Goodbye F-O-X Books

Fox Books

Fox & Sons Books closed its doors this week, the latest in the long line of big-box brick-and-mortar bookstores to bow to the ever-expanding Amazon.com. Fox rode the wave longer than most, in part because of its CEO’s savvy choices to get into online sales early on.

Joe Fox was an early adopter of the internet side of the book-selling business, telling ACME News in 2000, “I’ve been intrigued by the internet for a long time. I even met my wife in a chat room!” Fox has been married to Newbery Award-winning children’s author Kathleen Kelly for more than 15 years. Fox Books actually put Kelly’s independent bookstore out of business before the two found their spark, but the couple seem to have put all that behind them. The New York-based Fox & Sons Books went on to become one of the nation’s more notable big-box chains, in part because of its owner’s business philosophy: “Go to the mattresses.” Joe Fox fought, but in 2015 Fox & Sons Books posted losses in all four quarters, and the company’s death was inevitable.

One of FoxBooks.com’s most outstanding features was its online customer service, known for its tagline, “Quicker than an F-O-X.” That feature will stand former CEO in good stead for the future, as Amazon agreed to purchase the customer service arm of the business for $2.2 billion earlier this year. Joe Fox also has significant investments in an elevator company. He cryptically explained that business choice in a 2010 interview, “Let’s just say an hour in an elevator changed my life.”

The Night Cary Grant Hooted

Photo courtesy of Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

It started with Cary Grant screaming.

Well, maybe you’d call it more of a hoot. “Squeal” is too high, “scream” too sharp. It’s this startled “whoooo!” sound that’s rather difficult to describe.

It was 2006. The Olympics were in Torino and I was in Alaska. It was February, one of our warmer weeks of that month, and the sky was overcast.

Your television options were pretty limited back in 2006 in Glennallen. There was satellite or analog antenna—which basically meant satellite or nothing. My antenna picked up a fuzzy NBC that cut out regularly.  Sometimes. The rest of the time it picked up nothing. Thank goodness for VCRs, DVD players, the local library, Netflix, and the personal collections of friends. Golden resources for your entertainment needs.

I’d borrowed Bringing up Baby from the library. Videos were typically a better bet from there—the DVDs were regularly scratched. So I was watching it on video when my friend Kristie called to chat. I pressed pause. And we got talking.

Remember how on VCRs, if you put the video on pause, it would hold for about 10 or 15 minutes and then it would start playing again?

I was standing in the kitchen, back to the living room and the TV, deep in the midst of our conversation. And then Cary Grant hooted. Scared me out of my bones. I squealed.

Kristie laughed at me as I recovered myself and explained what had happened. I scrambled to find the remote, this time planning to press STOP. I tracked it down on the couch and pushed the button with the little white square.

And I had TV.

I’m pretty sure those precise words came out of my mouth, actually.

“Kristie! I have TV!”
Her response was just as excited. “You do!?”
And in the instant it took her to say that much, I’d realized what was on my screen. “It’s men’s figure skating! It’s the Olympics!”
Kristie responded with the only logical question: “Can I come over?”

She did, and we reveled in the wonder of television. (Note bene, when you don’t watch TV for a long time, commercials become interesting.) We watched as sport after sport was shown. Bob Costas expertly guided us through the evening’s events.

And then he introduced us to Snowboard Cross.

Photo from AP Photo/Keystone, Jean-Christophe Bott

The sport was making its Olympic debut that year. I’d never seen anything like it. The ski and snowboarding events had always been my least favorite parts of the Olympics, mostly because they were races against the clock, not another competitor. If you’re going to race, I’ve always thought, you should see your competition out of the corner of your eye. But here it was: a snowboarding event with four racers at a time.

We watched until they turned off the Olympic coverage that night, and I didn’t get TV again for the rest of its run.

It was one magical night when the stars aligned (somewhere, high above the low-lying clouds*): a good friend by my side, an entertainment treat, and a new sport to look forward to watching every four years. Just think, if it hadn’t been for that night, I might not have discovered Snowboard Cross until 2010.

And I owe it all to Cary Grant’s hooting.

 

*I’m fairly certain that these low-lying clouds were the reason for our serendipitous signal that night. On clear nights, I never saw anything on TV.

The Cry of the Artist

“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!” –Babette’s Feast

***

Criterion Collection DVD cover for Babette’s Feast

I came to Babette’s Feast eagerly. I’d seen it years before – multiple times. I’d studied it in a course and given a presentation on it. I’d read the short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), perhaps even before I first saw the film. I’d read the short story again many times since. I’d taught it in a course. I’d recommended it to friends. I thought a few years back to buy the DVD and discovered to my horror that it would cost me nigh on $50 for a DVD produced in the mid-90s. I bided my time.

Then the word came. The Criterion Collection was releasing a new DVD. They know how to celebrate good art. It was satisfying news. The cost would be reasonable. And I settled in to count the days until I could get my hands on a copy.

***

Early this summer – almost late spring – I sat on my friend Julie’s back porch in Charlotte, North Carolina and we talked about Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through a Screen Darkly. I was aware of it; I’d followed Jeffrey as a movie reviewer for years. I’d heard good things about the book, but hadn’t yet invested the time or energy to read it.

Jeffrey was on the list of speakers for a conference Julie and I plan to attend this fall called Hutchmoot. I was excited. His book was on the recommended reading list. Julie had begun it.

“I’m loving it,” she said. “I’m wondering if we should think about using it as the next book in our reading group. What do you think?” She sketched out a few ideas of how it could be divided up nicely for discussion. I glanced through the table of contents. I skimmed a few pages. I concurred.

She floated the idea of asking Jeffrey to join the discussion. A book discussion with the author? I encouraged the thought.

***

I got more out of Through a Screen Darkly than I could have imagined getting. It did not just, as the subtitle predicted, look closer at beauty, truth, and evil in the movies; it looked at them in all of art. It challenged me to watch movies differently, to approach art more carefully, to be a better recipient of art, and therefore a better creator of it.

Julie had the brilliant idea of pairing each week’s reading with one of the movies Jeffrey mentions in the section we were discussing. The movies were optional. I did a terrible job of keeping up with them. Interestingly, as I read the book, I found myself watching movies less.

I knew now they deserved my close attention, and the glare of the computer screen and the Facebook alerts coming in on my iPhone should not be constantly present while I experienced them.

But the final week, after we finished all the chapters of the book, I knew I’d watch the movie: Babette’s Feast was planned.

I remember telling Julie when she suggested that we could end with a week discussing Babette’s Feast that the timing would be perfect. The planned week was immediately following the new DVD’s release. Then our discussion got delayed a bit along the way and we ended up with Babette a week later than planned – for me, immediately following a writer’s conference.

***

I keep thinking about art lately. About what it means to create art. About what the role of the artist is. About art in the contemporary culture. About art industries. About the relationship of the artist to the industries.

Ken Gire spoke at the Greater Philadelphia Writer’s Conference where I was on faculty this past week. He reminded us that we as writers are lovers of words. He speculated that there was a time for each one of us when we were reading and something inside of us said, “Follow me.” And now, 20, or 30, or 40 years later, we were there at a conference, pen and sheaf of paper in our hands, in hopes that our words will do for someone else what words did for us.

He called the handing over of a manuscript to an editor a sacred moment. “Something of your heart is mediated in the thin, white, wafer-like paper,” he said. And then he went on to challenge us: “Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t reduce art to paint-by-numbers….Aspire to something true: from the depths of your heart to the depths of another.”

***

wrote recently that the best thing about Joss Whedon’s new Much Ado About Nothing was that it got made at all – “that a group of friends decided they wanted to do this, made the time for it, and did it well. Limited release or no, it’s encouraging to see that something like this movie can still happen [in the contemporary art industry].”

I called Whedon’s choice to make the movie a risk. He had no financial backer when he chose to make the film. He had no method for distributing it. Sure, he had connections, but there was no guarantee that his art would ever see the light of day.

***

Makoto Fujimura uses the ancient Japanese technique of nihonga in his painting. Nihonga uses precious stones and metals to create the pigments with which the artist paints. Mako’s paintings have colors made from lapis lazuli, from gold, from corals, from malachite.

He points to Jesus’ commendation of Mary in John 12 when she brings the costly perfume and anoints him with it. “That is an amazing commendation for someone like me who tends to work from the heart, who tends to work with precious and costly materials. I remember that the extravagance of Christ’s love for me prompted an extravagant response. Eventually, I came to connect what I do as an artist with Mary’s devotional act. Maybe that is the one act we can look to as the centerpiece for a paradigm of creativity.”

***

I asked Christine if we could approach Babette’s Feast without the distractions. We put our computers in other rooms. We turned off, really off, our phones.

She’d never experienced the story. I had.

It has been years since I watched Babette’s Feast. I almost saw it with new eyes. I knew what was coming, but the visual portrayal was dim and faded in my mind. I watched Babette learn how to make bread and ale soup from the sisters, patiently learning words as she went, and I knew that they had no idea that they were teaching Shakespeare how to write plays.

I watched Babette win the lottery, cash the check, and put the money carefully into a wooden box. I watched her carry the box, clutched close to her heart, to her room, then sit down and look at it. I watched her walk the heaths and beaches. I knew the decision she would make. I knew the sacrifice that was coming.

I watched her thrill as she unpacked the ingredients. I watched her eyes alight as she created the dishes. I saw the industry with which she worked to prepare the meal, up to the very moment the platters went to the table. She did not touch the wine until the guests were in the later courses. Her sharp eyes kept all in order.

And then I experienced again the beautiful revelation at the end of the story, that Babette has spent her entire fortune, ten thousand francs, on the meal the sisters and their friends have just consumed. When they protest that she should not have given away all her money for their sake she gently tells them, “It was not just for your sake.” When they ask if she will now be always poor, she says, “A great artist is never poor.”

Philippa understands, to some small extent, the heart of an artist. She comes closer to Babette and continues to press: “Was this the sort of dinner you would prepare at the Café Anglais?” Babette nods, saying she could make the people happy when she did her very best. Then she quotes Achille Papin, the opera singer who once taught Philippa, “Through all the world there goes one cry from the heart of an artist: Give me leave to do my utmost.”

“But this is not the end, Babette,” Philippa says. “I feel sure this is not the end. In Paradise, you will be the great artist God meant you to be.” She walks forward and embraces the cook. “Ah, how you will enchant the angels!”

***

We sang a song in church this morning that struck me anew.

And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

And I hear the voice of many angels sing,
“Worthy is the Lamb”
And I hear the cry of every longing heart,
“Worthy is the Lamb”

***

There is a cry that goes out from the heart of the artist.

It’s the cry that says, “Take the time to experience deeply.”
The cry that says, “Don’t sell yourself short.”
The cry that says, “Take a risk.”
The cry that says, “Extravagant art is worship.”
The cry that says, “It is worth spending everything.”
The cry that says, “Give me leave to do my utmost.”

The cry that says, “Worthy is the Lamb.”

New Post at Greener Trees

Hungary Color

I’ve been taking part in a great book discussion group this summer. We’re reading Jeffrey Overstreet’s book, Through a Screen Darkly.

This week I wrote a guest post to host the conversation over at Greener Trees.

Here’s a snippet:

There is power in great beauty. Beauty heals, it soothes, it allures, it inspires. And when we see it, in a film, in a book, in a moment, it can catch us by surprise and stay with us forever.

Click here to read more.

Ticket Stubs

Christine (bless her – wonderful roomie who mailed me the negatives I forgot so that I could work on a scanning project over break) gave me a “ticket stub album” for Christmas.

For a while now, basically since college, I’ve kept my ticket stubs when I go to movies and shows. I’ve tossed them into a little box in a drawer, thinking someday I’d do something with them.
Well, this delightful person paid attention to that, and found me “something” to do with them…
I began to organize them this evening when I got home (HOME, to Michigan!), and just had to stop and think for a moment about the experience of movie going. I read somewhere once that movies should be watched in theatres because you get a community experience that you just can’t replicate even in the best living room set-up.
Sure, I could look at all these stubs and say, “gee whiz, that was money I could have used elsewhere.” But, rather, I look at them and think, “Oh, that was the time I was sitting between Natey and Paul when they wanted to talk about football during Remember the Titans” or “Oh! That’s the movie Loren and Kraig and I went to the first time they left Keren with the grands after she was born.”
I look at these stubs, and more than anything, I remember the people I saw the movies with. Hmm…maybe movies really are about community.

"Up Five Ghetto Notches"

A week ago we turned on the TV.
Sound came out.
No picture.
Currently our TV is nothing more than an immensely large speaker. Immensely.
So I will have to get a new one, some time. But, well, there just isn’t time right this moment. I mentioned the situation to my coworker, Jodi, and she offered an extra TV they had sitting in their garage as a fill in.
I happily accepted the offer and brought home the TV the other night. Not able to do with the old one yet, I set the borrowed set on a small table in front of the old one. Then I went to hook it up.
But here’s the thing. The borrowed set only has a mono audio plug in. And I only have a stereo audio cable.
So, as a solution, we improvised. Currently the video cable is going into the borrowed set. The audio cables, then, are going into that massive video-less speaker sitting behind it.
Christine laughed at me. And then she declared that our apartment just went up five ghetto notches.
But hey, we both appreciate that we’ve got a TV.

Textures of the 18th Century

You know those days that are just right? The ones where you wake up in the morning, having slept just enough, and you get up, and you do the things you need to do to get the day rolling, but no more. The ones where you take a walk, pick up a hot cocoa at Starbucks, stop in at the jeweler’s and find that you only owe four dollars for your fixed earrings, and then continue your meander down the street. As you go you pass the Tubby Olive and the Grapevine Grocer, the Lubavitch and the Newtown Borough Hall. Flakes begin to fall as you approach your destination, the Newtown Theatre, and you cross the street to the chattering voices of children, coming out from their viewing of The Polar Express to the sight of snowflakes.
You make your way inside, buy your ticket, and find a seat, thrilling in the old red curtain that covers the screen and the miniature town and train that stretch from side to side of the stage. And a few moments later the lights dim, and the curtains open, and you take a trip back to your childhood as you watch a Disney fairytale and melt into your seat at the song where the hero and the heroine fall in love.
It’s those days that make you think that it can’t get much better. That this must be the pinnacle, but you realize that it’s only 3 PM and you still have much to do. You walk back out into the chilly town and you remember that the Half-Moon Inn is open for visitors, so you wander back through the streets, approach the stone building at the corner of Center and Court, and reach your hand out to open the door…
And that’s when you realize you were wrong. Because, as much as the day had been perfect so far, it only got better when you stepped back two centuries into the wood, metal, and stone of an old inn, full of the smells of crackling fires, mulled cider, and roasting duck.
After all that, the best part of your day were the textures of a lost century.



Unfathomed Mystery

It’s funny – strange, really: grief. One of those mysteries of life we experience as human beings but never really understand.

This week I watched episodes from the show Roswell–not a series of great depth or insight in general, mostly just fluffy teen pulp with aliens thrown in for good measure. An entertaining diversion, but not much more. But there was an episode I saw in which one of the main characters died in an accident and the rest of them dealt with the loss. It was a very real hour of drama. Despite the random alien elements of the show, it took the time to focus on how death affects us as humans, how we grieve.

I’ve been grieving lately, that’s no secret. My niece died in January and the loss has marked me forever. As I watched that episode this week, I shed a few tears for Keren. But here’s where grief bewilders me: that recent loss was not at the forefront of my mind as I watched. Instead, I found myself once again grieving the loss of my friend Carrie Wolfe who died in 2003.

I got word of Carrie’s death just after we’d finished celebrating my birthday a day early. The next morning, the day I turned 22, I awoke to the knowledge that my friend was gone. It was not the happiest birthday I’ve ever had.

In the Roswell episode, on the morning after the accident, one of the guys, Kyle, awakes to his typical morning routine but then, remembering, he crawls back into his bed. His dad comes in and, sitting next to him, says, “Not a very happy day, is it? I want to tell you something. It may not seem like much, but you need to know it: your friend died yesterday, not today. Have a happy birthday, son.”

At those words, the loss of Carrie washed over me once more, and it was followed by a wave of relief. I’d never realized how closely I’ve connected Carrie’s death and my birthday in my mind. With the words of a fictional character on a silly television show, God reached into my heart and set up a hedge of proper separation between the two events.

I lost a friend, and that loss is a thing to grieve, and the knowledge that Carrie is in heaven is a thing to rejoice over, and the anniversary of the day I was born is a thing to celebrate. But they are not one event. I can commemorate each, day after day. Though they fell together in time, here on this earth, God holds them each in His hands individually, having known since before the dawn of Creation that He would place both grief and happiness in my life and that they would become intermingled. But to give each event its own value, I cannot remember them as one. Instead, I should hold them separately, as precious memories in my heart.

Random and Ridiculous

An occasional assortment of things I’ve found of (humorous) note:

1. T’other day, I drove through a neighborhood on the way home from work. In one lawn stands a light post. That day, there was a bright yellow recycling garbage can upturned over the lamp post. I’m still not quite sure why.

2. Sometime in the media blitz that followed the American Idol win of Kris Allen, I saw a clip from the first morning after his win. He arrived at a red carpet press gathering early in the morning after only a couple hours of sleep to begin the morning show interviews. Upon arrival he was greeted by a woman (some sort of publicist or something), who asked him if he’d gotten any sleep and then offered to get him a cup of coffee. He accepted the offer and she took off. A little while later she returned, and pulling him aside between interviews handed him what I know to be a Venti-sized Starbucks reusable mug. “Thanks! Oh, look at this,” Allen said, admiring the mug. “Yeah, we’re being eco-conscious, too!” the woman replied. “Vanilla latte, right?” Kris took a gulp. “Wow,” he said. “Thank you.”

And I laughed. Originally offered: Cup of Coffee: $1 at a 7-11. Received? Mug: $19, Vanilla Latte: $5. Yep, that “cup of coffee” was worth nearly $25. Welcome to your new life, Kris.

3. Yesterday, my friend Courtney and I went to Max & Erma’s for dinner. The closest one is more than half an hour away, so it’s a treat to head there. I, confident in my memory of the direction, did not look it up again before going. My confidence obviously misplaced, my memory failed me and when I took what I thought was the right exit, I found myself feeling that I was headed in the wrong direction. Courtney offered to pull out her GPS and fix the problem for me by typing in Max & Erma’s and getting the Garmin to lead us there. When she did so, the woman in the little box informed me that I was headed in the right direction and that Max & Erma’s was less than four miles ahead. Still slightly suspicious, I believed the determined voice of the woman, and drove on. Then she told me to turn right. Doing so, I found myself in a neighborhood. Continuing along, I followed her directions through the neighborhood back to a main road where she told me I’d arrived at my destination. I looked right. There was an STS Tires, Honeybaked Ham, and Curves. None of those were Max & Erma’s. After a little fiddling, I found the right town on the Garmin’s map and she eventually led us to our destination, which was, after all, in the direction I’d originally thought was correct. Silly GPS.

4. In the course of the above adventure, Courtney informed me that when she first got the GPS she wanted to call it Jack Bauer, ’cause it was so often useful for getting her out of a pinch. But, realizing that the little black box had a woman’s voice, Courtney found that Jack Bauer was probably not the best namesake for the little device. So instead, she named it Sydney Bristow. “I usually just call it that to myself, though,” she said. “Not many people understand.” I, of course, understood completely, having often attempted to name myself Sydney Bristow whenever I have some sort of experience that I can remotely connect to being spy-like.

Did America Get It Wrong?

For weeks, now, Adam Lambert has been proclaimed the preordained holder of the American Idol crown. He fit the bill, too: powerful vocals, huge personality, determined glint in his eye. Adam singing a cheesy victory song with confetti raining down around him at the Nokia seemed a foregone conclusion.

Then Ryan opened the envelope and read the winner’s name: Kris Allen. The guy from Arkansas, the boy next door, the “dark horse” takes home the crown.

How did it happen? Even before the confetti began to fall online message boards were throwing accusations around: “Did people not vote for Adam because he might be gay?,” “They must have messed up the tally!,” etc. Shall we shut the door on the accusations straight away? America voted. America got what it wanted.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for Simon Cowell, America doesn’t want Whitney, Celine, or Mariah anymore. Paula Abdul might be shocked to learn that glam rock is no longer in style. Randy could be mistaken in thinking that vocal ability is all it takes to make a star. Kara may be surprised to discover that “artistry” has been redefined in recent days.

I’m not trying to put anyone down. I love classic rock and glam rock. I recognize the powerhouse vocals of the divas of the late 20th Century. I state unequivocally that Adam Lambert is an amazing vocalist.

But I think America has chosen from its heart, rather from nostalgia or homage to ability. The past six months have been tough ones for this country. The economy is in bad shape, the promised change is not as quick to arrive as the voters expected it to be, friends and loved ones are still in danger in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Idol has played its role admirably this season. It has been an escape.

For a season that so many found difficult to “get into,” Idol has, in recent weeks particularly, become a nail-bitingly close competition between remarkably different contestants. The final five could not have been more individually unique: Matt, the jazz singer; Allison, the rocker; Danny, the crooner; Adam, the glam; and Kris, the boy with his guitar. Yet their performances on Rat Pack night were almost equally good. There wasn’t a let-down in the bunch. Matt went home, but it wasn’t because of “My Funny Valentine,” the jazz classic. Allison the rocker went home in Rock week, singing Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” with a passion that rivaled the original. Danny left after crooning “You Are So Beautiful.” Each went out on a high note.

The same could be said of Adam. While I found his vocal stylings awe-inspiring from the get-go, I have to say I struggled to be an Adam fan. His pattern of back-and-forth manic-and-maudlin performances got dull after the first few. He is a man of extremes: screaming (perfectly on pitch) the lyrics to “Whole Lotta Love” or delicately handling “Tracks of My Tears” in a falsetto, Adam rarely used the middle ground. But in his final performances, he found the center, singing “A Change is Gonna Come” with a strong, full, restrained voice. Even so, Adam didn’t take the crown. America voted for Kris.

When his name was read, Kris seemed shocked. “Adam deserves this,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He was right. That said, he deserved it no less himself. Both men had week upon week of solid performances. Both men had a slight misstep (Adam with “Ring of Fire,” Kris with “All She Wants to Do is Dance”), both an “off” performance (Adam’s “One,” Kris’s “The Way You Look Tonight”).

The difference between the two is the difference between the entertainer and the everyman. Adam is entertaining. No matter whether you loved him or hated him, you watched, just to see what he would do next. Every performance was expertly crafted, so well that the stitches were invisible, but crafted nonetheless. His confident attitude assured us we were in the hands of a proficient. Kris, on the other hand, is everyman. He picked up his guitar or sat down at his piano just like he would in your living room, with gentle, but complete, authority. He understood that he couldn’t compete with the belting power of Adam, or Allison, or even Lil, so instead he imbued his performances with a quiet, moving passion. His humility, so annoying to Simon Cowell, made everyone else smile; his genuine surprise at his success brought joy to everyone watching.

America chose the everyman. With Adam, a distance was created: he was the performer, we were his audience. We reveled in our role, for who doesn’t like to be audience to a great performance? But we didn’t intimately connect with this entertainer, who, after all, seems by all accounts to also be a really nice guy. He was confident, but never cocky. He was polished, but grateful for good advice. He pointed the spotlight upon those who helped him and those he worked with. All this and a great voice, yet Adam’s not the American Idol.

Instead, the American Idol is the guy who said, “Don’t cry, Momma,” when mothers around the country are shedding tears over how to pay next month’s bills. He’s the guy who sang about hopefully pointing a sinking boat toward home when families are trying to keep from drowning in their troubles. He put aside the band and the back-up singers and invited us to join him as he sang. Instead of his audience, we were his listeners, and we heard greatness in the quietude.

2009 is the year that a little movie about choosing love over money took home the Oscar. 2009 is the year that Kris Allen became the American Idol. Both things you wouldn’t expect in a country looking for escape.

Did America get it right? Did the best man win, or even the better man? Let’s set aside the superlatives. They don’t seem to matter at all this morning. Both Kris and Adam deserve their moments of glory. If 19 Entertainment has any foresight at all they’ll give both record deals, because America still loves the diversion of the entertainer, even when our heartstrings are tugged by the decent humility of the everyman.