Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Neumayer on Longmire

Let’s just say up front that I love Longmire. And yes, I think the most recent episode was the season’s strongest to date. A lot of action and suspense, which is great, but what I always find most appealing in the series is the interplay of characterization and setting.

Longmire is the brain child of Craig Johnson, my newest favorite mystery writer (I have a long, long list), who I discovered after watching the first tv episode three seasons ago (has it really been that long?)and immediately felt compelled to go out and read every book he’d written.

(Johnson’s personal history in creating the novels is fascinating, but too much to go into here, as are the differences between the tv show and the books. For example, little of the novels’ plot lines are featured on tv; and the Branch Connally supporting role played brilliantly by Bailey Chase is much less prominent in the novels.)

Anyway, Longmire’s become my favorite tv show.

As anyone paying attention knows, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire (played by Aussie Robert Taylor), the laconic introspective protagonist with the dry wit, is a throwback to the iconic lone hero of classical Westerns but also a master of contemporary law enforcement.

The entire recurring cast is wonderful, but to me the show turns on Walt’s friendship with Henry Standing Bear (played perfectly by Lou Diamond Phillips), which goes back to their early school days together. Henry, a Cheyenne brave, is Walt's best friend and confidant, an expert tracker, and the proprietor of the Red Pony Cafe, a local tavern and restaurant.

Yes, it is to some extent a Lone Ranger and Tonto sidekick kind of relationship, but one which pays great respect to the Cheyenne and their traditions. Henry is a fully-developed human being whose strength of character, intelligence, and warrior prowess equals Longmire’s. One of the show’s great strengths is its ability not to take itself too seriously; Walt and Henry’s relationship always reminds me of Spenser and Hawk in the late great Robert Parker series.

(An aside: I hate that phrase, the late, which is applying to more and more of my favorite authors. Thank God Craig Johnson is still in his early 50s and presumably will be around to add many more Longmire novels to the 11 he already has penned.)

Of course, what Longmire most closely resembles is the late great Tony Hillerman's Navajo mystery series featuring tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I could go on and on about those 18 books, in which Hillerman’s appreciation of the natural wonders of the American Southwest and its indigenous people is a major element.

Longmire features a similarly vivid sense of place, set in the fictional Absaroka County (pronounced ab-suh-ro-ka) in northern Wyoming. (The tv series actually is shot in Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Eagle Nest, and Red River, New Mexico, but it looks like the rugged landscape, wide open spaces, and big skies of Wyoming to me.)

Hillerman’s heroes are Navajo tribal policemen, one of whom (Leaphorn) is a rational thoroughly modern American while the other (Chee) is an intuitive investigator and sometime shaman. Like Hillerman’s characters, Walt and Henry occasionally delve into the spirit world, including sweat baths and peyote visions.

But in Longmire, the Cheyenne tribal policeman get an entirely different treatment than Hillerman’s Navajos, being both corrupt and just plain obnoxious. Malachi Strand, the former chief of the tribal police, who Walt arrested prior to the start of the series, is a nasty and corrupt villain. And his replacement, Chief Mathias (played somewhat quirkily by Zahn McClarnon), is not much better.

(The Cheyenne nation, however, is carefully peopled with all kinds of upstanding and sometimes not so upstanding citizens; the point here is that stereotypes are avoided and even mocked occasionally.)

When I first saw the Longmire tv show, I wondered why the amazing Graham Greene, who has played a host of Indians in tv and movies including Hillerman’s, was not cast as Henry Standing Bear. But I must say that Lou Diamond Phillips has completely won me over. I am happy that Greene is in the show, though, and he does a great job with the Malachi Strand role.

(Note to the annoyingly politically correct: many tribal people prefer the term Indian to Native American since it is no less inaccurate but less stuffy. Henry Standing Bear prefers to think of himself by his tribal identity rather than some white man’s appellation.)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Music: the real way to time travel

Smell, or taste, is supposedly the sense most vividly associated with memory.

(See Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1: Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, who unintentionally immortalized madeleines in his novel.)

But for me, it’s hearing. More specifically, hearing music. The other day, I was listening to the Beach Boys’ Do It Again, and it put me right back in that sweet spot where I always want to be whenever I hear it, a time when everything was about as ecstatic as it could ever be.

People say it’s the music of your era, by which I think they mean your youth. But I’m not sure I buy that. What is my era, anyway? I think this is still my era. I’ve loved that song for many, many years—since it came out, in fact, in 1969. It is ultimate nostalgia but it’s much more than that. It’s a kick-ass jam, one of the greatest ever.

Another tune on the Beach Boys CD (notice old school format) I was digging was Sail On, Sailor, whose lead vocal is by Brian Wilson’s little brother, Carl, who proves on this song once and for all what a talented singer he was. The bridge on this song always kills me:

Always needing, even bleeding
Never feeding all my feelings
Damn the thunder, must I blunder
There's no wonder all I'm under
Stop the crying and the lying
And the sighing and my dying

Sail on, sail on sailor

It’s not the words, though I am a word man, but Brian Wilson’s incredible, amazingly wonderful melody and harmonies and rhythms. He’s got to be right up there with Paul and John as the greatest rock'n'roll song writers of all time (Paul certainly thinks so).

I love so many Beach Boys songs, especially those from their later psychedelic era, but I still love the early tunes, too. California Girls. Fun Fun Fun. Wouldn’t It Be Nice. And of course Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains.  

I consider it tragic, and unimaginable, that after coming out with the fabulous album containing Brian's That’s Why God Made The Radio and other tunes that Mike Love could have the cojones to fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. Man, that’s like firing Beethoven or Mozart. How do you do that?

Anyway, when I read books, or see period films, about my era, I’m  swept up in the stories. But when I want to time travel and make the past live again, I mean really come alive like it still exists, I listen to music. And I’m right there.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Where I'm From ...

Now that I’m out of school once again (finished up my MFA at Spalding U. in June), I feel like I want to open up some new doors of communication, one of them being through blogging. I intend to focus mainly on writing issues, but they have a way of spilling over into broader areas, don’t they? I invite everyone to join me in the conversation at

My workshop prof this time, the wonderful and great Neela Vaswani, is a big fan of writing exercises, which I have always dreaded. Neela read to us George Ella Lyon's poem, "Where I'm From," saying it could provide ideas to inspire our own writing. Here are Lyon’s opening lines:

I am from clothespins, / from Clorox and carbon tetrachloride. / I am from the dirt under the back porch. / (Black, glistening / it tasted like beets.)”
Now I’d say that’s some pretty wonderful imagery. Imagine my dismay upon learning our assignment was to write a poem of our own with each line beginning, ”I am from a place …” or some variation. Backed against the wall, here’s what I wrote:

I am from a place … that hates writing exercises, yet here I am doing another one …
… from a tradition that commands obedience, but I am by nature and inclination a rebel …
… azaleas and rhodendrons, dogwood and red bud, beauty that can make my heart ache …
… hot humid summers and cold gray winters that drive me indoors and keep me there …
… where a mother who had dementia used to ask after every activity, “What now?”
… a wife who insists that I say the same things as my mother …
… a puzzling nation that produces miracles but cannot solve the simplest problems …
… a human race so self-absorbed that it seems bent on self-destruction …
… a planet I’d love for my unborn grandchildren to inherit in a habitable condition, but probably won’t …
… beauty and ugliness, happiness and sorrow, mysterious beginnings and equally mysterious endings.

In spite of my initial lack of enthusiasm, it opened me up by forcing me to try and say something meaningful on the spot--no doubt Neela's intention. As a result, I now have a different view of writing exercises, particularly for students. I wonder how others feel about writing exercises? Do they help unlock inhibitions? Serve as a catalyst for new beginnings?