The following is an excerpt from my memoir Fortunate One, with some content from the chapters on my elementary school Ellis Brett. The book is on sale at Amazon here, or contact me directly for an autographed copy.


Chapter 6 — Ellis Brett, Part 1

I’m sure the wooden, two-story Ellis Brett elementary school had been a state-of-the-art educational facility back in 1895, but when I started first grade in 1960 it was an anachronism, consisting of twelve airy classrooms. In the middle of each floor was a wide-open, all-purpose area that functioned as performance space, temporary nursing station, or visiting library as needed. Each classroom had a high ceiling, lots of windows, and an exterior door leading out to an iron fire escape. Although we never sheltered under our desks to prepare for a nuclear attack, we did regularly scamper outside for fire drills — and a good thing too because the building, dry as a pile of Arizona mesquite, might have burst into flames at the drop of a match.

I lived half a mile away, so I walked myself to school. Every morning I stopped at the Perdikis house to pick up Jimmy, after which we continued on together. No one thought it strange to see two six-year-olds strolling down Pleasant Street (aka Route 27), which, with its whizzing cars and lumbering trucks, was one of Brockton’s major thoroughfares. There were no flashing lights to warn drivers about school crossing either. Why bother?  When we got to Belair Street, we met our school custodian and crossing guard Mr. Kundis, who made sure we got to the other side of the street without being flattened. No problem!

The second day of school turned out to be one of the most crucial days of my life. Recognizing an unbalance between the two new first-grade classes (mine had 42 students and the other had 38), our principal entered the classroom to announce that since Freddie Tedesco and I were the last two students to register we were being moved to the other first grade class. That was the domain of Miss Marsha Lindsay, a pretty young woman in her mid-twenties. This is where I met my two best friends, who would shape and influence me and remain the center of my social life through high school and beyond. 

Miss Lindsay’s room was set up with about twenty little two-person desks, one of which I was assigned to share with Philip Tasho, a black-haired Albanian-American who served as the best man at my wedding three decades later. We didn’t get off to the greatest start, though. One day he scribbled on my side of the desk and tried to blame me. Not made for a life of crime, he cracked under close questioning by Miss Lindsay, confessed to the whole thing, and ended up weeping during lunch break as he erased all traces of his transgression.

He had his revenge mid-year, though, when we changed desk partners and he was assigned to sit with the class’s six-year-old heart-throb Jaye Jantamaso, who in a room of Debbies, Susans, Marys, and Kathys, was adorable in the way that baby chipmunks are adorable. On the walk home that bitter day, it was my turn to weep at the essential unfairness of the universe, which would allow the undeserving Philip Tasho to sit next to Jaye Jantamaso. 

The Jantamaso fiasco aside, I generally liked first grade, and not just because I could freebase the white paste that Miss Lindsay handed out for craft projects. I liked almost everything about my six years at Ellis Brett, as decrepit as the physical structure was. I was reasonably bright and eager to please and teachers took to me. The school provided old-fashioned 3-Rs education, with kids arranged in neat rows and teachers standing in front of blackboards. This kind of instruction suited me, but there were a few kids, mostly over-energized boys, who couldn’t really adapt. They ran around when they should have been sitting still. We considered them naughty. In second grade our teacher’s frustration with one kid named Douglas boiled over and she tied him to his chair. Somehow she wasn’t fired or sued, but this was a never-to-be-repeated punishment. Deemed to have behavioral problems stemming from his parents’ divorce, he emerged in a rage from a vexing one-on-one session with a visiting school psychologist one day, sputtering that the “asshole” asked too many questions about his mother, and vowing to “kick him in the nuts” if he ever did that again. I didn’t exactly know what that meant but by this time I’d learned not to repeat expressions said in that tone of voice.

The days and years at Ellis Brett were full of rhythms and rituals. In the mornings we arrived at the school a few minutes early and ran around in the expansive playground. When the bell rang, we formed lines by class and gender before being escorted to our classrooms — the boys through the boys’ bathroom in the basement and the girls through their own bathrooms. Once ensconced in our classroom, the first thing on the agenda was the Pledge of Allegiance, guided by one honored child who would lead the class as we stood to face the flag with our hands over our hearts. We then sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” This was followed by an opening prayer. In deference to the many Jewish students in our school, we recited a passage from the Old Testament, which is how I came to memorize both the 23rd and 100th Psalms. This practice lasted until 1963, when school prayer was outlawed by the Supreme Court. All the adults seemed to agree that it was a damn shame that some atheist crank could deny the rest of us this moment of grace. 

My third grade teacher, Miss Hazel Bond, was particularly incensed. She’d been teaching elementary school since Calvin Coolidge was president and could have given my grandmother lessons in how to dress like an old lady. I am now half a decade older than she was then but with that prune face she seemed so ancient I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that she’d had a pterodactyl as a pet. Politically, she might as well have been a member of the John Birch Society, based on the running commentary she provided about contemporary society. She railed against the Court and asserted that we would continue to pray in defiance of the entire federal government. That didn’t last long. 

At lunchtime, those of us who walked to school returned home, once again braving the dangers of the Pleasant Street traffic. Fully nourished, we returned an hour later for ANOTHER death-defying walk to school. The unfortunate kids who took the bus to school ate their lunch at their desks. When it snowed and was deemed too dangerous to walk to and from school twice in one day, the entire class brought lunch and ate at their desks. Those were always fun days, despite the classroom’s lingering sour-milk and damp-wool smell. Crucially, I got to use my barn-themed lunchbox, which carried a thermos of chocolate milk where the hayloft would have been. 

The sorting among the “smart” and “slow” kids started immediately. For reading, math and music, we were divided into four different groups according to ability. Not having been to kindergarten and lacking instruction in any academic subject, I was assigned to the second reading group. Within a month, I had learned so quickly that I was moved in with the smarter kids in the first group. Reading came easily and I quickly learned its value. One day at home, I picked up a TV Guide and a lightbulb went off: I knew so many of the words that I could figure out what would be on TV!

Our report cards covered over a dozen areas, ranging from social development to academic performance. There were three grades: G, for “good,” AV for “average,” and U for “unsatisfactory.”  Each subject had three to six sub-categories of achievement, where the teacher could mark an N for “needs improvement.”  My grades were decent but when I found my old report cards stashed away in my mother’s desk a few years ago, I discovered they weren’t as good as I remembered. I didn’t get any U’s, to be sure, but I never swept the board with G’s as my memory had led me to believe.

I always got G’s in deportment and was reprimanded only once, in the third grade, by Miss Bond, who terrorized all the boys in our class. She had a habit of calling malefactors to the front of the room, grabbing their chins in her bony fingers and berating them for their many sins. If she was really annoyed she’d use her knuckles to hit up, up, up from beneath the chin, slamming her victim’s teeth together. Usually she directed her ire at the usual group of overactive misbehavers who have been making trouble since first grade, but one day I entered her line of fire. She was a demon about school property and I had dropped one of my books on the ground and scuffed the cover. There was also a slightly torn page. She seized my chin in her pincers and accused me of being careless and negligent.

As someone whose life-long ambition is never to be reprimanded for anything, I arrived home for lunch agitated and distraught, nearly weeping when I recounted the injustice to my mother. To be manhandled in front of the entire class and for what? Some very minor wear and tear to a book that had resulted from an honest accident?  

Back at school after lunch, I was summoned to the principal’s office and told to bring my book. To my astonishment there sat my mother, who had apparently marched down to the school to find out what the heck was happening in that classroom. The principal, Mrs. Evelyn McCarthy, a very professional fifty-something educator with eyeglasses that hung from her neck in a beaded string, asked to see the damaged item in question and then used about an inch of scotch tape to repair the slightly torn page. She gently explained to me, although not in these exact words: look, you have to understand, Miss Bond is, well, OLD and you can’t take everything she says seriously. OK? Oh, OK. I was glad to know that even adults realized Miss Bond was an old bat, but my most important takeaway from this incident was that my mother had my back. She would never take my side if I was in the wrong but knowing that you have that kind of unspoken support from a parent when you are in the right is crucial for any child.

For more on my adventures at Ellis Brett buy the book here.

Is Wordle still a thing? For a few months last winter it was all anyone could talk about or post on Facebook. Or rather, it was about the only thing in this politically polarized moment that everyone could discuss without pulling each other’s hair out. (And even that was dicey. One morning the answer was initially ABORT, which was itself aborted at about 2:00 a.m. for a less sensitive five-letter word.)

Wordle was so popular that had a whole interview with Kamala Harris to discuss her game strategy. Apparently the Vice President’s go-to starter word is NOTES. She also claimed that she’d never missed solving the problem, although conveniently she can’t share her squares to confirm this because she uses a super-secure, triple-encrypted, anti-spy phone. I would certainly not imply that a politician is stretching the truth but I find the whole story a bit fishy, especially since NOTES is such a mediocre-to-bad starter word (having that S at the end is not very strategic because Wordle doesn’t use plural words as answers. STONE would be a much better word if you wanted to use those same letters.)

I know some people continue to play Wordle because I still see the Facebook posts, but I don’t know whether this is a fad that has largely burned out or if it’s turned into a habit so regular that it’s no longer worth mentioning.

I, for one, am still at it. It gives me something to do at 3:00 am, when I have insomnia, and it provides my wife and me something to talk about every morning. More important, by helping me break my addiction to the NYT Crossword puzzle, which was occupying hours of my time by the end of the week, Wordle — and its big brother Quordle — turned out to be the puzzle version of Methadone. Apparently all I need is ten to twenty minutes of word scrambling a day to get my fix

I reflect on all this now because I just played my 200th game. I wish I could be prouder of my record, though. I have a 97 win percentage, which means I’ve lost six times — much worse than Kamala Harris (supposedly!) Some of these failed attempts were bad luck, like the time I identified four in-place letters but they were _IGHT, leaving my potential solutions as SIGHT, MIGHT, LIGHT FIGHT, RIGHT, NIGHT, and TIGHT. Then there was the time I had _0_ER after two guesses but still guessed wrong on my next four tries. When the word LOSER then popped up, I thought WORDLE was insulting me rather than providing the correct answer. (I guess this was my penance for using URINE as my starter word.)

I thought Wordle was trolling me but it turned out that LOSER was the answer.

In my defense, I deliberately create an extra degree of difficulty for myself with starter words. Actually, I don’t understand why people always use the same starter word. Once you’ve figured out that ADIEU has four vowels, what’s the fun of that? Rather than stagnate with the same starter, I deploy a different one every day. To discipline myself I go through the alphabet in order, starting with AVOID and working my way through to ZEBRA. I specifically seek out the words that amuse me, like MOIST, LOUSY, JUICY, SAUCY, WEIRD, ROACH, ODIUM, NASTY, or HAIRY.

This leads to a few surprises. I’ve learned for example, how few five-letter, non-plural words begin with E. And of course it’s particularly hard to find starter words that begin in X or Z. Although occasionally this strategy will pay off (see below)

Who knew that XRAYS was such a good starter word?

How long will I stick with Wordle? I did the New York Times crossword puzzle every Sunday through Friday for ten years before I fell down, broke my dominant arm last January and then couldn’t hold a pen to write out the answers for months. Maybe I’ll stick with Wordle and Quordle until I break my thumbs.

[This is an excerpt from my memoir “FORTUNATE ONE: From Nantucket to The White House.” which is available for sale at the local Nantucket bookstores. This excerpt addresses my return to Nantucket in the mid-1970’s to run Channel 3, the local cable channel that my parents had bought from Nantucket Cablevision.]

The Nantucket I remembered from visiting my grandparents in the mid-1960s was not the place I found in the winter of 1977, when I took command at Channel 3. Like Brockton, it was caught up in economic and social forces beyond its control, but the island’s increasingly bright trajectory was almost the opposite of the ongoing immiseration of my hometown.

For decades, Nantucket had been a sedate, cash-poor, seaside outpost, living on the memory of its whaling era riches and supported by WASPy summer people who were happy to keep a low profile, quietly sip their gin and tonics at the yacht club, wear shabby clothes around town, and navigate the local waters in unpretentious wooden sailboats. In the summers of the 1960s, you could still drive to the end of Straight Wharf, then little more than a paved parking lot jutting out into the harbor. Once there, you’d buy an ice cream cone at the snack bar and sit in your car to gaze out at the boats hypnotically bobbing at their moorings. The big event of the week was the band concert on Sunday night, when we crowded around a temporary wooden platform erected on Main Street’s cobblestones to listen to an ebullient woman in a man’s white suit and narrow black necktie conduct a program borrowing heavily from the middlebrow Boston Pops repertoire. Those quaint, innocent, small-town pleasures had all vanished when I moved back.

The country’s post-war economic boom created a much larger millionaire class with significantly more time and money to spend on recreation. This was the insight of a rich summer resident, Walter Beinecke, an heir to the S&H Green Stamp fortune and the controlling investor in the “Christmas Club” business. In the late 1960s, he started buying up the town’s waterfront, biggest hotels, and fanciest restaurants. The ancient wharves, home first to whaling ships and later to commercial fishing boats, suddenly sprouted high-end retail stores, art galleries, and a world-class boat basin. It was a Disneyland version of a maritime village but it prevented the island from becoming a ticky-tacky tourist trap like Hyannis or Provincetown.

This strategy worked spectacularly well. Beinecke’s savvy understanding of the new upper crust’s aspirations, combined with the legitimate charm of Nantucket’s historic pre-Civil War mansions and its remote, windswept natural beauty, quickly remade Nantucket into a major East Coast resort and playground for the rich, on par with the Hamptons, Hilton Head, and Palm Beach.

As the money poured into the island, so did a brigade of retirees, lawyers, doctors, artists, real estate agents, general contractors, bartenders, and hair stylists—people who had once enjoyed the island for its summer charms but had decided to make Nantucket their year-round home. From 1970 to 1980, the island’s winter population grew by 50 percent, to more than 5,000 people.

Chief among the new blood that flooded into Nantucket during the 1970s was my Uncle Wayne, my father’s younger brother. He had worked his way through Mercer University in Georgia after graduating as the “most likely to succeed” from Nantucket High School with my parents in the class of 1950. He had subsequently married my Aunt Lee, the daughter of Roy Sanguinetti, Nantucket’s most prominent attorney. Wayne became a lawyer himself, initially slaving away on soulless corporate legal staffs in Pennsylvania and Ohio. After growing tired of the mainland rat race, he moved the family back to the island and took over his retiring father-in-law’s legal practice at a time when there were only three lawyers on the island. Smart and sharp-elbowed, he became the attorney for many of the island’s leading businesses and quickly established himself as one of the town’s most dominant politicians, ultimately serving on almost every important town board.

Until I arrived on Nantucket, I didn’t realize what an important and sometimes polarizing figure Wayne had become. Nor did I understand immediately why people would be wary that he had effectively gained operating control of one of the island’s few news outlets. I quickly intuited that if I ran into people who didn’t like him, which was frequently the case, I should emphasize that I was myself a native and that my parents were the more down-to-earth Quentin Holmes and Jean Harris—remember them? Or maybe I’d mention that I had Nantucket relatives on both sides of the family, including my grandfather Arthur Harris and my other uncle, Arthur “Brother” Harris. In a place like Nantucket where genealogies mattered, I was happy to play the “native” card when I needed to. 

The business we had bought, known as Channel 3 because of its location on the cable line-up, was just a penny-ante operation. Nevertheless, we incorporated the business as the Nantucket Broadcasting Company and created an NBC logo because Wayne thought it would be great publicity if the real NBC sued us for copyright infringement, which alas, they never bothered to do. Located in the narrow basement of a former house on Federal Street, underneath an electronics store called “The Electric Mainsail,” Channel 3’s assets consisted of two video cameras, several monitors, and some aging transmission equipment. The “studio” was located at the far end of the cellar, with a curtain to cover up the stone foundation and a video set that accommodated a two-person plywood desk for newscasts. To be honest, we got ripped off. Cablevision should have paid us to take the operation off their hands, not the other way around. 

Channel 3 had one full-time employee, Jason, a sullen tech guy a couple years older than me who was rightfully wary about my qualifications to run a TV station. Before I arrived, Wayne recruited two local women to be the TV news anchors—Lillian Waine, the 60-something wife of a local electrician and a homespun, amateur winter thespian, and Nancy Burns, a late-20s, big blonde personality from the Boston suburbs, who was socially connected to the arty and moneyed summer crowd.

The idea was that I would report and write the news for a 15-minute Monday through Friday news broadcast at 5:30pm. I’d type the stories on my typewriter and hand them to Nancy and Lilian at 5:00pm for a quick read-through before going live. We’d try to break up the verbal narration with video segments recorded earlier in the day on three quarter inch tape—it was usually an interview I’d conducted but it could also be music from a kids’ concert, a scene from a school play, or a birthday party from the nursing home. There was frequent tension on the set because Nancy aspired to be a polished, Leslie-Stahl-like newscaster and she chafed at Lilian’s folksy, grandmotherly delivery, with its touches of Minnie Pearl. 

After the news, we offered a series of 15-minute shows that Jason would produce: a man-in-the-street interview segment (On the Street Where You Live with Al Fee, whose day job was an assistant manager at the local First National supermarket), a program on local architecture, or a public affairs interview show that Wayne hosted. Jason would also be responsible for live broadcasting local high school football and basketball games (boys only, since the sponsoring booster club was only interested in one gender), as well as the annual town meeting and other important civic events.

Most of these shows were marginally supported by advertising, but to cover all the bills, we had to figure out how to squeeze more ad dollars out of the local merchants. Considering how much money was floating around town, this should have been easy, but I was from the “You don’t want to buy an ad, do you?” school of salesmanship. For a while, Lilian tried to sell ads and then we hired other sales people, but since there were no TV ratings, most of the local businesses didn’t see the value. Some of them would throw us a few crumbs from their leftover marketing dollars as a civic goodwill gesture, not unlike their sponsorship of a local Little League team, but we never cracked the big ad budgets. 

Despite having never previously written one line of news copy, I became a decent reporter. In the very early days, I got a lot of tips from Wayne, who knew all the town government gossip. In fact, thanks to him, I broke major news on our very first broadcast—that the disgruntled members of the police department were unionizing and joining the Teamsters. That was a classic small town news story, growing out of years of petty grievances, hurt feelings, and personal conflict. The selectman had recently recruited as their new police chief a well-credentialed but decidedly off-island law enforcement officer who ended a two century-long string of homegrown, good old boy top guns. The new guy was not popular with the dozen or so officers serving under him. They didn’t like it that he and the captain wore professional-looking white shirts instead of the gray uniforms that were good enough for the rest of them. Nor did they like it that he was recruiting new officers from off-island. And there were conflicts over shift assignments and a general feeling of disrespect. There were also nasty rumors, almost certainly unsubstantiated, that his wife was seen alone at the Chicken Box, the town’s ill-reputationed dive bar.

In a small town, the cops are celebrities, and the activities of the police department were a major focus of the island’s attention in those days. With only three national channels to watch on broadcast television, the police scanner was one of the island’s most important sources of entertainment, especially on long winter nights. Everyone had an opinion on what the cops did. In the end, the anti-chief turmoil was like almost everything else I covered as a local reporter: there was the surface news and the more interesting story-behind-the-story. For example, three meter maids (all sisters nicknamed “Charlie’s Angels” because of their father’s given name) were having affairs with three members of the force. Even though these were local women stepping out with local men married to local wives, somehow the outsider chief got blamed for letting his department become a little Peyton Place. But obviously none of this ever made it into print or on the air.

I tried to ingratiate myself with my new sources in the town building, the selectmen, the school committee, the police and fire departments, and the business community. Sometimes, I’d pick up some interesting historical tidbits. This is the kind of ancient anecdote you’d hear: the Chairman of the Planning Board was nicknamed “Hosey,” which I thought was a play on the name José; but no, he got his nickname in the high school locker room because his male member was alleged to be as long as a hose. 

Some sources became friends, particularly Madelyne Perry, the town clerk. Her son, slightly older than I was, had recently died in a car crash and she treated me as a surrogate son. She knew generations of island gossip and I’d hang out in her office to learn not only how the town actually worked, but also what children had been fathered by someone other than the men raising them, or which local officials had been enemies since birth. There’s a game Nantucketers play: “Who are their people?” If I asked about a woman on the planning board, Madelyne would say, “Well, she was a Holdgate,” and tell me who her parents and grandparents were and which of her multiple Holdgate brothers and sisters still lived on Nantucket and who they dated in high school. And I ate it up.

Here we go again. Another strange year in cinema, where the existential question of what it even means to BE a movie is open for discussion. Case in point — the most powerful and absorbing filmic experience of 2021 was Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary “Get Back.” Was that eight-hour, three-part, mind-blowing experience a “movie” or “TV show”? Dunno. But because it was really neither, it’s not on this list nor on my post of top TV shows either (which can be read here).

We can obviously blame some of the year’s weirdness on the pandemic. You couldn’t even GO to the movies for the first third of 2021 and even when they allowed you in the theatre, you practically needed to wear a Hazmat suit. But a bigger problem is that consumers have just gotten out the habit of treating the movies as a social experience to be shared with other human beings. It’s just so much easier and cheaper to stream a movie at home, so why go out?

I respect that Old Hollywood is doing what it can to hang on, and that it held back some of its most highly anticipated would-be blockbusters for the big screen. But most of them — “West Side Story” and that James Bond movie, for example — ended up being well-made and beautifully shot disappointments.

What’s also distorted about this list is that I didn’t even see most of last year’s best movies until calendar year 2022, which is why I waited to publish this until a week before the Oscars. Unless you lived in Manhattan or Hollywood it was hard to see them in 2021, since many producers delayed their releases in the mostly vain hope that they’d generate some late-year Oscar buzz.

Having said that, I’m reasonably happy with the what I did manage to see this year. I really like my Top Five movies, which makes me hopeful that there’s still a little life left in the old art form. Fingers crossed that the pandemic is really over now and that grown-up movie lovers will return to theaters.

1. Licorice Pizza

The protagonist is named Gary. Need I say more? Set in Hollywood during the early 1970s oil embargo, Gary is an aging child star, a cany entrepreneur, and a 15-year-old romantic who has his eyes set on a woman ten years his senior. Everyone understands this is weird and maybe even illegal but it’s still endearing. And to be honest, I too am in love with Alana Haim, the object of his desire, so I get it. The other great thing about Licorice Pizza is that it’s the funniest film of the year, despite technically not being a comedy.


I almost made this my number one pick but decided that Licorice Pizza was more interesting, even though CODA was the movie that produced the tears. CODA stands for Child Of Deaf Adults and the protagonist is a high school senior forced to chose between staying home to support her family’s fishing business or going to college to pursue a vocal career. It’s more than a bit manipulative but who cares? Sometimes it just feels so good to be manipulated.

3. Tick Tick Boom

Before Jonathan Larson created “Rent,” he wrote another (unproduced) musical — Tick Tick Boom — about being a starving artist in New York City during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Now directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the movie is surprisingly innovative, so although the songs are not familiar the musical is still engaging. And to be honest, even if you weren’t a struggling artist at age 30, you probably were a struggling something, which makes this deeply affecting.

4. Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s coming of age story about a boy in Protestant Ulster during the North Ireland “troubles.” His dad is targeted by the Provos for being insufficiently anti-Catholic and the story revolves around the question of whether the family will move from the home they love. But even as the bombs go off around him, the young, seemingly untraumatized, Branagh stand-in is having a charmed childhood, like something out of James Joyce. So when the movie is not tense it’s very sweet.

5. Summer of Soul

Terrific documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Fifth Dimension, the Staple Singers, Gladys Night and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone and the Chambers Brothers. Obviously the music is fantastic and the flashback to 1969 is always welcome.

6. In the Heights

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda created “Hamilton,” there was “In the Heights,” a remarkably conventional Broadway show about life in New York’s Washington Heights. The film, directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director John M. Chu, is a highly romanticized view of urban life. Why would anyone ever want to leave? The exuberant musical numbers are the highlight, followed by the very likeable stars.

7. Dune

This is “Star Wars” for adults. No jokes and don’t get attached to any character because almost everyone dies. It’s more visually beautiful than “Star Wars,” and the world-building in more believable. On the other hand, while not impossible, it’s pretty hard to follow the plot without having read the book first. Subtitles would have helped a lot.

8. West Side Story

I was more conflicted over this than any other movie this year. Every single musical number was thrillingly beautiful, which made me regret that Steven Spielberg didn’t make more musicals, but while I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder why this movie needed to be remade. The original was pretty terrific. What’s next? “The Sound of Music” with Taylor Swift?

9. Free Guy

What happens when a character in a video game starts to develop self-awareness and intelligence? This extremely clever premise powers “Free Guy,” with Ryan Reynolds as “Guy,” an initially clueless bank teller who thinks every day is great until there’s a glitch in the program. Consequence-free action and amusement ensues. This is very professionally produced entertainment.

10. Cry Macho

Clint Eastwood, a retired ranch hand, is hired by his old boss to find his young son in Mexico and return him to Texas. From decades of watching Eastwood movies, we know that Clint is a softy and will develop feelings for the boy. There will also be car chases, some horse-whispering, family drama and even an age-appropriate romance for Clint. It is astonishing that this guy is still directing and starring in movies at 90 years old!

11. The Mitchells vs. the Machines

One of those animated movies that’s kind of for adults and kind of for kids, “M vs M” envisions a world in which a Jeff Bezos-like megalomaniac unleashes all the robots in creation to take over the world. Standing in the way is one slightly dysfunctional family that pulls together to save humanity. This has the same antic energy and emotional power of “Toy Story,” except that in this case the lump in the throat comes from the prospect of the older daughter heading off to college.

12. Power of the Dog

Who let the dog out of the closet? By far the weirdest movie of the year, with Benedict Cumberbatch as a psychologically twisted co-owner of a massive cattle ranch who makes life miserable for everyone when his brother takes a widow as his bride. There’s some serious sexual dysfunction happening here and yet it’s compelling and absorbing. I do not get why this captured so many Academy Award nominations and is the favorite to win.

13. King Richard

A very ordinary sports movie about the rise of Venus and Serena Williams with all the usual cliches. Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, is their hard-charging dad, who is a pain in the ass to the stuffy tennis establishment. Like all sports movies, this is inspirational. There are hardships to overcome, especially the fact that the family comes from Black Compton and not the white, country club-strewn suburbs. Of course the problem with valorizing a monomaniacal sports dad like Richard Williams is that it inspires the millions of other sports dads who think THEIR kids are also sports prodigies.

14. Being the Ricardos

Aaron Sorkin knows how to weave together a handful of actual facts to form a narrative that contains a semblance of truth without all the messy nuances that might complicate the story. So what we have here is a week in the life of Lucy and Desi in which: 1) Lucy is accused of being a communist, and 2) Lucy finds proof of Desi’s infidelities. Both these things happened in real life, but in one week and in such a tidy fable? Probably not. Nicole Kidman is OK with her Lucy impersonation. Javier Bardem lacks Desi’s charm and charisma.

15. Drive My Car

This plot — famous actor/director mourns the death of his wife, produces Uncle Vanya, broods a lot, stares out the window at the frozen landscape as he’s being driven to someone else’s sad memory — would have been perfect for Ingmar Bergman. It’s lovely and meditative but not for the impatient.

16. No Time to Die

Jerry Seinfeld has a funny joke — “If you have a license to kill, and every girl in the world wants to go to bed with you, how about a smile once in a while?” I find myself increasingly bored with Bond; not only can I barely follow the plot but where’s the fun? Obviously this is well produced with excellent car chases, but we can lose everything in between. Also, the ending? That would be a hard no.

17. The Truffle Hunters

I have a special affection for this gentle documentary about the elderly residents of a small Italian town who search for truffles in the forest because it was the first movie I saw at my beloved Avon Theatre when it reopened after phase one of the pandemic. It’s a trifle of a movie, a bagatelle really, but still a pleasure.

18. Limbo

I’m astonished to watch the trailer after having seen the film and discover they were pitching it as a comedy. In reality, I felt sad from the first frame. Omar is a Syrian refugee caught in bureaucratic limbo in Scotland. He desperately needs to gain official legal standing so he can work and begin a new life. He’s a mope and who can blame him, spending his days in lame ESL class and wandering the countryside. Yet he’s one of the lucky ones. There are tens of millions of refugees that never even make it to the West.

19. The Worst Person in the World

Julie, a lovely thirtysomething Dane with unfocused artistic aspirations, can’t decide what to do with her career or love life. To me, as an older adult, the stakes seem small, since you know she’ll figure it out. Yet Julie’s situation also feels real since some people really do feel lost in their twenties (see Tick Tick Boom above).

20. The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground were just a little before my time so until now I never really understood why they were so important to the development of Rock ‘n Roll. So thanks, documentarians, for educating me. I also really enjoyed flashing back to the downtown scene in the early 1960s, when underground culture seemed to be so vibrant and was on the verge of going mainstream.

21. Listening to Kenny G

Quite a thought-provoking documentary on what makes Kenny G one of the most popular musicians in the world. The guy does have an amazing story, but at the risk of being one of the snobs called to task in the documentary, a little bit of Kenny G goes a long way.

22. Good on Paper

One of the few purported romcoms of the year, this is actually an anti-romcom. There’s no emotional pay-off, just frustration. Folks, here’s a hint about romance, investment opportunities, and house-hunting: if something looks too good to be true, it usually is.

23. Don’t Look Up

Wow, what a lot of talent to waste on a garbage movie. Leo, J. Law, Meryl, Timothee, Cate, Ariana, that guy who played Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Ostensibly a hard-hitting satire on government and the media, as well as an allegory on climate change, this would-be comedy forgot to be funny or even plausible.

24. The French Dispatch

I wanted to walk out of this movie after five minutes but since I’d paid for tickets I stayed until the end. This extremely arch and self-satisfied depiction of a New Yorker-like magazine based in France is Wes Anderson at his whimsical worst. I wanted to pluck my eyes out. And yet somehow it made it onto many critics’ Top Ten lists. As Wallace Shawn said in The Princess Bride, “inconceivable!!!!”

This is the “hospital” where I was born

Today is my birthday so I thought I’d post the chapter from my memoir “Fortunate One: From Nantucket to the White House” that describes my birth. The book is available on Amazon here:


On the day of my birth—13 months into the Eisenhower presidency and six months before Elvis released his first hit record—my very pregnant mother woke up feeling so odd that she stayed home instead of driving out to milk the cows. Only 21 years old, she and my 22-year-old father owned a small dairy about five miles out of town on the flat and then-deserted south shore of Nantucket Island. Yes, in those days, Nantucket had a dairy farmer, and that farmer was my father.

Early in her pregnancy, my mother asked her doctor when she should go to the hospital. His answer? “You’ll know.” This was in the benighted days before “What to Expect” books, Lamaze classes, and sonograms, but he was right. As the day of March 5th, 1954 wore on, she did, in fact, know that the time had come.

Returning from his milking duties at noon, my father discovered what he surely must have suspected when he left a few hours earlier—that his young wife was in the early stages of labor. My mother, not knowing when she’d eat again, prepared a robust lunch that they ate together, and then, after one last cigarette to calm her nerves, asked to be driven to the hospital.

Her destination—the original Nantucket Cottage Hospital—was neither a cottage nor a hospital as we’d understand the terms today. Imagine your grandmother’s house, but outfitted with a few hospital beds and some medical equipment. That’s what this was, a rudimentary medical facility created in 1912 out of a pair of weathered two-story 18th century houses. Connecting these former dwellings was a passageway that served as entrance, lobby, business center, and reception area. Turn right from the front door and you’d end up in the nurses’ residence; turn left and you’d enter the medical care part of the facility.

My mother had been born in this very building two decades earlier—delivered in fact by the same physician, Dr. Ernest Menges, who met her there later that afternoon. Not much about birth rituals had changed since my mother’s own birth, especially the role of fathers. In keeping with the iron law of mid-century obstetrics, my father’s participation in the birthing process consisted solely of depositing his wife at the front desk. With that task successfully accomplished, there was nothing else for him to do but drive back to the farm for the afternoon milking and pensively await the phone call announcing whether he’d become the proud father of a girl or a boy.

The hospital staff directed my mother from the front desk to a small room across the hall where she herself had been born. This chamber was used by two types of patients: women in labor and terminal patients who were not expected to live long; functioning, in other words, as Nantucket’s version of the circle of life.

The only people in attendance for my birth were Dr. Menges and two nurses, one of whom was my father’s maiden lady aunt, Edith Holmes, the hospital’s gentle, capable, and cheerful head of nursing. Mothers and best friends did not come rushing over with temple massages and heating pads to provide moral support. And if a midwife had arrived, she would have been treated like a witch doctor and driven into the street.

I’m told that the birth itself—at 7:15pm—was unremarkable, consisting mostly of contractions, cooling compresses, and at the end, a whiff of gas to numb the pain and induce outright unconsciousness. Soon after the deed was done, I was whisked away to the nursery while my mother slowly regained consciousness. She was then walked to a small, three-bed women’s ward on the second floor and wasn’t allowed to see me until the following morning. The umbilical cord was definitely not put in cold storage for future use.

The bill for the delivery—there was no insurance—came to $150.

No one arrived at the hospital the next day with a camera to capture my first gurgles and I escaped the nursery only sporadically for tightly regulated bottle feedings. Even my father was denied a glance of his firstborn until the next day’s visiting hours and not a moment sooner.

My parents named me Gary, although until the last minute, I was going to be Glenn. My mother was looking for a given name that theoretically couldn’t be shortened into a nickname. My uncle had the perfectly respectable birth name of James and she believed a grown man should not have the misfortune of being stuck with a diminutive like “Jimmy” all his life. She switched at the last minute, reasoning there is no cutesy moniker for Gary either. Alas, there is almost no name, no matter how short or monosyllabic, that cannot be made into a nickname, and various friends would later call me “Gare.” My wife takes it a step further, sometimes calling me “Ga” when she’s feeling particularly affectionate. (For what it’s worth, my brother-in-law calls his best friend “Glenny,” so there’s no winning this game.)

Despite being completely healthy, I didn’t leave the hospital for a week—after which I was driven home by my father, cradled in my mother’s arms as she sat in the car’s front seat, completely unprotected by not-yet-invented seat belts or infant car seats. Modern mothers who are familiar with being dumped onto the street after one night in the maternity wing might be interested to know that 1950s best practices required the mother to remain in the hospital for at least seven days to recover from the rigors of labor. In this regard, she was luckier than my grandmother, who, having given birth in the 1930s, was sentenced to two whole weeks of hospital bed rest. She later claimed those were the two most boring weeks of her life.

Naturally, there were no televisions or radios—never mind internet devices—to amuse young mothers as they lay in the women’s ward, but my mother considered herself relatively fortunate because she occupied the bed nearest the window and could look out to West Chester Street to see who was arriving and leaving the hospital.

A few days after I was born, I had company in the nursery. Another young mother had also delivered a baby boy. This small detail never came up until three decades later, when I heard that Nantucket had just recorded its first murder since the Civil War. My mother casually informed me that the perpetrator and I had been born practically at the same time and had even shared space in the nursery. She remembered being in the women’s ward with his mother.

It turned out that my first roommate, a hardened townie, had been in and out of trouble with the law for most of his life. Arrested for receiving stolen property at 17; arrested again for fighting with a police officer at 24. Now, at age 29, he had shot a long-time adversary in the stomach, becoming the protagonist in a case that drew national attention thanks to the mystery novel headlines: “A Murder on Nantucket.” Eventually he was convicted of premeditated murder, had the sentence reduced to manslaughter, and was retried and convicted a second time before being sentenced to 14-20 years in Walpole state prison.

For most people, this story was a curiosity. But what I couldn’t stop thinking about were the vagaries of fate. The two of us slept next to each other right out of the womb and never saw each other again. His family had stayed put on Nantucket with its insular and sometimes grievance-filled culture; mine had moved away, where I’d had all the advantages of an upwardly mobile household. What if the nurses had mixed us up in our bassinets? Would I have turned out to be a murderer? How is it, I wondered, that two babies lying side by side in the same nursery, born to two local working class mothers from similar backgrounds and with similar prospects, could end up in such different places?

Not for the first time, I observed that life is just one roll of the dice after another.

Like everyone else I watched more television in 2021 than I intended to, but nowhere near enough to offer a comprehensive overview of every TV show worth watching. In addition to there being a surfeit of TV shows, there are also too many networks and streaming services. Who, besides TV critics, billionaires, and the most inert couch potato, can subscribe to every worthwhile streaming service. How many out there besides me signed up for free introductory weeks of a service and then rushed to cancel before the credit card got charged? All of which is to say, if you have a favorite show that is not on the following list, I’m sure you’re right and I’ll be happy to watch it of you pay my cable bill.

What I have not included on the list are great classic TV shows that I’ve rewatched when all I wanted to do was laugh. This includes the first five seasons of the Office, since they’re on the free part of Peacock, but also Seinfeld, The New Girl, and 30 Rock, all of which are on Netflix. Also not included on this list are: Tom Brady’s performance in the Super Bowl, dozens of music documentaries on Prime, Bob Dole’s funeral, the Red Sox play-offs vs the Yankees and Rays, and Jason Sudekis dancing again on “What’s Up With That” on Saturday Night Live. Great TV by all but not really fitting into the “best series” category.

1. Reservation Dogs

The most startlingly original show since “Atlanta,” to which it is often compared because it zooms in on a very specific community not usually presented on TV, in this case a group of disaffected Native American teenagers living on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. What’s remarkable is that this is a show about teenagers in which sex barely comes up because they have more things on their minds than their hormones. These kids have gotten a raw deal but they have agency and make their own choices, for ill or good. It’s very funny, sometimes absurdist, occasionally tragic and I can’t wait for Season 2. (Hulu)

2. Succession

Rightfully hyped for its unsparing depiction of the billionaire class as experienced through the eyes of a dysfunctional family that controls a fictional media empire (e.g., the Murdochs or Redstones). Somehow the show’s central question (which of the four screw-up children will inherit the crown?) has sustained itself through three imaginatively-foul-mouthed seasons. Like Reservation Dogs, this is another tragedy that is really a comedy (or visa versa? not sure.) It’s certainly the most quotable show in years. (HBO)

3. Ted Lasso

Yes, this show about an American football coach recruited to run a British soccer team is good as everyone says it is. Impossibly sweet and inspiring, the show faltered a bit in its second season when it tried to make Ted vulnerable and human. Was it good enough to win all those Emmys? Probably not. But we still ate up every episode. (Apple+)

4. Gavin and Stacey

This is a bit of a cheat because the show originally ran from 2007-2010, and I only caught up to it this year. Gavin and Stacey are a young British couple (she’s from Wales and he’s from a nondescript London suburb) who navigate the hazards of interfering parents and friends, (including a very young James Corden, who co-wrote the show). It’s a very kind and affectionate look at modern middle class love. What’s occurring? (Amazon Prime)

5. Shtisel

An Israeli soap opera about Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. I have no idea how accurately this depicts the Orthodox community, but it’s a fascinating look at a culture I knew little about. And surprise — everyone has the same problems across cultures: interfering parents, faithless husbands, bossy wives, status anxiety. But the series is deeper than most because it is preoccupied both with the loss of loved ones and the struggle to live a meaningful life that may not be what your society wants for you. (Netflix)

6. What We Do in The Shadows

The funniest straight comedy on TV features four deluded vampires and their under-appreciated servant, who all live uneasily in Staten Island, ostensibly plotting to take over America, but really just killing time. There are no deeper messages here except the continued inability of humans, undead or not, to comprehend the truth of their own reality. (FX)

7. Call My Agent

This is a jaundiced look at the entertainment industry (is there any other kind?) through the lens of a small Parisian talent agency. Real French movie stars (plus Sigourney Weaver speaking French) play self-absorbed caricatures of themselves, who make the lives of the agents miserable. (Netflix)

8. Only Murders in the Building

Apparently Steve Martin and Martin Short are best friends in real life. Huh? And they recruited Selena Gomez to appear with them in a pretty funny whodunnit set in an exclusive Upper West Side apartment building. I think this might be the first TV series that centers around the phenomenon of the murder mystery podcast (remember “Serial”?) Most of the humor is pretty broad but it’s redeemed by the pathos of the characters (especially the supporting cast), who are dealing with loneliness and disillusionment. (Hulu)

9. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Some seasons of “Curb” are funnier than others and Season 11 was one of the best. The challenge with the show is to have Larry David entrap himself in convoluted embarrassing situations that are not off-the-charts ridiculous, which it just barely managed to do, to hilarious effect. (HBO)

10. The White Lotus

A pretty devastating take-down of the privileged and entitled One Percent and their adjacent dependents, this is “Succession Lite.” Off on a gorgeous Hawaiian resort, the characters compete to see who can unintentionally wreak the most havoc on the lives of the staff that serve them. And yet we do have some sympathy for everyone caught in the system of wealth and dependency. (HBO)

11. Hacks

Jean Smart is a rich but on-the-verge-of-being-washed-up stand-up comedian in Las Vegas who takes on a young whippersnapper comedy writer as her assistant. Generational sparks ensue as the two protagonists fight and eventually learn to respect each other. (HBO)

12. Never Have I Ever

A wish-fulfillment trifle from Mindy Kaling dressed up as your basic teen angst teen comedy, in which a Indian-American teen somehow manages to attract two hunky guys, both of whom look to be about 30. It’s very pleasant, if slightly untethered to reality, because you know nothing really emotionally disturbing is going to happen. (Netflix)

13. PEN15

Two thirty-something comedy writers play 13-year-old versions of themselves, in the middle of a cast that otherwise seems age appropriate. I’ve never been a 13-year-old girl, and I know they are supposedly prone to histrionics, but this seems a little over the top. Yet I was drawn into the story and the emotional drama despite myself. (Hulu)

14. Stanley Tucci Searching for Italy

I’m not one to watch a lot of food shows, but this Anthony Bourdain knock-off is as sumptuous as it gets. Part pig-out, part Italian travelogue, I did learn quite a bit about both food and Italy. (HBO Max)

15 Fargo

I loved the first two seasons of Fargo, had qualms about the third and was mildly disappointed with this one, the fourth. The fundamental premise of the original Fargo movie and the first seasons of the TV show is that viciousness in the pursuit of greed will ultimately bring about its own ruination in the face of decency. As the seasons have gone on, the series has become more nihilistic, with less and less decency to go around. Chris Rock is good as a Black 1930s crime boss, Jason Schwartzman is not credible as the boss of the rival Italian gang. The show is beautifully shot and intelligently written but not realistic enough to be the tragedy it wants to be. (FX)

16. Bridgerton

Lots of sex, lots of costumes, and a Julie Andrews narration. The premise seems to be that if Jane Austen wrote porn this is what would emerge. Naturally it was a huge hit. (Netflix)

17. The Pursuit of Love

Based on an arch Nancy Mitford novel that I think I might have read but can’t be sure of. Mildly amusing tale of a charismatic eldest daughter in an extremely eccentric aristocratic British family and set before and during World War II. There are only three episodes so I don’t know if this should qualify as a series. If it had been longer I probably would have ranked it higher. (Amazon Prime)

18. The Chair

I watched ten minutes of this and turned it off because it seemed simplistic, exaggerated, and implausible — not the cancel culture premise, which is all too plausible, but the cluelessness of the college professors around whom the plot turns. I was then convinced to give it another try and it seemed to improve slightly so my final verdict is that this is “OK.” You can tell it’s written for a very general audience that doesn’t want to think too hard or deal with complexity, though, which is my main beef. (Netflix)

19. The Premise

An anthology show from The Office’s B.J. Novak. “Anthology” means each episode is completely fresh, with new characters and a new premise, like The Twilight Zone. The first episode, about a white liberal who accidentally videos police brutality while taping himself having sex, is an extremely amusing skewering of a certain type of self-satisfied, woke-adjacent would-be racial ally. The rest of the episodes were smartly written but also disturbing, which might possibly be the point? (Hulu)

20. Brooklyn Nine Nine

Brooklyn Nine Nine wasn’t my favorite show, but we always watched it anyway because it was light, amusing entertainment. Alas, in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing, no cop show could simply be light entertainment because that would supposedly whitewash the police, so the final season revolved around police corruption and self-flagellation. Not funny. Too bad. This was a good show that deserved a better send-off. (NBC)

I was almost ten years old when the Beatles burst upon America in 1964 and I fully participated in Beatlemania. My first LP was their first LP — “Love Me Do.” I collected Beatles trading cards, attended Beatles movies, contemplated whether Paul was really dead, analyzed the lyrics of “Strawberry Fields” in seventh grade English, and sighed when John claimed they were popular than Jesus. I was 16 years old in April 1970 when my tenth grade Social Studies teacher announced to the class that the group had broken up, something she’d learned from the radio that morning in those pre-Internet days. I was in the 11th grade when my first girlfriend gave me George Harrison’s transcendent album “All Things Must Pass” as a Christmas gift and I was a high school senior when Paul McCartney was releasing his best work at a solo artist. So the Beatles dominated my transition from childhood to adolescence, from innocence to adult desire. They had multi-year impact on my development that corresponds to the influence of the Harry Potter novels on my son.

One month after the Beatles broke up, Apple Records released their last album, “Let It Be,” which I promptly acquired and learned to love by playing it dozens — maybe hundreds — of times on the record player in my bedroom.

Also released in conjunction with that final album was a documentary film about the studio sessions that produced the record. Somehow that documentary never made its way to my local cineplex so I didn’t get to see it for another 15 years, when, thanks to the invention of the VCR and the video store, I was able to watch a rental copy in the bedroom of my Washington D.C. apartment.

I wished I hadn’t. It was both bad and a bummer. It had no narrator and seemed to be a hodgepodge of clips of the four Beatles squabbling while they tried to lay down tracks for the songs. The film’s only redeeming factor was the final third of the movie, when the Beatles delivered a seemingly spontaneous live concert on the roof of the recording studio. About five years ago, I managed to watch the movie again when it was temporarily available on a streaming service. I wanted to see if it was as bad and depressing as I remembered. It was.

For fifty years I had assumed the accepted story of the Beatles break-up, which is that it was brought about in large part by the contentious making of the “Let it Be” album. Didn’t we see it right there on the screen of the “Let It Be” movie? But then, I learned that Peter Jackson — of “Lord of the Ring” fame — had gained access to more than 60 hours of raw footage from those recording sessions and was cutting an entirely new version of the movie. Apparently the surviving Beatles had never been happy with the original “Let it Be” documentary and wanted Jackson to take a fresh look.

That documentary, now titled “Get Back,” landed like a bombshell two weeks ago on Thanksgiving. It was not a feature film for the theater but an eight-hour three-part TV series. I was so desperate to watch it that I did something I swore I’d never do — I subscribed to Disney Plus.

Never has $8.00 been better spent. There is a case to be made that “Get Back” is the best music documentary ever made, especially if you believe that a documentary is supposed to “document” a moment of time. “Get Back” doesn’t settle any arguments but it does serve as a time machine back to January 1969, when the Sixties were in full flower, while also providing an intimate look at how rock music is made.

And it’s amazing. Having never written a song, I always assumed that songwriting was something like what Rogers and Hammerstein are said to have done: Richard Rodgers would write some lyrics in his New York City Penthouse and mail them to Oscar Hammerstein at his Bucks County farm — or visa versa — and they’d have a song. It turns out that songwriting is much messier than that. When the Beatles showed up to start recording on January 2, 1969 they have no finished songs, just fragments and ideas, and thanks to “Get Back,” we can see them laboriously turning those fragments into beautiful finished products. There’s a saying that genius is ten percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration and I never quite believed it until now. But there they are, grinding out each song, playing it over and over and experimenting with different chords, riffs and phrases until then refined it to a gem. And when they played those songs live on the top of the roof, the quality of the performance isn’t the least bit ragged even though the songs hadn’t existed a few weeks earlier.

Still, don’t get me started on the lyrics. I used to think that if I didn’t understand the meaning of a rock song it was my fault because I wasn’t deep enough. Now I see that there sometimes is no meaning. The song “Get Back” started out as a protest anthem against anti-immigration politicians and ended up having something to do with a guy looking to buy weed? Most of the lyrics are sheer nonsense — a word salad that happens to rhyme. It’s perhaps an irony and a coincidence that Stephen Sondheim, Broadway’s greatest lyricist died the day after the first episode of the “Get Back” documentary. It’s a blessing that he didn’t have to have it rubbed into his face that a song with the line “Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner, But he knew it couldn’t last,” would become a number one hit.

But with both Sondheim and McCartney there is a case to be made for genius driving the hard work. In the most jaw-dropping sequence of the movie, while the Beatles are waiting for John to show his face, Paul grabs his bass and starts strumming, furiously trying to come up with a new song. Almost miraculously, the God of Creativity sends down a tune that eventually turns into “Get Back.” Then Ringo begins to work out the beats and George picks up his guitar and starts adding his magic. When John finally arrives, he goes right to his chair and the next thing you know the Beatles are playing a very rough version of their next hit

To anyone who has ever tried to do anything creative, the lessons are clear. Take your idea and work it and work it until you get what you want. Collaborate and take the best ideas that your colleagues suggest. And be sure to take breaks to clear your head. A very striking feature of the documentary is how much time the Beatles spend fooling around, playing Chuck Berry songs, doing Elvis impersonations, goofing about their own hallowed classics, cracking jokes, telling stories, and generally creating brain space where creativity can occur. It seems like a waste of time but taking a break can actually improve productivity.

The documentary is more than a rumination on creativity, though. At its heart, it’s a modest rewriting of late-stage Beatleography.

For one thing, the “Get Back” documentary demonstrates what’s going on during these sessions in a way that was completely muddled in the “Let It Be” version. Apparently the Beatles had a insane plan to write brand new songs that would be performed during their first live concert in three years. The idea itself is not crazy. The crazy part is that all this had to be accomplished in ten days because Ringo needed to leave to make a movie called “The Magic Christian”! The idea that this deadline was driven by Ringo’s commitment to a completely forgettable film is bad enough but what’s even loonier is that they haven’t even begun to nail down the details for their grandiose plans. You can’t plan a Christmas party in less than two weeks yet they think they will produce a concert for 20,000 rabid Beatles fans in that time. It’s a bit of a running joke that Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the film’s director, keeps pressing them to perform at an ancient Roman amphitheater in Libya, an outlandish proposal that finally collapses under the weight of its own absurdity.

The amphitheater in Sabratha Libya, where Michael Lindsay-Hogg wanted to film the Beatles “Get Back” concert.

Throughout “Get Back,” we are constantly aware of this looming deadline and the pressure that the Beatles are under to produce these songs in a compressed period. The story is told in strict chronological order with each day marked off on the calendar. Eventually, through their own indecision, their options narrow as each potential venue becomes unavailable. Yet Paul continues to press for something special, which is how they ended up doing a pop-up concert on the roof of their recording studio.

And Just Who Broke up the Beatles?

For decades now, the question that tortured Beatles fans is why they broke up. Fueled in part by the original “Let It Be” documentary, the generally accepted thesis has been that this recording session was a last straw, exacerbated by Paul’s resentment of Yoko Ono, a spectral, dour and unwelcome presence conjoined to John throughout this period.

In the revisionist history of “Get Back,” Yoko is indeed Siamese-twinning it with John throughout the recordings but the other Beatles do not find her an unsettling presence; she is not looming vulture-like as she is in “Let It Be.” It’s not really a downer to have her there as she just silently observes or occasionally chats with Paul’s future wife Linda McCartney. And even when she gets up and literally wails into a mic like a paid mourner at a Middle Eastern funeral, the non-John Beatles seem to enjoy it or at least find it amusing.

Watch this with the sound down!

Yoko SEEMS like a problem because she’s an outward manifestation of a real problem — John’s boredom of being a Beatle. For at least a third of the movie he’s barely engaged and just this side of catatonic. There are reports that he was impaired by heroin or other dubious substances, but it would also be unsurprising if, after six years of unbelievable fame and creativity, he just wanted to take it easy and resented Paul’s bossy Type-A insistence that they buckle down and get to work again on a new album.

Anyone who didn’t know the Beatles and just watched the first episode of “Get Back” would think that this guy John Lennon was a freelance guitar player they’d brought it to help with the background music. Yet once he does rouse himself to pay attention to what’s going on, he’s fully engaged, contributing songs, helping with the work of others and generally resuming his role as the band’s boss. Ultimately he doesn’t seem like someone who wants to break up the band,

No, it’s not John and Yoko who are the biggest problems in “Get Out,” it’s George. He’s the one who most chafes under Paul’s initial bossiness. He’s the one who utters the dispiriting phrase “I want a divorce.” And he’s the one who complains that not enough of his songs are getting on the albums. He finally cracks at the end of the first episode, about a week into the recording session, when John and Paul finally reconnect and let it rip in a joyful guitar jam session. The look on George’s face when he sees the two other Beatles re-bonding makes it clear he knows he’s still outside the inner circle. John and Paul continue to treat him like the 14-year-old he was when he joined the band, not the mature song-writer that he’d become, so he walks out of the session, essentially going on strike because of his hurt feelings. And John’s reaction? If George doesn’t come back in two days they’ll replace him with Eric Clapton. That’s how important John thinks George is. I can’t blame George for wanting to get out.

And yet, for all the hurt feelings, side-eyes, grumbling, and complaining, these Beatles easily could have continued for years. Maybe not at the frantic pace that Paul has them on, producing two to three albums a year. Maybe they could have produced their solo albums and then gotten together every once in a while to record new material. The proof of this? That’s exactly what they did a few months later when they reassembled to produce their real last album — “Abbey Road.”

No, according to the “Get Back” version of events, it’s not Yoko and not even George who broke up the Beatles. The answer is only alluded to but it’s in plain sight — the introduction of their future business manager Alan Klein. Early in the film Paul is pretty explicit that they have been adrift since the death of their previous business manager, Brian Epstein (still weirdly referred to as “Mr. Epstein”). Later, when Paul is out of the studio, John confides to George that he just met Klein, then the Rolling Stones manager, who is brilliant and insightful. Surprisingly for someone who supposedly disdained materialism, John is attracted by Klein’s ability to get them more money. And in the end it is Klein who will become the snake in the garden who destroys the Beatles, driving Paul out of the group and eventually enmeshing the group in years of litigation for allegedly feathering his own nest at their expense. But that’s an entirely different movie. This one ends joyously, with the Beatles playing live on the top of that roof. The last song perform live together will be “Get Back.” But getting back is something they won’t be able to do.

Some random observations

After comparing the “Get Back” and “Let It Be” documentaries, will we ever be able to believe anything in any documentary? Both filmmakers looked at the same 60 hours of footage, but came to different conclusions and told different stories. What the heck is truth anyway?

I can’t help but think that Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of “Let It Be,” released such a dour version of the the recording sessions because he was pissed the Beatles hadn’t accepted any of his fantastical proposals for a live concert. In “Get Back,” Peter Jackson shows him as a bit of a twit that no one takes seriously. The Beatles complained for years that they didn’t like “Let It Be,” and fifty years later they finally get their revenge.

Can we talk about how young these guys are? Ringo, John, Paul, and George are 29, 28, 26 and 25 respectively. They all look much older — that’s what being an international rock star will do to you — but they are all younger than my son is now.

When I see John and Paul performing “Two of Us” I now realize that it’s arguably a song about the two of them, not some other random couple. Consider the lyrics. “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead” and etc.

I never liked John Lennon very much, and this documentary reinforced those feelings. He looks terrible, with lank greasy hair, a sallow complexion and an undernourished physique (it does seems that he at least washed and possibly blow-dried his hair for the roof-top performance, though). He is constantly mugging for the camera — i.e., making faces and “funny” voices. And his general disdain for Paul’s efforts to pull everything together and to make it work is obnoxious. Without Paul there probably wouldn’t have been any “Let It Be” or “Abbey Road” albums but John feels contemptuous of Paul’s sincerity and desire to get them done.

Wow there’s a lot of smoking going on, by all four Beatles and several other hangers on. This really was the Sixties.

Speaking of the Sixties, sometimes when I watch “Mad Men” and other shows set in that decade I think, did we really dress like that? Oh yes. George is a peacock in fluorescent greens, pinks, and stripes, John is sporting the slovenly look except for when he’s wearing a bushy fur coat, and Paul looks like a dude from an old Western.

George definitely has a case to make that John and Paul weren’t taking him seriously. One of the songs that was deemed not good enough to be on the album was “All Things Must Pass.” This, on an LP that includes “Dig It.” George makes it clear that he’s thinking of recording a solo album so he can surface his songs, and when it does come out, with “All Things Must Pass” as the title cut, it turns out to be the best of all the post-Beatles single albums by far.

There are two very sweet moments in the film. First when Linda Eastman brings in her six-year-old daughter Heather (later adopted by Paul) who charms the lads by banging Ringo’s drum, crawling in their laps and just generally being super-cute. The second sweet moment involves George Harrison quietly helping Ringo develop a early draft of “Octopus’s Garden,” which will eventually appear on “Abbey Road.”

Speaking of Ringo, also called “Richie” by the other band members because his real name is Richard Starkey, he appears to be not doing much besides providing the rhythm the songwriters need for their material. But not doing anything is exactly what the Beatles needed out of their drummer, given how much drama the other three produced.

The critics made a big deal about the contribution of the pianist Billy Preston and it’s true that he initially does give them a jolt of enthusiasm and energy when he shows up about a third of the way through the documentary and the Beatles shanghai him into playing on the album. But he’s only around for about half the sessions after this and his main contribution appears to be a big smile and a calming presence (which, come to think about it is pretty damn important, so maybe the critics are right).

The one thing the two documentaries have in common is the emotional climax of the roof-top concert but because Peter Jackson has more time to tell the story, his version is more nuanced. The Michael Lindsay-Hogg documentary leaves the impression that the police shut down the playing, but “Get Back” shows that the Beatles actually ran out of material — they played “Get Back” three times, for example, and were cold too, given that it was late on a January day. If they’d wanted to play more songs, it’s not clear how the police would have shut them down — when they quit two bobbies and the world’s politest sergeant were just standing there trying to decide what to do. Paul had fantasized about playing a pop-up concert in Parliament and being dragged away by the police, but when the time came he looked over his should and saw the police, smiled and ended the show without any conflict. What a more civilized world it was back then.

And when those last chords of the short concert are done and the Beatles have played live together for the very last time, I felt a pang of what could have been. The Rolling Stones are geriatricly touring even now and although no one wants to see the Beatles doing that, there could have been the occasional reunion tour and who knows how many new songs.

And in a weird way, I felt sorry for the orphan songs that never did get played in public. Paul, of course, would go on to play “Get Back,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” thousands of times in concert, but did any Beatle ever again perform a song like “I Dig A Pony,” which is mostly considered a John composition?

Well, maybe no Beatle ever performed it again but it’s a testament to the enduring legacy of the band that an artist as cool as St. Vincent would resurrect it and add it to her repertoire. And damn if she doesn’t do a good job.

I find myself a first-time author, having produced a memoir of the first half of my life. (To buy the book, and then leave a glowing review, please click here). In my introduction to the book, printed below, I explain the why, how, when, and what of the whole thing.


Fortunate One: From Nantucket to the White House — A Memoir


I’ve been a little hesitant to tell people I was writing this memoir because whenever I did, they’d inevitably ask why, as in, who are you to write an autobiography? Trust me, it’s a question I’ve posed to myself. I’m not famous, don’t have a tragic childhood to resolve therapeutically through the written word, and have no commercial venture to advance through the promotion of a “personal brand.” 

I could fall back on the cliché that everybody has a story to tell, but if you’ve ever listened to a golfer recount his most recent round, you know that not every story is equally compelling. It will be up to you, Dear Reader, to determine whether my story was worth telling, but here are my goals: to recapture a world that no longer exists and to evoke what it was like to be born in the ‘50s, grow up in the ‘60s, attend college in the ‘70s, and start a career in the ‘80s. I know this isn’t exactly the same as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounting her experiences in that little house on the prairie, but the social and technological changes that have occurred since the 1950s are almost as dramatic as the ones she lived through. 

To some extent, my story parallels that of millions of other baby boomers born in the mid-1950s. I’m probably not the only seven year old who ate orange-flavored aspirin when he couldn’t find candy in the house or walked unescorted to school while dodging potentially pedophilic kidnappers and speeding 18-wheelers. I want readers my age to nod in recognition and say, “Yeah, that happened to me too,” and I hope that later generations will marvel that we ever survived childhood or managed to launch ourselves into adulthood.

But just as every index finger is fundamentally the same while every fingerprint is different, the story that follows is undeniably, uniquely my own. I entered the world on Nantucket Island, grew up in a declining industrial city, almost failed college, worked as a small-town reporter, and eventually landed in the White House. Along the way, I lived in a haunted house; had not one, but two lesbian girlfriends in high school; wrote newspaper stories about a Manhattan scientist who disappeared one morning from a remote, iced-in island; sparred with the owner of the Washington Post; chatted up a couple of U.S. Presidents; and helped prepare the debate remarks that almost torpedoed the re-election campaign for one of them.  

It’s taken me two years to write this book, but in truth, it’s been 60 years in the making. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt the autobiographical impulse. In the second grade, at the tender age of eight, I made my first attempt at a memoir, scribbling out three paragraphs before abandoning the effort to do my arithmetic assignment instead. Ever since, I’ve been cataloguing my life—a project that sometimes verged on hoarding. I kept every letter and postcard that arrived in my mailbox, stored many important school papers, and maintained boxes of junior and senior high school yearbooks, datebooks, calendars, and relevant newspaper clippings. My mother saved my report cards and my correspondence from vacations and college. Starting in my mid-20s, I religiously kept a daily diary. Holding onto memories, both through physical materials and, more mystically, in the inscrutable regions of the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala, has been a life-long obsession.

I reviewed all this documentation before I started writing, reading every letter and diary entry through November 1988. The experience mostly confirmed my existing memories, although in some cases I had been wrong about chronology or had remembered events out of sequence. In other cases, I was reminded of people who had completely vanished from my active memory. Who exactly was that college classmate who sent me those three letters in the summer of 1975? Had I really shared so many cocktails and dinners with those former colleagues in Washington, D.C.? Some of these rediscoveries I folded into this narrative; the rest I just re-deposited into my already overstuffed memory bank.

Excavating these memories was sometimes a delight, sometimes painful, and often just plain embarrassing, curing me of a misconception that life was better then than it is now. I wish I could send a message back in time and advise the earlier version of myself to lighten up, not fret about the future so much, and not get aggravated so easily. I would tell the younger Gary: You can’t control your destiny, but don’t worry, you’re lucky. You won’t win the lottery, but you will win the lottery of life.

In some respects, it was easier to write 100,000 words of memories than it was to come up with the two words that formed the title. My college friend, Jim Robinson, who plays such a crucial role in this story, initially suggested “Fortune Son,” which would have been perfect, except I didn’t want people thinking they were getting John Fogarty’s life story. In the end, he helped me settle on “Fortunate One.”

A political progressive might take one look at my life and dismiss it as “privileged.” A person of faith might look at the same set of facts and say I was “blessed.” Whatever term you want to use, I certainly concede that good fortune smiled on me from the day I was born. Being white, male, and straight provided me with advantages, but to be born in America to nurturing, hard-working, married parents was the biggest break of all. As if that wasn’t enough, I grew up free from financial anxiety because the small business my parents created prospered during a prosperous era. Although I skirted close to physical injury many times, I always escaped with mere scars or skinned knees. I had robust health, access to good education, and exposure to friends who stimulated me intellectually and socially. Importantly, the women I dated were perceptive enough to see that I was ultimately not right for them, so I was available when the right one did enter my life.

I can make the case that the children of 1950s America were the luckiest generation in history. The advances in medicine alone—the vaccines, antibiotics, and new surgical procedures—made sure that a record number of us reached adulthood. I had pneumonia in the fourth grade, something that merits a mere half sentence in this story; if I’d been born 20 years earlier, I might not have lived long enough to write anything. We were lucky to be born into the richest, most dominant national economy the world had ever seen, which created huge opportunities for us to leap ahead of our parents economically, a gift that has not always been available to our own children.  

More specifically, I’d argue that the boys born in 1954 were the luckiest of a lucky generation: old enough to experience the Beatles but just young enough to avoid getting drafted; old enough to benefit from the sexual revolution and co-ed dorms, but young enough not to come to maturity worrying about AIDS and STDs; old enough to feel safe and secure at school or walking down the street, but young enough to avoid the social conformities of the 1950s; old enough to assume college was a given for any smart kid, but young enough to miss the crippling anxiety of getting into the “right” school or assuming massive debt. 

Even with all this happy talk about good fortune, I’m no Pollyanna about the bumps along the way, and I’ve tried to be as truthful as possible without going out of my way to settle scores. My goal is not to embarrass people, so in a few cases I have changed names, particularly those of some former bosses and colleagues in Washington. I haven’t said anything libelous or even unfair; they were nice enough to hire me, so I don’t want to make them feel betrayed, even 35 years later. To avoid cumbersome circumlocutions like “my new boss, who I’ll call John,” readers can assume that if I provide a given name and surname, it’s real. If I only mention a first name, it’s been changed.  

Some “real” names I’d like to thank for being early readers and editors are three of my oldest school friends, Jim Robinson, Philip Tasho, and Liz Prevett, who confirmed many of my memories, called out awkward writing, and generally kept me from making self-inflicted mistakes. I also had close editing help from a former colleague, Tim Clifford, who tragically died of ALS before I finished the drafting. My wife, Meg Ricci, also read an early draft. Finally, I had the assistance of a professional editor, Chloë Siennah. I didn’t always take their advice, so they are blameless for any offenses made against the historical record or prevailing political and social orthodoxies.  

This volume ends when I’m 34 years old, which is chronologically the midpoint of my life—so far at least. It also marks the conclusion of my searching period. During these first three decades, I was trying to figure out who I wanted to be. By the time I reach the last pages of the final chapter, I am more or less fully formed. And upon reflection I’ve realized that most of the major lucky breaks of my life—the moments when my path could have veered significantly in another direction—occurred during this first half of my life. Good fortune has continued to bless me since then, but the only remaining “hinge” moment of almost unbelievably good luck left to describe is the birth of my son. He truly has been a “fortunate son,” but that’s for another book.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

I think we can all agree that 2020 was the worst year in cinema that any of us can remember. The film industry, with its heavy emphasis on redundant and blockbustery comic book movies, was already headed into the toilet when the year began and the pandemic only drove the nail into the coffin. I deeply missed going to the theater for the big screen, in-person experience, but even the movies I saw at home tended to be disappointing. When, at the end of the year, I looked at the “top ten” lists from the major critics to see what I was missing, I saw that they had selected small, independent, depressing movies I’d never heard of. Watching someone else’ trauma didn’t really appeal to me this year, but what was the alternative? The usual mainstream movies with movie stars and well-known directors were absent, apparently being withheld by the studios until the pandemic is over and it’s safe to go to the movies again.

The last time I watched this few movies (and when I say “movies” I am including films that were or could have been released in a movie theatre but which I streamed at home) was more than 20 years ago when my son was too small to sit still for a full-length picture.

However, once the Oscar nominations came out I made a special effort to watch the Best Picture contenders and I’m glad I did because one of those small, independent depressing movies — “Nomandland” — turned out to be a masterpiece that salvaged the year after all, and many of the others were pretty good.

1. Nomadland

Every once in a while there’s a movie so original that you not only can’t predict where it’s going, you can’t even understand the parameters of HOW to predict where it’s going and need to just let it wash over you. Last year it was “Parasite” and a few years earlier it was “Boyhood.” I’ve never seen movie characters that seemed as real as they do in “Nomadland” and that’s because they actually are real-life modern nomads, who have chosen a deliberately rootless life, unencumbered from anything that will tie them down. Before I watched it, I thought this was a movie about the victims of capitalism but discovered it’s really about a certain kind of personal brokeness can only be salved by kindness, temporary community, and flight. The Frances McDormand character isn’t “houseless” because she has to be, but because she wants to be. Just like Huck Finn, Natty Bumpo and a dozen other characters in American literature and cinema before them. The director Chloe Zhao will probably win best director but I hope they don’t put her in the “identity” box as the first Asian woman to win because she’s much more than that. Although born in China, she’s a great AMERICAN director.

2. Soul

All year long I resisted subscribing to Disney+ out of principle but I finally plunked down seven dollars for a month’s subscription so I could watch “Soul.” If I hadn’t done that I probably wouldn’t have written a movie list at all because until then I didn’t have a legitimate Number One. “Soul” turned out to be a piece of art that literally changed the way I look at the world like nothing else has since I sat through “Our Town” for the first time — a work that expresses similar themes. I knew “Soul” was a Pixar movie about a guy who loved jazz but I didn’t understand until halfway through that the title referred to a person’s literal soul. Wrapped within a a very charming, funny, gorgeously presented, easy-to-digest animated movie is the answer to the profoundest question — how should you live your life? Here’s a hint — you should live you life by living it to the fullest.

3. Tigertail

I need to make it very plain that this movie is definitely NOT “Tiger King,” that uber-trashy Netflix series about big cats. “Tigertail” is a deeply affecting story about the personal choices made by a working class Taiwanese immigrant with conflicting dreams. This quickly becomes an allegory about the emotional price paid by generations of ambitious new Americans who sacrificed love, family and their own mental health to pursue an economically better life in the U.S. Beautiful filmed with understated acting.

4. Minari

Like “Tigertail” (see above) this is a the story of the Asian immigrant experience, except more optimistic. The family in “Minari” is not as damaged by broken dreams and although they face the usual setbacks (although not, surprisingly, any discrimination in their little Ozark town) there’s enough love to pull everyone through.

5. Judas and the Black Messiah

It’s one of those odd quirks of the year that two Oscar nominated movies — “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — both revolved around a related series of events from Chicago in 1969. “Judas” twists the facts a bit to make the cops and the FBI look even worse than they were, but it’s a David McCullough-quality history compared to “The Chicago 7,” which is a cartoon version of reality. “Judas” is about the betrayal of the charismatic Black Panther organiziser “Chairman” Fred Hampton, who was killed (or assassinated, as is claimed here) in a police raid. The filmmaking is compelling, story story is though-provoking, and the acting is superb.

6. Emma

We probably didn’t need another adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, but what a treat it was to have this one to entertain us in the early days of the pandemic. The title character is played by Any-Taylor Joy, who gained far more notoriety this year as the alcoholic chess whiz on “The Queen’s Gambit.” She was great, as was the entire cast except for Johnny Flynn, who lacked Mr. Knightly’s gravitas. Each generation gets the “Emma” it deserves and this one rightly focused more than others on the class distinctions among the characters. Very fun.

7. News of the World

I’m so sorry I didn’t get a chance to see this Tom Hanks western in the theatre because the cinematography of the wild west was just beautiful. I don’t know if this is a deliberate homage to “The Searchers” but it has some of the same plot points — young girl kidnapped by Indians who brutally massacred her family and then adopted her being returned to her kin. In a normal year this would have been a hit, but in 2020 it dropped into obscurity. Too bad.

8. 63 Up

The last movie we saw — in our beloved Avon Theatre — before in-person movie-going shut down for the pandemic. The “Up” series, which has followed the lives of a dozen British subjects as they aged from 7- to 63-years-old is the greatest documentary project of all time. This will probably be the last in the series (which has updated every seven years) because the director Michael Apted has died. Given that several of these people, who we’ve been watching grow older over decades, have also died, are dying, or are grieving other personal losses, this particular episode is unusually elegiac. I’d encourage anyone who cares about film to go back and watch the original “7Up” and then follow the updates one by one. It’s amazing to experience how a life really rolls out and how some people turn out exactly like you think they will and others surprise.

9. The Sound of Metal

What happens when a drummer with an addiction problem and nothing to live for except the love of his girlfriend-the-vocalist goes deaf? It’s not good. So many movies about damaged people this year! And yet all credit to our protagonist, who’s not really very smart but has a lot of courage as he addresses this challenge.

10. My Octopus Teacher

Certainly the dreamiest documentary of the year, about a man who makes friends with an octopus. I learned a lot about cephalopodas. The underwater filming, in an ecosystem I never even knew existed, is remarkable, as is the anthropomorphizing that occurs within this movie. I mean, can you really be “friends” with a mollusk? Still, the fact that this was made at all is astounding.

11. Mank

This is the movie I was most looking forward to this year: David Fincher’s account of how Herman Mankiewicz wrote the first draft of “Citizen Kane.” It’s told in lush black and white with a curlicue narrative, and since you can’t always tell what flashback you’re in as the movie unspools, it’s not that easy to follow. I loved the first half, with its scene-setting and depiction of old Hollywood, but the historical story goes way off the rails as Fincher tries to establish that Mankiewicz’ motivation for attacking William Randolph Hearst via the fictional Charles Foster Kane is somehow connected to California’s 1936 gubernatorial campaign. Huh??!! And then there’s the movie’s unpersuasive assumption that the “Citizen Kane” story and the Kane character were both conceived solely by Mankiewicz and not in collaboration with Orson Welles. It’s ironic that a movie about a near-perfect screenplay has, itself, such a messed up screenplay.

12. One Night in Miami

A play made into a movie with a lot of “Capital A” Acting. It’s a fictionalized look at the night when Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke all find themselves in a hotel room debating and soliloquizing about very big ideas. I generally don’t like film adaptations of plays but the subject is so fascinating and the acting so compelling that it generally held my interest.

13. The Truffle Hunters

A documentary about the elderly men in a northern Italian village who live to find and dig out truffles from the forest floor. Absolutely nothing happens but it’s nice to spend time with these charming old men, their florid Italian mannerisms and their cute dogs.

14. Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee is a great director but he goes intermittently goes off the rails, Rambo-style, in this story about four Black Viet vets of varying disposition who return to ‘Nam to reminisce and resolve some unfinished business. It’s exciting and emotional, especially when you admire the performance of Chadwick Boseman, who has since died, but some of the plot twists are asking too much of us.

15. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Heartbreaking and intense, with great high-octane acting by the dying Chadwick Boseman and the very-much-alive Viola Davis. Unfortunately, this is essentially a filmed play, complete with stilted theatrical dialogue and long monologues. Watching this I finally admitted to my self that I’m a philistine who just doesn’t like dramatic plays, even by someone as talented as August Wilson. The music was great, though.

16. Let Them All Talk

This movie is a hot mess. Meryl Streep is a novelist who wants to reconnect with her two former best friends from college (now estranged, played by Diane Weist and Candace Bergen) by taking them on a trans-Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary. Oh and her nephew’s on board too. Also her book agent, who’s is secretly spying on her. And then there’s a fabulously prolific John Clancy-type author who admires her greatly. Some conflicts get solved; some don’t; nothing really makes sense but it’s fun to watch everybody experience luxury cruising.

17. The Bee Gees: How Deep in My Love

Watching this documentary is more than a guilty pleasure — its a look back at two decades (the 1960’s and ’70’s) of rapidly evolving pop music. It’s the kind of movie that tries to make you feel guilty for ever scorning the amazingly prolific Bee Gees and largely succeeds. Be warned, though, that if you don’t like disco it’s because you are either racist, homophobic, or both (this, in a movie about three of the whitest, straightest, most hirsute guys in the business).

18. The Trip to Spain

This is the third “Trip to” movie involving a couple of British comics who go on exotic trips, eat fantastic meals, do Sean Connery impersonations, and have at least one existential crisis. The formula is always enjoyable but is wearing thin now. I literally had to go back and read a recap to refresh my memory about what happened in this one.

19. Wonder Woman ’84

This actually wasn’t as bad as the critics said, but in a year when a lot of movies “didn’t make sense,” this was the most disappoining. I had admired the original “Wonder Woman” in 2017 and hoped the director Patty Jenkins would build on that ,but WW84 was a sad step back into Marvel-grade territory. As usual, the future of the planet is in doubt, this time because a Donald Trump-like businessman has a self-esteem problem. Gal Gadot is great, though. I enjoyed watching her, even in civilian clothes.

20. The Book Sellers

I have nothing against this documentary, which is a pleasant, genteel look at the rare book store business in New York City, but it’s a trifle dull and doesn’t deliver the “Wow” moment of a great documentary.

21. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Another perfectly fine documentary about a marginally interesting subject — the band called “The Band.” This is not that different from the knock-off movies of other bands that you can watch on Amazon Prime and I only included it in the list because it was theatrically released and we paid to watch it during the first month of the pandemic.

22. The Trial of the Chicago 7

With a paint-by-numbers screenplay that sets out to hit all the usual beats and frame the action around the usual dramatic opposing protagonists, this Aaron Sorkin travesty reduces one of the most climatic and bizarre events of the 1960s to a banal, Hollywood-ized conventional movie. It’s possible that if you never heard of the Chicago Seven, who were on trial for causing a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention, you might find some of this plausible but almost every dramatic high point was concocted so that Sorkin can reach a couple of simple conclusions. No complexity allowed here. And are we seriously to believe that this wimpy Tom Hayden will go on to entrance and marry Jane Fonda?

23. The Prom

If you ever watched Ryan Murphey’s “Glee,” you can’t be surprised by the massively uneven way his full-length movies turn out. “The Prom” has an interesting premise. Four Broadway stars — Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells — cynically try to rehabilitate their careers by cynically taking up the cause of a high school lesbian in Indiana denied admission to her prom. You’l never guess what happens! Oh wait, you will. As in “Glee” there are some genuinely affecting moments, but they are buried beneath strata of cliches, absurdity, and blatant emotional manipulation.

24. Cats

I hate to pile on, but this really was terrible. I never saw “Cats” in the theatre or or even listened to the soundtrack before but didn’t realize that, except for “Memories,” the score is actually pretty bad. And that’s just the first problem. The plot is apparently about alley cats competing to see which of them will win the chance to — it’s a chance to die, right? I literally cannot explain how this Broadway musical became such a musical sensation.

Rich Gary Philip Jane Tip Top

Rich, me and Philip with our friend Jane in front of Tip Top Cafe in Brockton — mid-1980s

The COVID-19 crisis has turned much of America, but especially New York City, into a scared, furtive, grim place, and that conjures up memories of that other virus-fueled trauma — AIDS.  Unlike COVID-19, which has mostly (but not exclusively) targeted the elderly, AIDS was particularly ruthless with people in the prime of their lives.  Over 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS, including my childhood friend Rich Martel, who died 30 years ago this month on June 12, 1990.

We had grown up together in the working class city of Brockton, MA, best friends since first grade in the Ellis Brett elementary school, where he was known as “Richie.”  We were both skinny kids with buzz cuts who shared an interest in politics, history, and geography.  During our various sleepovers, he had introduced me to Superman, Batman, and the “Man From Uncle,” and we spent many hours on our bikes exploring our city’s distant neighborhoods.

He was remarkably creative, with a natural talent for drawing.  When the visiting art teacher came to our elementary school she would smile benignly at our crayon and fingerpaint efforts until she came to Rich’s desk, at which point she’d go “Whoa, what’s this?” and spirit his work away to a city-wide art competition that he’d inevitably win. He kept at it too, producing artwork in high school and college.  All his friends ended up with silkscreens, drawings, and paintings on their walls.  My own most treasured works of art are a series of three photographs of Hollywood actresses, taken with a Polaroid camera, blown up and framed. They hang in my dining room and every day I think how lucky I am to have these beautiful pieces in my house. (And thanks to his friends Amy and Eileen Morgenweck, who gave me the two portraits they inherited, so I could bring them together again.)


Rich was smart too, which came out both in his academics and also in a thirst to launch imaginative projects, such as “Rich Richie’s Almanac,” a neighborhood newspaper he created in the sixth grade.  In junior high school he was placed in the advanced program for gifted students and in high school he was elected President of the National Honor Society. He was even accepted at Harvard but chose to go to Bowdoin instead because at Harvard they’d only admitted him as a commuting student.  His intelligence also manifested itself in humor.  He was one of the funniest people I knew, not only as a great story-teller but also as a trenchant observer of other people’s foilbles.

I was also struck by his kindness and sympathy for underdogs.  In high school he’d be the one to dance with the fat girl that the rest of us averted our eyes to, and when he snuck our friend Carol into his bedroom one night, it was because she had been kicked out of the house by her father and had no place else to stay.

Rich and I shared another best friend from Ellis Brett — Philip Tasho — and we all remained friends until he died.  We ate lunch together every day in the West Junior High School cafeteria and when we graduated from Brockton High, the three of us spent a week at my grandmother’s cottage on Nantucket, exploring the island, trying to cook our own meals, and playing Risk.  After this we all went off to different colleges and then moved to different cities, managing to keep the friendship alive in those pre-Internet days with the occasional long distance phone call, holiday trips back to Brockton, and overnight visits.  And we’d both deliver eulogies at his memorial service back in Massachusetts (which was not allowed to occur in his home parish in Brockton because he’d died of AIDS).

Rich on Nantucket after graduation

Rich and Philip on Nantucket senior year, the day our friends Jane, Pat and Merri came over for the day

In the 1980s, Philip and I were both working in Washington and Rich was in Manhattan.  Sometimes he’d come down to see us and sometimes we’d drive up to stay with him.  He took us to New York nightclubs, trendy restaurants, and arty movies, but my fondest memory is of the time the time we were riding the downtown subway and somehow we all ended up singing The Fifth Dimension’s cheesy song “The Worst Thing That Could Happen to Me.” We were oblivious to the other passengers and drunk on irony, nostalgia, and shared memories.  And when we got back to his apartment we just tumbled into Rich’s king-size bed — with a history of childhood sleepovers, we had no hang-ups about who slept where.

A few years before this, he had told me he was gay.  The surprise from this conversation wasn’t the orientation but the fact that he was actually interested in sex, because this was a subject that had never come up in any conversation over the previous 20 years.  He’d had a few chaste girlfriends in high school — relationships that lacked any sexual spark — and because he didn’t mention girls at all in college, I had just assumed he was asexual.  I have since learned not to make assumptions about other’s people’s sex lives.

Rich Gary Philip Ellis Brett

Rich, Philip and me outside Ellis Brett, our elementary school about 20 years after we graduated

But his sexuality wasn’t the most interesting thing about his life in New York.  He was working at BBDO, which was one of the big advertising agencies.  The “Mad Men” days were over, but it was still a glamorous and exciting career, filled with celebrities, location shoots, high-pressured pitches, and internal politics.  He and his partner Al managed the Diet Pepsi and G.E. accounts, and if you were watching television in the 1980s you’d recognize his stylish, funny, and sophisticated work.  (When he died the agency compiled his work into a highlight reel, which appears below).

In would be inaccurate to say that Rich made a life for himself in New York.  In truth, he made a life for himself in Brockton, expanded it when he went to Bowdoin, and expanded it even further when he moved to New York. He suffered no angst, lived no drama.  Life was good and always had been.  He had a huge appetite for friends and his day-to-day existence was one extended stream of people who had been meaningful to him over the years. In the fifth grade we once made a series of lists, ranking our favorite TV shows, movies, and comic books.  One of our lists was “best friends.”  I had put him and Philip as tied for number one, but his list had TEN kids tied as his best friend. The same was true as an adult; there were probably a dozen of us who considered Rich as one of our best friends.  And he was generous to us all.  He wouldn’t just lend you a book or record album that had piqued his enthusiasm — he’d BUY it for you.  His apartment was a veritable hostel for friends, cousins, college acquaintances, and others who wanted a free place to crash in New York.  And he’d be sure to take them on a tour of his favorite haunts.

In 1988, I moved to New York City myself.  By then Rich had a handsome committed boyfriend named Chris Hill, a great apartment on the Upper West Side, a thriving career and a solid group group of fun and loyal friends (like something out of, well, “Friends”) who had survived New York City together.  He found my first apartment and when I moved in discovered a big “Welcome to New York” basket that was filled with New York City tour guides, street and subway maps, local food delicacies from Zabars, hand towels and other Upper West Side treats.

He was immediately enamored with my girlfriend Meg, who fit the mold of his other female friends in New York — smart, unpretentious, opinionated, low-maintenance, and most important of all, “normal.”  She was taken with him too, noting how handsome he was.  What?  Rich Martel handsome?  But when I looked at him with fresh eyes, I noticed that he’d been working out, had a nice haircut, had grown into his face and was no longer the gawky kid I’d grown up with.  Since he got along so well with Meg, he was the only one I confided to when I was thinking about proposing — not because I needed his advice but because I needed his enthusiasm to give me the courage.

If you lived in Manhattan in the 1980s you thought about AIDS all the time.  Even if you were monogamous and weren’t worried about catching it yourself, the death toll among the most creative people in the city was staggering and there was almost certainly someone who you DID worry about.  So of course I was concerned about Rich, but didn’t have the nerve to ask him directly how much danger he was in.  He and Chris seemed to be in great health, so maybe they were the lucky ones who wouldn’t catch it.

But all of a sudden he began to lose weight.  I also started to notice the occasional purple blotch on his arms, which I feared might be Kaposi Sarcoma, the tell-tale sign of a severely compromised immune system.  But since he didn’t say anything I assumed things were still OK.  Then one Sunday night in late August, three weeks before my wedding, he cancelled our plans to go to the movies and asked me to bring him some soup because he was too sick to make dinner. When he opened the door he looked so terrible that I finally asked what the problem was.  In a way he seemed relieved to finally be telling me the truth.  Yes, he did have AIDS and had had it for three-and-a-half years.  He’d been taking AZT, but the benefits were wearing off.  The disease was pretty advanced and Chris, who actually looked healthier, was even sicker than he was.  In fact, Chris was so sick that he wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding.  But he made me promise not to tell anyone, especially Meg, because he didn’t want to spoil our celebration.

The night before I got married, Rich, Philip and my college friend Jim came over to the parents’ house for dinner with my parents, sister and grandmother.  That was my bachelor party.  He looked scarily gaunt and in a little pain but he held his own in the conversation.  And he played his part the next day, reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians during the ceremony.  When it was over, he even drove us to the Boston so we could catch a plane for our honeymoon.

Rich at Gary's Wedding

Philip, Rich and me at my wedding, with our high school friend Pat and her future wife Kathi

After this things spiraled down fast. The Martels were a close and amazingly supportive family so Rich’s sister Lisa quit her job and moved into Rich and Chris’s apartment to take care of them, make sure they got fed and went to the doctor. Chris died the next February. Despite his grief and illness Rich soldiered on at work, even flying to Budapest to film one last GE commercial.  That Easter, Lisa and Rich came to our apartment for the holiday dinner and Lisa told one hilarious story after another to distract us from our gloom.  On the end of May he took Lisa and his brother Billy to Paris so they could see France for the first time.  On the night he returned he called and asked me to bring over some grape juice and when Meg and I arrived we found him curled up in a ball on his bed, shivering from a fever.  A week later he went into the hospital, and a week after that he died.  These were the days when visitors were required to leave at a prescribed time but Lisa had fiercely insisted on staying with him the night before he died, and she was there in his final moments.

Through it all Rich was stoic, blaming no one and refusing to rail aganst the universe.  At his densely packed funeral even the priest marveled at his courage and wondered whether he, himself, despite being a man of God, could also be so calm in the face of death.  Rich had asked me to be one of his eulogists and I emphasized his humor, telling the story of how, when he asked me to speak at his funeral I had said he couldn’t die yet because he needed to live long enough to find out who killed Laura Palmer.  His response — “I’m pretty sure they have ‘Twin Peaks’ in heaven … and maybe even in Hell,” brought down the house, which was only appropriate because telling a funny story was one of his greatest pleasures.

It was also in that eulogy (which you can read, along with a second remembrance for he memorial service, here: Martel eulogies) that I uttered the immortal line “He especially loved politics and history — I’m so glad he lived to see the fall of both the Berlin Wall and Donald Trump.”  So there’s that.

When Rich died at age 36 I consoled myself that he’d had a good life.  He’d had a fulfilling career, had found mature love with Chris, and had died in the embrace of a loving family.  It was only with the passage of time that I realized how much he’d been cheated of.  He never met his nephews and nieces, whom he would have adored, or had the chance to reach his full professional potential.  He missed decades of love, the entire “Seinfeld” series, the reboot of “Twin Peaks,” Barack Obama, the second half of the career of Martin Scorsese, and the rebirth of New York City.

Rich wsn’t the last AIDS victim.  Not by a long shot.  His former boyfriend Rick Wiley died.  My dentist, another of his ex-boyfriends, died.  Each death was a separate and unique tragedy but for his friends and especially for his family, Rich’s death was a loss that created an unfillable hole in our lives.  Three decades later he still appears in my dreams and every glance at the art on my walls recalls the loss.  At least once a month something happens in the world that causes Meg and me to say to each other — out loud — Rich would have loved (or hated) this.  We are particuarly grieved that he never met our son and his talented, artistic friends, who remind us so much of him.

If there’s the tiniest sliver of a silver lining from Rich’s death it’s the solace of knowing that death itself is not completely the end.  Thirty years later his memory is as vividly alive to everyone who knew him now as it was then.  Would that the same could be said for all of us after we’re gone.