It’s time for the eleventh and final edition of Sunday Stories, where each week I reveal the inspiration behind one of the eleven twisting tales from my short story collection, And Then We Vanish.
My personal favorite of the collection, “Night of the Spider” arose at the crossroads of three ideas. Firstly, a photograph of my Grandmother and her sister outside their home in Northeast Philadelphia in the 1940’s had always struck me. This photograph became the inspiration for the photograph young Benjamin takes of his mother and aunt before going to spend the summer with his estranged father. Secondly, I always wanted to write a short story in the vein of my favorite writer Graham Greene. And thirdly, I wanted to write about my fear of spiders. The story almost spun into a novella where I fleshed out some of the minor characters (Scarlet) and gave Benjamin a clearer resolution…but I like how the open-ended suspense cuts this one short. Always leave them hanging…
“Night of the Spider” originally appeared in the third and final edition of my digital literary magazine, The Stone.
It’s time for the fourth edition of #SundayStories where each week I reveal the inspiration behind one of the eleven twisting tales from my short story collection, And Then We Vanish.
“Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits” came to life when I was snowed in it at my future wife’s apartment in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. I used the term snowed in loosely – it was an overhyped non-blizzard event, but I was spending the night anyhow and decided to work-from-home from her place the next day when I trudged down (through the epic white dusting and slush) to a local bar (McMenamin’s Tavern) for lunch and overheard an awkward conversation between two strangers…who became the mysterious Jasmin and the hapless Wes in the story.
The story was originally published last year by A Million and One Magazine, which sadly no longer appears to be in existence.
As a Philly guy, I loved the scene early on in The Irishman where Robert DeNiro (whose calm “old man looking back on his life” narration wraps a warm blanket over the film) says there is a spot in The Schuylkill River where so many hitmen have tossed guns that if you dredged that spot you could supply a whole army.
Martin Scorsese’s latest mob epic is filled with those kinds of details, like a blink-and-you-miss-it or gasp-when-you-do-see-it quietly operatic and beautiful shot of the Twin Towers during another dump-the-murder-weapon scene later in Frank Sheeran’s career.
The Irishman is a tale of a bygone era – of union bosses and mobster empires – the old men looking back on their lives after getting caught and reminiscing on the camaraderie and the minutia that becomes so detailed and particular as to seem ethereal…a dream world.
There’s a great scene during the tense build up to the inevitable (Sheeran’s alleged particulars when he’s forced to be the mob’s deliverer of reckoning to his dear friend, Jimmy Hoffa) where the mob’s errand boy rags on Hoffa’s son about a fish having just been in the backseat. What kind of fish was it? You just go in and pick up some fish from some guy without knowing what kind of fish it was?
Scorsese’s film is a very particular type of thing. You know going in exactly what type of fish this is.
“In the Still of the Night” is the film’s musical soul, playing over key scenes and transitions, while other hits of yesteryear play as only Scorsese could let them play. The film unfolds at a leisurely, moody pace – perfect for the streaming era we live in – like teenage lovers who grew into an old married couple would sway on a dancefloor during their favorite love song.
Man, we know Pacino so well, but he’s absolute gangbusters as Hoffa. I can’t get over how good he is, how enjoyable it is to watch him. And DeNiro’s iconic shoulder shrugs and aw-shucks looks and eyebrow lifts. It’s exactly how we want to remember him.
Then there is Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran – Frank’s daughter, the judger, the only one who calls him out on his “I did it all to take care of and protect my family” bullshit. The role doesn’t quite work as well as I think Scorsese intended it to – there’s no getting around the fact that she is underwritten, but she’s also symbolic. “Why?” is no doubt a memorable line, and Paquin delivers it well – body tense, sitting, lip quivering, eyes judging, but voice clear, calm
The film closes with Sheeran in a retirement home, alone on Christmas Eve, a priest there to hear a confession Sheeran never delivers. When the priest gets up to leave, Sheeran asks him to leave the door open…just a little bit. Why? For the truth to slip in? For forgiveness? To make sure no one is out there waiting to take him out? Or is the door left open for Scorsese, the consummate storyteller of tall tales of sinners and saints? We hope that door stays open, just a little bit, for him tell that same old story, one more time.
What stories do these wild Colonial Spanish horses (clearly plotting something) and ghost crab (what are you running from?) have to tell?
It’s the last day of 2016, so it’s time for the Spin to look back on travel throughout the year for our annual “Random Places I Have Been” series. Apart from holidays in New Orleans and Montreal (featured in blog posts earlier in the year), 2016 brought me to some unique local events including a Chinese Lantern Festival and the opening of a new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia, as well as family vacations to Massachusetts (where we soaked up some history in Concord and on Walden Pond) and the Outer Banks of North Carolina (where we saw wild horses on the beach, the Wright Brothers’ Memorial and took in as many sunrises, sunsets and lighthouses as the waning summer week would allow).
Work also brought me to Jacksonville, Florida (my first time in Florida!); Auburn, ME (my first time in Maine!); and Greenville, South Carolina (a homecoming of sorts, as I had interviewed for a job there nearly 15 years ago, but this was my first time back, and both the town and I have changed soooo much…for the better). However, the top-secret nature of those trips prevented me from taking any pictures (just kidding…about the top-secret stuff…not about the absence of pictures though).
The Outer Banks (and those wild horses and ghost crabs in particular) also brought about the genesis of a potential new novel, a grand over-the-top Southern gothic melodrama, one that will be a joint effort between my wife and I. If you ever do time in the Outer Banks, definitely sign up for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund guided tour…it was truly inspirational. I already wrote the first chapter shortly after our return home. Now it’s my wife’s turn…not that I’m putting any pressure on her or anything…
Are you a foodie? Do you believe that fine dining is an art form? Are some of your most treasured memories of being in a certain place at a certain time with your favorite people having that special meal? Well, I would answer a resounding yes to all three questions, and here I share with you some of my most memorable dining experiences eating my way through cities abroad and my own backyard of Philadelphia.
The Best Italian Restaurants…Where You Least Expect Them:
Il Piccolino – Paris, France (8th arrondissment). Ah, Paris, it truly is a movable feast. But who knew, on our last night in the city (in September of 2015) the month before our wedding (we honeymooned before, because that’s how we roll), desperate for something other than the overload of French food we had been eating, and upon the recommendation from the concierge at our hotel (who secured a last minute reservation), we would stumble into the best Italian restaurant we ever experienced? There were probably about ten tables inside (all reserved) and a kitchen in full view (that looked like a kitchen in somebody’s house). From the little old man who provided colorful service, to the fresh veggies they walked across the street to the market to procure as you ordered them, to the hand-made sage ravioli with truffle oil drizzle, to the cutesy-translated deserts “in their honey shirts” – this was quite possibly the best dining experience of our lives.
Zeppoli’s – Collingswood, New Jersey, USA. Less than a mile from our new house is this gem of “a hole in the wall” we indulged in just last week after a multitude of rave reviews from friends and coworkers. There’s maybe a dozen tables inside. Reservations must be made weeks in advance. Upon entering it’s all a bit gentrified-rustic-hipster-is-this-a-dump-or-is-this-chic and unassuming. But WOW! The food (which is Sicilian and far removed from the typical Italian fare you find In NJ-PA-NY) was out of this world and full of flavors my taste buds didn’t know existed. The service was both casual and spot-on where the highly competent wait staff tag-teams the tables and walks around as if they are serving family at their house – never missing a beat or a half-filled water-glass. The chef offers up complimentary after dinner drinks (while the place is otherwise BYOB).
Trattoria Toto da Lucia – Amsterdam, Netherlands (near Vondel Park). Was the food here really that good? I don’t know. It was my last night in the city (in October of 2013), this was right around the corner from my friend’s flat off the Overtoom. The atmosphere was comforting. The wine was flowing. The conversation was bountiful. The food was fresh and made from scratch. I think I had a risotto? It’s a place where I’ll never forget the feeling…of being happy where I was in life at that moment…wrapping up my first trip to Europe, sharing my experiences and my hopes for a travel-filled future with a good friend, and feeling like the world was now my oyster.
*** Actual dialogue and “how this all went down” dramatized here for effect.
*** Bonus Points if you correctly guess the source of the literary quote used for the title of this post! (Wedding Guests are Disqualified)
This October, I…we… got hitched…right there in Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Park amidst the autumnal splendor. The weather, the company, the location, the colors…it couldn’t have gone better.
Knowing the fleeting nature of fall’s fickle resplendence, we returned to the scene of the crime the following week (on the last day of October) to enjoy the natural beauty sans the marital hubbub before all the leaves fell and winter set in (alas we live not in a world of Game of Thrones where winter’s coming takes…forever).
For those faithful readers who have keenly noted/questioned the decrease in frequency of film reviews in 2015 (note: I’ve been going to the movies just about the same amount as other years, it’s just too many of the films have failed to inspire me to write…I mean, The Martian? What a snore…next!) or have wondered when the next short story might be coming down the pike (who knows?)…I sincerely thank you…and now you know I’ve been busy writing another kind of story with a co-author, one of the best kind of stories – a living story that has evolved into a novel, that will now be serialized and open-ended. Through these pictures I hope you enjoy the magnificence of Wissahickon Park as much as we have over the past year and a half and hope to continue to do so until we are old and gray. Until I see you again, dear readers…at the movies. Continue reading →
Yes, I know we’re already half way through 2015, and I’ve got enough photos from random places I have been this year to create the annual post…but that will have to wait. This is a catch up post where I will share some photography of random places I was in 2014. I don’t know how this post slipped my mind last year, but here it is now, better late than never
2014 was marked by part-time Canadian living in Mississauga in the first half of the year and then big trips to Dublin, Ireland in the spring; San Francisco in the fall; and finally Boston (where we rang in the New Year). But in between all that, there was plenty of day-tripping in the greater tri-state area from where these shots were captured. Most notable, perhaps from a WTF perspective, were the infamous person in a pickle costume in Lancaster, PA (insert your own story here) and the insane doll-parts strewn Gloria Vanderbilt Dream Box art installation at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ.
Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia’s East Falls’ section overlooking the Schuylkill River between Kelly and Ridge Drives is one of the oldest cemeteries in the nation. It houses such pop culture artifacts as Veteran Stadium seats surrounding Harry Kalas’ microphone-shaped tombstone and Adriaaaaaane! Balboa’s fake grave. It’s also the eternal resting place of numerous historical dignitaries from various wars and the Philadelphia area along with countless family plots dating back to the early 1800’s. The gardens of the dead there are sprawling, monument-laden and fecund with stories told and untold. It’s a perfect spot for an autumnal stroll as the towering trees sheading their brightly covered leaves under the waning sun cast a perfect light on the splendid environs.
Below are photos I captured on one such Sunday stroll.
Misfortune and a fake happy family bring Lawrence and Cooper together in Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell’s Philly based adaptation of Matthew Quick’s witty and dramatic rom-com novel, Silver Linings Playbook, is exactly the type of misfit-misfortune-filled movie you want to root for. It’s a film where, refreshingly, everyone is playing against type.
Bradley Cooper (a smug comedic performer I typically loathe) is in the lead role of Pat, a rage-fueled bipolar man who is freshly released from the loony bin after a violent incident with his wife’s lover. Pat speaks in self-help platitudes, but there’s a sincerity in his desire to change as he dedicates himself to losing weight, keeping his anger in check, getting back his wife (delusionally so) and finding life’s silver lining. Cooper, surprisingly, pulls it off, and one has to wonder if the Philly native saw this as his first opportunity to dig deep. Cooper saw a moment in his career to make a change, and he took it. It makes his character and performance extremely likable.
Jennifer Lawrence – who has made quite the name for herself playing tough teenage girls forced to grow up too fast to save their families in films like Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games – is for the first time given the chance to play an adult as Tiffany, the damaged young widow of a cop who fumbles through her conflicted feelings and need for affection and friendship and forms an instant bond with Pat when they share unfiltered and awkward barbs about their predicaments and commiserate on their litany of medication diets that have thus far been unsuccessful in curing them of their brand of “crazy.” Lawrence shines in the role and shows us a side previously unknown…playful, vulnerable, sassy, witty and darkly comedic. Continue reading →
I took a half-hearted stab at a local dining guide years ago, and at some point many of the restaurants listed below received a shout out in one way or another from The Spin or on my Twitter…but I decided it would be fun to traverse the eastern part of North America and crown a best restaurant in each favorite stomping ground. Our journey begins way down yonder in my former homeland of Nor’ Cackalacky. We’ll revisit some of my local favorites in Philly and the Jersey Burbs. We’ll travel far north through New York (and slighty west) all the way up into the land of expense accounts and Canucks. Prepare your taste buds, your credit cards, your hybrid vehicles (only if you have a designated driver) and/or your frequent flier miles….here is The Spin on My Favorite Eats in My Favorite Haunts.
Raleigh, North Carolina – Babylon (309 N. Dawson St.) – I have no idea why a restaurant serving Moroccan food is called Babylon. Would Casablanca have been somehow un-PC or Marrakesh too obvious? But weird geographical naming faux-pas aside, this uber-trendy mecca of Raleigh’s liberal elite located fashionably downtown serves up organic, locally raised Moroccan and Middle Eastern-inspired cuisine that rivals any of your bigger city Northeast rivals. The ambiance is casual urban chic, the service impeccable, and the food fresh, hip and flavorful. Really, Raleigh, whodathunk? You go, with your emerging multicultural self!
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Amada (217 Chestnut Street) – Old City. Chef Jose Garcas. Spanish Tapas. Drinks named after Almodovar films. And a dish so epically simple and flavorful called Madre y Hijo (which consists of a fried egg atop a perfect slice of chicken breast atop a bed of roasted fingerling potatoes and all drizzled in truffle oil) that I would request if I were to ever find myself on death row waiting for a last meal. This is a Philly Restaurant Week staple and one of the most popular (and hard to get into) restaurants in the city even after all of these years. What more is there to say? (Reservations required!) Continue reading →