January, 2014 Archives

I am SHERlocked

January 26th, 2014

A case of Baker Street irregularity

I was never really a fan of fictional mysteries. When I was growing up, they always seemed more suited to my parents or grandparents. Agatha Christie felt old and dated. Murder She Wrote always seemed to be a show for senior citizens sitting at their TV trays. The closest I got was probably that big old set of Hardy Boys books my brothers left in the attic when they abandoned them in the 1960s.

It’s no surprise then that Sherlock Holmes was, to me, just an old series of movies starring Nigel Rathbone on Detroit’s Channel 50 when nothing else was on the other four or five stations. Heck, I would’ve watched Channel 9 — the Canadian station — before subjecting myself to that! In recent years, even bad boy Robert Downey Jr. didn’t entice me into the whole cult of Sherlock.

Then — as happens with a lot of my pop culture appreciation — I was drawn into this latest incarnation of Conan Doyle’s fictional sleuth by a daughter. PBS is currently in the middle of sharing Sherlock season three via Masterpiece Mystery! There are only three new ones, bringing the grand total up to nine episodes (three shows per season). That hardly makes for a series. But each show clocks in at just under 90 minutes, so they really are individual movies unto themselves.

I am hooked. To use a reference from season two, “I am SHERlocked.” If you haven’t heard the name Benedict Cumberbatch, you’ve probably seen him. Last year alone he was in everything from The Simpsons and Star Trek to The Hobbit and August: Osage County. The guy is a serious over-achiever and his loyal female fan base even has a name unfit for the genteel readers of this blog. Cumberbatch plays an insanely addictive Sherlock, but I’m more partial to his Watson, Martin Freeman, whom I first noticed back when he was the loveable stand-in for the porno movie scene in Love Actually. He earlier made a name for himself in the original British version of The Office, playing the character that John Krasinski played in America.

The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman is fantastic. But the crimes they solve through amazing deductive reasoning are the stuff of legends. Actually, forensic science owes a huge debt to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who helped pioneer such commonplace techniques as ballistics, blood sampling, fingerprints and footprints.

I can’t say enough about this latest incarnation written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who brilliantly plays Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft Holmes). It is funny yet suspenseful, wonderfully filmed and adheres quite rigidly to the original plot lines, with modern day twists. Instead of Watson being Holme’s biographer, now he writes a blog. Instead of a pipe, Sherlock has a nicotine patch. And both characters are much younger men now than in the original writings. There’s a sad similarity, though, between the old and the new. The original Watson was an army doctor wounded in Afghanistan back in the 1800s. The current Dr. Watson was also wounded in Afghanistan, showing just how long that Middle Eastern country has seen turmoil.

Two characters who come and go also add fantastic performances. The updated Moriarity is acted formidably by Andrew Scott. Lara Pulver plays the seductive dominatrix Irene Adler. Many other characters and actors make this particular Sherlock remix an outstanding series and well-worth watching.

You can catch up with previous episodes on Netflix, Amazon and Google Play among others. Or you can make your DVRs just keep recording after Downton Abbey this Sunday and next to see the final installments of the season. I really think you can come in anywhere in the series and feel just as confused or up-to-date as anyone else. Nobody can match the brain of Baker Street, so don’t worry if it’s tough to figure out all the clues and red herrings. Just have fun and let it wash over you.

I found myself sitting on the couch the other day watching a recorded Sherlock while munching my lunch. The previous night’s episode was on way too late for me. I realized, with a smile, that I’ve become one of those oldsters I used to disparage in my youth. And how that happened to me is quite the mystery.

Reference Letter

January 17th, 2014

But will I get thanked in his acceptance speech?

An email hit my screen at the exact perfect time. I had just been rejected for a teaching position and was feeling kind of down. The email was from a former student of mine four years ago who was applying to film school; he wanted to write scripts. He asked if I’d be so kind as to write him a letter of recommendation. “As someone who was my favorite teacher at MSU I know you would do a great job at this.

Okay, I was hooked. But he went on to write, “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine and you can help make it a reality.

I didn’t remember a lot of his writing, just the way he acted and presented himself in class. He was a good guy, so I asked him to send me some current writing samples. He did and they dealt with Vietnam War movies and alternative family lifestyle movies, nicely, professionally written.

Here is what I came up with. I had to look up proper script formatting and this is as close to legit scriptease as I could get. I changed his name to protect his identity; that’s what they always say in movies.



JASON sits hunched over his computer.


“The Deer Hunter was a landmark in the history of war movies …”


A pot of coffee sputters to life. 11:00 pm flashes on the screen. Another late-night jolt of caffeine awaits the writer in the room next door.

Jason Riley has gone through a lot in his life.


JASON pushes back from computer. Hands on face in exasperation and tiredness.

His writing career hasn’t yet gotten out of the starting block. His passion for the written word is matched only by his love of movies. Though neither one of them is paying the bills. He wants something more, something bigger. It’s part of his DNA, but he hasn’t quite figured out how to move forward. Then an idea strikes.

JASON back at keyboard.


“Dear DePaul University …”

Realizing he needs to learn more, to push further, he takes the plunge. His friends have told him it’s the perfect school for him.


JASON is one of 25 gifted students commenting on a story written by a classmate.

Back when I knew Jason, he was a smart, inquisitive, creative soul. I wanted to teach him creative writing for magazines, but Jason had bigger dreams. It’s not to say that he couldn’t write for magazines, it’s just movies were his calling. He lived amongst the characters he saw on screen or dreamed up in his colorful imagination.


For a student like Jason, film school was an ideal fit. He knew it instinctually back then. His sense of humor and ability to turn a phrase were far better suited to the silver screen, than glossy magazine pages.


RODNEY sits hunched over his computer.


“Jason would be an ideal candidate …”

RODNEY pushes back from computer. Hands on face in exasperation and tiredness.

That’s me trying to write a recommendation letter that describes Jason’s first-rate talent suitably enough. He’s a great person and would make a fine addition to your program.


“If you’d like to chat some more, feel free to contact me. Sincerely, Rodney Curtis www.spiritualwanderer.com”



Before putting the letter in the mail to the University, I sent him a copy. If this were a Hollywood ending, there would be music playing as Jason walks up to accept his Best Screenplay award.

Here was his actual response, which was far more satisfying: “Rodney, that is beautiful. That will be the best letter they’ve ever read. I love this, if they reject me after reading this, I don’t want to go there.”



This Is A Test

January 10th, 2014

Match wits with other Americans in a test of strength, courage, intelligence and your ability to click on the right answer.

The Pew Research Center in Washington DC studied a random sample of adults a few years back, testing them on their religious knowledge. It’s kind of cool, because they took those responses and then created a quiz for the rest of us to take called the U.S Religious Knowledge Quiz. Pew. Who knew?

Since I’m a sucker for online quizzes I find on Facebook, I took the short, 15 question test.  They challenged me by asking “How much do you know about religion? And how do you compare with the average American? Here’s your chance to find out.” I’m always curious how I stack up against “the average American.” The last test I took told me my ideal life partner should probably be a rather large-sized slice of tiramisu, though it’s conceivable the results got mixed up with the quiz, “What’s your favorite dessert?”

Your boy, the Spiritual Wanderer, lucked out with a perfect 15 out of 15 on the religion test. I knew ten of the answers, was pretty sure about two more, made an educated guess on two and just liked the pretty colors on one. But it was fascinating to see how I compared to other groups within our society. The Pew people break it down in something called an Executive Summary (so you know it’s official). They say on their site, “Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups … outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.”

I’m not really sure what any of that implies, it’s just fun to test your knowledge without having to phrase your answers in the form of a question. Our Read The Spirit crew has been having some fun with the test, even though it’s a few years old, and thought others may like it as well. Take the quiz yourself, if you’d like. And here’s a hint, none of the answers involve a priest and rabbi walking into a bar.

New Year’s Low Resolution

January 5th, 2014

Getting a Wii bit more exercise.

My personal yoga instructor just applauded my efforts. A jingle-jangle of bells and horns sounded as my banked hours changed colors to a now golden hue. Such is the life of a star yoga student in the virtual world of Wii.

While my dogs bark at the neighbors who have the audacity to shovel their snow, I’m safe and warm during this latest barrage. Don’t they realize (the dogs AND the neighbors) that exercise is much better when you do it in front of a television?

I can consistently nail the Half-Moon pose (which really, is just standing straight and bending left or right). I’m also pretty darn good at the Deep-Breathing pose (which really, is just standing there). The other Wii avatars representing my family are in deep slumber as my Mii shows off in front of them, doing poses I couldn’t possibly do in real life.

The onscreen instructor wants me to brag to the others about how my bank changed colors. She encourages me to explain that I’ve reached the penultimate gold goal. I guess that’s supposed to shame them into joining me for Warrior, Sun Salutation or any other pose that doesn’t require balance.  Fortunately, this program doesn’t offer Child’s Pose, because I would probably use it extensively to reach platinum level if there is such a thing. I thought the whole point of yoga was to be non-competitive.

I like doing this alone. I feel serene. Nobody’s behind me snickering at how badly I suck at Chair or Triangle (and don’t even get me started on how silly I look doing Palm Tree). Downward Dog is my jam; thank goodness no one else on the planet has to witness it though.

In my first book, I wrote a chapter entitled Yoga Bear in which I pointed out how embarrassing it was to do this along with a class full of older/better yogis and yoginis. At that point, my body sounded like a Rice Krispies commercial; snap, crackle pop (or poop, when I bent too far the wrong way).

But these days, with the living room substituting for a yoga studio, I can pretend that I’m a master even though I’m sometimes admonished by my instructor’s words saying “that seemed a little rough, you pansy.” In all honesty, she says it much nicer. But I hear what I wanna hear. What kind of person am I when I imbue my pixelated partner with passive-aggressive tendencies?

Speaking of which, the distant sound of snow blowers has aroused my own downward facing dogs and they’re barking at the neighbors once again. I suppose now that I’m all stretched and relaxed, it’s best if I got out there and moved some snow. Hopefully my shovel will change to gold in the process or at least my teen daughter will pitch in before heading off to the community center for a “real” work out.