in memoriam

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1915

Joe Migliucci, RIP

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One of my favorite restaurants in all the world is Mario’s on Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. The Bronx has the real Little Italy in New York — the one in lower Manhattan has a longer history, but these days is a tiny tourist trap. The area around Arthur Avenue and E. 187th Street is still an Italian enclave full of shops run by Italian immigrants.

A hundred years ago, Mario’s opened as a pizza place, and later became one of the finest restaurants in the area. My mother first started going there when she was a teenager (she’s in her seventies now), and for as long as I’ve been going there regularly (since my early twenties), Joe Migliucci has been in charge. Mario’s was founded by his grandfather in 1919, and Joe has kept the family business going, as have his own children and grandchildren.

My parents and I used to go to Mario’s every Friday night for dinner, a tradition that fell by the wayside for various and sundry reasons, but we still are regulars there, and are considered famiglia by the staff. I remember one time taking two friends of ours there after a trip to the nearby Bronx Zoo, forgetting that the also nearby Fordham University was having Homecoming that weekend. (As an alumnus I should’ve remembered that, but I’m dumb.) However, as soon as we got there, we were still treated well, and we got served quickly and efficiently and happily despite the huge crowds.

When Wrenn and I decided to get married, Mario’s was where we had the wedding — initially scheduled for October 2016, hastily moved to April 2017 when we were forced to move in the late summer of ’16. Regina — who now manages the place — was very good to us, and they treated us phenomenally well. We got amazing food, amazing service, and a glorious time was had by all.

Over the last few years, as Joe has approached 80 (a milestone he reached in November of 2018), he has cut back on his time in the kitchen, leaving it to his successors, among them his son. But he still had his hand in periodically. For a long time, he would make pasta fromaggio, pre-cooked pasta heated up by using a big chunk of parmesan as the pan, along with herbs, alcohol, and olive oil, and it was glorious. He’d make it right there in front of you, too, and it was always fun to see the looks on the faces of the other customers who’d never had it before and watching them change their order so they could get that, too.

When we had our wedding in the upstairs function room, we were heartened and honored to see that Joe did the cooking himself for us and our guests.

Over the last few years, he’s mostly been an eminence grise at the restaurant, leaving the cooking and the managing to his younger family members. He would sit at the front and greet people as they came in. Every time Wrenn and I were there, he’d have a hearty handshake for me, a very European kiss on the cheek for Wrenn, and a bright smile for both of us.

Mario’s has been closed since the pandemic started, and it was announced yesterday that Joe had died. I have no idea if it was coronavirus-related or not — he’d been in mediocre health for years, and he was 81, so the possibilities are legion — but regardless of how he died, he will be sorely missed. The restaurant should carry on without him — as it did without his forebears who founded and continued the place over the past century — but his beautiful presence will be missed.

EDITED TO ADD: It’s confirmed that Joe did indeed die due to complications from COVID-19. Sigh.

Rest in peace, good sir. I raise a glass of Montelpulciano to you.

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midweek music: Joseph Shabalala, RIP

I first was introduced to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s brilliant Graceland album in 1986 — indeed, lots of people were introduced to this amazing South African a cappella band then, though they’ve been around since 1960. They sang with Simon on “Homeless,” which was co-written by Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala, and also on “You Can Call Me Al” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Simon later produced their album Shaka Zulu.

Simon promoted Graceland with a tour that included a bunch of South African musicians: besides Mambazo, he was also joined by Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, as well as a backing band made up entirely of South African musicians, led by Ray Phiri of Stimela.

Joseph Shabalala retired from Mambazo in 2014, and yesterday he died in his home in Pretoria.

I named a Star Trek character after Shabalala, giving his name to the U.S.S. Odyssey first officer played by Michael Jace in the Deep Space Nine episode “The Jem’Hadar” in my novel The Brave and the Bold Book 1. Because that character was killed in the DS9 episode (my novel was a prequel to it), I kept the tribute going by putting his son Anthony Shabalala on the U.S.S. da Vinci in the Starfleet Corps of Engineers series as a tactical officer on the bridge.

Anyhow, here’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “Amazing Grace.” I can think of no better tribute to Shabalala’s enduring musicianship, his glorious smile, his immense talent, and just the incredible joy he took in performing.

Rene Auberjonois, RIP

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I only got to meet Rene Auberjonois a couple of times at conventions we were both guests at. He was a sweet, engaging, fun guy. That same story is being told a lot, as he always was happy to engage with Trek fans, and was always a happy, friendly presence at a convention.

As an actor he was always a sign of quality. I first saw him in Robert Altman’s MASH, in the small role of Father “Dago Red” Mulcahy, and in Benson as Clayton Endicott III, which was probably the role he was best known for prior to being cast in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1992. In fact, I remember learning that Auberjonois would be in DS9 27 years ago and being thrilled beyond all imagining, because I knew he’d be amazing.

And he was. As he was in everything he was in, whether it was his two other Trek roles (in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and an episode of Enterprise), other genre shows (he had a delightful recurring role on Warehouse 13, and he had a particularly strong guest turn on an episode of Stargate SG-1), or in one of his many films with Altman (besides MASH, there was Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Images), or anywhere else (from Boston Legal to The Little Mermaid).

On the DS9 documentary What We Left Behind, Auberjonois said he was always grateful to be cast on a Trek TV show, because it meant that when he died, the headline wouldn’t be that the guy who played Clayton on Benson died. (The joke was on him — while pretty much every headline mentioned Trek, many also mentioned Benson, as well as MASH and/or Boston Legal.)

He was a great man — he was always using the money he made at conventions to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontièrs — and a great actor, and he will be gravely missed.

Dorothy C. Fontana, RIP

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Dorothy C. Fontana has died at the age of 80.

Fontana was one of the driving creative forces behind the original Star Trek in the 1960s and was the show-runner of the animated spinoff in the 1970s. She was responsible for a lot of the character development of Spock, notably in “This Side of Paradise,” “Journey to Babel,” and “Yesteryear.” She’s probably the only person to write for four different Trek TV shows (original, animated, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine), and in a just world, she’d be considered the co-creator of TNG.

She continued to write for Trek tie-ins, including prose, comics, and role-playing game material, and for fan films, and her influence on the franchise can still be seen in the use of Spock, Sarek, and Amanda Grayson in Star Trek Discovery, which used her work as a springboard for how those characters, as well as that of Michael Burnham, were developed.

I confess to not always being the biggest fan of her writing, but that doesn’t change that she was a great person, a great writer, and a huge and influential part of the most popular science fiction story of the past five decades.

Rest in peace, great lady.

 

in memoriam on Veterans Day

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IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

—Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army

Peter Mayhew, RIP

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Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, and The Star Wars Holiday Special, and who mentored Joonas Suotamo to take over the role in The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker, has died at the age of 74.

I’ve always had a tendency to gravitate toward the sidekick more than the hero. I liked Iolaus better than Hercules, Lord Bowler better than Brisco County Jr., Methos and Richie more than Duncan, and so on.

For that and other reasons, I always gravitated toward Chewbacca. As an eight-year-old in the movie theatre, the first thing I wanted to know after Star Wars ended was why Chewie didn’t get a medal like Han and Luke did.

Chewbacca’s loyalty, friendship, dedication, and strength have been a constant throughout all those films I mentioned in the first paragraph. The single most powerful emotional moment in the entire SW saga was in Empire when they had to close the blast doors against the devastating cold of Hoth at night and Chewbacca rears his head back and screams his anguish to the ceiling because his best friend is still out there somewhere.

Rest in peace, Peter Mayhew. You made the sidekick, who didn’t even have any dialogue that the viewers could comprehend, into a passionate, compassionate, brilliant character.

 

Rabbi David M. Honigsberg and my Grandma

 

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Twelve years ago this morning, I got a phone call informing me that my dear friend David M. Honigsberg had died.

Ninety-six years ago today, my grandmother Marianina DeBacco was born, the first of ten children Grazia DeBacco would give birth to.

The 27th of March will always be a day of sadness for me.

Grandma was always called “Annie” as she grew up in western Pennsylvania during the Depression, and by adulthood she considered her first name to be “Ann.” She met Manfred Andreassi in the 1940s when he was visiting family and they got married in 1946, with Fred taking Ann back to New York with him. They raised four kids, the oldest of whom was my mother, GraceAnne (her name a portmanteau of her mother’s and grandmother’s). Grandma moved back to Pennsylvania after her husband died in 1976, first living with her mother, then in an old-folks’ residence after Nana died in 2003.

Grandma used to babysit me when I was a kid. I was, sadly, present when Grandpa died that awful July day in ’76, with seven-year-old me barely understanding what was going on.

Of my four grandparents, she was by far the longest-lived — my paternal grandparents died in 1971 and 1988, with my maternal grandfather between them in ’76, but Grandma made it all the way to the 21st century, finally going in her sleep in April 2016. (Her funeral wound up being on my 47th birthday, which was — weird.)

David was one of my best friends. Through most of the 1990s, we were in a band together, the Don’t Quit Your Day Job Players. He wrote a Silver Surfer short story for me when I worked for Byron Preiss, Marina and I hosted his ordination party after he was made a rabbi, and he and I attended numerous conventions and went on the road for concerts together a lot between 1995 and 2001. We recorded two CDs together, and he used our work together on another CD after the band split up. We played live together more times than I can count, before, during, and after the band’s heyday. He consulted on the first-ever Klingon-Jewish wedding, in the story “Creative Couplings,” a Star Trek: Starfleet Corps of Engineers novella by Glenn Hauman & Aaron Rosenberg that I edited. He organized “WineCon,” a group gathering to the wineries on the North Fork of Long Island (before that area became hip and trendy).

He was my rabbi, which is a weird thing for this non-Jewish agnostic to say, but there it is. He and his wife Alexandra, who is a priest (yes, really), held a wonderful little gathering in Fort Tryon Park a few days after 11 September 2001 that was a big help in our collective healing process.

I’m now older than David was when he died. This will forever freak me out.

Wrenn and I didn’t get together until after he died, and I was always particularly sorry for that, as he knew Wrenn also, and I’m fairly certain he would have been very happy to see us as a couple. I wish he was still here for any number of reasons, not least being that we would have asked him to perform our wedding. (No offense, Glenn.)

Today I miss my Grandma and I miss my rabbi.

MORE WHISKEY!

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Top picture: me and David Honigsberg playing at the Baggot Inn in 2000 with the Don’t Quit Your Day Job Players.

Bottom picture: my mother, my grandmother, and me at Grandma’s nursing home in 2011.

Stan Lee and William Goldman, RIP

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Two writers who I would consider huge influences on me, particularly if you asked me that question in 1990 or so, died while I was on vacation in Italy.

William Goldman was the bigger surprise of the two. He’s also the one that affected me less, but still hit pretty hard. Even if Goldman had done nothing else, he gave us The Princess Bride, both book and movie, each of which is an absolute classic of its form. (And if you haven’t read the book, do so. It’s different, obviously, from the film, and digresses more, and has a nastier ending, and lengthy flashbacks, but it’s still magnificent.)

But Goldman also was one of the finest screenwriters extant, not just for his adaptation of his own novel, but for tons of other films as well. He also wrote some great books about screenwriting. My personal favorite is Which Lie Did I Tell? as it told the story of The Ghost and the Darkness, which is not his best film, but the story of its development is fascinating. It also led me to seek out the real story of the Tsavo lions that Goldman based the movie on, and which served as the basis of the plot of the Star Trek: Starfleet Corps of Engineers novella Invincible that I co-authored with my good buddy David Mack.

Goldman also wrote one of my favorite lines of dialogue in any work of fiction, spoken by Inigo Montoya to Westley shortly before their swordfight the in The Princess Bride: “I work for Vizzini to pay the bills. There’s not a lot of money in revenge.” With that one simple line, Goldman addresses the elephant in the room of far too many fiction plots, to wit, how the heck do people pay for stuff? There are so many fictional characters whom I wonder how they feed and clothe themselves.

Of course, the past master at that was Stan Lee, who also died recently. This was less of a surprise, as he was in his 90s and his wife Joan died last year. Unlike Goldman, whom I only knew as a fan, I actually knew Stan personally and worked with him extensively when I worked for Byron Preiss from 1993-1999. I was the editor in charge of a series of Marvel novels and anthologies, and for the latter, Stan served as the nominal editor, which basically meant he wrote introductions to each one. Since Stan’s name was on it as editor, I could also write for the anthos (other editors in house edited my stories), which means two of my first-ever works of fiction (“An Evening in the Bronx with Venom,” written with John Gregory Betancourt, in The Ultimate Spider-Man and “Improper Procedure” in The Ultimate Silver Surfer) have Stan’s name on the cover.

Stan’s importance and influence can’t be overstated, especially in this era when the most popular movies and TV shows on the planet star superheroes. His desire to show superheroes as real people with real problems is a big reason why the comics he did with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, his brother Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and others in the 1960s became so popular and have endured for so long.

Working with Stan was an absolute delight. His persona was not an act. I’d call him on the phone and he’d sound the same as he did when he was narrating animated series or giving speeches at conventions. My favorite memory of him was at San Diego Comic-Con in 1996 or 1997. Byron invited Stan and Joan to dinner with the staff, including me. Stan spent the entire dinner with Byron’s then-eight-year-old daughter, playing with the action figures she’d bought that day on the show floor.

The amazing thing about Stan was that he was always having fun. He had the best job in the world, and he never lost sight of that.

The best thing about working with Stan is that he still had that great work ethic. When it was time to do an intro for one of the Marvel anthologies, we’d talk over the phone about what he’d write, I’d give him a deadline, and then one of two things would happen: he’d turn it in on time or he’d turn it in early. He was never late with anything.

I also got to help plot a novel Stan cowrote with Stan Timmons, The Alien Factor, a World War II-era science fiction novel that Byron published through his ibooks imprint in 2002 (four years after I wrote a detailed plot based on notes from Stan and Byron for Timmons to base the manuscript on). Never did get a copy of the book — Byron and I weren’t on speaking terms by the time it came out. I should probably try to track it down……..

Both William Goldman and Stan Lee helped me become the writer I am. I’ve written a lot of superhero fiction and a lot of deconstructed fantasy stories, and I don’t think the Super City Cops or the Dragon Precinct series would exist without the influence of these two great writers.

Rest in peace, gentlemen.

Aretha Franklin, RIP

She’d been ill for a while, and now she’s gone. She will be greatly missed.

One of her biggest hits: Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Upon hearing her cover of it, Redding reportedly said, “That little girl done went and stole my song.” Yup.

Here she is teaming up with Duane Allman on the slide to cover the Band’s classic, “The Weight.”

Her appearance in The Blues Brothers remains a classic, with her doing “Think,” with some delightfully spastic backup dancing by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

One of my favorites of Aretha’s is a duet she did with Eurythmics in 1985, as she and Annie Lennox teamed up for the feminist anthem “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves.”

Finally, I have to end with this. Carole King was honored at the Kennedy Center in 2015. Chilina Kennedy, who was playing King in the play Beautiful, was narrating King’s life, and here we see her talking about the last song she wrote before leaving New York, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which she wrote for Aretha Franklin. To King’s abject shock and delight in the audience, Franklin herself then came out in a fur coat, sat down at the piano, and started playing the song. It’s an amazing performance by the then-73-year-old Franklin. Watch King’s stunned reaction when she realizes that Franklin is going to do the song (not to mention President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama bopping along to the tune).