Tells In Telling The Tale

July 21, 2012

Adm. Adama hugging Starbuck scene (screen shot/cropped), Battlestar Galactica, 2009. (

I guess that we as individuals each have tells in telling stories, including our life stories. Certainly all writers have a tell, a catch phrase or common set of words that use in telling a story or in setting a scene. All artists have a unique signature, a nuance within a particular style or genre that sets them apart from someone painting by numbers. Sometimes, at least for me, it takes heavy doses of a writer’s style or of someone’s art for me to see the unique tells in the telling.

Firefly series opening logo, July 21, 2012. (Adamwankenobi via

That’s been so true for me in watching entire TV series through Netflix over the past two years, whether through DVD or online streaming. Since the spring of ’10, I’ve watched, in order and their entirety, Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Voyager, House, Firefly, Heroes, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Oz, Eureka, Warehouse 13, Battlestar Galactica, Bones and Fringe, mostly through Netflix. Now, some of these shows I’d seen plenty of when they were regular series, especially DS9, Six Feet Under, House and Oz, while I viewed most of these series for the first time.

There’s something different about watching a TV series all at once than watching it once a week in twelve, twenty-four or twenty-six episode blocks year by year. Especially with unlimited streaming. Earlier this year, I watched all seventy-six episodes of Battlestar Galactica over a six-day span in April, including the first two seasons between Saturday morning and Sunday evening Easter weekend (see my post “Battlescar Galactica” from June ’12).

In watching so many episodes, you quickly sense the rapport being actors, the plot and its direction, and the tells about a particular episode or season of a show. In watching DS9, I learned that whenever Quark would mention Dax’s relationship with a Gallamite (a race with a transparent skull) or a Tholian ambassador, I’d learn something revealing about one of the main characters, especially Dax or Quark. Only, there may’ve been only one scene in 176 episodes in which there was a Gallamite character, and none for a Tholian ambassador.

With House, if the “sarcoidosis” diagnosis came up before the last segment of an episode, it was always wrong, but if it came up in the last segment, it would occasionally be correct. The writers obviously knew that sarcoidosis was such a general diagnosis that it could mean nothing in nearly all the show’s mystery illnesses, revealing the desperation and pressure the characters felt in finding the right diagnosis to save someone’s life.

Bones in the human hand (from authentic human skeleton), March 25, 2004. (Raul654 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via GNU Free Documentation License.

For other shows, it could be a word, a line, an appearance of a sign or character even. For the first five seasons of Bones, the tell for Brennan’s emotional state — or lack of one — was how she’d say “phalanges,” “distal phalanges,” or even “ungual phalanges.” Brennan wiggled her “phalanges” with delight for babies and kids, and examined microscopic details of dead peoples’ phalanges with scientific coldness otherwise. For the sci-fi western Firefly, lines like “the money was too good” and cursing in Mandarin Chinese illuminated the contrast between haves and have-nots of twenty-sixth century humans, between technological advances and moral devolution.

There’s also Fringe’s opening with changes in colors signifying alternate universes and timelines. Not to mention Breaking Bad’s opening scenes foreshadowing how a season would conclude, or the use of light-skinned or biracial actresses as either technically or ephemerally brilliant characters on Fringe, Warehouse 13 and Bones.

But my all-time favorite tell in any season these days is from Battlestar Galactica, when Adama asks,

“What do you hear, Starbuck?”

“Nothing but the rain, sir,” she says

“Then grab your gun and bring in the cat.”

No matter how the characters felt, how dire the situation, or how triumphant the moment, it was the line that showed how precious the connections we have and need to have with each other and with our humanity.

I think that the way I can — we can — watch movies, TV series, read books and articles, look at art, and listen to music through these tells can tell me a lot about a writer, a musician or an artist. But it also tells me a lot about me. Not just that I’m a little weird. I’m also a sucker for a good story, one that is a bit ironic, a tad asymmetrical, that is quirky and epic, unique and yet mundane. A story that mirrors my life is one that tells me about me, at least in part.

Sweet and Sour 16

December 27, 2010

Slice of cake nicer looking, but similar in style to cake I had 25 years ago, December 27, 2010. Source:

Happy forty-first birthday to me! Competing with the savior of humanity on the last week of the year has never been easy. Most years, there’s been no contest between the observed celebration of Jesus’ birth and the date of my actual birth. But the second half of my growing up years were the worst in terms of how I saw my birthday. From ’78 to ’87, there were two Happy Birthdays for me: one in ’79, and one in ’85. The one that occurred twenty-five years ago, I’d rather forget.

My sixteenth birthday, the twenty-seventh of December, was the first time since I turned nine that anyone bothered to give me a cake. This was a spontaneous decision, as I sat around 616 all day with little to do but watch after my younger siblings. Mom and Maurice agreed to buy me a birthday cake. Since it was my abusive stepfather’s money, I didn’t want any cake. I especially didn’t want the Carvel ice cream cake he thought I should have. I mean, it was a cold last Friday in December day, and all he could come up with was ice cream cake?

Carvel Ice Cream Store, Edenwald, East 233rd Street & Paulding Avenue, Bronx, New York, December 27, 2010. jag9889 at

The kicker was that I had to go get the cake. It was my birthday, but I had to leave 616, catch the 7 bus to Prospect, get off at Waldbaum’s and walk over to the empty Carvel store to buy a chocolate ice cream cake with a huge vanilla ice cream coating. I bought it and brought it home so we could celebrate me turning sixteen.

I wasn’t thankful for this assignment, and it showed. I had two bites before my older brother Darren and my younger siblings devoured the rock-hard dessert. I wished that Maurice would just go somewhere and die. Not a violent death or one that I had to be the cause of. Just a death that he deserved, like a massive coronary blockage due to a diet rich in saturated fats.

About a week ago, I told my seven-year-old son this story. Or at least, an exaggerated, funny and much less painful fictionalized version of it. I made my ex-stepfather into Jabba the Hutt, and my Carvel ice cream cake into a small square boulder that was painted white. At one point in the story, I told Noah that I hit my stepfather in the head with a piece of the cake, “knocking him out cold.” I made it so that my siblings ate the cake like Shaggy and Scooby ate Scooby Snacks after solving a case, with tongues circling their faces and licking off the excess to boot.

Noah just laughed and laughed throughout. I just hope that he finds something to laugh about when he finally hears the real story.

Crush #1 and Other Bedtime Stories

July 10, 2010

Noah Sleeping, September 2009

For about the past year and a half, me and my wife have spent some of our time at the end of the day with our son Noah telling him bedtime stories. Actually, it’s been mostly me, since my wife doesn’t like making up stuff. At first, it was just about every night, with me telling Noah true stories about family, friends, former classmates and my school experiences.

I’d often put Noah in those stories, especially the ones I knew he’d laugh at. Like the science teacher who came in one day smelling like a skunk had sprayed him because a skunk actually did. Or the story about my second day of high school, where I had to fight a class hipster because he thought that I was a wimpy push-over.

With me injecting Noah into these stories — usually as the character Ben 10 turning into Big Chill or Humongousaur — I realized I had to embellish a bit, making some of my real-life encounters less like real-life. I told stories about my father where I changed almost all of the wording because the real stories involved more profanity and bigotry than a five or six-year-old should ever have to hear. I’d leave out parts of stories about how mean some of my classmates or teachers were just to make sure Noah was ready to go to sleep happy and without asking me a lot of questions about my past.

About six months ago, I started making up stories, about eighty-five percent fictional in nature. The names

Noah in Snowaggedon (on balcony), February 2010

and places remained the same, but the incidences and their improbable outcomes didn’t. I figured out that Noah mostly enjoyed a few choice characters: a fictionalized ’80s version of my father, a singing, wise-cracking fictional classmate, a super-smart classmate who’d get a case of the “ums” and “uhs” under duress, a friend from my elementary school days who’d fart when under pressure, and an even more tomboyish version of my Crush #1. Noah has since asked for those characters in my stories over and over again.

He’s also asked a lot of questions about my real-life classmates, teachers and family. Like, “Did you really have a classmate who sings ‘Roxanne’ all the time?” Or “Did [your friend] really fart all the time?” “Are you still friends with [super-smart boy]?” So I pulled out the MVHS Class of ’87 yearbook that I had borrowed from a former classmate when revising drafts of Boy @ The Window to show Noah pictures of them so that he could see that these weren’t the larger-than-life, made-up characters I used in my bedtime stories. Not to mention using the power of Facebook to bring home that fact as well.

This past week, Noah’s asked a few more questions. “Do you still like [Crush #1] a lot?,” Noah asked me a couple of days ago. “I still like her, but not the way I liked her when I was twelve,” I said in response, kind of shocked that he asked me that question out of the blue. I then thought for a moment, “Maybe I should keep the twelve-year-old in me to myself until he’s older.”

Noah Salutes

Then I realized. I have to tell Noah these stories. At the very least, it’ll help him not make the same mistakes I made growing up. That way, he won’t have to spend most of his time growing up without good friends, without an eleven-year gap between kisses, with mostly stories that would make most six-year-olds cry. Or, at the least, sad. He can read all about it when he’s older and Boy @ The Window’s published.


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