A Quick Call

I recently had to make an international call, nothing big. Just a few minutes to an office in London. I could have emailed the information but with hackers creeping around behind the curtain of our computer screens, diving in and out of our accounts like roaches around our bedrooms at night, I preferred not to risk it. Then again, my phone might just as easily be hacked, right Rupert?

In any case, this was my first international call on my new phone and it wasn't set up for it. Suri was blocked. Too annoyed to ask her what I should do, I came outside to the office and plugged in the “magic jack” I’d unplugged a year ago. Sitting there, waiting with hunched shoulders for the old desktop to boot up, I remembered how slow dial-up used to be and tried to relax.  

Dakota teething with my Camper
My wife had take the dog for a walk so I had time to sit and relax, sipping tea, but my nerves hummed. Today was the last day to pay a contest entry fee and I was afraid the office might be closing soon.

The screen had come to life but the computer still had other things to do before giving me control.

O, great, look at that, it’s upgrading me! The black icon turned green, still begging me off with “A Minute of Patience for a Lifetime of Savings.”

Eight minutes later, I wondered if I should have just called my phone company.

I tracked back to the bedroom for my phone. Dialed 611. An female android gave a list of options. In my mind I saw 3CPO and tried to imagine her sister, glistening silver. I wondered if they’d give her curves? I hit 0.

“Hi, this is James, thank you for calling customer service, to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”

“Joel Finsel.”


“And yes,” James said, “may I call you by your first name?”


“Ok, so, Joel, how can I help you?”

“I would like to make an international call please.”

Silence again.

“My phone said it was blocked or something,” I followed up. “Whatever I need to do, even if I have to change my plan or whatever, it’s cool.”

“Oh, okay,” James said, “At first I thought you were asking me to patch you through.”

I laughed, thinking, that would be incredible! Why not? How much easier things used to be... “No,” I said, “that would be crazy if you could. Can you?”

“Okay, Joel, I’m going to have to get someone from International Calling on the line to take care of this,” James said, “If you wouldn’t mind, I’m going to put you on hold.”

I put the phone on speaker, opened The Paris Review. Read about a trip to Norway. Fantasized about a trip to Norway. Tea finished, I wondered how “magic jack” was doing.

Back at the computer, I dialed the access code + country code + the number in the little black box with my mouse. I was about to hang up on James as the land-line rang once only to stop with a chime. 

“This phone is incapable of making International calls,” a different feminine android voice, “Please go to www.&%$#*.com to purchase prepaid International minutes.”

I hung up. The soothing music from my cell phone speaker reminded me that all was not lost. In some cubicle far away, my guy James—bound to me by big brother’s recording his every move—was waiting too, scoping some game scores on his handheld or passing ladies until the new voice from International Calls came online. James would explain my problem, scrutinize my account screen—revealing who knows what—before formulating their best response.

James finally clicked back on. “Jo`el?” he asked, as if all of a sudden I was French.

“Yes,” I said [the way you do when you just want to get on with things].

“I have ____ on the line with us from International Calls who will take it from here on out.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No thanks,” I said.

“Okay, then,” James said, “Thank you both and have a great day.”


“Mr. Finsel?” the new voice asked.


And on and on. Forty-five minutes after I started I finally reached London. 
The call lasted under two minutes. The woman’s distant voice sounded sweet. I imagined her one of the last to leave the office. Quiet copying machines sat on a ledge behind her, rarely used at all anymore. She took my payment info. I wondered whether or not it was raining there? In my mind I watched her hang up the phone, grab her slicker and head out just as gold funneled through the clouds, off to meet someone for a French 75.

Shooting the Breeze with Screenwriter Lou Buttino

Written by Joel Finsel 
Published in Focus on the Coast 
Saturday, 23 March 2013

A quick look at Dr. Lou Buttino's curriculum vitae: twenty-three documentaries, three books, two produced plays, fifty-five articles, twenty awards, guest lectures at Harvard and Brown, the development of forty-six courses across three disciplines, while impressive, tells nothing of his warmth and easy laughter.

Active Image
photo by Jason Armond  

I met Lou while he still chaired the Film Studies Department at UNCW during a graduate screenwriting class and distinctly remember his syllabus. It reminded me how lucky I was to live in a country with access to educational opportunities and that I needed to take my scholarship seriously--as it was a privilege after all.

When I met with Lou recently, he was still recovering from four stints and an angioplasty when we sat down together in his garden. Lou had a quadruple bypass two years earlier, and was currently on medical leave, haunted by the occasional "phantom pain." 

How are things going with your new screenplay, Shadowboxing the Mob?
"I ended up changing the title to The Final Round, and so far its won ten screenplay competitions. Right now, I have it up on Inktip.com where producers go through your synopsis and lug line. So far I've had twenty hits but no bites. I've also started shopping around a project about Abraham Lincoln, how becoming a father changed him, and, therefore, changed America." 

Sounds like you're keeping busy. How have you been feeling?

"I'm doing okay, but it's a very humbling experience when you just don't know if you're going forward or backwards. At one point, when they stopped my heart, it felt like my soul left my body. Even though the cardiologist used a pump, I still felt this terrible estrangement. It compelled me to investigate Lazarus, Jesus's last miracle, which is also the only time in the Bible when Jesus wept. Lazarus was Jesus's good friend, but after Jesus resurrects him, we never hear about Lazarus again. You know people would have been asking him 'What happened on the other side?'" 

Click to read on about Dr. Buttino's near-death experience


cocktail on the red carpet

To raise funds for the Cucalorus Film Festival each fall, Dan Brawley and co. began hosting an Evening on the Red Carpet Oscar party. It's a night of truly interesting guests in Wilmywood. The mayor, a state senator and representative, film-makers, writers, actors, fans and the simply curious come out to watch the actual Academy Awards on three massive screens, have a catered meal, few drinks, and mingle

Twinkledoon's Bo Webb first asked me to volunteer four years ago and we've developed a pretty sophisticated cocktail program thanks to Piedmont Distillers who helps make it happen. 

You've seen their mason jars infused with fresh fruit called Midnight Moon. Delicious and easy to sip. At manna, we substitute their apple pie moonshine for whiskey in the classic Old-Fashioned recipe for one of my favorite winter cocktails.

getting set up a few minutes before showtime

Only when I arrived at 10 am did reality hit. Scouting out our set-up inside Stage 3 of  Screen Gems Studios,  we had: three folding tables draped with black linens, a cooler (of which I unscrewed the lid with my pocketknife) in the center of our horse-shoe, no sinks, no running water, nowhere to rinse our tinsand we (foolishly or daringly, not sure) designed a menu with nine craft cocktails!

Quick palm slap to the forehead, dolt!  There would be three-hundred thirsty people here in a few hours!

Luckily, for the first time, I had Ian Murray (creator of five of the recipes, including the Apple Pie Old-Fashion mentioned above) hammering them out beside me.

Ian Murray and Joel Finsel

Two godsends followed. Both comedians. Grisled veteran Paul Obernesser signed on late the night before, probably thinking it was a coosh way to make a hundred bucks and have something official-seeming to do as he stared at skirt slits. Sorry Paul, Ian and I overplayed our hand and we need you to become a mixing machine!

Jonathan Guggenheim, who'd signed on as our barback, came through huge, working a two-drink station as we transformed into a short-order restaurant, party-goers calling out orders from the front.

Three hours passed by in seconds.

Thank you Dan, Jason, Jill and the rest of the Cucalorus crew for having us.  To see more images of the party, check out the festival's album.


I have had the good fortune of getting to know John Jeremiah Sullivan this past year, and he has become an inspiring friend and mentor. One of the first times we had lunch to discuss his new projectabout early eighteenth century Utopianist Christian Priberwe stopped in Old Books on Front Street for coffee. His change included two quarters that he deposited in the bookstore's venda-quote machine (formerly serving gumballs), and, as we were walking out, he handed me the unfolded morsel of wisdom above. 

Since we parted ways before having the chance to talk about it, I've decided to post my thoughts here.

"We have our private opinions. . ." that is a foregone conclusion. 

"But why should they be a bar to the meeting of hearts?"  Why should what makes us individual also keep us from expressing that which, from within our hearts, often leads toward solidarity (our meeting of hearts)?  

I'm left with the impression of two forces at work. Heart and Mind, disconnected.  

Our opinions are thoughts, created by our minds, that have taken form. They buzz around like a swarm of bees.

The impulses that arise from the heart are different. They are born out of an element of surrender. 

Thoughts are electrical. Emotions are magnetic. Our opinions, when highly charged, often bar a meeting of hearts because, in order to reach our emotional centers, we need to slow or turn off our thought-processors. This gives our awareness the room it needs to move beyond the static. 

Why do our opinions bar a meeting of the heart? Because opinions, in this case, are storm clouds. 

Humans are electro-magnetic beings. Sometimes we leave encounters with others carrying bits of their energy with us. I'm told it has something to do with the water inside us. What happens when an appliance, say...a lamp, has too much charge running through it? Bulbs pop and circuits break. Humans, when overrun with excessive current, blow lids and lose tempers. Flat flip out. 

Like other electrical entities, humans need a ground, a release of any excess charge so keep our heads from exploding. How? With a quiet mind and open heart. 

With a lot of deep breaths, one following Gandhi's footpath begins to filter all thoughts and interactions through the heart. The head loses its place in the center, it's energy expands out from the chest rather than the nervous cloud.  

Things like fear, worry, and judgement transmute from negative to neutral and release. Life becomes like play again. We learn how to reclaim a child-like sensitivity. Loads lighten. 

Joseph Campbell, well known for his work in comparative mythology and religion, reduced his entire mature philosophy down to this signpost: "Follow your bliss." 

As the parable goes: leap and the net will appear. Follow whatever it is that makes you feel as if there is a well of energy rising up from inside you, trusting that along this trail good things will come.