Aliens, Mermaids, and Other Flights of Fancy

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Humans have at least one really redeeming quality. We are loath to abandon a good story. In light of cold, hard facts, our imagination, an engine fired by hope and curiosity, suspicion and fear, will and wish and programmed for storytelling, pushes back. For the last week of December, on Twitter, the Central Intelligence Agency rounded up #Bestof2014 -- its ten most-read blog posts and declassified documents from the past year. Number one was a somewhat gently redacted 272-page PDF about an overhead reconnaissance program tested outside of Las Vegas, at a site the agency acknowledges by name as Area 51. “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the '50s?” the CIA tweeted. “It was us.” Lockheed spy planes flying at the then unheard altitudes of 60,000 feet and above, sure, but not extraterrestrials casing the planet in saucers. By simply cross-referencing UFO sightings with flight logs, the agency said it was able to rule out more than half of the reports. The reaction? To the bureaucratic dispelling of Area 51, one of the great American wonderlands? “@CIA Nope, I am still going with aliens from outer-space.” “@CIA Sorry, but this is STUPID! The USAF began investigations in the late 40s, and #UFOs were seen in abundance all over the US.” “@CIA with all those redactions 64 years later... who could deny Aliens.” Squinting into the night, thinking we are not alone...even believing we have routinely been visited upon by a greater intelligence, is one thing. But then there are the creatures presumed indigenous to Earth. From diehard mythos (vampires) to diversions in cryptozoology (the Skunk Ape). In November, BBC published news of an 18-month period in Scotland, which, for the first time since 1925, had failed to produce any confirmed sightings of the lake monster initially reported 1,500 years ago by the Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba. (By the father’s account, Nessie roared and tore a man “with a most savage bite,” but was driven away by the sign of the cross.) “It’s very upsetting news,” an accountant who apparently moonlights as the registrar of sightings said of Nessie’s recent disappearance, “and we don’t know where she’s gone.” Fresh witnesses came forth shortly thereafter, but then so did a local forest conservation group, which had the bad taste to offer a reasonable explanation: the rivers were washing woodland deadfall into Lake Loch Ness, logs and branches, they suggested, which could look an awful lot like a brontosaurus-style neck on the water’s foggy stage. For believers this was, as one commentator put it, “profoundly unsatisfying.” (A more satisfying explanation, which the BBC noted, is the fact that circus elephants were sometimes exercised in that lake.) These episodes recall what happened in 2012, when Animal Planet broadcast Mermaids: The Body Found. The faux documentary blended some real science -- such as the aquatic ape hypothesis -- and legitimate mysteries -- such as an unexplained sound recorded during Navy sonar tests -- with the sexiest writing and editing television has to offer. It was a narrative feat of speculative biology that claimed merfolk actually exist, and here the proof. “As if we didn’t have enough probably fictitious but possibly real beings to worry about,” The New York Times pooh-poohed. But Mermaids became the station’s most-watched telecast since the Steve Irwin memorial special aired in September 2006. Indeed, it scored the highest ratings of any Animal Planet program, ever, and with so much of the public convinced, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt compelled to issue a statement. The official federal position was (is): “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Tumblr, a mood board, erupted -- “95% of the ocean is undiscovered. You can’t tell me mermaids don’t exist yet.” There are, of course, deep, necessary reasons for all of the above. Mythology, as Karen Russell often observes, speaks to perennial aspects of human nature. Half-human creatures are vehicles for reconciling our species on the continuum of other beasts. Monsters are projections of an atavistic unease -- born of the sense that something bigger and badder is out to get us (because for the long course of mammalian history, something was). These stories get weird and totally out-of-hand, but they never end. I’m thinking of the hilarious Victorian novel Cranford. I was just about finishing it, and noticing the CIA’s roundup in the periphery, when the modern new year rang in. Here was a corner of civilization awash, clinging to habits and opinions morbidly out of date. In the last chapter, Peter Jenkyns returns to entertain the village women with tales from afar. He tells them about the time he was up in the heights of Himalaya, hunting, when he accidentally felled an angel. The Honorable Mrs. Jamieson does not call bullshit. “But, Mr. Peter,” she howls, “shooting a cherubim -- don’t you think -- I am afraid that was sacrilege!” Art by Ellis Rosen, illustrator of Woundabout by Lev Rosen, forthcoming from Little, Brown.

La Chasse: On Hunting in the French Countryside

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Illustration by Ellis Rosen “For reasons of security,” our co-ed party wore vests the color of traffic cones. The silky white and brown Springer Spaniel “gun dogs” were collared with jingle bells. A few people wore berets; one wore a trucker hat. One genteel man wore a fedora, strictly traditional but for the fact it was bright orange mottled with camouflage. “We complement it!” he said to me, gesturing at the French countryside’s greens and browns. Then he tugged on his orange vest. “And...we don't complement it.” As the day progressed, I seemed to notice a sartorial preoccupation on the part of the French with this garment. Another man pointed out a boy’s safety vest. “Quelle couleur?” the man asked the small child, who answered orange correctly. But the adult wagged his finger and smirked. “Non, non!” this Frenchman corrected, “C’est orange Hermès.” We were and hour southwest of Paris. Into the pockets of a tweed coat, I slipped ivy and soft feathers pulled from freshly dead pheasants. Pheasant sound like a cross between a chicken’s cluck and a turkey’s gobble. When they are shot out of the sky, they tend to cartwheel or drop like footballs. There were plenty of partridge and some hare too, but pheasants interest me most, probably because of that hysterical, impressive scene in Disney’s adaptation of Bambi. “Bambi watched how he flew up, directly between the trees, beating his wings,” Felix Salten wrote in his 1923 early environmental novel. “The dark metallic blue and greenish-brown markings on his body gleamed like gold. His long tail feathers swept proudly behind him. A short crash like thunder sounded sharply. The pheasant suddenly crumpled up in mid-flight.” Not everyone participating in la chasse shoots. The people without guns are called batteurs. We “beat” the cabbage field and surrounding forest by walking through it, stirring the animals for the shooters to take aim at. Most chasse grounds are groomed with alleys for the shooters and beaters to wade through. “This is the corridor de VIP,” Brian would say of every alley we found ourselves in that chilly day last November, “you’ll see.” Brian is an American businessman from London. He came with Herve, his friend and the husband of my mentor, American journalist Dana Thomas. Our host was a sharply featured man named Didiere. Didiere had the bugle, so you understand it was Didiere’s show. We were something like two dozen people and one dozen dogs, and he was sometimes obliged to act like a drill sergeant to keep the beaters in line. Once Didiere’s cell phone rang: “Oui? Oui. C’est possible.” He hung up and looked at our formation. “La belle -- up a little. Brian! Up on the line,” he directed us. When Brian moved, a pheasant made a go for it, flying up and out like an Audubon illustration. But no one shot. “Incroyable!” someone muttered. “Incredible” is a word that gets a lot of airtime during a shoot. As well as: A voilà! (There it is!) Allez! (Go ahead!) D’accord. (Okay.) Zut! (Heck!) Eventually Herve hit a pheasant that hit the ground running -- and managed to scramble into an extraordinarily barbed patch of shrub. “That’s a bramble,” I said. Herve considered the thorns. “I’m actually going to go,” he resolved, “I’ve got the right pants.” Minutes later he wanted to know why he he’d done that. “We need a dog,” he said. “Merde.” Brian found a small boulder and hurled it in, but the bird was unmoved, so Didiere brought over two excited spaniels. “Advance in. Advance in!” he commanded the dogs. “Please, bring it to me!” I wandered off, passing a man in a red beret and paisley silk scarf, who calmly said, “We’re waiting for birds.” For a “blood sport,” la chasse is peaceful. “This is all so civilized,” a foreign policy advisor originally from Montana once remarked to me (even though gunfire blasted around us). We were batteurs at an old world château in Châlons-en-Champagne, trudging through forest that had recently dropped its red and yellow burden. Generally shooters are taking aim at birds that were released into the habitat as chicks and provided for in the meantime. “It’s like a five-star hotel for pheasants,” you hear. The argument is there, though. Chasse kills are free-range and sustainable; traditionally they’re characterized by respect. One does not take a shot one does not believe he or she can make. One never shoots a bird on the ground. And one will probably spend an hour or more looking for an animal he or she worries is wounded. In all, how could it be worse than buying anonymous meat from the grocery? Still, last October saw criticism of Pippa Middleton for “pos[ing] with 50 dead birds on shooting trip in Scotland.” A member of her party Instagrammed the women in wellies with their haul of pheasants, partridge, and woodcock. Social media aside, that is what you do at the end of a shoot. The French call it le tableau de chasse, when the animals are laid out on display, counted, and admired. Cock pheasant, for example, have caramel bodies; long, houndstooth-print tails; and British racing green heads masked with the red color of lingonberries. Sometimes Herve comes back from a shoot and puts the game in the refrigerator, unbagged. Whole birds with dead-canary talons. Dana rolls her eyes -- “Birds aren’t carrots!” -- but I have been known to take their bodies out just to look at them. Unlike its English school, the French chasse is not so fixed in aristocracy. “The butcher is un chasseur,” Dana explains. “It’s one of the occasions where the farmers meet up with the gentlemen.” But there is variation. Not long ago, Herve went shooting with a friend who actively tries to hide the amount of time he spends on chasses from his wife. The problem was he wanted to go to a place far from Paris -- from where it would be difficult to arrive back home at a normal hour. So Herve’s friend rang a second bon ami; he had a helicopter. “Would you like to join? Yes? Good— -- because you’re driving!” Some châteaux rent themselves out for chasses for the day. The break for lunch generally overflows with meat, cream, vegetables, cheese, bread, and wine. Maybe this happens at a rough picnic table, or maybe at a grand banquet table with silver knife rests in the shape of tiny, robust hares. That evening, when a younger shooter named Étienne asked to see what I was writing, I handed over my notepad. He studied it for a moment.“We call this pattes de mouche,” he diagnosed. “‘Unreadable letters.’” “We call it chicken scratch,” I countered. “Okay,” Étienne said, assuming an air of diplomacy. “Can we agree on pheasant scratch, then?” The sun was setting. Our party walked out of the darkening forest and back to the house. It was nippy, but the single partridge I carried was still warm and doubled as a muff. A woman named Henrietta appeared holding a mushroom with a head the diameter of a basketball. Brian held pheasant and partridge at his side. “Bravo!” Henrietta playfully congratulated, toasting Brian with the mushroom as if with a champagne flute. “Oui,” she cooed. “C’est un joli bouquet.”

Frankly Singing

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Frank Sinatra, Jr at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek The Sands was a real casino, my father explains. It was Sinatra’s favorite den. Of bloody reds and kingly golds, money greens and piano-gloss blacks. This place — the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, just outside Pompano in South Florida — isn’t that. I roll a critical eye around the space. Its Tuscan palette reminds me of a California Pizza Kitchen piped with ropes of rainbow lights. On walls, framed promotional posters seduce; “FIND THE FUN YOU!” Another appletini slips by our hightop table; at the bottom of its glass, one merry cherry like a clown nose. I watch a Native American man in a sky-blue windbreaker quietly receive this, his second drink. Meanwhile, my father has pulled out and is scanning what he calls “the destructions.” Turn camera ON. Take little black thingy off. Avoid eye contact with daughter. Talk to Frank Sinatra, Jr... yourself! He reassures me, he’s only joking. But he does not look like he’s joking, and I worry a piece of arugula between my fingers, thinking, This was probably a bad idea. (The lettuce tears.) Above us, in the casino restaurant, white speakers the size of dinner plates happen to be playing Frank Sinatra. Dad sings: Scooby dooby-doo... scooby dooby... scooby dooby-doo... “Strangers in the night...” (he’s packing up the camera)... “lovers at first sight...” (he’s lifting his glass of red toward the ceiling, toward Sinatra). Dad’s phone buzzes and he answers, “How are you, handsome?” His business call manners are something I remember always liking. Even when I was a kid — at first, mobile phones were the size of bricks — and we were in the car, and I would wait half hours to get a word in. I learned to prepare speeches in my head in the meantime, to audition subjects and rehearse lines of conversation. If I was going to say something, better make it good. But listening to my father’s voice (umpiring — conciliating — barking), I couldn’t imagine having views important enough to pronounce as loudly, with his same command. Like Frank Sinatra, my Italian American father was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1998, my father’s grandfather, my great-, had attempted to crash Sinatra’s funeral. He was determined to pay his respects to the man who had so much to do with making Italian an okay thing to be in America. “I’m just going to ask him,” says my father now. “‘So, Junior — what’s it like, baby?’” I try to give him a look learned from my mother. It means, “Just now? I am not amusable.” It means, “Don’t try.” My father swallows the last of his Cabernet with difficulty. “Hahaha, ha!” Two weeks ago, I told my father I’d been assigned to report Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s concert, told him I had a second press pass for a photographer. My father heard me loud and clear. He went out and bought a telescopic Nikon. It is now July 12, 2012, a Thursday. An hour ago, I showed him how to hold the camera like a pro, by cradling the lens in his left hand. We were in the parking garage waiting for an elevator. The long window looked out on the complex where a water tower sprouted behind the honey-colored stucco. Behind it was a backdrop of perfect pool blue sky. “Try to shoot that,” I said, pointing. He tried. But the auto-setting didn’t like the light conditions. The shot wouldn’t take. “Well,” my father mumbled; his eyes danced over the machine. “How do you do it manually?” It was at that point that dread began to gnaw on his daughter. Walking toward the venue, we pass banks of slot machines: $TINKIN’ RICH, KITTEN KABOODLE, WITCHES RICHES, SNEEKI TIKI... FRANTIC ANTICS. “Cory,” I whisper to myself. “Cory.” I might have to call my father by his first name. If so, I’ll need to keep a straight face. I make eye contact over my shoulder: “Corrado.” I can feel the twist of my mouth and tightness around my eyes. This expression is historically given to my father when I know I’ve done something bad, but also know that I know my patriarch; and he may remonstrate, he may do that, but his brown eyes are oily; on the inside, he’s cheering, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” Anyway... it was a ridiculous pretense. We two are olive; we have wavy dark hair, the same face, and are unfortunately dressed in bootcut jeans, crisp button downs, boat shoes/moccasins, and European-seeming frames, as if to match. Who, in their right, professional mind, would bring their father on a magazine assignment? But it’s too late. I am supposed to write about the Sinatras. The tree, the apple... the grassy stage in between. The New Yorker once called Junior’s predicament an “Oedipus Hex.” Much has been made of the Sinatra redux, how Jr. doesn’t quite cut la figura of his father. Junior isn’t his father, is the problem. There is also a Frank Sinatra III. In 2010, he sent a fistful of pills down his gullet — and people said it was doing with that name of his. He cannot bear being the grandson of Sinatra. He lived, but the world will not hear from him because he doesn’t want any part of all that. Maybe his trouble had nothing to do with being a Sinatra, but from Sinatra it is hard to descend. Decades ago, one of my several “uncles,” distinguished men from my father’s circle, saw Junior play The Playboy Club in Lake Geneva. That was in 1976, early in the career of Frank Sinatra, Jr. “He was just bad,” Jim told me. They’d all fallen asleep. It had been a day, but still. They slept through the damn concert. Jim is one who’s spent an eccentric amount of time in Vegas over the years. I asked how many times he’d been. Say, fifty? More than that, came the reply. He’d seen Frank Sinatra at the inimitable Sands — its bloody reds, kingly golds; its money greens and piano-gloss blacks — twice. Sinatra was the Maker! Porkpie. He got one? Then you’d better, too. Silk mohair suit, got to have it; didn’t you see his latest movie? Outside the venue, Cory is given a lanyard and dispatched to the press pit. I am handed a civilian ticket. I find my seat in Row J; it is behind a soundboard that looks as if a penny slot machine has snuck into the concert. I wonder. Was I just upstaged by my father? I cross my legs. Well that’s just... hilarious, actually. I scribble “THE IRONY” in my notebook, then text my dad, “Just monkey-see, monkey-do it. Good luck!” I’d noticed the other photographers’ lenses were bigger, and Dad would’ve noticed, too. I can overhear the people sitting behind me in Row H. A woman says to another woman, “So then why’d you guys come again?” “I don’t knooow,” the woman clucks. “Because we had tickets.” Junior opens with “That Face.” His own face is ovoid and doughy. I’m aware his eyes are hazel, not blue. He wears a light gray blazer over a white dress shirt with an oblique-striped white and navy tie, and charcoal pants. He sounds — My God. — like velvet. He sounds a hell of a lot like his dad, a fact for which, somehow, I wasn’t prepared except notionally. So taken aback am I, tears spring. I can’t believe it. The Pavilion seats an audience of 1,200, mostly white hair. The venue is nearly sold out. Junior travels with a sight: a full orchestra of 21 jazz musicians. The brass are brassy, the strings are strung out, and the singing is Frankly, for sure. The audience erupts now and again in plaudit. “Do you hear that band?” Junior asks. “‘bones?” The trombonists stand up and blow, their brass instruments flashing like Rolexes. The lights throw paisley shapes on the brown curtain. “Thank you so much,” he says gently. “O!” And the lights scatter like surprised mice. He is singing one of Senior’s bills now. “Here’s to the losers. / Here’s to those who still believe. / The losers.” I look around. Ladies’ earrings are swinging like chandeliers. People are nodding; they’re putting their whole bodies into it. “You like the standards — so do I,” Junior says. He’s fisting the microphone. “Venus de Milo / Is noted for her charms . . .” He delineates an hourglass figure with his free hand. At 8:26 p.m., a text message appears from my father. “I made a deal with the real photographers.” I reply with an emoticon:  “:-).” There is no time to process what a deal could mean. Junior is warning the crowd, “Don’t be fooled by reasonable facsimiles.” “The great days of these shows are in another era.” So he’s gonna do something for them he’s started doing, which is to “resurrect” the past, “the classic night club acts.” “Enough,” he says.” He asks the drummer, “May I have a rolling timpani, please?” Junior must be sharper than his namesake. He has outsmarted us all. He has beaten everyone to the punchline by tuning his voice. He pantomimes tossing back a stiff drink. Eh. He takes another swig of thin air, sings, “When you’re drinking / Sure looks good to you!” It is Dean Martin up there! Junior is doing Dino. “I love it in Florida/ So carefree and gay / I’d even work here / Without any pay . . . / My clever agent / Worked out this deal . . . “ They know what’s next, but when he turns on dad with “Without A Song,” the distance between a Jr. and a Sr. collapses. Some fatness in the peaks, that is what’s added; that is what makes the son sound like the father. In purple light, the stage is dyed the color of a Roman emperor’s robe. Under it the harp looks like a wishbone. When the lights turn to gold, all the white and gray hair in the crowd becomes blond. An hour into the show we get “Strangers in the Night.” I brighten. Dad must be loving this. I’m shaking with laughter, remembering him singing it two hours ago in the restaurant. “Wond'ring in the night! / What were the chances...” After the song, Junior relates a time in the ‘90s, when he was working at the end of his father’s career — at the end of father’s life — conducting the band. By this time, Senior could not always remember the lyrics, let alone the lineup. This one time, Junior was onstage “makin’ pizza” in front of the orchestra, and Sinatra leaned over: “What’s next?” So Junior told him. “Oh, that,” Sinatra sneered. Later that night in Senior’s hotel room, Junior had to get it right. Did his dad not like that song? “I hate that song,” sniffed Senior. Nine... million... records. Nine million! And he... hates this song? Well, that’s what Junior was thinking. “I’ll take a hand-me-down!” he told his audience now. “I’m not proud at all!” Junior’s reviews were in places like Guns & Ammo. He could never enthuse the way his father did. From the beginning, Junior was encouraged to chart different territory. In the '60s, when country music was really happening, managers thought he should try that. But Junior wouldn’t have it. (In his opinion, if the music wasn’t in the Great American Songbook, it wasn’t worth anyone’s time of day.) There was one he damn-near recorded, because the title was so good. It was called “You’re the Reason Our Children Are So Ugly.” For his second-to-last tune, Junior gets the house to sing “New York, New York” as if we’re not in Florida. The stage displays sunset-red. The crowd shimmies in their seats; they kick their legs side-to-side like showgirls. Then Junior tells us “Put Your Dreams Away.” He smiles. That’s a “family heirloom,” he says. “Thank you for remembering the music of Sinatra,” he says, and let’s fly a refrain I hear as a sad fact of Junior’s life: “YES . . . / It was mmmy wayyy...” “Goodnight, everybody.” Soon after, powerless, I watch the harpist encase the wishbone and cart it offstage. It’s clear there will be no interview. There is no backstage access at this concert, though PR did not inform my editor it would be the case. I meet Dad on the shoulder of the casino floor fifteen minutes later. “Dad, there is no backstage.” The little girl in me steels. “—I tried.” (I better have, for my father is marked by an ability to finesse “NO” into “YES.” Getting backstage is a game, not of luck, but skill. “Guess what? We’re...,” my mother frequently reports. To which I can only respond: “How?” “You know your father,” says the mother.) But I’d spoken to Steve, a large man in charge. And Steve was adamant. Another reporter and photographer — incidentally, boyfriend-girlfriend — are disappointed too. My father had already doled out Heinekens. After the first song, when the photographers were required to disperse, he had prostrated himself at the woman’s feet, or something like that. She’d agreed to provide his daughter the necessary photos. Later, Dad would slip me a business card; I’d find out he’d convinced a second photographer to do the same — for back up. Now, do I want a beer? I don’t want one, no. I am auditing the bits and pieces, trying to figure if I can pull a minor (a very minor) Gay Talese... when the venue doors pop open. It is Junior and his entourage. They are coming out. I have enough time to think, They’re all wearing all black. Then I feel my father’s hand pressing on my back. He pushes me toward Junior — “Frank, this is my daughter Chantel.” Junior actually turns around. “Chantel. What a pretty French name.” His handshake is warm, significant. He moves to greet the coupled reporter and photographer; he bids — “Chantel, it was a pleasure” — and is gone. My father’s hand comes to rest on my shoulder. People feed the slots. They crowd the green, felt stages of blackjack tables, and it’s not immediately clear who are the winners and who the losers — but there is congratulatory cigar smoke in the air. As we, father and daughter, make our way to the elevator, there again is the voice of Frank Sinatra. Softly over the speakers, Sr. sings. “Don’t you know little fool? / You never can win.”   Photo courtesy of Stephanie Shacter