When Positive is Negative

I thought the large-scale photo of Bruce Springsteen hanging in front of me was a good omen when I stepped in a “spit stall” in the Carrier Dome on Friday to conduct my PCR saliva test.

Photo of Bruce Springsteen from a past concert in the Carrier Dome (likely 1985).

Images of rock legends like Bono, Phil Collins, and Mick Jagger—action photos from past concerts—hang on the walls in the concourses in the Dome. So being a huge Springsteen fan, I thought the Boss would bring me some good luck, resulting in a negative COVID-19 result.

For the saliva test, one of the workers gives you a plastic tube marked with a black Sharpie line—the point you need to reach with your spittle for the test to be accurate. I’ve taken the test about a half-dozen times now, and I have developed a routine for generating the copious amount of saliva required.

I rock on the balls of my feet, pretending I am former Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson getting settled in the batter’s box, and then I spit between my teeth as Reggie used to do after fouling back a pitch. And if I’m really having trouble with dry mouth, I imagine I am sucking on a lemon with the seeds squirting into mouth, or else eating a huge, juicy piece of watermelon at a Fourth of July picnic.

Reggie Jackson batting at Yankee Stadium. Photo by Jim Accordino via Wikipedia.

But forgive my banal digression. The important news: unfortunately, I received a university email yesterday informing me that I had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, I have started my isolation according to the guidelines set forth by the Onondaga County Health Department. I may need a longer isolation period because I am considered immunocompromised.

My son Colin had tested positive earlier in the week, and although I had stayed masked around him, our proximity in a one-bedroom apartment made avoidance of infection nearly impossible. As of this blog entry, my wife Pamela remains negative.

On Friday I had felt a little weakness in my legs. Occasional fatigue and muscle weakness are not uncommon for me, since I have hypopituitarism, rheumatoid arthritis, and hyponatremia (low sodium). But I thought I should get tested to rule out COVID.

So far, my symptoms are mild—slight headache, weak legs, and mild nasal and chest congestion. I’m taking Tylenol and have doubled my dosage of hydrocortisone, since my adrenal glands don’t produce the steroid hormone. But with my underlying conditions, I need to be hyper vigilant about any changes in my health, with the most alarming being shortness of breath and elevated heart rate, according to my primary care doctor.

The reality of testing positive has wiped away the lingering fear of the unknown we have all lived with each day since this pandemic began. My questions about avoiding COVID and about the severity of its impact are meaningless. The invasion succeeded; the likely variant of Omicron now squirms inside my body. But now I can deal with the actual manifestation of coronavirus, instead of worrying about the “what-if” scenarios.

I can say one other thing about COVID. It certainly prioritizes your existence, what you value most in your life. I think for most people it’s personal health and the health and safety of family. That sometimes gets lost amid the daily pressures of work.

And there is one benefit of testing positive—now I don’t need to avoid kissing and hugging Colin.

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Emmy Arrives

So my Emmy statuette arrived yesterday. My Real Bedford Falls documentary co-producer/director Stu Lisson was kind enough to drop it off at my apartment. He wanted to take a picture of me unboxing it, but I refused to give in to his request. I was masked and stayed on the other side of the glass in the lobby, as my son Colin is currently in isolation after testing positive for COVID for the second time in three months. (Fortunately, his symptoms are mild—knocking on the wood of my forehead.)

While walking in the hallway, carrying the rectangular box, hugging it close to my torso, I had a flash; the package reminded me of a cremation urn, similar in size and shape. It gave me pause. The object marks one of the best moments in my career, but it also foreshadows a fate I can’t escape. Dark thought, I know.

Once inside my apartment, I opened the box and took a quick glance, making sure the text at the base was correct and my name wasn’t misspelled. I then tucked it in the back of my bedroom closet, behind extra belts, pairs of long underwear, summer shirts, and miscellaneous computer cables.

Emmy statuette. Photo by Pamela DiClemente.

I didn’t even take a picture of it. And I usually do not post accolades like this on social media. The images you see here were taken by my wife Pamela, who said something like, “It’s worth celebrating. It’s a beautiful memento and you might not win another one in the future.”

I thought the same thing. I don’t want to be covetous, but the goal is to collect a couple more Emmy awards during the remainder of my career. However, I also know one regional Emmy for an indie documentary short could be it for me—marking the highest honor I will ever achieve.

Emmy statuette base. Photo by Pamela DiClemente.

And if that’s the case, I want to acknowledge the moment, let it seep in, and be grateful for it. And then get busy working on the next thing.

I’m also storing the Emmy in the closet to keep it away from Colin. If know if the hardware was left out in the open, he would grab it and line it up next to his other figures. And in a matter of time, the poor gilded woman would be wingless.

Colin’s play area. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

 

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Remembering Bill

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The holidays were very sad, as my stepfather, William Ruane, passed away on Christmas Day at Upstate University Hospital. He had broken his femur and then had a stroke after surgery. I’m still processing the loss.

I never called Bill “Dad,” but I considered him a second father instead of a stepfather. He played an instrumental role in my adult formation. I could write a lot more about this, but I don’t think I’d find the right words now to express how much Bill meant to me.

So I thought I’d repost an essay from 2013 that was published in Star 82 Review. I remember Bill posing for some pictures while sitting at the kitchen table, and I think this essay captures a little of his spirit.

Bill smoking. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Man in the Chair

It is late in the afternoon on a fall or winter day, and I am visiting my mother and stepfather at their home in Rome, New York. They are sitting in their family room watching TV; if I had to guess, I’d say the show is Judge Judy, Criminal Minds or NCIS.

My stepfather Bill, who owns his own contracting business, is reclining in his favorite chair, wearing a work-stained hoodie and sipping a cup of coffee. I walk into the room and sidle up to him. I put my hand on the bald crown of his head, which has a fringe of brownish-gray hair on the sides, and I feel the warmth emanating from his skull. Often when I do this, Bill will say, “God, your hand is freezing.” But he does not say anything, and I leave my hand on top of his head and take a glance at the television screen while darkness gathers outside the windows.

A sick realization makes me shudder. I pull my hand away because I recognize in the moment that the head of this man I love could, in a matter of seconds, be crushed with a baseball bat or cracked open with an ax blade. Blood could splatter against the walls, and he would slump over in the chair, inert.

And I think this not because I am homicidal or possess a desire to kill my stepfather. Quite the opposite. Fear sets in because I realize the man sitting in the chair, with a beating heart, functioning brain and sense of humor, could be gone in an instant. He could be animated in one moment and his breath snuffed out in the next.

Bill getting a haircut from George, a barber in Rome, New York. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Most likely my stepfather will not be killed by a blow to the head or a tree crashing through the house. A heart attack, stroke or cancer will probably get him in the end. And while I already know this, I pause and allow this knowledge to sink in, so I will appreciate him better.

A year or two after this dark afternoon, my mother would lose her battle with cancer. And her death would remind me that we do not live life all at once. It’s not one big project we need to complete by a deadline or a trip to Europe you have planned for years.

Instead, we experience life in small doses, tiny beads of time on a string. And it helps to recognize them, to acknowledge you are present and alive even in the most mundane circumstances—while you are talking with co-workers in the parking lot before heading home for the day, running errands, doing laundry, baking a chocolate cake, tossing a football with friends, reading to your kids at bedtime. These are subplots that drive our stories forward. They are not exciting. They are not memorable. But they are part of our existence, and we must value them before they and we are gone.

So, after I pull my hand away from Bill’s head, I decide to sit on the couch next to my mother. She hates when people talk during a program because it distracts her, so I look at the screen even though I am not interested in the show, and I do not say a word. But during a commercial break, she mutes the sound with the remote control, and Bill and I converse about something. And I can’t remember the topic we discussed, and it doesn’t really matter.

What I remember is three family members spending an evening together.

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Documentary Screening

Our independent documentary, The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life, will be screened tomorrow, Dec. 11, in Seneca Falls, New York, as part of the It’s a Wonderful Life Festival. It will be shown at 1:30 p.m. at Trinity Church.

Drone photo by Chase Guttman.

Our film asks the question: Was one of the world’s most beloved motion pictures influenced by a small upstate New York town? The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life is an Emmy Award-winning, half-hour documentary that explores the connections between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls, the setting of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

Frank Capra, the movie’s Academy Award-winning director, was reportedly visiting relatives in Auburn, New York, when he stopped in nearby Seneca Falls to get a haircut. The barber who styled his hair recalled Capra asking many questions about the town, including, “What’s the story with that bridge?”

Fast forward to when actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, saw Seneca Falls for the first time. With snow falling and holiday lights glittering, she exclaimed, “I’m in Bedford Falls!”

Photo by Stu Lisson.

These and many other striking relates are touched upon in The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life. The documentary also examines small-town life in Seneca Falls, captures the excitement of the annual It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, and celebrates the enduring themes of the Frank Capra classic.

The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life features interviews with Karolyn Grimes, Jimmy Hawkins (who played Tommy Bailey), Monica Capra Hodges, granddaughter of Frank Capra, film critic Leonard Maltin and Syracuse University professor of pop culture Robert Thompson. Former NBC Today show correspondent Bob Dotson provides the narration.

The film was produced by Honest Engine Films and distributed by Virgil Films & Entertainment. It’s available here. The cost is $2.99 on both Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

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Thankful For A Mistake

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m thankful for not always getting what I want. I know, it’s such a corny, trite statement, and you can probably hear a Keith Richards guitar line in the back of your mind, along with Mick Jagger starting to sing, “I saw her today at the reception …”

But it’s true. In this case—I’m thankful for a little bonsai tree I bought for my wife for Mother’s Day. I ordered a pink azalea bonsai from an online florist, only to have the tree arrive with no pink azaleas. It looked like a dull green house plant devoid of color, and it presented no surprise when my wife pulled it out of the box. An online chat failed to resolve the matter, meaning no replacement or refund, and I had to live with the bonsai.

But then a strange thing happened. I began to care for it—setting it on top of a windowsill, exposing its branches to sunlight, using a measuring cup every morning to pour a generous amount of water on the soil and splashing droplets of water on its leaves with my fingers.

My bonsai tree. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I gave the plant daily positive reinforcement before placing it back in its spot—saying things like, “You’re doing good. We’re proud of you. We love you. You’re a member of the family.” I also breathed on it, hoping my exhalation of carbon dioxide would help sustain the plant.

And the tree remains alive today. This is quite a feat, considering I’m no plant person. I have no green thumb. I don’t spend my summers tending to a garden of tomatoes, beans and corn in a vast plot of land in my backyard. I’m an urban apartment dweller.

But I am proud that six months after Mother’s Day, the little bonsai is still going strong. I’m grateful that it adds a little life to my drab existence. And I do believe if the bonsai had come with blooming pink azaleas, it would have been tossed out in the trash a long time ago.

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The Real Bedford Falls Documentary Released

I just want to share the news that our independent documentary The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on DVD and digital HD. The film was produced by Honest Engine Films and distributed by Virgil Films and Entertainment. It recently won a New York Emmy Award in the category of Nostalgia-Long Form Content. 

Here is the synopsis:

Was one of the world’s most beloved motion pictures influenced by a small upstate New York town? The Real Bedford Falls: It’s a Wonderful Life is an Emmy Award-winning, half-hour documentary that explores the connections between Seneca Falls, New York, and Bedford Falls, the setting of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

Aerial image by Chase Guttman.

The documentary examines small-town life in Seneca Falls, captures the excitement of the annual It’s a Wonderful Life Festival, and celebrates the enduring themes of the Frank Capra classic. The film features interviews with Karolyn Grimes (who played Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life), Jimmy Hawkins (who played Tommy Bailey), Monica Capra Hodges, granddaughter of Frank Capra, and film critic Leonard Maltin. Former NBC Today show correspondent Bob Dotson provides the narration.

The release of the documentary comes at the right time, as this year marks the 75th anniversary of the release of It’s a Wonderful Life.

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Frankenstein, 1931

On Friday night, I watched the 1931 film Frankenstein, starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. And Henry Frankenstein’s creature, called The Monster, played by Karloff, elicited my empathy as he jolted to life in a lightning storm with an abnormal brain incapable of functioning in society. I won’t relay the plot summary since the story is very familiar. And the movie version is much different from the novel it was based upon, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein poster

But one scene stood out. In it, Karloff plays a game with a little girl, both of them tossing flowers into a lake. He then picks up the girl and throws her in, and she disappears below the surface of the water. Why? He doesn’t know any better.

Frankenstein movie still.

And the film made me think of my autistic son and about all disabled people. What do we do with humans who don’t live up to perceived standards of normalcy? Where do they go? Are they given a chance to function, to thrive, to pursue happiness, and to find a place in this world? I have no answers—just a desire to express kindness toward every person.

And the movie inspired a short poem.

Halloween Screening:
Frankenstein, 1931

You can’t fault
Frankenstein’s creature
For what he became.

He never had a choice.
He didn’t ask to be born.
He didn’t seek existence.

With an abnormal brain
And cobbled parts,
He can’t be blamed for
The terror he wrought.

He was only acting
According to his nature.
The real monster here
Is the man who
Created the creature.

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About Endlessness

I recently watched About Endlessness, a 2019 film by Swedish director Roy Andersson. It falls in line with other works by Andersson, including You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).

The film is a series of vignettes that explore the absurdity, tragedy, and loneliness of life. They are comical and fantastical, mundane and realistic, all at the same time. Andersson probes existential themes, and although About Endlessness is a Swedish film with subtitles, it transcends country and language based its universal portrayal of humanity and the raw emotions expressed.

Andersson’s style consists of static scenes composed of single long takes with all action taking place within the frame—like a painting come to life. Andersson’s work exemplifies film critic André Bazin’s theory of mise-en-scène—with composition, lighting, set design, and production design being more important than editing.

And the wide-angle shots by cinematographer Gergely Pálos reminded me of the deep focus cinematography of Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane.

A subdued female narrator describes banal moments, like a woman with a stroller in a train station who loses one of the heels on her black shoes. “I saw a woman who had problems with her shoe,” the narrator explains.

This type of plotless film is not for everyone; it’s aimed for an art house audience. However, Andersson has a good sense of timing. Just when the viewer’s interest in a scene starts to wane, he cuts to something else. And with a running time of 78 minutes, the film does not drag.

A couple of vignettes really stood out for me.

In a crowded market, with fresh fish in the foreground and produce and cheese in the background, a woman with dark hair and a brown coat converses with a man. She then walks away, moving toward the fish station and eventually toward the center of the frame.

A bald man shouts to her: “I could see the two of you had a lot to talk about.” He then slaps her across the face. The other customers look on but do not intervene. He slaps her two more times and then some men step in and stop him. The bald man is wrestled to the ground, and he says to the woman: “You do know that I love you?” And she responds, “Yes, dear, I know. I know.”

Still from About Endlessness.

This realistic portrayal of spousal violence filled me with unease. Yet I couldn’t look away. Putting myself in the middle of that market, I ask myself, “How would I have reacted? Would I have tried to stop the man from hitting his wife? How many slaps would he have connected on before I came to her defense?”

In the second scene I want to point out, Andersson depicts an urban bar/cafe during the evening hours with light snow falling outside the windows. Silent Night plays in the background, and we are unsure if the music is playing inside the bar or if Andersson is using the track as a music bed.

A dentist from an earlier scene has come in to get a drink, and he looks down at the countertop as he holds a glass. He appears melancholy, and the scene conjures an image of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.

Still from About Endlessness.

A short male customer turns to the dentist and says, “Isn’t it quite fantastic?” When the dentist does not respond, the man turns to another customer and repeats his line verbatim. This time, a thin customer in a black suit says, “What?” And the man who asked the original question responds: “Everything. Everything. Everything is fantastic.” And the man in the suit says, “Well, yes.” And the little man adds, “I think so, at least.”

I believe Andersson elevates the art form of cinema through his portrayal of humanity, his mix of humor and pathos, and his willingness to let the viewer fill in the details or complete the narratives he has set in motion.

To find out more about Andersson check out his Wikipedia page or his IMDb page.

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Walking Commuter Notes

MORNING

I walk to work almost every morning—following East Genesee Street toward downtown Syracuse. Before I leave my apartment building, I usually hang out with my wife Pam and son Colin while they wait for Colin’s school bus to arrive.

Today, underneath a gray sky spitting drizzle, Colin entertains himself by jumping up and down, flapping his hands and pulling his Paw Patrol mask down around his chin.

“Ah, put up your mask when you go on the bus and when you’re inside school,” Pam tells him. He listens and pulls up his mask. Colin is in kindergarten, and he has autism.

He’s dressed in sweatpants and a blue hooded sweat jacket. A maroon and navy blue Fila book bag—packed with the crunchy snacks he likes to eat—is slung over his shoulder.

When it’s time for me to break away, I remove my mask and plaster his face with a couple of quick kisses. Pam then says to Colin, “Ah, say goodbye to daddy.” When his eyes remain cast elsewhere, she holds his face gently and points it in my direction. She holds his hand and helps him to wave. “Come on now. Say bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye daddy,” he says with a clipped delivery.

“Good job,” Pam says.

I start walking on the sidewalk along Genesee, turning my head and waving toward my family, their figures looking tiny while standing under the green awning of the tan, brick building. I see his bus turning onto Genesee Street, and I pray that Colin will climb aboard safely, find his seat up front and remain in place while the bus accelerates.

Then a thought pops into my head. I don’t invite it, but it emerges anyway.

I think: This could be the last time I ever see my wife and son. I realize I am not invincible, that tragedy could strike at any moment and my loved ones could be taken away in an instant.

I look up to the clouds and try to shake the dark thought from my mind, turning my attention to work-related tasks I need to complete.

AFTERNOON

In the late afternoon, I leave the Nancy Cantor Warehouse in downtown Syracuse, walking in a steady rain along Washington Street. I cross State Street and then walk toward Fayette Street. I pass by a standpipe, and I continue on my way. But then I remember Fountain, the ready-made sculpture of a urinal by French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture Fountain.

I backtrack, pull out my iPhone and snap a few pictures—inspired by Duchamp’s iconic still life artwork.

According to Merriam-Webster, a standpipe is a “high vertical pipe or reservoir that is used to secure a uniform pressure in a water-supply system.” I’ve seen the term before, but I never knew the meaning. But I looked it up online as soon as I got home.

Syracuse Standpipe. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And I guess that’s the beauty of a walking commute in a city—if you pay attention to your surroundings, you can discover things that other people might miss. It takes practice to heighten your senses and elevate your awareness. But as an urban explorer, if I am willing to pay close attention, it seems the universe is willing to reward me with satisfying visual stimuli. In my case, it makes the everyday extraordinary and the mundane magical (forgive the alliteration).

Here are some recent photos from my walking commute:

Squirrel on telephone pole. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Chair tipped over. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Fountain. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Alley. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

University Block Building. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

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Albert Camus: Notebook Prose

I finished reading Albert Camus’s Notebooks 1935-1942. Here’s my previous post about it.

The book is a writer’s journal, and it includes philosophical passages, descriptions of places, and raw narrative material that later evolved into scenes in Camus’s most famous novel, The Stranger. Camus’s prose is lyrical and poetic, and I find myself re-reading many of these entries because I am blown away by their beauty. And I think writers could use some of the passages as fiction or poetry prompts—cracking them open and taking them in any direction.

Here are just a few entries that stood out for me:

“The first almond trees in blossom along the road by the sea. One night has been enough for them to covered with the fragile snow that we cannot imagine standing up to the cold and the rain which drenches all their petals.”

“From the top of the coast road, the cliffs are so thick that the landscape becomes unreal through its very qualities. Man is an outlaw there, so much so that all this beauty seems to come from another world.”

1940

“Evenings on the terrace of the Deux Merveilles. The palpitation of the sea that is sensed in the hollow of the night. The quivering almond trees and the smell of smoke rising from the earth.

The rocks in the sea covered with white seagulls. With their gray mass, lit up by the whiteness of the birds’ wings, they look like luminous floating cemeteries.”

And I’m not sure if this passage made its way into The Stranger or became a scene in another short story or novel. But I found the imagery incredible:

“Lying down, he smiled clumsily and his eyes glistened. She felt all her love flood into her throat and tears come into her eyes. She threw herself on his lips and crushed her tears between their two faces. She wept into his mouth, while he tasted in these salt lips all the bitterness of their love.”

Camus, Albert. Notebooks 1935-1942. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1962. Ivan R. Dee, Translation, Reprint Edition, 2010.

I plan to read volume two of Camus’s notebooks, which covers the period from 1942 to 1951.

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