The Brady Bunch is Messing with My Head

I am an idiot.

I read this whole story and never figured out on my own what it was really about.

(Spoilers ahead, which aren’t necessarily dramatic, but will rob the story of its full effect if you haven’t read it.)

“Here’s the Story,” by David Gilbert, is in this week’s New Yorker, its summer fiction issue. It’s a Brady Bunch prequel, but I never realized that until the author told me it was. I think this is partly stupidity and partly because I was so swept up in enjoying it at face value that seemingly obvious Brady-related hints seemed nothing more than colorful elements in the story.

It tells the story of Ted Martin and Emma Brady, the first spouses of Carol and Mike, respectively: How they met and ultimately how they died.

Brief synopsis: Ted and Emma meet by chance during one of the “love-ins” at Elysian Park in Los Angeles in 1967. Ted wanders over after attending a Dodger game; Emma takes her youngest son Bobby (!) to the park while dad and the two older boys are on a camping trip. Both feel trapped in life and in marriage. They recognize each other from being parents at the same school, and share a moment of mutual understanding and solace in the park. Nothing happens between them until a couple months later, when they’re unknowingly on the same flight the Monday before Thanksgiving. Neither had been able to keep the other out of his or her head since the park encounter, and they share an intimate conversation – even ponder running off together after landing in Cincinnati – on the plane before it hits some tree branches on descent and crashes.

Even without the Brady element, I was drawn to Ted and Emma’s plight. I’m always intrigued with stories about people who feel like their lives are stuck but who find brief solace in another person or experience. I found myself rooting for Ted and Emma, who seemed stuck with partners who didn’t truly appreciate them. I think that was also part of my shock when the ending was finally revealed – I’d just spent nine pages rooting against wonderful Mike and Carol Brady!

I also loved how the story moved and how specifically it described the true intention behind characters’ actions. One of my favorite lines described Ted imagining the disapproving comments his wife would offer about him walking through the love-in: “Much of the pleasure of being here was walking with the spectre of his wife, defining himself in opposition to her attitude.”

Not once until the final paragraph did the idea of this as a tale of the lost spouses cross my mind. I did actually think once about the show while reading the story, when I thought how Emma’s husband would have been another Mike Brady living in LA in the 1960s. I just never thought to assume they were the same Mike Brady. But there were so many other clues I should have noticed! Ted’s girls skipped going to the Dodgers game because they wanted to work on a Sunflower Girls project. Ted thinks about how his oldest loves Davy Jones. Tiger the dog is mentioned. Emma weasels out of the camping trip. For crying out loud, Bobby is actually a speaking character in the story and we learn Emma has another son named Pete!

(If it isn’t evident already, the Brady Bunch was a big part of my childhood TV routine. I watched plenty of shows made for my era, too, but I have enjoyed my fair share of TV Land and Nick at Nite Brady marathons.)

Aside from the way David Gilbert weaved subtle Brady Bunch clues into this otherwise unrelated story, I was also enamored with the idea of inventing a story for the lost spouses. It’s historical fiction, in a way. Questioning the facts we accept about something – albeit fictional – we thought we already knew. Or at least asking us to wonder why Mike and Carol’s first spouses were gone in the first place.

I love the idea that Ted and Emma’s “mutual demise,” as Gilbert put it in an interesting follow-up interview, is what brought Mike and Carol together, rather than two unrelated events that left them both without a spouse. But no one has to accept that or anything else in this story as fact. That’s what I appreciate about it. “Here’s the Story” hasn’t ruined the show’s premise for me. It’s just given me answers to questions I never thought to ask.

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“You went to New York for the first time? So did I.”

I thought I was over talking about the Beatles for awhile, after spending Sunday fully submerged in Ed Sullivan Show anniversary madness, but today I read an oral history of another Beatles event celebrating its 50th anniversary: Their concert at the Washington Coliseum on February 11, 1964. The Washington Post published the story, which culled anecdotes from concertgoers, photographers, hotel managers and a former Beatle to create a delightful read, full of stories and insights I’d never known.

There are so many stories bubbling under the surface of commonplace events, just waiting to boil over. Well, I guess the Beatles playing D.C. wasn’t necessarily “commonplace.” But it’s not one of the major moments that spring to mind when thinking about the Beatles in America – you spend those thoughts on the Ed Sullivan Show and Shea Stadium.

Every story in this oral history is fascinating, but these were my favorites:

John B. Lynn, son of the Washington Coliseum’s owner: “It was such an unusual event and it was a windfall. He [his dad, the owner] took the profit and used it to buy my mother a new Lincoln Continental convertible for her birthday. We came home from school and he said, ‘The Beatles concert bought that for your mother.'”

I can just picture a dad pointing to the awesome new car in the driveway, shrugging and thanking the Beatles for a new car.

Linda Binns Liles, who was nine years old that day and rode the train from New York to Washington in the same car as the Beatles:  “I introduced myself to Ringo Starr and promptly sat down and started talking with him. ‘You went to New York for the first time? So did I.’ We had a normal conversation. I was sure he was interested in my fourth-grade teacher as much as I was interested in what he was doing. Paul McCartney, who had me calling him Uncle Paul, asked me if I was coming to their D.C. concert, and I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to go to school tomorrow.’ I was perfectly serious.”

I love how this captures the newness and thrill of America for the Beatles. “You went to New York for the first time? So did I.” Ringo could not have said anything more perfect. Liles’ story brings the spectacular train scene from A Hard Day’s Night to mind.

I also loved a quote from Paul, still dripping with that Hard Day’s Night cynicism when remarking on the tone of press conferences the band did in the United States: “The press conferences were quite funny. It was always: ‘Hey, Beatles, is that hair real, or is it a wig?’ Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? How dumb are you? But we didn’t mind it at all. We expected it. It was a completely different world. It’s not like now where you’ll find all these kids writing for the Internet. It was elderly, balding gentlemen who smoked a lot — grown-ups looking disapprovingly at the children having too much fun. We knew it wasn’t hard to beat that kind of cynicism. It was like a chess game. And the great thing was, being four of us, one of us could always come up with a smart-ass answer.”

America enthralled the Beatles, but they still knew what they were going to get. They were in on the joke, and they played along, giving us so many wonderful stories to remember in the process.

Missed My Stop

Tonight, I had dinner with friends after work in Manhattan, then hopped on the 7 train back into Queens. My apartment is half a block from a local 7 stop (the 7 runs some express trains from Manhattan to Queens during evening rush hours). Maybe this train switched from local to express in the middle of the ride without my knowledge. Maybe it did make the local stops and I just didn’t notice. But when I looked up, we were well past the one I needed.

All because of a chapter in my current book, “As Time Goes By” by Derek Taylor, who served two stints as press officer for the Beatles. (Yes, I’m back on a Beatles kick after the Beatles class I took last spring term. Well, actually, I was never really off the Beatles kick. Now it’s just spread to books.) A couple months ago, I landed on Derek Taylor’s Wikipedia page, which said he wrote an informal memoir in 1973. It was an Amazon impulse buy. I wasn’t really sure what to read after “Yours In Truth,” and this seemed like something easy to pick up off the shelf.

If I try too hard to summarize the chapter that kept me on the train, I’ll talk it to death and ruin the story. But it was beautiful. At least if you love the Beatles.

Each chapter relays a short, specific anecdote from Taylor’s wild career in the 60s, working as a publicist for bands like the Beatles, the Byrds and the Beach Boys, and for individuals like Mae West. (The subtitle of the book, if it gives you any idea what a crazy decade Derek Taylor had: “Living in the Sixties with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, Allen Klein, Mae West, Brian Wilson, The Byrds, Danny Kaye, The Beach Boys, one wife and six children in London, Los Angeles, New York City and On the Road.”)

This particular chapter was titled, “England, 1968.”

In England, 1968, Derek and Paul McCartney go up to a town in the northern part of the country so Paul can work on arranging some pieces with a brass band. I think a few other people are there to make up some kind of entourage, but Paul is the only Beatle.

Derek decides (albeit while under the influence of what he calls the “dreaded heaven-and-hell drug”) that on their way back to London, they should detour to some small town called Harrold, just for kicks.

He proceeds to describe their night in Harrold. They check in to an inn. They gamble and drink at the bar. News spreads that Paul McCartney is in town. They meet the town dentist, who invites them to eat at his home. “Welcome to Harrold, Paul,” he says. “I can hardly believe it, in fact I think I’m dreaming.”

The dentist’s wife prepares a meal for them with food that had been reserved for an upcoming special occasion. The dentist’s daughter hands Paul a guitar (it’s right-handed but he plays it anyway) and he plays “the song he had written that week and which he said went ‘Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better.'”

It comes time to go back to the inn, which has closed, “but a winged messenger came to say that as this was the night of nights, never to return, the inn was to be reopened. ‘In your honor, Paul.'”

Paul played piano at the local pub until three o’clock in the morning. “The pub was absolutely full. The whole village was here . . . and then I went and sat in the little garden and cried for joy that we had come to Harrold,” Derek recalls.

Isn’t that delightful? A dash of cynicism mixed in with a retelling of a magical evening. Harrold was supposed to be a detour into untouched obscurity, but even there, they knew the Beatles. Paul McCartney, one night only, and you didn’t even know he was going to be there. And then I realized I missed my stop.

Lincoln, Perception and Storytelling

After months of anticipation, my sister and I saw Lincoln this past weekend, taking advantage of the movie’s early release in New York City theaters. While I’ve always taken a particular interest in the Civil War when it comes to studying American history, Hope is the real Civil War buff and had been beside herself with excitement for weeks at the idea of seeing her favorite time period gloriously displayed on screen.

To our surprise, she was underwhelmed, while I absolutely loved it. Sure, it dragged a bit at the end, and I found the opening scene (in which Union soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln during his visit to a battlefield) to be a little cheesy, but I just couldn’t (actually, still can’t) get over Daniel Day-Lewis’ tremendous performance as the president. Not to go all Roger Ebert here, but I have never been so convinced that an actor really was the person he was portraying. Obviously, there is no way of knowing whether he’s doing a spot-on impression of Lincoln’s voice, gait and mannerisms. But assuming tremendous research went into making it as accurate as possible, I don’t know how someone couldn’t be blown away by how real it seems.

Prior to seeing the movie, I decided to start reading Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book upon which much of Lincoln‘s plot is drawn. I still have a ways to go with it, but I’m glad I read a little before seeing the movie (for, say, some background knowledge on characters like William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State) and am finding it easier to digest with some mental image (albeit not the “real” thing) of characters and places described in the book.

I’m on page 142 of 754 so there’s still a lot to digest, but I have been struck by two facets of Lincoln I never knew existed:

  1. Master storyteller. If nothing else, Lincoln is worth  it for the scene in which the president tells a story about Ethan Allen and a George Washington portrait in an outhouse (just trust me). It’s not just worth it because the story is laugh-out-loud funny; the way Daniel Day-Lewis delivers (and, I want to believe, Lincoln delivered) it – timing, emphasis, everything – is riveting. And as I read the book, I’m intrigued by all the mentions of Lincoln as a masterful storyteller. He grew up listening to his father regale friends, neighbors and travelers who boarded at their Kentucky home, carefully remembering every detail and re-telling the stories for his own friends the next day. Goodwin called it a “passion for rendering experience into powerful language.” From what I can tell so far, nearly everyone who made contact with Lincoln was smitten by his stories and the way his face lit up as he told them. I suppose I always thought of Lincoln as a no-nonsense, serious man, but I like knowing he was much more than a stoic face looking back at me from a Mathew Brady portrait.
  2. Savvy PR man. Lincoln believed you only are that which you are perceived to be. No matter what’s on the inside, people will like or dislike you (or vote for or against you) based on who they think you are, not who you think yourself to be. To me, this is a huge part of why companies invest in public relations: They want to control how they are perceived. To Lincoln, it was a driving factor in his political pursuits, primarily because he desperately wanted history to remember his name (mission accomplished), and knew that wouldn’t happen unless he made a name for himself in modern times. He seemed to believe, writes Goodwin, that “ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” I love that quote. Whether or not that’s how it should be, that’s how it is, and Lincoln played the political game with that in mind. I really don’t have much interest in modern-day politics, but I’m eager to learn more about how Lincoln’s rise to the top was aided by his deep understanding of perception’s importance.

My copy of Team of Rivals is already littered with highlighter marks and Post-it notes as I organize my thoughts, but I might turn here in the coming days and weeks in order to archive and consider them more fully.

And just for kicks: The Lincoln trailer, if you haven’t already seen it; background on how Lincoln came to life in the movie, from Diane Sawyer’s interview with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis; and if you need to be convinced that this movie is worthy of your time, Ebert’s review.