Sunday, April 21, 2013

An Open Letter to Amanda Palmer About Asking, Receiving, and Giving

Dear Ms. Palmer,

I admit that I’m one of those people who knows far more about the controversy you’ve stirred up than the actual work you’ve produced. I’m really sorry, and I’m trying to fix that by listening to your stuff (which I'm really enjoying, by the way, although please forgive me if I don't listen to "Do it With a Rockstar" at the middle school library that I run, let alone watch the video while I'm working there; cool video though, and props to Wayne Coyne). 

I’ve read a lot about you, and I couldn’t help but notice that much of it was heated, angry, and just plain mean. It had little constructive value, and, because I found myself thinking about it (and because I like to think and write), I wanted to offer my thoughts. I hope they are more intelligent and tactful that some of the other essays I've read.

Of course I’m perhaps thinking way too much of myself to believe that anyone outside of my loyal fan base of about 25 people is going to read my thoughts (let alone you), but still, a man can dream.

To offer my thoughts, I need to do two things first, so be patient with me:

The first thing is give people who don’t know about you a brief background. This will help them understand who you are.

The second thing is to offer an opinion that I have about the way giving and receiving (which goes hand in hand with asking) works. This will “set the table” for my thoughts on this whole controversy thing.

First, a bit about you, for the uninitiated (you and your fans can skip the next eight italicized paragraphs, of course):

Amanda Palmer is a musician/performance artist best known for being one half of a group called The Dresden Dolls. The pair were a kind of cabaret act, half music, half theater. After they broke up, Palmer pursued a number of solo projects, and also began a relationship with fantasy writer Neil Gaiman that blossomed into a marriage.

Lately, in addition to her fame as a musician and performer, Palmer has become just as famous—if not more so—for having an almost mystical mastery of social media, making use of it to publicize her work, build her fanbase, and sell her material. Recently a TED presentation by Palmer, “The Art of Asking,” became a viral video sensation. In the presentation, which you can watch below, she talks not only about how she developed a rabid following, but also how she made use of social media to ask for, and get, lodging, possessions, and services (for example, she mentions, at the 4:23 mark of her TED talk, soliciting for a neti pot in Melbourne, and having a nurse drive to the cafe she was in to deliver it personally).

Finally, she discussed how she launched one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history. She turned to her fans to fund her newest music release, and they responded in droves (and it’s not like they were doing it to get the music, as Palmer gives away all of her music for nothing). Palmer sought to raise $100,000 in this enterprise, and she ended up raising $1,192,793.

And this is where Palmer became embroiled in controversy.

Throughout her career, Palmer would invite people to come on stage and play with her. People would take her up on it, and in exchange, they’d get some food, some drinks, and some merchendise.

They did not, however, receive money.

This raised the ire of people, particularly after Palmer raised so much more money than she expected in the Kickstarter campaign. People wrote scathing pieces, each with a blunt message: Amanda, you should have paid these people. Compounding this was the fact that Harlan Ellison—a good friend of her husband’s— has some strong words for anyone who provides services for no money:

Many argued with this, saying that those who played with Palmer were perfectly fine with getting what they got, because they also received the chance to play with Amanda Palmer, which was clearly priceless to them. In the same vein, those who put her up when she tweeted that she needed a place to stay got to enjoy the company of an extremely interesting person for a few hours, one who they greatly admired (which again, was of high value to them). And as for that nurse who gave her the neti pot: Palmer sat with her, and the two of them had a wonderful conversation, which that nurse will no doubt remember forever .

Okay. Now that everyone has the 411 on you, let me get the following paragraphs out of the way (they are in yellow). These are some thoughts of mine that are important for an understanding of my thoughts on the controversy concerning you. These are paragraphs I ask you (and your fans) to read, and, once again, bear with me; it really is important, so here goes:


Everything has three values: the material, the practical, and the spiritual (or aesthetic, for those who don’t believe in spirits). Here’s what I mean.
—My wedding ring cost about 1100 dollars (material),
—is about a quarter ounce of gold (which has a variety of practical uses), and…
—is my wedding ring (which gives it immeasurable spiritual/aesthetic value to me).


Everything is a transaction; “free” just means that money, or tangible barter items didn’t exchange hands. If I give money to someone on the street, I’m getting something in return for this: the satisfaction of having helped someone less fortunate than myself. If I give my uncompensated labor to a friend by helping them move, I’m getting the satisfaction of helping a friend (and may get his or her labor in return, someday). 

(This by the way, is why, despite what Harlan Ellison says, I’m okay with making no money for writing this. For me, the value of simply having a number of people reading my writing—because, remember, unlike you, I’m nobody—is huge. For someone like Harlan Ellison—who’s a professional writer and a celebrated one, and whose services as a writer are far more valuable—it follows that he’d never write for no money, because the spiritual value of simply being read simply isn’t worth anywhere near as much to him as it is to me.)

(In other words, my writing, moneywise, just isn’t worth what his writing is. That will change in the future. Sorry if that comes off as arrogant, but the only way to succeed at something is to fake it till you make it.)

So. Okay. We have a system of exchange here:

People give you:
--Time and labor
--Great memories
--Great stories (which often include anecdotes about how your music has changed their lives, which also means that you get...)
--The satisfaction of having affected people with your work

…and in exchange, they get:
--Great conversation
--Great stories
--Great memories
--The satisfaction of having given to someone they greatly admire

And this is a big, big deal, and as someone who works with adolescents, I can’t begin to tell you how respect I have for you if you give even one young adult a sense of self worth. And I know, of course, that there are legions of young adults who you have inspired to harness their own creativity. For those people, the chance to meet you and play with you is a commodity whose spiritual value is, in my opinion (and I mean this) infinite.

Nowhere was the value of the intangible but vital things that you give to people more apparent than in an anecdote you told at the five minute mark of your presentation. You discussed how a poor family of undocumented immigrants from Honduras put you up in their apartment and insisted that you and your band use the beds while they used the couches. You then discussed how you asked yourself: was this fair?

The next day, you told us, the mother of this family kept wanting to give you things, telling you that nothing they could do would equal what your music had given their daughter. Clearly, for her, your presence in their home—and the experiences and memories that came with it—were of an almost infinite value. Because of that you said to yourself: yes, this is fair, because, as you said in the TED talk, you clearly gave them a great deal (some time with you) in exchange for what they gave you (food and lodging, and a great story to tell at TED).

So now that we’ve gotten to this point:


I know that to those who read Forbes, the response, of course is: hey, she has this commodity—herself—and she knows how to market it. Good for her. If someone is willing to give her all of that for her presence, more power to her.

I get this. If I had dinner with your husband and you and footed the bill, I’d still feel like it was a good deal, because I would get some great conversation with two people I admire (I love your husband's writing, by the way).

But if you were asking yourself, in that bed, if it was fair, I think it’s fair to ask this: if you got far more for something than you planned to get, what would you do with all that extra stuff you got?

Because maybe there have been times where you did get more than you gave, or, at least, more than you expected to get. And if that has happened, it will happen again. When it does, you have a couple of choices.

One of them is to justify it to yourself. “Hey,” you can say “someone gave me this freely, so I should have no compunctions about accepting it.”

The other is to look beyond a gesture that you made when you were discussing your stay with the family from Honduras.

“It’s about this,” you said, moving your hand back and forth so as to say “I gave them this, they gave me that.”

I think it’s more than that.

You’ve created a community that has a chance to move beyond back and forth. It can be a web of giving and receiving, in which you are not merely the recipient of giving but, also, a conduit for it.

Just follow me on this, please:

You made almost one million one hundred thousand dollars more than you planned to on your Kickstarter campaign. And yes, you can keep it all. It’s yours.

And I honestly don’t think you have to pay those musicians if they agree to work for no money.

But consider this:

If you got more than you expected, what if you took a large chunk of it, and practiced giving on a scale that none of us could ever accomplish ourselves?

An immigration lawyer costs about 1000 dollars for services that include being present at the citizenship interview, and the application fee for citizenship is 675 dollars. Can you imagine helping that family from Honduras become U.S. citizens, and then being able to tell your fans, at one of your concerts, that their contributions allowed you to do this? You would be giving your fans--your community--something so valuable that they would remember it always: the satisfaction of having helped some members of the Amanda Palmer community (which often feels like a family) become U.S. citizens.

And, of course, we can’t even measure the value of the U.S. citizenship you would be giving to that family. What, I wonder, would they give to the world after you were our conduit for giving that to them? It’s a dazzling thought.

And what if there were some young women who would never have been able to go to the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls who were now able to go because you took some of that money and set up some scholarships? Can you imagine how your fans would react if you told them that their generosity allowed that to happen?

No, I’m not saying that you have to do this with every dollar above that $100,000 that you were hoping to raise. Keep a whole lot of it. All I’m saying is that you’re in a position to give all of us so much more for some of that extra money.

You’ve been fortunate enough to experience the powerful feeling touching many lives for the better, and you have the chance to help a lot of other people get that same experience, that same feeling. 

Look, you got what you got, and you get what you get. And I don’t deny that you give.

All that I’m saying is that you could give all of us more of a chance to feel like we’re giving as well.

That’s all I’m asking.

Yours Truly,
Derek Leif
Black Belt Librarian

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Inspiration is a Cat

If you want to understand how inspiration works, you need to get yourself a cat. Not a dog. A cat.

Inspiration isn’t a dog. It isn’t something that’s going to come to you when you call it. It will not greet you when you come home.

It will come to you when it’s damn good and ready.

Inspiration, like a cat, is not something that you own. It is something that owns you, and you must feed it and and tend it and expect nothing from it whatsoever.

It will often demand your attention when you are in the middle of something else. It will also demand your attention—loudly—at the most inopportune and inconvenient hours. It will get indignant if you don’t heed this call for attention, and it will not leave you alone.

Occasionally it will bring things to you that are revolting. You will wonder where, in the name of all that is good and decent in the world, it found this awful thing that is now at your front door. You will realize that the best thing that you can do is just say thank you, and then go back to feeding it and caring for it in the hopes that it will bring you something nicer.

There will be times that it just won’t come to you. You will have no idea why it has chosen to take this leave of absence. Nonetheless, you must keep on attending to its health.

So that means, for me, writing all of these words, which is the equivalent of all those times I’ve opened cans of cat food, and all those times, just before I’ve left the house, that my cat has suddenly decided that now, not a few minutes ago, is the time that I must give it my full and undivided attention. Yes, I know that I could just leave the house, but, I mean, you should hear this plaintive meow; it tears your heart out.

I do all this because every once in a while, there will actually be moments where everything works out. It’s a glorious thing.

Sometimes it evolves from an inventory of the items that are on my desk at this particular moment (a desk lamp, my keys, my sunglasses, my checkbook, my Moleskine pad, my wallet, a Sharpie pen, four dollars, a Blue Snowball microphone and a diagram of a Choose Your Own Adventure book).

Sometimes it evolves from a cluster of words that emerge from a session of freewriting (I'm still trying to figure out where to use the words "Gypsy Mischief" that somehow spilled on the page between a bunch of other disjointed words). 

Or it may come from considering something from a different point of view.

I've spoken into a microphone many, many times. Have I ever considered this from the microphone's point of view?

What would it be like if a microphone could talk, after all the time it spent listening to all the things that people had said to it?

 If you had a conversation with a microphone it would be a patient listener, the sort of listener that would pause for a long moment and say “well, what do you think about that?”

If a microphone were your friend, you'd be able to talk to it at any hour of the day when you were feeling down, and it would listen to you. Occasionally, it might say something like “yeah, that’s really rough,” but for the most part it would just sit there patiently, letting you talk as long as you needed to, never growing tired of you.

If your friend the microphone were on the other end of a telephone conversation, it wouldn’t pretend to listen to you while checking its email. It would really listen to you, and if you ever needed to recall something that you said to it your friend the microphone, it would be able to remember it exactly.

Of course this could be a problem if you had a falling out with your friend the microphone. Your friend the microphone would be able to share everything with everybody. Your microphone would be able to write a tell all book complete with direct quotes of the most private things you said to it.

Headphones, meanwhile, wouldn't listen very much, but they'd be great conversationalists. They'd be lively and exciting, if a bit self-centered.

Headphones would be the one friend of yours that your other friend, the microphone, couldn’t listen to. Your friend the microphone would say to you “I…I can't listen to this person. I just can’t. I'll just start screeching if I have to listen to that person.”

That’s just the way it works.

So get a cat. Feed it. Care for it. And be ready for it when it decides to give you some attention.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Being a Shotokan Karate Tournament Red Shirt

For those of you who never watched the original Star Trek—or just weren’t die hard fans—there is an expression from the show called “the red shirt.” It refers to the fact that in the beginning of virtually every episode, the major characters—usually Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and McCoy, although Sulu and Chekov came along from time to time—would beam down to a planet, and usually take a rank and file crewman along with them. This crewman inevitably wore a red shirt, and this crewman inevitably died in the first five minutes.

It is that way with just about everything. In any war, there are people who fall in the first few seconds of battle. In any reality show that involves people competing for a prize, there is the first person to be voted off the island, the first person to get the sad news that they will not be an American Idol, and the first person to have Donald tell them that they’re fired.

And so it is with sports elimination tournaments. In the first rounds, there are inevitably competitors who are no doubt proud that they got there in the first place, but who, nonetheless, are the first to go. They are, in the world of sports, the “red shirts” who beam down with Kirk, Spock, Scotty and McCoy, only to have have McCoy kneel over them minutes later and say “He’s dead, Jim.”

I know this because I am one of these people.

This is not to say that I’m terrible. When I played baseball, I learned to catch the ball in the outfield, get the ball to the cutoff man, and hit the occasional single. I was pretty decent at gymnastics as well.

So it is with Shotokan Karate. I am a black belt. I am good. I am proud that I took this up late in life, got as far as I did, and continue to improve.

I also love entering tournaments. One of the things that Master Teryuki Okazaki, the head of the organization of which I’m a member (The International Shotokan Karate Federation) says is that tournaments are part of a student’s training, and he couldn’t be more right. I always learn a little bit when I compete, and I always leave these tournaments with a good story to share.

And I never get very far.

Again: I am good at this. I’m just not great. In karate, the best I get is one of my senseis nodding and saying “good…much, much better.” When I get those complements—which always come after a whole lot of work, often for the smallest scrap of progress—I’m thrilled, as I know I’ve earned the right to pat myself on the back.

And so, in these tournaments, I compete in matches in which I—who is, once again, quite good—competes against people who are amazing. And I do mean amazing. If you want to get an idea of what I compete against, take a look at these three guys, Carl Shaw, Hiroyoshi Okazaki, and Frank Garber from the 1994 JKA (Japanese Karate Association) Shoto Cup, performing a kata called Kanku Sho.

(For the uninitiated, a kata is a set of moves—sort of the martial arts equivalent of dance steps—designed to teach various offensive and defensive techniques.)

(And yeah, I know you’re probably saying “but that was 20 years ago.” Yes, it was 20 years ago. And Pete Sampras retired from tennis, and if you played him, he’d beat you like a one legged stepchild. Trust me, I watched Carl Shaw compete last Saturday, and he’s still awesome.)

So to reiterate: I am a Shotokan red shirt. I will continue to compete, and, in all likelihood, as I continue to compete against folks who are among the best in the world, I will continue to be one of the first to go.

This is a great thing.

It is great because anyone could stay in their comfort zone, and never really push themselves to try something that doesn’t come easy to them. Yeah, I could keep sitting here, blogging all day, updating my website, writing stories, working on my books, and being all comfortable in this comfort zone of writing.

But boy, would that be boring.

It is good for the soul when you notice how much respect people who are great at something have for you when you are merely good at it, but work as hard as all those folks do. When you do this, they always want to help you, and share whatever wisdom they have to give. In the time that I've studied Shotokan, I've been the recipient of some of the most helpful and constructive advice I’ve ever received from anyone, anywhere.

Finally, by hanging out with people who are as good as these folks are, it allows me, a mere mortal, to really appreciate…well, just how good these people are. There is something special about developing an understanding of what it is to do something, anything, well. There is greatness all around us, but often we simply don’t have the eyes to see it; whenever we acquire the ability to recognize greatness, the world gets a little bigger, and a little better.

I have two choices. The first choice is to lament my early demise, while the second, and far better choice, is to enjoy the ride, however brief, and then take in the greatness that competes long after I’m gone. And fortunately, unlike the unlucky red shirt, I get to dust myself off, and try again next year, where there is always the promise of a better showing, and, perhaps, an appearance in the second round.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Towering Inferno: An Appreciation

(First: shameless self promotion. Click anywhere on this paragraph and you’ll get to my website, The website has links to stories--okay, one story, but there will be more, promise--and a link to the PDF of my book Revision. It also has a link to Amazon so that you can buy a Kindle version of that book, if you so desire.)

WARNING: This essay is one big spoiler. If you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know what happens, just see the movie first. I would like to point out, however, that the title, The Towering Inferno, kind of gives away a sizable chunk of the plot. 

I was just the right age when the Greatest Film Ever came out.

Every nine year-old--at least every nine year-old when I was growing up--had a Greatest Film Ever. Said film had a unique characteristic: it was, quite simply, the Greatest Film Ever. Consequently, when referring to said film, my nine year-old peers and I would describe said film thusly: "it's The Greatest Film Ever."

Generally speaking, these were films where things either burst into flames or blew up. Also, in these films, people often blew things up.

And once again, and I cannot state this enough: things blew up. They blew up real good. Oh, yeah.

I'm afraid I'm going to get nostalgic. Before kids spent their entire afternoons playing Halo or Skyrim or Team Fortress or Call of Duty, they did this thing called pretending. Granted, nine year-olds of my generation spent a lot of time watching television in the afternoon, but we did actually get out from time to time, and we pretended.

Pretending went this way: you pretended. You pretended you were someone else, and your friends pretended they were someone else, too. A lot of times, a Greatest Film Ever provided the inspiration for pretending.

Sometimes a person's Greatest Film Ever was a movie that came out long before we were born. For example, when my friend Michael Bacal and I would play at his house, we would act out The Guns of Navarone, because, for Michael, The Guns of Navarone, which came out in 1961 (five years before we were born), was the greatest film ever. He always wanted to be Gregory Peck, and I had no problem with this; I got to be David Niven.

In retrospect, it was a shrewd move, as David Niven has all the good lines in that film and gets to blow everything up. This made him aces in my book, particularly considering that when I was nine I was going through an awesome pyromania phase, blowing up ant hills with firecrackers and imagining that there was this television reporter ant saying "I'm here at a scene of unspeakable carnage." Michael, meanwhile, blew up his models with the highly flammable rubber cement with which he glued them together.

I ought to point out here that I actually had eclectic tastes that forecast the kind of Joe Sensitive guy I'd turn out to be. I watched films with my dad, but I watched films with my mom, too, and I loved musicals and romances like Breakfast at Tiffany's. These were great films, and I always loved watching them when they were on.

But as great as these films were, none of them were the Greatest Film Ever.

Again: I actually had friends who were girls, and I actually would have been one of the few young males in the 1970s to play the board game Mystery Date had it not been for the fact that the game was a hand me down from my friend's older sister, and that a bunch of the pieces--not to mention the rules--were missing. And yes, I did indeed play house.

It just that...well, playing house was not the same as blowing things up, or saving people after other things blew up or burst into flames. Sweetness, sensitivity, empathy....these are all fine things, and I like to think that I developed these things as I grew up. So yes, I played with girls...but I did wish that maybe just once in a while, instead of playing house, they'd want to be Irene Papas in The Guns of Navarone and stand a post.

In other words, what I'm saying is this: when I was nine years old, The Towering Inferno was The Greatest Film Ever.

I can still recite the ad copy from the television commercial: "Steve McQueen and Paul Newman RACE AGAINST TIME as one tiny spark becomes a night of blazing suspense." And indeed, it was. Oh, yes.

This film came out in 1974. I was nine. It was the reason for living.

Though the pacing is slow compared to today's hyperactive action films, it's a genuinely good film, of a genre that was way popular in the 1970s: the disaster movie. A name that became synonymous with disaster movies is Irwin Allen, who produced a number of fun TV shows from the 1960s: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; The Time Tunnel; Land of the Giants; and, of course, Lost in Space. Allen also made a name for himself directing the action sequences of two classic disaster movies: Inferno (the director of the non-action sequences was an excellent director named John Guillermin), and The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame--a superb director and screenwriter whose credits included such films as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Brief Encounter and Great Expectations--handled the non-action sequences in this one).

The plot is simple (Read: The Towering Inferno): Paul Newman plays Doug Roberts, an architect who has designed this huge skyscraper for a multi-gazillionaire named Jim Duncan (William Holden). Unfortunately, we learn, Duncan gave the job of building the thing to his scuzzy son-in-law, Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), who cut corners to save money. In doing so, we learn, Simmons created an incredibly hazardous electrical system that generates far too much heat, and has, in effect, turned the building into a firetrap.

The film takes place on the evening of a building dedication party, way up on the 135th floor. Given the title of the film, you've probably guessed by now that things do not go as planned.

And that's it. You really don't need to know any more.

Well, okay, there is one more thing, but before we get to that thing, we need to discuss Paul Newman, and the major theme of the movie.

When we meet Paul Newman at the beginning of the movie, he's having a really good time with Faye Dunaway, who plays his girlfriend, Susan Franklin. And hey, that's a good thing: Faye Dunaway was, at the time, one of the most absolutely drop-dead gorgeous women on the planet. For a young man who's put away such childish things as playing pretend, Faye Dunaway is a really nice step up.

But that's just it: when I saw The Towering Inferno, I wasn't ready to put away childish things, because I was a child. And at the beginning of the film, all I could think was: great, Paul Newman is an utter wuss in this film.

Yes, I thought, sitting there in the United Artists Cinema 150 in Syosset (which has since become an Equinox health club), Paul Newman isn't an action hero in this film. He isn't cool the way he was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. All I thought was: great, he's just going to spend the whole film being Faye Dunaway's boyfriend.


But then, quite wonderfully, all that changes. And of course, what causes it to change is that beloved agent that goes hand in hand with the rule that, in The Greatest Film Ever, things must blow up: fire.

Oh, glorious fire. Explosions. Death. Destruction.

And it's clear, as the film goes on, that all that wussy romance stuff doesn't belong, because the boys have taken over. Robert Wagner plays this guy named Bigelow who's romancing his secretary, Lorrie, played by Susan Flannery. He dies, and so does she.

Not only that, but Robert Wagner dies like a complete tool. He tells his secretary that he's going to run out of the office though the walls of flames that now stand between them and the elevator, boasting about how fast he ran in high school.

We hear an all-strings refrain of the film's kitchy love song "We May Never Love this Way Again," a Maureen McGovern song we heard earlier in the film, which, immediately, for an obsessive fan of these things, echoes McGovern's number 1 hit "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure.

Wagner leaves the office, runs two steps...and then promptly crashes into a table, which causes him to go up like a protesting Buddhist monk.

Lorrie, meanwhile, choking on smoke, throws a chair through a window to get some fresh air, which cause the flames to immediately shoot toward the open window, engulfing Lorrie in flames and hurling her out the window.

Awesome. Simply awesome.

Clearly, the film is saying, we don't have time for this pansy lovey-dovey stuff. Things are burning. Things are blowing up.

As this nine year-old would have told you in 1974, we need heroes.

In other words, we need a fireman.

This is why, for me, back in that movie theater, there was, in an uncertain world, one irrefutable fact:

Steve McQueen was God.

McQueen plays San Francisco Fire Department Chief Michael O'Hallorhan, and from the moment he enters the film it's almost as if Paul Newman resdiscovers his inner child.

Suddenly, Paul Newman becomes cool: he rescues a woman (Jennifer Jones) who's baby sitting two kids; he proves himself to be an acrobat when the stairway blows up due to a gas explosion, which causes him to tumble down the twisted metal of the wrecked bannister so that he must climb back up and help the woman and the two kids climb down; he climbs around an elevator shaft so that he can go through the ceiling and around a door blocked with cement; he rigs up a scenic elevator so a couple of people ride it down via gravity.

Incidentally, Jennifer Jones dies as well when she falls out of the scenic elevator. Earlier, we've seen her in a tender romantic scene with Fred Astaire, who plays a con man, and from that moment, we know she's a goner. Basically, in this film, if you're involved romantically with anyone, you're toast, unless you have Steve McQueen's protective force field of coolness to protect you.

And man, does McQueen just pile on the cool. McQueen insisted that his character have exactly the same number of lines of dialogue as Newman, and considering that he doesn't appear until 40 minutes in the film, he has a lot of catching up to do. That means he does a lot of the talking while Newman does a lot of the listening. And through it all, it's almost as if this authoritative coolness mojo spreads to Newman, who just becomes cooler by the minute.

And Newman needs to be cool, because he and McQueen have a mission: in order to put out the fire, they must detonate a series of water tanks on the top floor of the building. This, in so many ways, made the film some sort of cosmic experience for me when I was nine. Not only had I seen fire, explosions, and the incineration of countless wusses, but I was treated to what made this film, for me, The Greatest Film Ever: a conclusion to a film about fire, death and destruction in which the way to save everybody is to blow stuff up.

Oh, glory.

Finally, at the end, we see the bond a nine year-old in 1974 was waiting for: surrogates for him and his best friend, up there staring fire in the face and making it back down. And Paul Newman, by this point, has redeemed himself for his wussiness early on in the film: though McQueen knows how to rig explosives, it's Newman who knows where they need to place them.

After placing the explosives, they have to run back down, and it's's just glorious stuff. Newman has the air tank, and McQueen is wearing the flame resistant suit, and they're going back and forth, Newman giving McQueen air so that McQueen can hold a door against a wall of flames so that Newman can fun past it.

This was fodder for more childhood reenactments with my friends than I can even count.

So everybody ties themselves down, John William's music swells with the lower brass beating out steady quarter notes as the higher brass takes you through the the first two sixteenth notes of each measure.

How many times did my friends and I sing "DUH-DUH (tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick), DUH-DUH (tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick)?" Many times. Many, many times.

And it's just a monumental explosion. Water everywhere. Flames slowly dying.

It's Miller time.

And it's almost as if, having proved himself, we don't mind that Paul Newman snuggles up to Faye Dunaway. He deserves it.

But it's not as if McQueen is going to let him go soft. He tells him that they were lucky, they only lost about 200, but one day, 10,000 people are gonna die in these firetraps until someone asks the fire department how to build those things.

All right, Newman says, I'm askin'.

In other words, Newman will get romantic with Faye Dunaway, but if Steve McQueen ever comes calling so that they can blow stuff up, Newman won't let him down.

For a nine year-old, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and the end of a perfect movie.