Thursday, February 25, 2010

Up Till Now— The Autobiography of William Shatner

As a leading actor on Broadway, the pitchman, police sergeant T. J. Hooker, a "B" movie actor, Alexander the Great, a recording artist, a husband of four wives, a frequent guest star on 50s and 60s television shows, a motorcyclist, a voice over artist, a father of three daughters, the star of a reality show, a horse lover, science fiction author, and a "has been" who won a couple of Emmy Awards late in life, William Shatner has truly lived. Most of us just go about, in relative anonymity, for seven decades, give or take a few years. However, just about anyone in America, and many beyond these shores, know the name, the voice, and the face of Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek series. In his autobiography, there's about a hundred pages of Shatner's life before Star Trek. And, at the time, Shatner viewed Star Trek as a failed television series and moved on with his career. Without its syndication, his life, and our culture, would be different.

There are many reviews of this book online, so I'll focus instead on some general themes within it. First, Shatner's energy comes across, as well as his ability to poke fun at himself. His work ethic comes from his upbringing— his merchant father taught him to take advantage of all opportunities and to work hard to achieve success. Although he decided to become an actor early in life, Shatner seems to have been very worried, for years and years, about not having work. That, and the financial instability that is part and parcel of an actor's life, motivated him to say, "Yes!" to almost every money making opportunity, however taxing— or downright bizarre. Being willing to work has kept him working. Every performance seemed to lead to some other opportunity, and Shatner's energy and his courage stand out, even when he pokes fun at many of the ways he has made money over the years. I did laugh aloud a few times, and the good humor of it all does keep the reader smiling and turning pages.

Although this account of Shatner's life starts early and ends late, Up Till Now is not always a linear narrative. Sometimes he tells stories which are on topic, but not in the time line. As a man who is gifted in years, he has much to tell, so the disruptions add to the charm of the book. In addition to his lengthy acting career and the Star Trek phenomenon, Shatner does address his lack of success in marriage, and the account of his third wife's death is particularly heartbreaking. With surprising candor, Shatner places much of the blame for his divorces on his own shoulders. A man who works that much is not available to his family, and he does acknowledge that he did not learn to be married until after he failed three times. Although he does not focus on his children often, it seems clear that he has a good relationship with his three daughters. Also, as he rambles through his life, most of his major roles are fodder for a few pages, and he does discuss Boston Legal, his latest television series, at some length.

Fans of Star Trek will enjoy the insights that the original Captain Kirk shares, but those who are interested in acting on stage and screen will also find interesting observations about the actor's craft in Up Till Now. Shatner discusses his approach to roles, and he often contrasts his way with the methods used by co-stars. At times, Shatner is funny, at times his struggle evokes a mixture of pity and amazement. Who would have thought that after Trek, Shatner would live in the back of a pickup truck in New York City, eking out a living doing an off Broadway play?

During the portions of the book devoted to the original Star Trek and the five movies it spawned, Shatner frankly discusses the challenge of making a television series set in space, but with such a low budget that the cast and crew had to be very creative. The movies were more successful and made money, but he states that budget constraints also affected Star Trek V, which he directed. Shatner doesn't dwell upon the disagreements he had with some of his Trek co-stars, but he does mention that many of them viewed him as difficult, and he did not become friends with Leonard Nimoy until the original series was long behind both of them. As a fan of science fiction, and of Star Trek, I especially enjoyed his assertion that Gene Roddenberry saw Star Trek as the quest for intelligent life on the other side of a television screen.

For Shatner's fans and for Star Trek fans, Up Till Now is a must read. Many others will enjoy it, however, because William Shatner is an ubiquitous, iconic figure. And, really, this book is funny. Who else would auction his kidney stone on eBay? Or play the amazing Denny Crane? William Shatner may not be tall, but describing him as larger than life is an understatement.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

The Most Annoying Sound

For some, it is fingernails on a chalk board. For others, it is the cry of a hungry baby. I am partial to hating horns. Not musical instruments, of course, but car horns, truck horns, and train horns. That is perfectly normal, I suppose, since the horn is a warning sound. Before there were horns to warn people of danger, there were bells. Poe’s wonderful sound poem, The Bells, devotes a section to “... loud alarum bells/Brazen bells! /What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! /In the startled ear of night /How they scream out their affright!” The purpose of the horn on a car or other moving vehicle is to warn others of danger.

When I was a youngster, a certain family member, upon arrival, always sounded his car horn, prompting my father to exclaim, “That man is the only person I know who can scrape the gears in an automatic!” Obviously, dad didn’t like the sound any more than I do now. The use and misuse of automobile horns is more pervasive today. My car even uses its horn to tell me, “Hey, idiot, you already locked the doors!”

Never have I heard so many blaring horns as I did when visiting New York City. Drivers there seem to keep one hand on the wheel and the other poised to strike the horn button. I was taught that a car horn is a warning device, but that’s not true in NYC. At first the cacaphony was jarring, then I became somewhat more accustomed to this annoying aspect of the city environment. However, as I sat in the aptly named Majestic Theatre, watching a matinee performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, there was a quiet moment, designed to intensify the mysterious setting. But it didn’t quite work, because I could hear the brazen horns on the street outside the theatre.

Recently, I was driving my son to band practice in Athens, Georgia, and had to slow rather a lot to make a turn into a steep parking lot entrance. A smallish automobile behind me beeped, rather like the cartoon Road-Runner, apparently displeased at having to use his brakes. Ten minutes later, after leaving the practice area, I was on Broad Street and a driver was opening a car door a few feet in front of me, which caused me to change lanes rather than mow him down. The motorist behind me shared his annoyance at having to use his brakes by blaring his horn. My first thought was that downtown Athens is almost as noisy as NYC, but there are no decent plays. How uncivilized!

As I drove toward a more peaceful part of town, away from the impatient student population, I realized that misusing a warning horn is rather like crying “Wolf.” When I hear a car horn nowadays, instead of being warned, I am apt to be annoyed, which defeats the purpose. In Poe’s day, only a hoodlum would ring the fire bells when there was no fire. Times have indeed changed, and our culture is changing with it, but not for the better. As Robert A Heinlein states in his novel, Friday, “...a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than a riot.”

Heinlein identifies other aspects of a sick culture, including “when its income and outgo get out of balance and stay that way...high taxes,” a loss of faith in the police and the courts, and violence. Modern day America is afflicted with all of those to some degree. But those youthful drivers sounding horns over nothing is indeed troubling.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Why is it that authorities, in school or out, never assign equations or accounting problems as punishment? Nope, when a student is "bad" then authorities assign an essay, a book report, or just random writing, such as "I will not disrupt bus duty" for 500 times. That last example stems from a misguided special ed teacher assigning my then five-year-old son writing as punishment, during the first week of school, before his kindergarten teacher ever taught the letter "A." Unfortunately, public school got worse for him, not better, and we have decided to forgo any "services" from the local school system.

During my tenure as a high school English teacher, I often cracked jokes about the typical use of writing in public schools; what else could I do? I was obligated to teach writing, and the only way to do that is for students to write. Still, every time I made an assignment, I knew that some in the class were wondering, "What did I do to deserve this?"

I'm blessed to be away from high school, both as a teacher and as a parent, but government officials are still punishing students with the written word, as is mentioned in the news story that links to this post. Oh, most folks will read the story because it is ridiculous to arrest a middle school kid who doodles on a desk with a pen. But after the arrest and the handcuffs, the real punishment was finally levied— writing!

Sad, isn't it?

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Entertaining Science Fiction

Last weekend I should have been grading papers, but I was pleasantly interrupted by an eBook, Darrell Bain's Starship Down. When I buy eBooks, I usually wait for a sale, then I load up a group of them onto my elderly PDA. Often, I read such books when I have a few minutes, since it is so easy to carry a number of them in my purse. Sometime on Friday, I began this recent science fiction release, and from the dedication and opening Starship Down got my attention. Every time I started to put it down to work on something else, the combination of characters and an organic plot would draw me back to the story. By Sunday morning, I had finished, allowing me to return to more mundane reading. 

While this novel is not perfect, including some stereotyping and a bit of a deux ex machina ending, it is an entertaining read. My favorite science fiction yarns involve space travel, an element of suspense, exotic worlds and beings, and characters who must overcome the odds, and by so doing, become greater than they were when introduced during the exposition phase of the story. Romance is always welcome, if appropriate to the characters. Bain manages to hit all of the marks on my checklist, although his romance tends to be more physical than emotional. Just like a guy, huh?

Starship Down is available in print as well as electronic versions, and is a memorable tale by an author who is really quite prolific. I've also read the book he co-authored with Travis Taylor, Human by Choice, and I read one of the Pet Plague series, and all were enjoyable. Bain's works always make me think and smile, and that's a good combination.