Monday, March 31, 2008

Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch

(Caution: Minor Spoilers)

A very good triumph-of-the-spirit story, told in excerpts from a rather unlikable person's journal. Contains some moderately interesting science fiction ideas, a great boatload of esoterica, hippies and Viet Nam era paranoia, and one great lesson for writers.

The story takes place in a vague alternate reality in the early 70s. Robert McNamara is president, and the United States is invovled in some vague global conflict, and is probably not behaving too admirably. There's a hint of Uncle Sam using germ warfare, and the protagonist, one Sacchetti, has been imprisoned for being a conscientious objector.

He writes a diary to keep from going mad behind bars. For no reason, however, he is transferred to one of those secret underground government prisons, and finds himself housed with geniuses and polymaths. Only, they weren't always that brilliant. Turns out they've been injected with a drug that increases their thinking ability off the scale. One problem, though, and it's a big one: the drug kills its user within nine months.

The inmates are allowed anything and everything except their freedom. So, they occupy their time by producing plays (Faust), studying medieval mysteries (alchemy), analysing the drug responsible for their death sentences (mutated syphilis), and putting Sacchetti through all sorts of linguistic hoops. The prison is run by a hapless but ruthless general, and all the inmates, including Sacchetti, are forced to speak regularly with a brusque psychiatrist, a woman named Brusk, and our protagonist is encouraged to continue his journal. Except that it will be regularly read, by just about everyone in the prison, it seems.

Oh, and halfway through the book, it's revealed to lesser imaginative readers that Sacchetti himself has been infected.

Sacchetti goes temporarily mad, but pulls it back together.

His friend, Mordecai Washington, dies during a "seance" held with prison officials and prisoners.

The psychiatrist disappears.

An insane physicist and his group of grad students join the prison, with the sole intent of developing more powerful weapons of mass destruction, with the help of the drug. He and Sacchetti spar and verbally torture one another for a good chunk of the book.

And as Sacchetti's illness progresses, his genius seems to be seeing patterns in the outside world, "the Museum of the Weird," as he calls it, collecting clippings of odd happenings out on the surface. Then, his realization: Brusk escaped, infected with the specially modified syphilis, and has been quite focused on spreading it over the last couple of months.

Disch builds up the sequence of events so that the reader knows a shock is coming. And Sacchetti's uncovering of Brusk's activities clearly amounts to one. But, the novel's not over.
The physicist has the evil warden's ear, and as the pages of the novel dwindle, the two plus an antogonistic guard drag our writer to the surface, to feel one last time the breeze against his face.
But since this is written as a journal, you know our writer won't be executed.

What happens?

A really neat twist is revealed up on the surface. A nice revenge story, with all the bad guys getting their comeuppances. Sacchetti is able to overcome his illness, but not in any way you can think of. Truly original, and the last two or three pages really redeem a generally pessimistic and sanctimonious novel. In conscience I won't reveal it. You'll just have to check it out for yourself.

The inherent advice for writers? What did I take away from Camp Concentration? Easy. Build up and keep building up to something big. Then, throw a few decoys, especially a large one, at the reader. Finally, on your very last page, sock them over their heads with the really neatest twist you ever thought of.

It'll make your book worthwhile. And it might keep it in print after thirty-five years.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Hate A-Fib

Tomorrow I undergo a procedure called catheter ablation to correct a condition I have called atrial fibrillation. I’ve had it for over two years now and it is potentially life-threatening. Here is a brief overview; I have absolutely no medical training so forgive any mistakes.

Your heart is a muscle divided into four chambers. The two on top are called the left and right atria; the bottom are the left and right ventricles. Blood circulates through the four chambers in the process of obtaining oxygen from the lungs, spreading it throughout the body, and returning to remove carbon dioxide.

Atrial fibrillation means that the two upper chambers beat erratically. No longer are they in sync with the lub-dub, lub-dub normal heartbeat. It’s a rather squishy, sped-up type of beating. This can happen for a certain amount of time every now and then (that’s what happens to me), or it can happen all the time. The danger is that due to this off-beat pattern blood can pool in the ventricles and potentially form a clot. When heart beat returns to normal, the clot can travel to the brain and result in a stroke.

The first thing the doctors did was put me on medication. Four types of drugs. Coumadin is a blood thinner; this lessens the chance of a clot forming in my heart. The other three are designed to regulate my heartbeat. They do, with varying success. One of the drugs I’m on is called Toprol. A side effect of Toprol is depression, and I do feel the negative effect of this drug, so much so that I asked my doctor to lower my dosage. He did. So, another motivation to correct atrial fibrillation is to get off the drug cocktail.

The aim of ablation therapy is to kill the muscle fibers in the atria that are twitching erratically. This is done by inserting wires in through my groin, up my arteries and into the heart. My heart is stimulated into fibrillation; the offending fibers are burned; over the next days and weeks scar tissue forms and new fibers transmit the electrical signals that produce the lub-dub, lub-dub beating.

Before the procedure I am mildly sedated and a tube is sent down my esophagus to search for any present clotting. If none is found, I go in to the OR. I’m pumped full of general anesthesia, and over the next four or five hours the ablation procedure is done. If all goes well, I have an overnight stay in the hospital just for observation and go home the next day. The worst part is the two incisions at my groin. Overnight my legs are immobilized so I don’t accidentally re-open the bandaged wounds. My chest is also tight, especially when I breath deeply, due to the burning in the heart.

This is the second time I’m having this done; the first time was in November. Statistically, there’s a 70 percent chance of fixing the fibrillation after one procedure; after two attempts, there’s an 85 percent chance. After my November surgery, the a-fib events became much, much less in frequency and duration, but they still happened, about every other day or so for about five minutes each occurrence. Too much for me to feel comfortable going off the medication. If this time doesn’t fix it, however, that drug cocktail may be in my future for the rest of my life.

If there’s anyone out there reading this, please keep my in your prayers. As I always tell anyone whenever the subject comes up, I need all the prayers I can get.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Strange Lights

It happened almost thirty years ago, on a cool December night.

I was twelve years old. My family had gotten home fairly late after some engagement. Dad drove up to our house in the Pinto station wagon, pulled in to the driveway, turned the car off. We got out, and he, my mother, and my brother went in to the house.

They didn't see what I saw, and expressed absolutely no interest, positive or negative, when I pointed out the flying craft to them. They all just went in to the house, and let me stay outside.

It was a clear, calm night, warm for December. There was no snow on the ground. I don't remember the time, but it was later than I would have been allowed to stay out. I walked out in to the street, my gaze staring upward at a forty-five degree angle or so. Our house faced south on an hill going east-west, and I first spotted the object in the northeastern skies.

There were two lights, one red and one blue. And between them flowed streaks of white light from one to the other, often in pairs adjacent to each other. Occassionally the two lights would reverse positions by flipping, one over the other, slowly, and stay that way for a while, until flipping back. If there was a body attached to these lights, it was too dark to see in the night sky.

I followed the object up and down the streets in my neighborhood. Although I had no way of knowing for sure, it seemed to be only a hundred feet above me. It moved slowly, meandering through its own route above our homes, nonchalantly going out for a night-time excursion. Sometimes it seemed to gain distance on me, though I sensed no sudden acceleration, and then it would turn back towards me.

Did it see me? I do remember I was fascinated - what could this thing be? - a little scared, nervous, but overcome with curiosity. I felt brave enough to come out from tree cover, walking out in the middle of the deserted street, daring to make contact with the craft. And when it would slowly approach I did get the sensation that it knew I was down there, following it, wanting to wave and shout but a little too ... cautious to do so.

After a while, about a half-hour or so, I guess, the craft seemed to lose interest in me, and slowly began to recede in the distance. It headed north, over a block of homes, and then over the woods way behind my house. Eventually it faded from sight. I stayed out in the middle of the street a while longer, waiting to see if it came back. It didn't.

I went back inside the house, but oddly I don't remember saying anything about my encounter with my parents. I do not remember if they were even up, or if my brother was. But I did go upstairs to my bedroom, and recall making a vow to myself that I must remember this date. Something important happened on this date, and I must remember it! I forgot to burn the date in to my memory. I just know it was probably wintertime, 1978 or 1979.

The next night I set my telescope at the window at the top of the attic stairs (my brother and I shared a refurnished room in the attic). I was going to spend all night scanning the skies with it for my friend. I even made a point to make sure I was looking at the window at the exact time, 24 hours later, that it appeared, whatever time that was. However, despite my preparations, I saw nothing. I do think it odd that despite my enthusiasm for a second look, I gave up rather quickly. But the telescope was not in a very comfortable position.

I was always into the whole UFO phenomenon as a kid. My mother was a librarian, and I would go there, spending hours in a low-traffic aisle at the beginning of the Dewey Decimal system. Where all the "strange phenomena" books were. UFOs, bigfoot, oddities like Atlantis and mermaids, sea serpents like the Loch Ness critter. Leonard Nimoy's "In Search Of" was possibly my favorite show at the time. "Close Encounters" was tied with that guy Lucas' film as a summer favorite. So the ground was fertile, no doubt about that. The question is, did I see a UFO because of all this reading and TV watching? Did I mistake a blimp for a UFO?

I've given the possibility a lot of thought over the years when I think about that night, and the blimp hypothesis is probably the closest natural explanation I can come to. Yet that just doesn't sit right with me. It was the way those lights shifted position. The best way I can describe it is something like this: picture a big eighteen-wheeler truck, and imagine that its rear tires are actually three tires in the shape of a triangle. That is, when you look at it from the side, two tires are on the ground next to each other, one in front of the other, while the third hangs between them about five feet off the ground. Put a tread around the three wheels like you'd see on a Sherman tank. Got it? Okay, now see that truck barreling down the road at sixty miles an hour, and you're in a car next to it watching those rear wheels, that set of three. Every so often, the triangle formation would rotate; that is, the third wheel above the other two would rotate forward and land on the ground in front; the front wheel would slide back to the rear; and the rear wheel would lift and now become the suspended wheel a couple of feet above the others. Not too hard to picture, right? Now here's the analogy: take out one of the wheels, and imagine that one wheel has a red light, the other a blue. They changed positions in the same manner as those wheel on the truck. Also imagine that the tread around those wheels suddenly had groups of yellowish-white light, looking like "equal" signs from a math equation, cycling back and forth between the two lights. Hopefully this will describe a little better what I saw the craft doing.

Which is why the rational part of me, desperate for a rational explanation, has to reject the blimp theory. I have never seen a blimp with lights that moved like what I just described. One possibility which still keeps the blimp hypothesis alive is those scrolling messages that you sometimes saw on the Goodyear blimp from that era. That could account for the yellow "equal" signs, but doesn't explain the red and blue light. And what the heck would a blimp be doing out in the middle of the night over northern New Jersey, miles and miles away from the nearest airport? And how does one explain the odd disinterest of my parents? A blimp, over our house, and no one, not even my father, is even curious? Mildly interested?

And so I pose to you this question: What was it that I saw that night???

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke

I was not a big reader of Arthur C. Clarke’s work. Nor was I a fan. Of the little I read, I never really felt drawn into the story; I felt the characterizations were cardboard. But, you don’t read the man for his characters. You read it for the ideas. The Ideas, capital-I. And obviously he was a genius in the Big Idea department.

Two short stories I have to recommend. “The Nine Billion Names of God,” is, I will admit, perhaps the perfect short story. It’s a short quick read and packs an incredible punch. I remember it gave me chills when I first read it. I forced it upon my wife, by no means a reader of the genre, and she professed liking it, which says a lot.

The other is one I read about a month ago, “The Parasite.” Without giving away the story, it's about a possessed man. But who (or what) possesses him is what’s interesting, and I guarantee you’ve never thought of before what Clarke has in mind here. I was unable to second-guess the revelation. And that makes for an enjoyable read.

Ten years or so ago I found Rendezvous with Rama a book I could not put down. Yeah, it was dry and technical, two-dimensional characters and all, but I simply had to read through to the very end. In a few sentences: A massive object, apparently intelligently-designed, enters the Solar System and a spaceship from near-future Earth is sent to investigate. Hilarity ensues. No, I’m kidding. The astronaut-detectives enter and explore this gigantic, apparently abandoned artifact and set to hypothesizing its purpose. Sinister? Or is it a floating relic, a museum? A strange book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Think I’ll cue it up for a re-read on the fiction deck.

Clarke was firmly areligious. I pray the man passed over well.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Keep watching the skies!

Another guilty pleasure of mine is a childlike (childish?) interest in the bizarre. Anything strange and out of the ordinary instantly gets my attention, but ever since I was a little one I’ve been fascinated with the bizarre. Stuff you wouldn’t normally let business associates and friendly acquaintances now right away. Like … flying saucers, alien invaders, sasquatch, paranormal activity, historical mysteries, sea serpents, lake monsters, vampires, werewolves, and anything freaky caught on film or video.

One of my favorite shows growing up was “In Search Of …” with Leonard Nimoy. The deep tone of Nimoy’s voice, the re-enactments, the spooky synthesizer music, all hooked me in. I found just about every show riveting. Being a very imaginative, introverted boy, I soon saw evidence of the eerie shadow-worlds all around me.

As an adult now, with an active interest in physics and astronomy and a passing interest in most of the other sciences, do I still ‘believe’ in these things? No. But … as a famous television character from about a decade ago said, “I want to believe.” They still creep me out, in a good way. A campfire-story way. Raising goose-bumps, making you a little leery about being in the house alone at night, house-settling noises making you wonder. Plus, some very strange part of me gets a kick out of the associated camp-value, whether intended or not.

Without a doubt, UFOs held the premier position of interest in my youth. Although I preferred the term ‘flying saucer.’ It conjured a more romantic, 1950’s-black-and-white Saturday-matinee science fiction movie image. ‘UFO’ seemed a bit more sterile, scientific. It was obvious to me that ‘flying saucer’ implied saucer men, whereas UFO somehow didn’t necessarily. And what boy fed a steady diet of those science fiction movies didn’t see saucer men in the basement, in the closet, outside his window at night?

Coming a close second in spookiness was bigfoot. The idea of a giant, hairy creature just beyond the edge of the woods, who could be looking at you right now was enough to scare the heck out of any kid. And it was tall enough to even see in my bedroom window at night! And we lived in the suburbs! I even mistook my mother, taking out the garbage one evening, for a sasquatch, freezing and overdosing on adrenaline.

The other stuff, the Loch Ness monsters, ghosts, movie monsters, I loved them all, too. I try to throw them into my fiction writing whenever I can. Those are the stories I enjoy writing most.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter!

In the winter of 1992, late in February, I decided, not entirely through my own will, to read the Bible for the first time in my life. Just weeks prior, quite suddenly and without warning, I found myself in a new and unfamiliar situation. Suffice it to say that I was no longer part of a clique in which I had done some very harmful things to myself.

I was searching through some other spiritual books of different faiths and some shallow new-agey type stuff, but nothing satisfied this weird new void in my life. Something – or was it Someone? – was nudging me in a certain direction, but I couldn’t fathom just what I was supposed to do. Then, somehow or someway, it dawned on me that I should read through the Bible.

I still had a tattered pocket-size King James Bible that I received from Vacation Bible School nearly twenty years previously. So, I read the tiny, crayon-marked Bible. Hid it in a desk drawer at work. Read it at traffic lights. In the bathtub. Tough, the archaic 17th-century language and all, but I muddled through it. Something strange indeed was going on.

Sadly surprised, I was not satisfied. So I switched to a modern-day translation (I forget which but it’s the very 70’s one with the simple line-drawing illustrations), and began over from Genesis. Read all the way to Revelation. Marked it up with a highlighter. It took me two months, and believe me, I couldn’t put it down.

And I was transformed. By Easter, 1992, and I say this with no exaggeration, I was a new person. I looked around the world with new eyes. Reality felt – really felt … different. Lighter. I felt as if a twenty-pound lead vest, like the one that the dentist lays on you before taking X-rays, was lifted off me. I knew it was the burden from Matthew 11. I was happier. Optimistic. Hopeful. Stronger. And these were definitely new feelings for me.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

On the shores of Lake Galilee

While out at the park yesterday eating a mozzarella-and-pepper wrap in my car, I was surfing the radio dial and came across Tony Snow subbing for Bill O’Reilly. I like Tony; he’s articulate, polite, has a wry sense of humor and a great tone to his voice. I listened for a half-hour, and he said something that I can’t quite get out of my mind.

Since it was Good Friday, he wanted to take a break from the endless Obama-Wright analysis and talk a bit about Christianity and the new Atheism rising in this country. In his monologue he brought up the C. S. Lewis argument that when faced with Christ, one must either think Him a liar, lunatic, or Lord. Those are the only choices. Then, he went on and mentioned another well-known apologetic, the fact that one does not give up one’s life for a myth. One doesn’t willingly become a martyr for a lie. But for the Truth ...

Jesus walked up to Peter and Andrew, James and John, on the shores of Lake Galilee, as they were putting away their fishing gear after a long day of work. He said, “Follow Me.” And they did. And what Tony Snow said, and what sticks in my mind, is this: What did they see? What exactly did those men see, that made them immediately, without wavering, without looking back, immediately leave everything behind and follow Him? What would I need to see to leave this “job” that I do only because it’s what I’ve always done, to leave my economic fears, my social fears, all the fears and self-imposed limitations that hold me back from doing what I know He wants me to do?

What did they see?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

Words cannot express the immensity of all that I owe Him. If only I could keep such thoughts in my mind more often.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Unloved 'E'

In 1969 French author Georges Perec wrote a novel without the letter ‘e’. When I found out that another author, Gilbert Adair, translated it into English, also without the fifth letter – that interested me. So I gave it a shot. Here’s my admittedly melodramatic first attempt. (By the way, it’s really weird how you get into a certain rhythm writing without ‘e’, then you pop a clutch and have to re-start again in first gear, only to sputter out again.) It’s only 370 words, but to write a whole novel that way … now that’s discipline. Or masochism.

Alan asks, again, “Did you do it?”

“Do what?” Irritating, that guy is. Such a moron.

“You know …” implying an additional fact or two that could stop a truck.

I put down my cigar, stamp it out roughly. Junior should almost show up by now. Sand through an hourglass. My wristwatch ticks and ticks.

Alan grins: giant gums. I must punch that ugly mug of his. I so want to do that. But no, moron’s got cash, so I play ball. “J.R. will show. Trust us.”

Laughing, Alan says, “You know I do. But I just had to know …”

“If I did it? Or J.R?”

Moron shrugs.

I pick at a tooth, back by my molars. Ugh, blood. Sighing, I stand up, back cracking as I slink to a window. “Gustavo Schink.”

“Who?” Alan now sits, squirming as if a bad rash was all up his back. “Is that who did it?”

“I paid him to. Just as you want.”

“I think I know that bastard.”

Sunlight spills in through a big crack in a blind. “If you watch TV, you do.”

“Ohhhhh.” Now, my buddy is finding out I play hard ball. “You know,” Alan says, slowly, “I think you did a bad, bad thing – ”

“A bad thing bringing in Schink?”

“Um, okay, okay.” Alan panics. “What do you think I want? You know what I want!”

It’s my turn to grin. “Calm down, Al. And I did it for you. Now, it’s your cash – ”

“I got it!” Alan, that moron, is shaking, bad. High-pitch sounds spill out of his mouth. I try to nod, oozing sympathy, but it’s not my priority right now. Alan did a bad, bad thing.

A knocking at our door. It’s JR, I know. I put my gun away, but it’s still handy …

“Pay up,” I say softly. Junior walks in.

Alan sighs, back in control. Coughs. His black bag holds forty thousand dollars. And now, it’s all ours.

A round of hand-shaking, and Alan’s a born-again man. Moron splits.

Junior’s happy. So am I. In my car, us two guys, pull out onto Flat Road. Pick up Schink.

I put in a call to our local PD, knowing that Alan is toast.

Sayonara amigo!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


One thing I've tried to do over the past year or so to improve discipline and focus is to write a short review of a work of fiction I've read. I try to keep it brief (around 500-750 words), and I try to summarize the main storyline and the theme. Ideally, I write this within a day or so of finishing a book, before I start another. So far, I have about a 50% success rate, with twenty or so reviews. Here's my first:

SHARDIK by Richard Adams

Shardik is set in a neo-primitive, pre-Middle Age fantasy world. Adams does an exceptional job detailing the Beklan Empire (that map on the first page comes in quite handy!) and the cultures of the peoples who inhabit it. From the northern outpost of Ortelga, where the protagonist, Kelderek the hunter, originates, to the mystical island of the female priestess the Tuginda, to the Roman-reminiscent Bekla to its outlying regions such as the lawless Zeray and the vaguely Arabesque southern and eastern kingdoms – the author excels in breathing life into this setting. As any decent fantasy writer must, Adams makes his world real.

Most authors would stop here, though, and populate their world with warriors and sorcerers, kings and queens, war and intrigue – but Adams goes further. The last section of the novel is entitled "The Power of God." That is the whole theme of the work. How does God work in the world? Is it direct, or is it through its creatures? What is our role in this work, assuming we can even see it as such?

Most of the characters are broken, flawed, in search of something more, something sacred. Kelderek initially seems a poor choice of a hero – a bumbler, a simpleton, a man who consistently makes the wrong choices when thrust into the crosshairs of history – but he is a man desperately in search of God. And it is he who discovers Shardik, the bear-god, and convinces the world of His reality.

A whole mythology has grown up in Ortelga and Quiso, two island-nations in the north of the Beklan Empire, concerning Shardik and His herald, a great bear. Soon there’s a headlong rush to track down the fabled beast Kelderek encountered, and in the process, wars are fought, Empires overthrown, men and women are ruined, lives are shattered and, ultimately, healed.

But questions are also asked, about God and His will, and how that will is to be fulfilled in this world. How are we to know God’s will, to interpret it? How far must we go, mostly on blind faith, to accomplish this will? How much pain must we endure, how much evil need we overcome? And – what happens when we ourselves do that evil? Thrust into a position of power, Kelderek makes awful decisions he comes to bitterly regret, and, more so than any character in recent fiction I’ve read, he must slowly endure an extremely painful, exhaustive penance.

Adam’s writing is rich and detail-laden, sometimes to a fault in being a bit overlong, but never mundane. Among this world are several unforgettable characters: for me, the Tuginda, the high priestess of Shardik, vaguely supernatural and eminently practical, and Genshed the child-slave dealer, easily one of the foulest villains in all literature. Interestingly, in a foreword, Adams notes that "lest any should suppose that I set my wits to work to invent the cruelties of Genshed … all lie within my knowledge and some … within my experience." Through this vile beast comes one of the most tragic deaths I’ve ever read, though, as in similar incidents in the book, this crime is somehow balanced by a truly touching scene, one involving a bear and a little girl.

In my copy of the book, on the dedication page, is a verse in Greek from the Odyssey. Translated, it says: Chopp'd it in fragments with my sword, and wrought / With strong hand every piece, till all were soft. An appropriate metaphor for Shardik and His effect on the men and women He touches.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Musical Tastes

Filling out some of the lists of likes (something I hadn’t done since a college course a long, long while ago …) on my blog profile got me thinkin’. I listed seven music likes, though in fact, there’s probably three or four times as many, but these are the major ones. At one time in my life, they dominated what I listened to. Some still do. So, I asked myself this: What one piece of music, or what one album/CD, would I recommend to someone or justify to a similar fan? For what it's worth, here’re my thoughts.

Sibelius. Easy. Symphony No. 2 in D. But there’s lots others. Karelia Suite and Finlandia, of course, but also Swan of Tuonela, and Symphonies 3 and 5. His music is, simply, the auditory equivalent of majestic glaciers and frozen tundra, cold, crystal-clear and beautiful.

Dvorak. Little more difficult. I’d say Symphony 8 in G over the more popular Symphony 9 “New World.” I love all the symphonies, though, as well as the Slavonic Dances, the tone poems (“The Noonday Witch”) and the “American Suite” string quartet. His music has equal measures power and melody. Whereas Sibelius gives goose bumps, Antonin shakes your body.

Pavarotti. Lots to choose from, but I’d say the Turandot recording with Joan Sutherland. When Pavarotti is singing “Turandot!” at the end of Act I and then bangs the gong and the whole chorus comes in … incredible. Pav and Puccini can’t be beat.

Sinatra. Like his singing or not, his acting or not, his politics or not, Sinatra was the coolest of the cool. The definition of cool. For me an acquired taste, thanks to my wife. He even sings our wedding song. I’d probably recommend Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (which had a quite different meaning back in the '50s than it does today). Best track: “Old Devil Moon.”

Coltrane. To me the most melodic and moving saxophonist, yet one who could burn when necessary. A musician who, after you hear his work, becomes the yardstick others are measured against. Haven’t explored everything of his, yet, but I prefer either A Love Supreme or Giant Steps, depending on my mood.

Led Zeppelin. There’s nothing I can add to the revolutionary creative genius of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham. Each a phenomenon on his respective instrument. I’d say The Song Remains the Same (not the remaster but the original recording!) is the best overall representation of the Zeppelin experience.

Rush. My college band. All through the late-eighties and consistently through the nineties. Also an acquired taste, usually acquired by nerdy white males. At least according to the girlfriends I had. Anyway – each album a unique sound and a unique theme, thus a different experience for each CD. There are no bests, only favorites. And mine? A tie between A Farewell to Kings and Signals.

AC/DC. Ah, the definitive band from my teenage years. Always preferred Bon Scott over Brian Johnson, always preferred the band’s bluesier over their hard rock side. But not by all that much. Still, I’d recommend Highway to Hell. The perfect snapshot of AC/DC near perfection.

King’s X. From late-1990 to about '96 or so this was the group I listened to most, hands down. They struck me as upbeat at the time, but when I listen to them now, I hear an undercurrent of sadness (despair?) that I didn’t detect back then. Earlier CDs are best, and the best of the best is Faith Love Hope, slightly edging out Gretchen Goes to Nebraska.

This post was a guilty pleasure; I haven’t done this type of thinking since I was a teenager, spending hours with buddies, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer (both of which I no longer advocate!) and talking music as if it was the most important thing in the world …

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hegel Project, cont.

The whole purpose of the Hegel project is to develop focus. I understand to the point of almost dread that such an undertaking will take a few months, not a few weeks. This is very hard for someone who habitually hops from one big thing to the next all the time. And I also understand that even a few months’ study will only scratch the surface of this man’s system of thought. But if I can get through this … it’ll be a personal first.

My plan is simple. The mystic Gurdjieff (or charlatan – I’ve read convincing arguments for both points of view), wrote that one should read a book three times. First, as you would skim through a newspaper article. Second, as if you were speaking it aloud to another person. Last, as if you were trying to fathom and comprehend the gist of what is being conveyed. Sounds right to me.

I want to focus on primary documents as much as possible. As I said in an earlier post, I have a 550-page paperback of selections from Hegel’s major works. There is little commentary. I also have access to The Philosophy of Right and The Philosophy of History from the Great Books series. My plan is to read through the paperback and the Great Book, straight through with no questions asked. Then, I’ll re-read them with greater focus. Slower, sentence-by-sentence if I must. Asking questions. Rereading paragraphs if I note them flying by without leaving a mark.

After the two read-throughs, I want to spend a week or two reading secondary sources of analysis and criticism. I have my old college text, Durant’s Story of Philosophy, and a thin book by Peter Singer summarizing Hegel’s life and work.

Then, a third and final reading, where I read with the expectation that I am going to teach the material to someone else.

So far, I’ve been fairly consistent in carving out half-hour blocks every day to read this. On that basis, I figure I can get this accomplished in four months (I know – most likely wishful thinking). And the driving reward is not necessarily to become a Hegelian, but to see how my focus, and my ability to focus, changes over this time.

(rubbing hands together)


(eye roll)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Hegel Project

I finally began "The Philosophy of Hegel," a fairly lengthy paperback containing selections from eight of the major works of G. W. F. Hegel. It's the Modern Library College Edition edited by Carl Friedrich. Right now I've struggled about half-way through. If you know anything about philosophy, you've heard of the reputation of this man, his ideas, and his prose. Undoubtedly, you've heard how difficult, abstruse, and incomprehensible the writing is. I, too, heard this, almost twenty years ago in Philosophy 102 in college.

So why am I subjecting myself to this mental torture?

There's something very appealing to me about getting inside someone's head and knowing, as closely as it is even possible, exactly what that person is thinking. What is he trying to get across, to communicate to me? Am I understanding what he wishes to convey? And once I understand holistically what is being brought to me, how do I evaluate it?

Also, the discipline involved in study, the laser focus needed to completely comprehend a system of thought ... what a valuable gift that would be. I believe it has to be cultivated, and it really can't be taught. It's just acquired by doing. Perhaps it comes naturally to some, but I'd place that figure, at a guess, at less than one percent of one percent of the population.

Why Hegel? Why a vast, complex system of thought that some spend entire lifetimes to attempt to master? Why not someone who's writing is generally thought of as more accessible, such as William James, or even Nietzsche, or maybe some user-friendly translations of Plato?

Sometime in the early nineties I firest read analysis and selections of Hegel, and when I encountered his concept of the evolving historic spirit of philosophy, of Spirit becoming conscious of Itself, chills ran through my body. I had never even considered such a possibility.

So, I wondered, could I get that sense of wonder back, that feeling of being overwhelmed with another's genius, with a more complete and thorough understanding of the man's thought?

Is that even possible, especially for a hopper?

Saturday, March 15, 2008


The worst part of being a hopper is a lack of focus. This results in the despair that nothing of value is getting done. Or to clarify, when tasks actually get done, usually in the most inefficient way possible, there is little reward in the experience. No zen in the effort. Which leads to an off-putting feeling, something disconcerting that’s hard to pin down. The word “Why”, as in “Why am I even doing this?” often pops up, despite a deeply-felt conviction that this task is what I must be doing.

This probably doesn’t make much sense. I’ve spent little time actually analyzing these feelings, this condition of hopping, because, well, I guess I think there’s little value in doing such. Sense a pattern? Perhaps baby steps are required.

Focus. That is the antithesis to hopping. And since I derive – at least I used to derive – the most daily pleasure from reading, I figured I’d start there.

Normally, I read two or three, even more, books concurrently. In my over-rational mind, they had to be one fiction book for the hope of pure enjoyment, one non-fiction book to improve my writing, a spiritual book I’d read at night to help with my peace of mind, and maybe a reference book or two for passing subjects that gave me passing interest. I would read a few pages of one, followed by a chapter in another, followed by twenty minutes’ reading squeezed in here and there of the reference books, and … well, I read the books but could neither retain nor enjoy what I read. (Melancholy.)

So, a simple exercise in focus.

Read one book at a time.

Could not do it.

Okay, then let’s try the baby steps. The very minimum, I decided, was a fiction book and a non-fiction book. One I’d read during my lunch break at work, the other at night after my daughter was to bed.

This has been working for almost three weeks now. But it’s tough. I did skim through forty-three pages of a library book semi-related to my non-fiction reading one day, and I bought yet another used book at Barnes and Noble. However, it seems I’m making progress.

(Shaking my head ruefully …)

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Burden of Hopperhood

Where to start? I, LE, am a hopper. What is a hopper? Perhaps this will explain.

I am a writer (unpublished, of course), currently working on the first draft of my third novel. The other two are finished but floating in quantum limbo, unread, unsent, on my laptop. I also write short stories and book reviews. So far, just for my own edification and enjoyment. Like most writers, I'm a voracious reader. And an insatiable book buyer. At last count I have a fifty-one books on deck. And even though I read two or three books concurrently, I'll never catch up because that deck is consistently replenished.

I exercise. Somewhat on a regular basis. Yoga, weight training, cardio via an exercise bike. I'm always tweaking my diet, and remain faithful to such tweaks for more than a day on occasion. Yet I'm still overweight. Overstressed. So, I meditate. I pray. I explore Eastern religion and work on deepening my Catholic faith. Sometimes I even manage a good night's sleep.

I'm married, with a very young daughter. Another baby on the way. Job from hell that pays too much to quit but not enough to pay the bills. My heart's awry, and I struggle with a host of soft addictions.

The TV's a challenge, time management-wise, as is web surfing. And music - I've played in a band, fiddle around on the guitar, still listen to a walkman. Always looking for the next big genre, which might be any style over the past couple hundred years. Classical, chant, jazz, metal, blues ... and always on the hunt for fresh melodies.

On the hunt. Did I mention I'm rabid for books? If I just keep looking, searching online, hunting the used book stores, stalking through libraries, suddenly, out of nowhere, noticeable only if I'm on my game, I'll find - The Book.

What's this to do with hopping?

Try this.

Close your eyes. Point your finger anywhere on the screen above. Where did it land? On the words "Eastern religion"? Okay. Try it again. "Voracious reader." Good. Repeat. "Baby on the way." Keep going. Over and over. Maybe a dozen times.

That word your finger fell on? That's my focus. That's what absorbs me. Only problem is, in real life, it only absorbs me for anywhere from a few minutes to, if I'm lucky, a few days. Then, on to the next thing, then the next, followed by the next.

Oh, to be a hopper.