Starlog magazine, the premiere sci-fi entertainment publication, heralded the film Room 731 as a “highlight” of the Philip K. Dick Sci-Fi Festival. The movie was written by my sister, Christie XT Cushing, and I served as an associate producer. The supernatural horror flick stars Tim Kang (CBS’ The Mentalist), Nikki Soohoo (The Lovely Bones), and YooJung Kim (Moon Embracing the Sun) and was directed by Youngmin Kim. The movie will be shown at the festival on January 16 in the Tribeca Cinema.
“Christmas has become too commercial” is a phrase quite popular around this time of year. It is something I understand and agree with, but as a child, it had no bearing in my mind. For children, it’s all about the presents … and there had better be a lot of them. My family did not have a lot of money, but somehow my parents always managed to provide us with a good Christmas (or as I liked to say “a good haul” of toys). This story, however, is not about gifts. It is a memory, a recollection so strong and vivid that it epitomizes Christmas for me. At the time, however, it caused me great shame, the kind of horror only a tween can imagine.
I don’t think the word “tween” existed back then, but in my bubblegum-popping mind, anyone over the age of twenty was clearly a dork, especially if they were a relative. This heinous experience occurred when I was about twelve years old, and, as with any angst-ridden teen, the embarrassment caused by the behavior of any elder seemed far too prevalent. My parents sent me into many fits and bouts of “hide in shame” moments. Don’t walk beside me, and act like you’re not with me, most likely came out of my mouth on many occasions. As an adult now, I can reason that those hideous moments were mostly unintentional. After all, when Mom asked (loudly!) in the grocery store (while pointing!), “Isn’t that such-and-such from school that you think is cute? Go talk to him,” or when Dad stood in the kitchen singing silly, homemade songs while I was in the midst of a slumber party, they couldn’t possibly have known that I was experiencing such horror … or, wait a minute, now that I think about it … HEY!
But, I’m getting off tract here. This story isn’t about them either. Neither of them caused me the grief that my grandmother did one wintery morn’ many moons ago. This, I’m positive, was unintentional. As a matter of fact, looking back on it, she did it with the aim of making me (and all her grandkids) happy. Tweens are unable to see these things, however. Tweens are like dogs. They only see black-and-white.
Back then, there was one thing I always saw in a shade of grey. Frugality – and it was one of the grand moral rules my grandmother lived by. When you are a tween, that language does not jive. It is no comprendo. There are far too many cool things to buy … items that must be bought or suffer great indignity in the eyes of your peers! My grandmother never saw it that way though. She purchased what was necessary, nothing more, nothing less. To her, life was not about material possessions (we had few anyway). She cared naught about new clothes, fancy televisions, or over-priced baubles. She didn’t even care about Christmas trees. Don’t get the wrong impression of her, though. She was no Scrooge or Grinch. She was more like one of those Whos down in Whoville who understood the true meaning of Christmas. Naturally, I thought she was insane. Life was most definitely about stuff. More stuff! Cool things! Let’s get this and that, and why can’t I have this? In my young mind, one might as well live in a cave, if one could not have the “right” clothes or the newest gadgets! But, my grandmother would not budge on this principle. The important things, she claimed, revolved around the ones you loved and the experiences you shared.
What a pant load, I thought then, a total, weighed-down, pile o’ poo-poo. She should, at least, have a Christmas tree. What was superficial about that? The whole “get a tree” rant was something the grandchildren bugged her about all the time. In her view, she had no need for it, since she visited all her children and grandchildren at their own homes on Christmas day. Why spend money on a tree for her living room? Well, one day, something snapped like a twig, and maybe it was miraculous, divine intervention, or maybe she got sick of listening to the same old argument, but I convinced her to put up a tree. I felt superior to all the other grandchildren, to all grandkids who had ever existed in the history of the world. I had succeeded in the perceived impossible. I was totally cool.
Then she told me where we were going to get said tree.
It was in the backyard. Now, let me explain this a little better. See, I grew up in the country. If you grow up Southern in the country, the phrase “woods behind the house” is something folks understand quite clearly. I knew all about those woods – the creeks, and rabbit holes, and crawdaddy mud piles. There weren’t any Christmas trees. Santa ain’t back there with his elves making wooden toys, Grandma, I can assure you of that. Christmas trees come from the grocery store, all bundled in twine, resting comfortably next to other normal trees, until someone straps it atop the car for the long ride home where it shall be decked in shiny garb.
What kind of tree would it be anyway? My tween senses were enraged! An oak? Maple? Heaven forbid, a Charlie Brown tree? She said, “Now Michelle,” which is usually what she said whenever I made some foolish remark, and I supposed she knew nothing about Charlie Brown and his sad, little tree. She did not understand the whole concept of the holiday tree.
Let me tell ya, there was no way I was trudging into the woods to chop down a tree. No ma’am! Not gonna do it! How could she chop down a tree anyway? My grandmother did not weigh more than one hundred pounds! I should have known better, however, because two of her other virtues were stubbornness and fearlessness. She once fought off a pit bull attack by hitting the dog over the head with her walking stick (she wasn’t cripple, she just liked that stick for some reason). A tree was certainly no match. Determined, she put on her heavy coat and thick winter boots that looked like galoshes and slung an axe over her back. An axe! This is my grandmother, I thought. What horror. Shouldn’t she bake some cookies or a pie? Why doesn’t she knit sweaters or something? Geez.
For kicks, I decided to trail behind her, arms folded with a pout, thinking, “We are hunting Christmas trees, rascally rabbit.” It was such a cartoon-ish sight. Not far into the woods, we found our mark, a scruffy, little pine, taller than a Charlie Brown tree, but not as full as one you would see all pretty at the Christmas tree farm on the outskirts of town. It was small enough for us to drag back to the house, and she gave it a few good whacks, toppling it over without a “Timber!”
I can’t say any one part of this whole experience amused me. I was seriously mad, in the way that any tween gets infuriated and spends much time complaining on the phone to various friends about the horrible shame of it all. Oh, gaaawwwd, you should see this tree! It’s sooooo embarrassing, I most likely ranted.
Of course, I wanted no one to see this tree … ever. But, at least she had a tree, and my father arrived to put it on a stand and make sure it wouldn’t fall over. He didn’t say anything, but I knew what he was thinking. Good gravy, that’s an ugly tree! Where’d she get it? The backyard? All the grandkids were called to decorate it, and when each looked upon it, the reaction was the same – arms akimbo and head shakes all around. To be honest, I don’t recall her even buying ornaments. We may have used old ones from my parents and aunts and uncles. I do have a vague memory of making a string out of popcorn and other odd bits and ends. It was a terrible sight. Trees were suppose to have Hallmark decorations copyright Disney Corp, and silver garland bought at WalMart on Black Friday, and fragile glass balls that reflect the faces of happy children who look down at all the presents under the tree. This tree didn’t even have lights! No lights! Again, the horror!
Outside of close family, no one ever saw that tree. I don’t even have a photo of it. I just remember how mortified I was by the whole experience. As an adult, I look back on that memory fondly. Surprise, surprise! Why would I write this here article, otherwise? I realize now, my thoughts less shallow, less cool too, that my grandmother put that tree up because I had asked her to – she did it to make me happy, to make all the grandchildren happy. For her, Christmas was never about proudly displaying a gaudy tree for the amusement of others. She felt no desire for fancy bows, or red, green, and blue lights, or department store wrappings. None of that mattered. Nope. Not at all. To my grandmother, it was all about watching us kids decorate that tree. I don’t remember her hanging even one ornament herself. I just remember her, as I always do, sitting in her favorite chair by the window, drinking a glass of iced tea.
If I could go back in time and say, “Hey, kid! This is a moment here. A great, grand, glorious moment unlike any you’ll experience again! Your grandmother is chopping down a tree! What other kid can say that? Trust me, this is gonna reside in the recesses of your mind like pine needles deeply embedded in shag carpet!” (I imagine myself going back in time and talking all literary.) My tween self would have a) said no way and b) asked why I no longer felt that feathered-back hair was cool.
There is no way I would have grasped the moral of this story. The very idea that there was a moral would have been lost on me then. I never would have been able to utter the words – my grandmother is right. Oh, gawd, no! But, surprise again, it turned out she was indeed correct. Right, righty, right-o. Whenever I think back on any Christmas, I don’t think about the gifts. Sure, I know I got a Barbie ‘vette as a kid, Guess jeans as a teenager, and several top 40 CDs in my twenties, but none of those things make me smile now. I do, however, get a chuckle when I think about my parents dancing to, as they called it, “old-time rock-n-roll” one Christmas Eve. I clearly recall my brother and his friends playing guitar at our holiday party another year. I’ll never forget sitting in front of the televison, wrapped in a blanket, drinking hot chocolate, and watching Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer with my sister and brother every year. But, of all those memories, the tippy-toe topper of them all will always be the day my grandmother chopped down her own Christmas tree.
All those little memories are what Christmas is about, Charlie Brown. Heck, it’s what life is about. Come Christmas morning, when your kiddies are opening that iPad or Wii, remember this fine, ol’ moral, and do something with your children that might seem ridiculous, something unique, something that will most likely humiliate and torture them throughout their teen years, but if it is done with genuine love, trust me, that’ll be the moment that sticks.
I don’t feel like I’ve ever “belonged” in this era. I like the 1920s and 1930s. I like the 1940s too, but it is the other two decades that have always captured my imagination. I like the flappers, the cars, the traveling trunks, and art deco, and no cell phones or tablets or iPods, just guys in fedoras and Harold Lloyd on the silver screen. Back then, Hollywood was new and stars were fantastical, and gentleman tipped their hats. There were no Miley Cyrus’ to spoil the view.
I’m smart enough to know that I’ve idealized eras I never lived in and really know nothing about, but still, there is something there, something that I can’t find in the here and now. Maybe it’s class or charm. Or nothing much, except my active imagination and hope for some type of thing that doesn’t exist and never did exist.
I read today that the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs, AR is on fire and will most likely be destroyed. It’s been closed awhile now, abandoned and falling to decay. Not that I’ve cared too much about this hotel in particular, but when I heard this news, I thought about my novel, Rosabelle, believe, that I set in Hot Springs. I put my characters there because that old city has so much history and so much charm. My characters felt the way I did, about old things and those eras, so I put them were they belonged. I used a different hotel as the setting for my story though, but it still made me think, what if it that hotel were on fire? Would some little part of my story be gone too? Of course not. My story is fiction and with fiction things can live forever, which is probably why I write in the first place. Little moments, like the one I’m having right now, that little something I can never have but can always dream about, well, that can live forever. That’s the beauty of writing. I can live in the 1920s and listen to music on a Victrola. Or spin around town in a shiny 1930s model Duesenberg.
So, the next time you come across a writer getting all sappy and forlorn over something that seems trivial, and you’re thinking, “Good gravy, another self-absorbed, pretentious writer rambling on about something,” just stop for one moment and think of something you love and can never have (maybe even someone), or remember that record store you shopped at as a teenager, or even your mother’s perfume, and remember that is where inspiration comes from, and that is why we write. Then you should smile, knowing writers will never let anything fade. It might not be the exact place, person, or thing in your mind, but that sentiment lives forever somewhere, on some page.
These are some of my personal set photos from “Room 731.” It was written by my multi-talented sister, the novelist Christie XT Cushing (The Mask of Aubrey Clover) and directed by Youngmin Kim. It stars the incredible talents of Tim Kang (The Mentalist), Yoo Jung Kim (Moon Embracing the Sun), and Nikki Soohoo (The Lovely Bones), in addition to the talents of such stars as Gregory Itzin (24). The film features production design by Eddie Yang (co-founder of Alliance studios, Ironman, Dark Knight), art direction and VFX by Diana Choi (The Dark Knight, Men in Black), and costume design by Vanessa Lee (Hunger Games, Thor). Our executive producers are the incredible Anna Liza Recto and Michael Kaleda of Bold Management and Production (Bold MP). The film deals with the little known Japanese medical experiment division of the Japanese Imperial Army, Unit 731, during World War 2.
So, there I was sandwiched amongst the ravenous, bloated masses as they clamored with their turkey-starved hands like heinous beasts to grab hold of the last can of cranberry sauce and creamed corn, and I said to them, above crying babies with dirty faces and bewildered grannies visiting from out of town, “Good gonzo! This is a day of thanks, not war!” The ogres of hunger, mouths watering like wolves ‘round a dead buffalo, paid me no mind, their thoughts frozen with ideas about $98 HDTVs at WalMart come Friday. I felt like I was floating in a gravy boat of despair, as the lot of them prepared for the gorging, the feasting, the football, the giant Snoopy suspended over New York City (of which they do not realize is one giant commercial for Macy’s Department store). It all sounds like some sort of mescaline-induced hyperbole from a Hunter Thompson book, but it’s all true! All true, I tell ya! My friends had warned me, “Two days – TWO!!! – before Thanksgiving. Are you mad, woman? You’ll never make it out alive!” It was fearsome, indeed, but I did escape the slobs of gluttony with a bag of potatoes, a frozen cherry pie, and a tub of vanilla ice cream. I did not like the experience though. Nope, I did not, but I am thankful I survived it, and when I sit down to eat on Thursday, that is what I’ll give thanks for — surviving checkout lane ate (I mean eight) on an early Tuesday morn’.
On Halloween in 1926, the magician Harry Houdini died. Magicians honor Houdini each year on this date, and it is known as National Magic Day. In 2010 on October 31st, I did my part by publishing a tribute novel to Houdini titled “Rosabelle, believe.” When the book was originally released, I gave an interview talking about the book’s premise and Houdini’s influence. To celebrate the anniversary of Houdini’s passing, National Magic Day, and the third anniversary of the release of my novel, below is an excerpt from that interview:
The basic plot of “Rosabelle, believe” is about a man who believes he is the reincarnation of Harry Houdini. He meets a girl who could be the reincarnation of Harry’s wife Bess, but convincing her of this is not so easy.
It is a love story, albeit a magical one, but it is more a tale of hope, of desire, of a longing for a more romantic and mystical existence. As the character Eric Pilot mentions in the story, when it comes to romance, there are no shy winks or tips of hats anymore. We live in a world where love is like fast food, gobble it down quickly without thought or feeling. I would like to see a return to courting, but even more so, I would like people to read my novel and long for a great love story of their own. There’s nothing shameful or childish about love, and it has a very spiritual and mystical quality that makes life worth living. People so often call relationships “work” and that is a shame. I don’t “work” at my relationship with my mother, or my sister, or my friends. I just love them and express it. Romantic love should be the same, although romance should radiate a special type of magic as well. I hope my book expresses that. I want to bring a mystical and magical quality back to love.
Magic is a perfect metaphor for love. Love is magical. At least it feels so. This is a tale about what appears to be a miracle. Life and death are illusions. I used Houdini in the book, because he was such a great showman that people believed he was really magical, that he was supernatural. I wanted Eric to represent that same quality with romance and love.
I also think magicians are charming. I love magicians, because they have no misconceptions about illusions. They know it’s all flash, smoke, and mirrors. They fool us with our permission. I think they’re great, and I’m so flattered if they enjoy my book. My novel is very much a tribute to their craft, and especially a tribute to the greatest magician of all time, Harry Houdini.
If you’re intrigued about “Rosabelle, believe,” pick up a copy at either Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com … or I’ll conjure the spirit of Houdini to haunt you! Hahaha!
The graffiti artist Banksy reportedly once said, “When you go to an art gallery, you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.”
Recently, Banksy sold his paintings anonymously on a street corner in New York. Only a handful of paintings were sold, each selling for around $60. If these same paintings had been sold in a gallery as original works by Banksy, each piece would go for at least five figures.
Those who walked by this street corner stall without a second thought are kicking themselves and exclaiming, “Oh no! I could have owned a Banksy worth thousands!”
The most interesting part of this story, however, is the commentary that it makes on society. Humanity no longer a) values art b) recognizes talent. Do people want to own a Banksy because they enjoy his work? Or do they want to own something that has monetary value? And these same people, do they think Banksy is talented, or do they think he is talented because they have been told so?
Think about it, how many people walk down a New York City street during one afternoon? Yet the majority of these people ignored this street vendor. When the news broke later, and they realized it was the work of a modern artist with commercial appeal, then they felt disappointed at missing out. Not missing out on art, though. They missed out on profit.
I’m fairly certain that the average person is too much of a coward to admit to liking anything, whether it be a painting, a piece of music, or a novel, unless someone, or something, has told them to do so. Moreover, most people refuse to accept, or appreciate, anything that does not have monetary value. My sister, who is a brilliant novelist, once said that rarely does society pat an author on the back for writing a story, but everyone congratulates a bestselling author for a job well-done. My sister is a published author, although not a famous one, so the average person will take her remark with a grain of salt. However, if her novel appeared on the bestseller list tomorrow, her quote would be status updates on Facebook with several “likes” and “shares.” There be ye point, people. There it BE in blazing BOLDFACE type.
Artists used to be recognized as the brave souls who said what needed to be said, who brazenly expressed what others hid within. They still do, of course. The real ones. What has changed is that society no longer gives these skills “worth.” Value comes from literal monetary worth.
Without the all-powerful monetary success, society says “not talented,” “not worthy,” and “not an artist.” Profit profit profit. Own a Banksy because it is valuable. What the f*ck does it matter if he’s talented, or a hack, or a genius? Snatch up the painting because it can be sold for mucho bucks. Or own it for the bragging rights! Yes, the bragging rights! Show others that you can afford an expensive piece of art! And, damn that bastard Banksy for pulling a fast one and selling his paintings cheap and screwing everyone of profit and prestige! Surely, this man is insane? He practically gave his work away! Banksy surely forgot that society agreed to sell art to the devil a long time ago.
Not surprising though; humanity sells everything. There’s even a show on the History Channel called “What is the Earth Worth?” As if.
If humanity does not regain its ability to appreciate artistic expression and to recognize talent, then we are left with a world that is as interesting as a plastic, six dollar, Halloween costume. Boo! That scares me. How ‘bout you? No? Then I’ve got an original Banksy, cheap, for sale, slightly used …