!
Not everything that has hit me like a stab in the heart has been stuff that was hidden away.
My late husband Ray passed away 19 years and 5 months ago. It wasn’t a surprise, and yet it was. Almost four years previously doctors said he probably had less than two years to live, you see. There had been so many doctor visits & tests, then surgery and chemo and more tests and so forth. But, like that line from a Buffy the Vampire episode, when Tara is asked, regarding the death of her mother, “Was it sudden?” she answers, “No. And yes. It’s always sudden.”
It was mid-November when he died, and everything in my memory for the next gets a bit jumbled from that moment when they turned off the breathing machine through the next few months. There are some moments that stand out for different reasons. One day probably right around the beginning of February, not quite 3 months after Ray died, I walked into the grocery store that’s a few blocks from our place. I had grabbed a hand basket rather than a cart, because I was only planning to pick up a few things. Just inside the door they used to have this sort of miniature gift shop? It had a small variety of greeting cards for many occasions, some gift bags, and a few tiny toys, trinkets, and/or small plushies. The sort of thing you could grab as a last minute present because you didn’t have time to go elsewhere. I was walking past this thing when something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention.
I stopped, glanced over, and there was this cute little stuffed brown mouse holding a red heart. I picked it up, a warm feeling washing over me with the thought, “This would be perfect as a little surprise Valentine’s present for Ray!” The sort of thing I would attach to the outside of a gift-wrapped box with something bigger in it.
Before the thought had completely articulated itself in my head, I crashed right into the recollection that Ray was dead and I wouldn’t be sharing any of our usual Valentine’s Day activities with him. It wasn’t the first time that I had that particular momentary internal dissonance. Those moments were among the worst: for a second I would forget that he was dead, and have a normal thought about something I would tell him when I got home for instance, then the realization, which was a shattering moment reliving that first wave of grief when the doctors convinced me that Ray was brain dead and I needed to let him go. It really felt as if I had lost him again. And then, a moment after that, an equally devastating stab of guilt—how could I possibly forget that he was dead?
So there I was, standing in the grocery store suddenly sobbing my eyes out. And when I say standing that’s being generous because I had to lean against something to keep myself upright for a minute. A complete stranger asked if I was all right, and I shook my head, then nodded my head and managed to stammer out something about “I’ll be okay in a second.”
I put the mouse in my basket, because damn it, I was buying it for Ray, anyway!Ray’s ashes are in an urn that has been resting on a shelf in one of the bookcases in my current living room for 19 years, 4 months, and 2 weeks. The urn is attended/guarded by three of his tigers, two of his teddy bears, and the little mouse that had me sobbing in the store three months after his death. This is just one of the reasons I don’t want to move. This was the last place Ray lived. Of the three homes we shared, this was the first that he really loved (because when we first got together we were both coming out of messy break-ups that left us both in bad financial shape, so we first lived in a really crappy studio, and I was still digging myself out of the previous relationship’s debts a few years later, so we moved to a slightly less crappy 1 bedroom, before finding this place). Ray loved having a yard, even though it was very small, and being in a neighborhood that felt much more like a small town than part of a city.
I know that we shouldn’t get too attached to things. And life is about change. I’ve lived in the same place for a long time, maybe too long. And we’re never completely ready for change when it comes. Even though Michael and I have known that this was likely to happen since September, and that it was definitely going to happen since December, it still feels like it’s too soon. It’s not sudden, but…