Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sayonara 2009!

Go back to bloody hell where you came from, you son of a bit–

Wait a minute.

Might this be a half-full, half-empty glass-type thing?

Let’s see.

Half-empty: Five weeks of the most intense pressure of my working life, those first weeks of January. Then, three weeks hospitalized. Is it cancer? Exploratory surgery. Risky surgeries. Tube in my lung for two weeks. Recuperation. Lawyers say I can’t get a dime from a previous complication. Another surgery at another hospital. Work farms out my job while I’m out, and lays me off. No one’s hiring. Paste on a smile and fake enthusiasm for headhunters. Online resume graveyards. $100 for 140 letters and resumes and stamps nets one interview – overqualified. Still short of breath. Heavy and omnipresent depression.

Half-full: Goodbye four-boss CYA hell! Small but adequate severance package. Bonding with the Little One at parks and museums and with Stretch the Silly Man. Reconnecting with old friends via FB. Becoming a Eucharistic Minister. Watching Patch develop from a helpless baby to a toddler exploring her world and struggling to communicate with me. Walking the Little One to kindergarten and back every day. A Confederacy of Dunces, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Silence, Kim, She, and George R. R. Martin. Expanding the Hopper site. SBI and the other websites, still in partial development. A Man on the Moon. Hopper Consulting. No beer or booze in 330 days.

I think a better way of looking at 2009, for me, is that God is working here, somewhere in the background. The work isn’t done, and though He’s flashing billboards at me, I’m too tunnel-visioned to decipher the message.

But I’m going to spend a good deal of 2010 trying to expand my line of sight.

Two main resolutions for midnight tonight: Health and Income. I did a spreadsheet a few days ago with a bunch of bullet points under each. As far as the Health category goes, its all about making about a dozen things habitual. As far as Income is concerned, its all about completing about a dozen projects. What I dig is that they’re symbiotic; improve one and the other gets better, too. The healthier I am, the more energy and enthusiasm I have to get those income projects done. And the more I get done, the better I feel, the better I want to take care of myself. You get the drift.

I truly wish everyone a safe and fantabulistic New Years Eve! Don’t drink too much so you can get those resolutions off right tomorrow morning!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Surreal Reels

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Top 5 Surreal Films

Night of the Hunter
One of my all-time favorites. About 45 minutes into the flick, as the boy and the girl flee from a psychopathic Robert Mitchum, the movie crosses over into something like 1920s German impressionism. Nightmarish and haunting and well worth a watch.

The Angry Red Planet
This movie scared the heck outta me as a kid. Blobs, again. But what a trippy movie! All the Martian scenes are filmed like a negative dyed with bright carnival crimson. A flick for acid-tripping hippies made before there were hippies and acid trips. Weird.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Saw this in the late 80s and I think I was the only one who liked it. Yeah, it’s a little pretentious and a little too long, but like a lot of Terry Gilliam flicks (Time Bandits, etc), you really get the feeling you’ve entered a parallel universe where reality is just a little bit outta kilter.

Fantastic Planet
Weirdest cartoon movie ever. I vividly remember this from my childhood; you might, too: The hundred-foot-tall blue giants, the humans forced to fight with scorpion-thingies strapped to their chests, the otherworldly audio effects, an ending reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Watched it again about a decade ago and just shook my head. I’d like to see it once more.

Evil Dead
See my review here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Time Machine Crime

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Top 5 Mass Murderers I’d Kill If I Had A Time Machine

1. Adolph Hitler
2. Josef Stalin
3. Pol Pot
4. Mao Tse Tung
5. Fidel Castro (preferably a twofer with Che Guevara)

TRICK QUESTION!!! We are not allowed to do evil that good may come from it! Case closed! (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1755-6, 1761) And I’m not even going to bring up all the inherent logical paradoxes concerning the murderous use of time machines …

Monday, December 28, 2009

To Boldly Go

How many of us children of the seventies remember being glued to the TV watching Kirk and Spock and the whole crew of the Enterprise voyage through the galaxy? When I was ten or eleven I recall Sunday nights, I think, watching the show at my grandparent’s house, week after week. Like Bugs Bunny cartoons, I saw them all. I even read the paperback novelizations. Played with the Trek dolls with my friends. One day I’ll buy the DVD box set, once I have some disposable income. Until then, I have only memories to go on for this post – memories that are, paradoxically, fuzzy and seared into my cerebral cortex. Funny how that is, isn’t it?

Top 5 Star Trek: The Original Series episodes

The episode with the Horta – Blobs in space!

The episode with the Flying Pizzas – watch out for that meatza, Spock!

The episode with the crashed shuttle Galileo 7 – Sasquatch lives on Altair IV!

The episode with Vol – stoned Hawaiian hippies with nails in their necks worshipping a papier-mâché dragon head!

The episode with the Amoeba in Space – See comment on the Horta episode!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Time Forever Lost

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Top 5 Most Disappointing Reads

Lincoln by Gore Vidal
Burr was brilliant; but this was just meandering and meaningless.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Kept building up to a climax that … never arrived.

Space by James Michener
WTF? The ultimate downer for any lover of the Glory Days of Space Exploration comes at you like a spit-vaseline-and-sandpapered curveball.

The Stranger by Albert Camus
Good supporting characterizations, but overall, over-rated junk without a point.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Shockingly grim and bitter; nothing like the fun pleasure it was to read From the Earth to the Moon (I hope it’s just a translation thing …).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Rabbit

I grew up watching Bugs Bunny. I remember my seventh grade morning ritual: wake up, get dressed, eat a giant bowl of rice crispies on the living room floor watching three episodes of Bugs. I saw them all easily a hundred times.

Just recently, the Little One located Looney Tunes on Cartoon Network mid-mornings. It’s weird that I have to explain everything to her. For the longest time she called Bugs “The Rabbit,” as in, “Hey Daddy, the Rabbit is running away from the fat witch!” She likes it so much I dug out an old Warner Brothers DVD someone gave me a few years’ back. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers in their wisdom does not sell DVDs devoted solely to Bugs Bunny, so half the disk features Sylvester, Tweety, that love-drunk Skunk, a big dog smitten with a kitten, and a couple others I never watched. But Little One watches them all.

As a side note, I cringe at how violent these cartoons are. Guess years of Care Bears and Little Einsteins and Handy Manny has desensitized me to cartoon conflict. I know that Bugs Bunny toons were never intended for younglings, but, hey, I watched them all as a little one and turned out relatively okay. Who’ll teach my daughter, I wonder, how to lure predators under that piano suspended by a thin rope five stories above?

Anyway, here are my Top 5 Bugs Bunny clips

Bugs vs the Shaggy Orange Monster
Bugs vs the Goofy Vulture
Bugs vs the Mad Scientist with Ether
Bugs vs the Hound Dog on the cold, snowy night
Bugs vs the Gremlin

Honorable mention: Bugs vs Pete Puma and Bugs vs the Bulldog in the green turtleneck sweater

Friday, December 25, 2009

Courage Means Heart

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Top 5 Personal Acts of Courage

Battle of the Bands (first time playing before an audience), June 1988

Experiential Management, college 4-credit course, June-July 1989

Best-Man speech at brother’s wedding, January 1997

First Confession in 25 years, April 2003

Undergoing surgeries of November 2007, April 2008, and February 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dinner with the Deceased

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Top 5 Dead People I’d Like to Have Dinner With
(and the One Main Question I’d Present for the Topic of Discussion)

Richard Feynman
… “All kidding aside, what do you think reality really is?”

St. John the Evangelist
… “What was Jesus like?”

J. R. R. Tolkien
… “What’s the best way to create an entirely new world?”

Lee Harvey Oswald
… “Tell me what happened on that certain weekend in November …”

St. Thomas Aquinas
… (After watching, ugh, prime-time TV for two hours): “So, what do you think of my culture?”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Choose the Book

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Top 5 Books Better Than The Movie

Logan’s Run
It disgraced the big screen in 1976, and the 2010 remake will be equally as bad!

The Lord of the Rings
The movies were great, don’t get me wrong. But the books are the second-greatest piece of literature I have ever read, period, and thusly, unfilmable for me.

The Man Who Fell to Earth
See my review of both, sorta, here.

The Martian Chronicles
The book – so poetic, so epic, so ethereal! The miniseries – eh, not much so.

Every Stephen King book and short story save The Shawshank Redemption and Salem’s Lot
My personal worse Steve King film experience: The Langoliers (made-for-TV).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Vacation Message

Well, the wife, the little ones, and I are driving down south to visit my wife’s parents for all of the upcoming week. Since my folks are in Pennsylvania, and hers are in South Carolina, we do this thing where we alternate the holidays that we do the Big Drive. This year fell to Christmas. We pack about a hundred-n-fifty pounds of luggage, presents, food and supplies into the Impala and saddle up for the fourteen-hour cruise down I-95.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing little extra entries that I’ve cued up to post over the next seven or eight days. They’re all of a “Top Five” format about subjects from books and movies and teevee shows to time travel and deceased personages and a little bit o’ insight into LE. To the dozen or so people who visit me daily: Keep stopping by; I hope you enjoy these posts and maybe add your own thoughts if you are so moved.

My access to a PC during this Christmas vacation will be extremely limited. Perhaps I can swing by a public library down there on Monday or Tuesday. Otherwise, if you do comment and I don’t respond, don’t take it personally. I’ll get back to you eventually.

Here’s our Christmas picture of Patch and the Little One:



Try to remember the reason for the season. It’s not gift-giving. It’s not even some vague, disembodied call to be good to your fellow man. It’s to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, equal part God and man, who physically walked this earth two millennia ago to show man how to live and heal him and forgive his sins so that he may have eternal life. Keep that in mind on December 24th and 25th.


Merry Christmas everybody!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Winds of Gath

In a case of déjà vu relating to my recent post on The Tower at the Edge of Time, reading this book was kind of guilty pleasure. Way back in the seventies it was cool to discover that my dad was also a science fiction reader, though I never really saw him reading. I did discover a cache of SF paperbacks which I blog about frequently. A strange book about a character named Dumarest was among them.

I tried getting into the book a couple of times. I think I may have even had it in my possession well into my twenties or thirties; not sure, this is a bit hazy. But the point is I never could get past the first chapter or two. Not sure why, but something made me want to keep reading it. I forget the name, but it was about a planet where every night the dead come back to life. That’s an awesome concept – and probably why I wanted to read it.

Anyway, that book is lost to me. One day this past fall I found this book:


Hey! That’s E. C. Tubb, the author of that infamous book from my youth, the one-that-got-away, and what’s more – it’s a twofer! Two novels in one. First, you read The Winds of Gath, then you turn the book upside down and over, and you read Derai. I’m serious. Two 150-page novels in a manageably-thick paperback. Not bad. I wonder why publishers don’t do this more often. Seems like they could save money this way. Or maybe it’s just a fad or a promotion gimmick.

Anyway, I read The Winds of Gath in four days, about four hours of reading. My first Dumarest book. Was it worth it? Sure. The same way reading Lin Carter is. It ain’t Dostoevsky, it ain’t even Heinlein or Pohl or Anderson or Silverberg. But it’s not time wasted. Like I mentioned in the Carter review a few days back, it’s like watching a really good 22-minute teevee sitcom. You laugh, you forget your troubles, and then you move on.

The whole set-up in a sentence is this: Earl Dumarest is this futuristic hitchhiker who’s trying to get back to the ol’ mythical fabled lost planet of Earth. That’s it. Tubb’s written 33 books so far in this series, and, at the wizened age of 90, he’s hard at work on the 34th! Man, that’s impressive. The framework for each novel seems to be the same: Dumarest winds up on a strange new world, gets involved with local intrigue, then moves on. Kinda like a Murder, She Wrote in space.

What surprised me was how well it’s written. Tubb is prolific as all hell, but he’s not a hack. The planet of Gath comes to life in all its rugged alienness. The “winds” are what happens during periodic brutal thunderstorms, famed throughout the galaxy. Due to some strangeness of the terrain, or the atmosphere, or something else, perhaps, the winds whisper distant memories of forgotten love and regret and guilt to those fortunate or unfortunate who willingly travel to the mountains to listen to them. Dumarest, looking to earn cash to get off-world, is among them. Along with a Matriarch and her retinue from another planetary system and her rival. And there’s an assassin among the large group of pilgrims, with Dumarest and a princess in its sights ...

He’s not a bad writer at all. Technically, everything was perfect in the story. Nothing extraneous, nothing excessive. Every event spurred the plot onward. Vibrant images called forth from colorful word choice. The science fiction was notably good: cybernetic beings, futuristic temporal drugs, hibernation on long space voyages, an intriguing and lethal alien biosphere. And a cage fight, just like in Lin Carter!

And the best thing of all is that the book goes back in to the on-deck circle. Turned upside-down and over, of course.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Phaneron

Think for a moment of how we experience the world. It’s through the senses, right? We interact with our surroundings via sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. At this very moment I feel the hard wood of my desk beneath my arms and the springy motion of the plastic of the keyboard. I hear the clack-clack of the keys as I type. The cold basement air gently stirs against my checks. Can’t really smell, because I’m all stuffed up. And I can still taste residual soy milk in my mouth from the bowl of cereal I had fifteen minutes ago.

This is my phenomenal world. Philosopher Charles Peirce coined a word for it: the Phaneron.

This is neat because it implies a world beyond the phaneron. An anti-phaneron. Or, an ultra-phaneron. How about a super-phaneron, a hyper-phaneron, an über-phaneron? What would a sub-phaneron imply? An inter-phaneron?

(Words are neat; prefixes are neater.)

Anyway, here’s a nifty analogy for thinking about phaneron and whatever it is that exists beyond the phaneron.

Those of you somewhat knowledgeable in philosophy will recall Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Guy’s chained down in a cave with a blazing bonfire behind him, and can only stare at the wall in front of him. Between fire and guy can be anything: a dancing girl, a hibernating bear, Achilles with a spear, whatever. All the guy can see is the shadows cast on the wall in front of him by the fire and the girl, bear, warrior, etc. Plato created this analogy to explain our experience of reality.

Now for something similar, but different.

Imagine your universe to be a giant, translucent box. That means light from outside the box can pass through but without any real clarity. Additionally, let’s say there are birds flying around outside the box. All you can see are the blurry shadows that fall on the top and sides of your giant universe-box. With me? You probably see where this is going. Your phaneron is the box, and “reality” to you are those blurry bird shadows you can see.

Now, take the box and shrink it down. Shrink it down to your skin.

Try to think about your phaneron and the hyper-phaneron in this new context.

Pretty neat, huh?


[Giant box shrunken down taken from Experience and Prediction, by Hans Reichenbach]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Varia

I’m feeling somewhat under the weather today (and have been for the last 3-4 days). It’s the fourth time I’m sick since my surgeries back in February, and I used to never get sick. Well, maybe once a year. The flu once every four or five years. I got sick in March, July, October, and now, December. Something to bring up with my doctor, I suppose.

So, no attempts at depth today.

Coupla things worth mentioning, though.

First, I ran across an absolutely hilarious deconstruction of the awfulness that is The Pantom Menace. Some dude named Mike did a 70 minute video, in seven 10-minute chunks. I’ve watched four so far, and trust me, it’s well worth it if you’re into these sorts of things. Warning, though, it’s a little vulgar and sometimes creepy in an attempt to be funny. But it’s clever, and nails just about everything wrong with the Star Wars prequel, seen through the eyes of someone from my generation, someone who grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy.

You can see it here.



Second, while Christmas shopping, I randomly came across Purple by STP for a decent price, so I bought it. What a blast from the past! I constantly played this CD the summer of 1994 when it first came out. Vividly I recall listening to the deviant-titled tunes – Vaseline, Silver Gun Superman, Pretty Penny, Meat Plow – in the soaring July and August heat, in the sweltering sweat box that was my apartment. I associate smoking cigarettes and drinking beer out of a plastic cup with this CD, memories that flooded back into me listening to it. Oh, God, has it been 15 years already? Where does the time go? Have I lived my life? Was it a real one?



Wife and I watched The Hangover last night. Very funny movie. Slightly disappointing due to all the hoopla about it a few months ago. But very, very funny. Painfully funny. We’re now true-blue Ken Jeong fans (you know, Señor Chang).




Came across a beautiful couplet from George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings during my last reading session: With two eyes you see my face. With three you could see my heart. Very magical in the context of the scene in which the character spoke it. Depressing, too, ’cause its something I wish I wrote.

Over on the left there, the Current Reads section, you’ll see I started a book called The Winds of Gath by E. C. Tubb. Why will come out in my full review in a few days, but doing some background research I found out that Tubb (awesome name!) is still alive, at age 90, and still writing! Something like over 140 books to his credit, and though its not quite Asimovian, it’s still an incredible accomplishment. That’s the ticket, to writing SF. Prolificity.



Finally, we’re just holing up here in the homestead, awaiting the snow. We have food and fuel, music and books and games and DVDs.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Interplenum

Can’t believe I actually did this … but I did. Yesterday’s post about Lin Carter was on my mind all day. During a lull in the afternoon, the Little One at school, Patchie napping, I decided to skim through The Tower at the Edge of Time, recording every Capitalized Noun, all the Places, Planets, Peoples, Stars and Things. But not Proper Names – that would cross the line to complete silliness that I am currently tiptoeing on like an Olympic gymnast.

Why I did it, I can’t really say. Perhaps to compare how in-depth I got with my second book, which had a similar plethora of Places, Planets, etc. When you write such a novel, creating new worlds, new cultures, new peoples, you have to just throw any self-conscious silliness aside and jump right in. The more sincere you are, I believe, the more your readers will believe in the reality of the reality you are trying to convey. I think Carter pulls this off, say, eighty-five or ninety percent of the time.

This little … exercise? I guess … took me only a half-hour. The book, as I’ve mentioned several times, is on the short side. And nerdy lit stuff like this is, for me, relaxing, like doing a crossword puzzle or playing soletaire or plunking away on an acoustic guitar.

“The insectoid Ssu Entity” – now there’s a bad antogonist, no?



Peoples

Aealim (Time Wizards) / The Time Wizards of Aea
Star Rovers
White Adepts (or Wizards) of Parlion
Man-Spiders
The Chaos Lords
The Pseudowomen of Shuuth
Ormisians
Chadorians
The Iron Heart of Khali-Zoramatoth the Lord of Chaos
The Black Eye of Ygg
The Green Lion of Zarzamathool
The Arachnidae of Algol IV
The Mind Gladiators of Nex
The Machine Kings of Atrogon, the Robot Planet
The Sky Lords of Bartosca
The Sun-Stealers of Arlomma the Ice Planet
The Black Dragons of Nephog Quun
The League of Thirty Suns
The Nnermite Dissenters
The Serrelian Enigma
The Starmasters of Anthlamar
The insectoid Ssu Entity
The Robot Philosophers of Niomakh
The Aathoklaa
The Men Who Do Not Speak
The Double-Men of Niovoth
The Tensors of Pluron


Stars

Ghondaloom


Planets

Daikoona
Zha the Jungle Planet
Argion the Trader’s World
Valthome (e is accented)
Pelizon
Clesh
Athnolan
Delaquoth the Dreamworld / aka the Drug Blender’s Planet
Onaldus (“peaceful”)
Scather
Mindanell
Valdorm
Azmeryl
Besht
Harza
Bartosca (planet of the Tigermen)
Netharna
Bellerophon
Yoth Zembis the Black Planet
Shimar (in the Dragon Stars)
Gondilon
Faraz
Shazar
Mnom the Dark World
Phiolanthe
Xulthoom the Mist World
Yinglara, the Planet of Light


Places

The Fire Mists
Aanthor
Zotheera (city)
Third Circle of Goetia
The Wyvern Cluster of the Orion Spur
The Red Moon (or Jungle Moon) of Phiolanthe
The Black Nebula


Gods

Zargon the Measurer, Lord of Punishment and Reward
Thaxis of the Battles
Onolk the Spacegod
Maryash the Protector
Shalakh the Lord of Fortune
Malasquor of the Eleven Scarlet Hells
Arnam
The goddess Sinhi


Things

The Jewel of Amzar
The Carina Empire
The Interplenum
Sculptospheres


Ahhhh. Guilty pleasures!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tower at the Edge of Time

[One major spoiler]


We all have guilty pleasures, right?

Let’s see; how can I phrase this to ensure the proper degree of respect …

Guilty pleasures to me are often books I read as a pre-teen, books found from that wonderful and fantastic 5 x 10 foot piece of real estate known as the Science Fiction shelves in my town library. As well as other books that I did not read back then, but written by those same authors. They have a lot of common denominators. They’re slim. They’re extremely quick reads. They have funky psychedelic hard covers. If they’re paperback, they look, feel, and smell different from any other type of paperback. Probably because they’re mostly all out of print.

This will sound insulting, but it’s not meant to be. They’re like watching television. Reading Norman Mailer or Borges or Tolkien or Kipling or Lovecraft … to me, that’s like going to the theater, popcorn in hand, and being enraptured by something magical, your complete focus held on the screen, never wanting it to end. These guilty pleasures I’m talking about is like watching a good 22-minute episode of your favorite show on the tube. Am I making myself clear?

Tower at the Edge of Time, by Lin Carter, was a guilty pleasure.

It’s all too silly to go into in any depth. In a sentence, we follow a Conan-like swordsman in a distant, futuristic galaxy, forced into a quest to retrieve all the treasures of all the civilizations that ever existed, held in a fabled tower found only millions of years in the future, moments before the complete Cold Death of the universe. Whew! That’s all?

But the surprising thing is, I liked it a lot.

The characters were a little clunky, true, and the plot was perhaps a tad too much to stuff into a 135-page paperback. It’s the ideas and concepts that fascinate me. Yes, Carter violates the “show, don’t tell” rule of weaving a tale. We’re told about cultures and social mores and whatnot, all the daily frictions you’d see in a multicultural alien bazaar or cantina. He tells us about vast empires that had burst on the scene to dominate with iron fist, only to decline and fade into ash and memory. We’re even told of the protagonist’s major badassery, a lot more than we’re shown it. But that is a lot of material to cram in to what’s probably a 60,000 word novel.

Still, it was good. I thought Carter’s version of hyperspace, the “Interplenum,” was neat. There was a cage match duel, only with weapons of mental thought, that was an interesting twist. Even more cooler were the visions of the millions of future years the characters, in ethereal form, behold as they accelerate in time through to the Tower. And what our characters find at the end of their search is not gold doubloons times infinity. They find a whispering alien voice offering some sayings that you could find in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs.

His writing style is predictable: lots of juicy adjectives for colors, creating a visual feast in the mind’s eye. And everything is NOUN + “of somewhere alien-sounding.” Such as –

“I am Thane of Zha!”
“Fear the Green Lion of Zarzamathool”
“The Black Eye of Ygg”
“The fiery purple liquor of Valtomé …”

Carter was a kind of visionary, too, I suppose. The book was published in 1968, and although I am in no way proposing that he was source material for any of this, you’ll find foreshadowings of –

Jedi Luke doing battle with that big beastie while Jabba and his coterie, with Leia in chains, watch; Roland the gunslinger’s quest to find the Black Tower in Stephen King’s fantasy series; the Star Wars cantina scene; the journey through the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The writing surprised me. While there are chunks of hacky prose, and his attitude towards women is keeping them as insultingly one-dimensional as Fay Wray in King Kong, Carter tells a good story, and keeps it moving. Occasionally I’d be floored by a really neat word that I hadn’t come across before, or a turn of phrase which made me pause. I don’t know much about him other than he wrote dozens of books similar to Tower at the Edge of Time, often creating four or five-book series (ka-ching!). He was influential more as an editor and a critic, and wrote an early analysis of Tolkien’s work, long before it was fashionable to do so, which I need to find. But he was not to have a happy life; from what I understand he died relatively young, in poverty, in a town near mine in the mid-80s, after a few years painfully dealing with alcoholism and cancer.

He’s always on my list of authors to keep on the radar when I go used book hunting.

An early post on another of Carter’s works here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oswald's Tale


[beware: potential spoilers…]

Gosh, where to begin? How ’bout with, I liked it a lot, but a lot about it I didn’t like.

The subject pinned under Norman Mailer’s intense magnifying glass is Lee Harvey Oswald, the man generally acknowledged as the assassin of President John Kennedy. Well, that’s only partially correct. Mailer also takes an extreme interest, it seems, in every single individual who knew Oswald, no matter how peripherally. Half of the book’s 791 pages, I think it’s fair to say, is devoted to long, sometimes rambling recollections from such people. But once he gets Oswald in his sights, refusing to let him go or let him wiggle and worm his way out, then it becomes essential reading.

First, the methodology. Apparently, Mailer sent a team of interviewers into the newly defunct Soviet empire sometime in the early 90s, taking advantage, I suppose, of the new-found freedom of the Russian people to be allowed to speak their minds. This opens up Oswald’s whole “Soviet phase” between late 1959 and early 1962. Then, for the “American phase,” Mailer relies on dozens and dozens of small chunks of testimony, mostly from the Warren Commission and the various other official inquiries, but also including reputable books written by assassination researchers. A large part of his foundation relies upon the book Marina and Lee, written by Patricia McMillan, who scored the first interview with Marina Oswald after the events of November, 1963.

Mailer refrains from spelling out a step-by-step this-is-who-did-it-and-how-it-was-done; in fact, he states early in the book that such a goal is not its intent. There are, he admits, countless other books that can do a better job at that. What Mailer wants most of all is to get in to the mind of Oswald and try to determine if he was capable of such a deed as assassinating the most powerful man in the world.

Overall, I think he does get into Oswald’s head. Mostly through his choice of WC and other excerpts, including, and probably most enlightening, KGB reports (from both electronic eavesdropping and case handler reports on young Oswald’s activities as a defector to the Soviet Union). Mailer’s modus operandi is to ask aloud a question concerning Oswald or scratch a chin suggesting a possibility, then offer two or three or ten excerpts to lead the question in a certain direction toward a certain answer, then provide some dry – and occasionally very witty, even humorous – commentary. It worked.

Some parts of the long novel I sped through; others bogged me down. The interviews with the Russians who knew those young kids Lee and Marina, spewing out recollection from thirty-some-odd years back, required an exercise of the will to get through. Mailer argues that in the Soviet Union anyone who knew Oswald was told to shut up. Such shutting up resulted in the pristine preservation of memories, as opposed to the distortion that happens with constant retelling, what you’d expect on the American side of this tale. However, way, way too much non-essential detail was included. Do I really need to know anecdotes about Marina’s grandmother to understand if Oswald was a killer or not? Or guys who were puppy-dog in love with Marina before she chose Lee (and a ticket out of Minsk)? There must have been a cast of thirty or forty Russians, which made keeping track of this period, as the narrative skated this way and that, a little difficult and required some re-reading.

The second half of the book, however, the American period, was fascinating. The day of November 22 is only given a surprisingly few pages, but the large sections devoted to Oswald’s youth, his stint as a Marine, and his drifting as an United States repatriate are enlightening and page-turning. Lee Harvey Oswald was a paradox, to say the least. Quiet and bookwormish as a boy, yet prone to schoolyard fights and disrespect towards others. An avowed idealistic Marxist who enlists in the Marines. A crack shot or someone who nearly blows off his own foot. A spy – a double agent, perhaps? – or just a loafer who spends his days at the Soviet radio factory with arms folded behind his head and feet up on a chair. How can the man who fired a shot, sniper-style, at an extreme right-wing general in the man’s home, missing inexplicably, panicking to the point of incapacitation – how can such a man coolly fire off three shots within seven seconds at the President of the United States?

Very easily, Mailer determines. Very easily.

I found the final chapters on Jack Ruby superfluous. Also, Mailer’s relentless and repetitive conjectures that Oswald was homosexual, despite absolutely no evidence in favor of it, was bewildering, and somewhat annoying. But the fact remains that no amount of research will shed light, almost fifty years later, on those long stretches of time, hours after work, several days a week, week after week, in city after city, that Oswald spent completely unaccounted. Where was he? Who was he with? What was he doing, what was he planning?

Several characters from the drama are brought to life, life in all its full eccentricities, that are not done in the various other entries into the literature. George DeMohrenschildt, who befriended the Oswalds in Dallas, who may have had CIA ties and may have provided some type of support or guidance for Lee. Marguerite Oswald, Lee’s mother, straight out of a John Steinbeck novel. Oddly, though, there was hardly a mention of the more colorful, more infamous players regular spoken about in this tragedy: David Ferrie, Clay Shaw, Guy Bannister, etc.

And speaking of tragedy, Mailer’s closing words sum up best the whole sad tale of Lee Harvey Oswald: “If it had not been for Theodore Dreiser and his last great work, one would like to have used ‘An American Tragedy’ as the title for this journey through Oswald’s beleaguered life.”

Grade: B+

Other posts on Oswald’s Tale here and here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two Types

There are two types of people in the world – those that think there are two types of people in the world, and those that don’t.

(An old observation, probably dating back to Thales and his Milesian crew.)


Let’s get nerdier, shall we?

There are 10 types of people in the world – those that understand binary code, and those that don’t.

All right. ’Nuff of this. Something substantial tomorrow ...

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Movies

[minor spoilers …]


Watched two summer flicks over the past week. Sadly, the wife and I don’t go out to see movies much* since the birth of our second little one, otherwise I would have seen both a few months back on the big screen. One film was a little worse than I thought it would be, the other was a whole lot better.

Terminator Salvation is a grim and gritty amble into the near future, where mankind, on the verge of extinction, is fighting with AI machines for mere survival. Everything is dirty and unpleasant. The story, thankfully, is not one of those convoluted time travel plots that are the basis of all the previous Terminator movies. This time the machines focus on attempting to kill Kyle Reese, John Connor’s teen-age father-to-be, in the present year, 2017 or so.

I mean, it was a good movie, worth a see, I guess. I liked the towering roaming robotic machines – they reminded me full-force of the nightmarish tripods from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. There’s also an Arnold cameo, which left me wanting more. The special effects are as good as could be expected; nothing looked phony or cheesy. There is a very interesting new character who has about as much screen time as Christian Bale.

But there is a lot wrong with Salvation. First off, all the Terminator models had starring roles or cameos, except the molten-metal T-1000 (Robert Patrick’s character from T2). I mean, come on! And there is a “new” Terminator model that’s supposed to come as a surprise to the audience and shock us with the cruelty of the machines. It does neither. There’s a ho-hum ubiquitous testosterone chick, those muscled, tough gals that you see ad nauseum in every science fiction movie since Ripley in Aliens. Overall, the film feels long and everyone just takes too much of a beating.

What went wrong most, for me, was casting Christian Bale as John Connor. I know he’s been picking a certain sort of role lately, but he brings such grim joylessness to every character he plays. That anger of his that leaked out last February always seems just under the surface in all his portrayals, and it gets to be kind of a downer. Hey, Chris, you can turn down the intensity level now and then. Real people are not always set to eleven, you know.

A few days later we watched Star Trek, the J. J. Abrams reboot of the franchise. I went into it thinking it was going to stink really bad. Or at least I wouldn’t get it – my wife kept warning me it was aimed at a younger generation. You know, like people half my age and younger. And I was pleasantly surprised: it was quite the entertaining flick.

The movie tells the origin story of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al. From Kirk’s days as a wild young Iowan and Spock’s emotionless rebellion on Vulcan, to their meeting at Starfleet Academy and aboard the Enterprise. But things do not go as buddy-buddy as we’re accustomed to between the captain and his first officer. In fact, Kirk isn’t even supposed to be on board the starship, and Spock comes very close to killing him. More than once. There are some very nasty baddies in an H. R. Giger-inspired spacecraft, CGI monsters, and a beloved place in the Trekkian universe gets surprisingly obliterated.

Yeah, there’s a time travel element to the story that convolutes things a bit, the bad guy leader, Eric Bana, is tad bit under-developed (or too cartoonish), and the CGI monsters are a little too Syfy channel. There are a couple of unorthodox relationships (well, one really) that purists won’t dig. Leonard Nimoy and his dentures make a geriatric cameo. But right from the opening minutes until the movie’s end I was riveted. The ships and the weapons technology were very, very cool.

I really liked it. I may or may not see Terminator Salvation again (it depends on which channel its on in about two years, and what else is on the other channels. But I’d rent Star Trek again, and maybe even pick up the DVD down the road.

Verdict:

Terminator Salvation: C plus
Star Trek: A minus


* We probably averaged 6 movies a year for the first six years together. Then, children came, and, well, you know the rest. Now we see one or two each, usually me with my buddy or my wife with one of her chick friends, while the homebound spouse stays home at watches the little eggs.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Overpaid Stars

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting article at Forbes Online, but I only remembered to blog about it today. As the post title sums up, the magazine was able to calculate a list of the top ten actors who have managed to convince Hollywood execs to pay them much, much more than they’re ultimately worth.

How did they calculate who made the list, you ask?

Simple. First, they only factored in actors and actresses who had three major releases (defined as a movie opening in over 500 theaters) in the past five years. Voice-over work from animated films were not included; we’re talking only live action flicks where their faces are splashed across the big screen. Then, Forbes simply divided the grosses of the films by the salary the actor was paid.

Care to guess the most overpaid actor of the last five years?

Will Ferrell. For every dollar he’s paid, his films gross $3.29.

Contrast this with the man-boy Shia LaBeouf, whose films make $160 for every buck he gets.

I can understand the stumble in Ferrell’s career. I used to be a huge fan. I have Old School, Anchorman, Blades of Glory, and his SNL Best Of on DVD, and up until about two years ago I saw every one of his movies. Didn’t see Land of the Lost (though that would have been a major source of nostalgia for me), and don’t plan to.

Ferrell has two problems, it seems to me. First, and most foremost, he plays the same character in every movie: the bloated, oafish, clueless, loud, out-of-place, doofus who ultimately has a heart of gold. Some roles are played more obnoxious, some more endearing. There’s an excuse to show his fat flab in every movie. Now, I found this funny, but only the first two dozen or so times. Overall, his characterizations are lazy, but since he’s so overpaid, there’s no incentive for him to change. So I’d like to see him stretch a lot more than he’s done in the past. I hope he can do it, ’cause I still enjoy him.

Secondly, he has an inexplicable case of BDS – Bush Derangement Syndrome. Proof is the one-man Broadway show he recently did (or maybe is still doing, I don’t know). C’mon, the man’s out of office and retired. Why alienate 50% of your audience with this nonsense, none of which is truly funny. The imitation is okay (much better than Fred Armisen’s lame and fearful attempt doing Obama), but got tiresome five years ago. Yes, Bush can’t talk in public. Yes, the liberal establishment has successfully branded him as a dummy. But, Will, move on …

All right. The rest of the list:

2. Ewan MacGregor - $3.75
3. Billy Bob Thornton - $4.00
4. Eddie Murphy - $4.43
5. Ice Cube - $4.77
6. Tom Cruise - $7.18
7. Drew Barrymore - $7.43
8. Leonardo DiCaprio - $7.52
9. Samuel L. Jackson - $8.59
10. Jim Carrey - $8.62

Perhaps Obama’s Pay Czar should look into this, no?

Source here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Words I Hate II

In a tangent to my tentative series, “Words I Hate,” I’d like to make this commentary on an increasingly more and more popular new grammatical creation in 21st century America. Let me show you the example I saw a few days ago online:

“How to React When a Child Cuts Their Hair.”

(Yes, the Little One cut her own hair. But that’s a subject for another post.)

You see this most frequently in pop media, be it online or print. I don’t recall seeing it in a published book, certainly not like something by Norman Mailer. Despite his entrenched liberalism, the double Pulitzer winner would not deign to destroy the English language in such a crude, flagrant, and idiotic way to advance an agenda.

See, most of us are now so screwed up about being politically correct that we can’t write the word “him” or “he” when it is grammatically called for.* The result, using “their” in place of “he”, is obviously in error since it does not allow the noun and pronoun to agree in number.

Ideally, traditionally, the sentence above should read –

“How to React When a Child Cuts His Hair.”

Oh the horror! The female gender is left out! Second-class citizenship! A slap in the face! Sexism! Chauvinism!

No, correct grammar.

If the topic of the sentence is something having to do purely with the feminine, then it is fine to substitute “her” instead of using “their.” For example –

“How to React When a Child Loses Her First Barbie Doll.”

(I’m not even going to allow for the possibility that boys having Barbie dolls is normal.)

If using the male pronoun is too stressful for the writer or editor, there’s another way that’s acceptable, if a tad bit awkward-sounding:

“How to React When a Child Cuts His or Her Hair.”

It agrees grammatically because it agrees numerically, see? Just don’t use the word “their.” Oh, and don’t use a hyphenated His/Her. That’s even more awkward, ’cause it does all it can to call attention to itself, like a great aunt or uncle who gets too drunk at your Christmas party and makes a painful spectacle of his/her self. (See, it is awkward!)

But the worst, the absolute worst, the most horrid abomination from the ninety-ninth pit of grammatical hell, the cursed, the anathema, the evil I would never, ever wish upon my most detestable enemy, is –

S/he.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!


* Grammar purists will snicker at my often-used violation of the rule “thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition.” Believe it or not, I do have residual guilt over this, and cringe every time I write such a sentence. But my instinct, my inner critic slash editor, the idealized reader inside me, frets even more over the grammatical gymnastics involved with keeping such a sentence from ending in a preposition. So, I violate the rule, but only to appeal to an inner sense of style, not to advance an ideology.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Spirit of Air


Coral and clear emerald,
And amber from the sea,
Lilac-coloured amethyst,
Chalcedony;
The lovely Spirit of Air
Floats on a cloud and doth ride,
Clad in the beauties of earth
Like a bride.

So doth she haunt me; and words
Tell but a tithe of the tale.
Sings all the sweetness of Spring
Even the nightengale?
Nay, but with echoes she cries
Of the valley of love;
Dews on the thorns at her feet,
And darkness above.


Now, something magical if not mystical, vividly bittersweet and, to me, evocative of worlds long-lost that reside now only in certain great works of literature. Also from de la Mare, also circa 1921.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Wreck


Storm and unconscionable winds once cast
On grinding shingle, masking gap-toothed rock,
This ancient hulk. Rent hull, and broken mast,
She sprawls sand-mounded, of sea birds the mock.
Her sailors, drowned, forgotten, rot in mould,
Or hang in stagnant quiet of the deep –
The brave, the afraid into one silence sold;
Their end a memory fainter than of sleep.
She held good merchandise. She paced in pride
The uncharted paths men trace in ocean’s foam.
Now laps the ripple in her broken side,
And zephyr in tamarisk softly whispers, Home.

The dreamer scans her in the sea-blue air,
And, sipping of contrast, finds the day more fair.


Something visual and visceral, faintly sad and poignant from English poet Walter de la Mare, circa 1921.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Best Quote from Mailer

Best quote so far from Oswald’s Tale, by Norman Mailer, doesn’t seem, at least on the surface, to have anything to do with Oswald:


The essence of magic is to exist in a state of consciousness where past and future seem interchangeable. Classical Hebrew, for example, has only two tenses: There is the present, and then there is another tense which barely distinguishes between past and future. To indicate a past action, it is enough to say, “I went”; yet, to speak of the future, one need only add the word “and” as in, “and I went,” and it becomes equal to “I will go.” A primitive sense of existence is suggested – one that would transgress our modern separation between the real and the imaginary. In such an ancient grammar, yesterday’s events are not seen as facts which have already occurred so much as intimations of the future, that is, omens received from a dream. In that primitive world, the events of yesterday mix in one’s memory with the portents of last night’s dream. To say, therefore, that you have done something which you have not yet done becomes the first and essential step in shaping the future. Out of omens come events. It is as if the future cannot exist without an a priori delineation of it. God conceives of the world, then makes it. The cabalistic sense is that in His act of conceiving the world, God has already made it. (The rest is details!)

(page 569)

This appeals immensely to me. Let me see if I can figure out exactly why.

I think it has something to do with that extremely intimate yet completely foreign nugget of experience called the Now. I’m going to capitalize it to emphasize it as a state of being, or I should write, Being. The Now. Intellectually, I know that there is no such thing as a past or a future. Or at least I can read it on a piece of paper and understand the thought behind it. Or, rather, I can understand the sentence as written, but I have a more difficult time fully comprehending the underlying fact that there may not be a past or a future.

See, I even had to insert that conditional word “may” in that last sentence.

While Mailer is not talking about the Now and the non-existence of past and future, he’s strolling and whistling about in the same neighborhood. I think that what he’s talking about is mysticism, pure and undistilled. After all, is not the Self-described name of God, I AM WHO AM? In other words, “I am pure existence.” “I am the present moment.” “I am the Now.”

He mentions that the past and the future are interchangeable (in magic – but I’m thinking more of mysticism, which I think is what he’s thinking of, too). That is because the past and the future are rooted in the present. What is the past? Our subjective memories, individual and collective. What is the future? The projection of our thoughts (hopes, fears, expectations, etc) that may or may not come to existence, be it seconds or years from Now. Simplistic definitions, but accurate, I believe. Therefore, the past and the future do not exist, at least in the same form as the Now exists.

God is pure Now. He says so Himself. This, I think, is the reason for His omnipotence. (I think.) For if nothing is impossible to you in the Now, including the ability to change the past and mold unchangeably the future, you are all-powerful.

Mystics (or magicians) somehow have the ability, or are granted the grace, the gift, of “participating” in this pure Now. Consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, they are then allowed to influence the past or the future, even if only to “read” either.

That’s what I think this paragraph is about. In the context of Oswald, it’s about his uncanny ability, or fate, to show up at the vortex of every government agency and every fringe group, international as well as domestic, that had the means and the desire to do away with an American president. Even if you read only a little bit about this strange young man’s life, you can’t help but notice it. Somehow, Oswald was “plugged” into something greater than himself. I don’t think Mailer’s serious about this. More like he’s just shrugging his shoulders as if to say, what the hell else can be the explanation?

As a side note, I have always been interested in languages. When you read philosophy you see a lot of how languages influence reality and vice versa. There are a whole bunch of theories. Unfortunately, philosophers generally are completely inept using language to explain their ideas, especially their ideas about language. I have yet to read something clear and concise about the relationship of language to reality, but intuitively I feel there’s something very heavy there. I know nothing of Classical Hebrew, but if what Mailer writes is true, is that not the coolest thing you’ve ever heard?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dancing Cat




This is exactly why I am not allowed to get a cat for a pet here at home.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Little Astronomer

I’m going through a slight astronomy phase of late, partially because the Little One, age 5, is so involved with the Moon and Jupiter. She never fails to alert me to the Moon’s presence when we’re driving, no matter what time of night or day it happens to be. And, of course, we’ve been following Jupiter’s arc in the low southern sky, which we have a good view from the backyard, over the past two months.

In fact, Jupiter is her favorite planet. So I was reading through The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Universe last night as a reward for all the hard work we did yesterday (putting up the fake tree, decorating the house, grocery shopping and five loads of laundry). She pops down on the floor next to me and I turn to the chapter on our largest planet and begin the lesson.

Now, we’ve been studying astronomy since the summer. She has a really awesome pack of flash cards just on the subject. After only two or three times using them, she can identify all nine planets* from their pictures. She knows a handful of constellations (one of which she calls the Big Diaper) and can name the Eagle and Horsehead Nebulae by sight. It amazes me. But then again, like all very young children, her mind’s a sponge for all sorts of knowledge and her cerebral retrieval system is flawless. She still rattles off Greek words, months and months since she last spent a full day with her Greek sitter.

The Little Astronomer drew a picture of the solar system for me on construction paper in red marker. Jupiter is striped and has its red spot. Saturn has its rings, the Sun has its rays. Mars is colored in with the red marker. There’s a fifth planet with vertical stripes. Not sure what that one is supposed to be. Probably my wife’s fashion sense genes surfacing in the Little One.

Here it is:



We’re working on the Galilean satellites: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and their characteristics. By the way, they’ll be celebrating their 400th anniversary of discovery by Galileo in a month; I’ll have a big post on that. I also recited some random facts, which she seemed to be into, as long as I didn’t push it. The zones and belts, the wind speeds, how long the Great Red Spot’s been wreaking havoc.

Then, a couple of pages later, in the Human Spaceflight section of the book, a small box on Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space nearly fifty years ago. I look over to the Little One, who’s now forgotten about me and my Illustrated Encyclopedia, now playing with Patch near the Christmas tree, and I wonder. I wonder what she’ll be doing in twenty-five or thirty years. Perhaps she’ll spend a Christmas then in the Jovian system, preparing for the first manned landing on the frozen seas of Europa …


* I said it before and I’ll say it again. In our house, Pluto is and always will be a planet!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Words I Hate

[Perhaps a recurring series of posts as I come across such words …]


Humankind


Look. It’s “mankind” or “humanity.” Humankind? Never heard of the word until two or three years ago. Now I see it all the time. Just noticed it in Mailer’s book, which was published in 1995, so just how long has this ugly morpheme been about? (I know, I know, since the rise of feminism sometime in the sixties …)

I prefer “mankind.” It’s poetic. It conveys power, strength, and has the full force of tradition behind it. Smart women know that when they read the word “mankind” their gender is inherently included, because English has no neuter pronouns and nouns. It’s also subversive, nowadays, to use “mankind” – college professors go apoplectic over sighting the word “mankind”; most fear loss of tenure should it mistakenly slip into their writing.

“Humanity” is good for certain contexts. It has a scientific beauty to it, I will admit. There is also a transcendental element: our “humanity”, which makes us special, gives us that indefinable essence that separates us from all else of creation. (When referring to that lesser, base aspect of ourselves, we usually use the term “human nature” instead of “humanity”.)

So, it’s mankind or humanity. Humankind is just stupid and reeks of ideology and agenda.

...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shpahtah!

Watched half of the movie 300 with the wife late last night. We saw it when it came out on DVD a few years back and haven’t seen it since. The movie is very impressive. The colors are washed out of the film and the resulting cinematography is highly surreal, evoking almost a dreamscape of what we idealize ancient Greece to be. Or, more specifically, Sparta of old.

The women are all beautiful, runway-figured models with tussled hair pinned up. Even the Queen Mother looks like she just finished a Victoria’s Secret shoot. The men all promenade about in capes and some article of clothing halfway between a diaper and a thong. There are more six-packs present than at Giants Stadium parking lot on Sunday. Whether they’re CGI or real, the actors doubtlessly put in more than the requisite amount of time at the gym. Again, all this physical perfection is on display to show us an idealized version of what 21st century Hollywood thinks of the word “Sparta.”

There’s one scene in particular I want to talk about here; it takes place about a half-hour into the film. As King Leonidas is preparing for the oncoming Persian onslaught, a deformed man approaches him, offering his services and his life to the Spartan ruler. The cripple thrusts and jabs with a spear, insect-like and awkward in his ill-fitting helmet and shield. Leonidas at first looks honored at such devotion, but quickly and coldly turns him down. Ever practical, he explains to the malformed would-be warrior that the man could only be a weak link in the phalanx, and would not be up to the task of protecting the warrior to his right and the one to his left. Then Leonidas dismisses him.

That scene intrigued me.

As I saw the interchange unfold between the two, I thought for certain Leonidas would show pity on the man and allow him to fight, figuring, at the very least and most practical, he’d be able to use another body. After all, the Spartans were outnumbered by the advancing Persians by at least a factor of a hundred. Then, after the first shake of the king’s head in refusal, I figured he’d use him in some other fashion: a scout (the crippled man had a crablike way of scurrying up and down mountain passes), or at least a water-bearer. But no. No mercy from Leonidas. In no way would he accept this man’s offer of himself to his king.

I stopped watching the film in front of me as I pondered Leonidas. Inevitably, as I always do in these situations, I compared his outlook, his worldview, with the prevalent one in our society and culture today. Spartans and 21st century Americans are very far apart on the continuum of … courage? Manliness? Military prowess? I’m not sure what the over-encompassing term I was trying to grasp. It’s a concept that includes all the aforementioned, but also conveys a mindset that prides itself in action, purpose, accomplishment of any task, no matter how difficult, urgent, or life-threatening. This crippled man does not fit into Leonidas’s worldview, and thus, the king cannot use this man.

If I was the king, I would have used him. I would want the loyalty this man offered. There would surely be a task for this man to perform. After all, did not God create us all with a purpose, with talents to accomplish a specific work? But the Spartans did not believe in the God I do. Mercy is a concept completely alien to them. They do not give it, nor did they expect it. We can rightly view our contemporary society as “better,” simply because we conform to those laws given to us from Mount Sinai, and those spoken to us for three years by a man in robes who walked about the regions of Galilee and Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But such laws (and life-giving examples) were completely foreign to Sparta

Still, these thoughts did not fully satisfy me. Then I hit upon the real fascination. It was Leonidas’s unbending and unswerving devotion to what he believes in. There is no wishy-washiness in his thinking or acting. There is no questioning. Yes, he questions some of the seemingly arbitrary laws he must obey as king of Sparta, but his loyalty to the Spartan worldview is inflexible. A line from Hesse’s Siddharta came to mind, where Siddharta states matter-of-factly that as a stone falls to the bottom of a pond, that is how he attains his goal. It is the very definition of commitment, a definition that almost forces us to use another word when we talk about commitment in terms of our culture.

I found that simple devotion completely and absolutely amazing.

Which society will ultimately have a greater long-term impact on mankind, Sparta or 21st century America, I cannot say. How will scholars in the year 3500 AD view both? Who can tell. It’s popular among certain circles nowadays to view America in decline, as a kind of parallel to what Rome went through in the fifth century after Christ. Yes, there are vague similarities, but the scales seem all wrong to me. I do tend to think we’re in decline, but it is not irreversible, nor has permanent damage been done. And yet I have to temper these thoughts because, in reading about Oswald in Mailer’s book, I have learned that at least as far back as the early 1960s this view of decline has been in fashion. And an even further check is what I learned from one of Medved’s books, posted about here.



As a side note, I got up early today, made a to-do list, and hopped into the shower to start the day. After ten minutes, I turned the faucet to icy cold, braced myself, felt my pulse quicken and my skin tighten against the freezing water. I thought of yelling, “Shpartah!” at the top of my lungs, but my 21st century American mindset kept me firmly grounded in reality.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Stats

Just had my 10,000th page view today. A milestone.

I’ve been blogging since mid-March 2008, about 21 months. A post a day, with the exception of 2 weeks I took off last Christmas and 6 weeks I took off due to my hospitalization. So really, about 19 months.

569 posts, which fits the post-a-day goal.

I currently get an average of twelve visits a day, pretty good since I know only six people who regularly stop by. I’ve gotten visitors from as far away as Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Brazil, Great Britain, Italy. Most come by from Google keyword searches. My liberal friend who posted yesterday came from obama + jobs + ideas + romney.

5368 visits. Not bad. Not bad at all for someone who does this with absolutely no marketing whatsoever, nor with an eye to turn a buck. Not bad for someone who didn’t expect anyone to be reading his blog. No, I just started hopper to help me get back into the habit of daily writing, regardless of topic.

One thing I would wish for is more commenting. If you agree with me, say so! If not, tell me why! It only takes but a minute. Be anonymous if you want. Let me and my dozen daily visitors know what’s on your mind. I know the political posts seem to get the most activity, but that’s not where my heart lies. I’d like to see more comments on my thoughts about religion, science, the books I read (maybe you, too) as well as the movies I watch (more likely you, too).

So, heartfelt thanks to all who spend a few minutes each day to stop by and read my ramblings.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jobs Summit III

Best quote I’ve read about this whole “Jobs Summit” nonsense, over at National Review’s The Corner:

Obama’s Jobs Summit will fail because “it doesn’t take a village to create a new job. It takes a businessman trying to make another buck.”

So to reiterate basic ideas that any economic idiot like myself can understand:

To create jobs …

(1) Cut taxes! Cut them for businesses and cut them for individuals! Cut ’em and watch government revenues actually rise!

(2) Drop the health care overhaul nonsense! Preferably for good, but if you absolutely have to ram some form of socialism down our throats, wait till the economy is growing at least 5% per quarter and employment drops down to around 5%.

That’s it! That’s all that has to be done! Oh no, wait, there’s one more thing:

(3) You love making speeches. All right. Immediately after you cut taxes and “postpone” health care “reform” via executive order, go on primetime teevee and make a speech about it. Then, go on ABC NBC CBS CNN PBS MSNBC, your friendly turf, and then FOX, and announce these new efforts. Then, sit down and yak with the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, etc, etc, etc, and convince us you mean it. Heck, go on a traveling tour of all 57 states and speak as much as possible to everybody with a camera or a microphone how you want a robust, vibrant, growing, capitalistic business economy.

Now I ask with all sincerity: How can this fail???

That’s my take. And you don’t have to waste $10 million or whatever on a phony Jobs Summit to hear it.

One last item: tune in to Limbaugh’s show today, if you can, for some media balance. He’s having only unemployed people, people like myself, call in with their ideas on how to “create jobs.”

Or you can go here to see Mitt Romney’s 10-Point plan to lift the economy. (Obviously, it’s a lot more developed and in-depth than my Jobs Creation for Dummies program …)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Another Parable

Billy was bouncing a ball off his garage door one summer day when an older boy walked up to him.

“My name’s Sam,” he said. “Do you know where this kid Al lives?”

Sure, Billy knew. Al was his next-door neighbor. He didn’t particularly like Al. Al was a bully, and Billy was all too frequently the object of Al’s unwanted attention.

So he pointed out where Al lived. “Why do you want to know?” he asked.

“Al threw a rock through my living room window and ran away,” Sam explained.

Billy nodded. “He’s always breaking windows. He broke my windows a couple of times.” Sam waited with Billy until he saw Al come home from school.

“Hey you!” Sam yelled. “My new friend Billy just told me where you live. Now I’m going to beat you up for breaking my window!”

Al glared at Billy, then looked fearfully at Sam.

“Hold him, Billy!” Sam cried out.

Billy did, without thinking, or rather, thinking he had no choice. It was over quickly. Al ran to his property, crying and bloody. Then he just stood there, on his porch, glaring at Billy and Sam. But mostly at Billy.

Sam brushed himself off. He glanced at his watch, then said, loud enough for all of them to hear, “Well, Billy, thanks for helping me! I’m going to stay for an hour and a half, just to make sure Al doesn’t act up again. Ya hear that, Al! You better not try anything on my friend Billy! For at least an hour and a half! Then I’m leaving, ya hear!”

Al smiled and clenched his fists.

Sam turned to Billy and said, “Okay, little guy. My parents want me to come home, but I’ll show you how to throw a punch. You know, just in case that big thug next door decides to make trouble again.”

Billy turned pale. Secretly, he decided not to listen to Sam. Actually, as soon as an hour and a half went by, he was going to go to Al, first, and tell him he’d do anything the big bully wanted him to do. In fact, he’d even help Al break more of Sam’s windows, if that’s what he wanted.

But all he could really think about was the whuppin’ he was gonna get in a little over ninety minutes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Guitar Work


A lot on my plate today, so, in the interest of always posting something on every single day, I offer you the pleasant diversion:

What’s LE playing on his guitar nowadays?

In my heyday of guitar playing, oh, say, about 1986-1996, I had, at various times, a 1969 Gibson SG, a then-brand-new Les Paul and Stratocaster, a Washburn 12-string acoustic, and a couple of crappy basses. At shows and rehearsals my stack consisted of a Rockman pre-amp Alessis power-amp rack through a Marshall cabinet. At home I fiddled around on a Roland Jazz Chorus amp or tiny Marshall or Peavey practice amps. I had a half-dozen foot pedals – distortion and fuzz boxes, delays, flangers, choruses and even wore through two wah-wah pedals.

Since then, everything has been either sold, given away, or stolen.

My stepdad bought me an acoustic guitar, quite out of the blue, three years ago. Now it sits in a corner of our centrally-located dining room, and every now and then when I walk by I pick it up and strum or pick something.

I do this about twenty-five times a day, impromptu solo jam sessions lasting anywhere from thirty seconds to five minutes.

So, what am I playing?

Aside from tunes from my blues album, these songs, I guess:

Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin
Nobody’s Fault But Mine, by Led Zeppelin
Life of Illusion, by Joe Walsh
Goodbye Blue Sky, by Pink Floyd
All Tore Down, by Johnny Winter
My Baby, by Pete Townshend
Jessica, by The Allman Brothers
One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, by George Thorogood
The Core, by Eric Clapton

I also like playing Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ by the Rolling Stones (even though I normally can’t stand the Stones, I think that song is the baddddddest song attitudinally you could ever play). But that’s in a tricky tuning so it’s a big to-do just to satisfy an itch.

There’s also a big book o’ classical ditties complete with accompanying CD down in the basement, but I haven’t really spent much dedicated time to it. I want to, though. I think the wife and kidlets are starting to get sick of Led Zeppelin, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, et. al., so perhaps a little Tárrega and Sor might be called for in the near future.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Recap


My whole family had an extremely relaxing holiday weekend at my parent’s house out in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania. How relaxing? Well, let’s just say I woke up bright and early this morning, went down to the basement office, and balanced ten days of banking activity and paid off a half dozen bills, all while whistling Christmas carols.

Read lots and lots: 240 pages of Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku; 85 pages of A Clash of Kings; 150 pages of Oswald’s Tale. I also skimmed through a book on diet and nutrition, and was able to experiment with what I put into my body over the next three days. Basic kernel of knowledge gained: Sugar is my enemy. Saps energy and leads directly to a restless night’s sleep. Also, upon recommendation, I switched around the time of day I take my supplements and as a result found mucho more mojo during my waking hours.

Thanksgiving dinner was delicious, as it always is. My wife came up with a killer sweet potato recipe. Pumpkin pie, which I can live on, followed. After the kiddies went down we indulged in a Thanksgiving Night family tradition: Watching Clark and Cousin Eddie in Christmas Vacation. Ah. Now, the Christmas season is here!

As I blogged about a few days’ back, we went shopping on Friday and I snagged a quartet of cool SF books. The girls found tons and tons of discounted clothes and Christmas presents. I took my Little One out for a lemonade and a slice of pizza to a restaurant that had a fascinating fish tank. Saturday my wife and mother went back out. The wife actually bought a pair of used cowboy boots, which kinda grossed me out. Not only the fact that they were used, but the fact that I never in a million years would expect to see her wearing a pair. Oh well. To each her own.

Watched some football games, some miscellaneous shows. I awoke early on Friday and went for a nature walk. Very solitary and lonely, but I compensated with a feeling of surging energy. The next day I awoke even earlier, and, being too windy, tiptoed down to the refinished basement and watched a couple of weird movies (one was a strange, overly-arty Electra Glide in Blue) waiting for the others to wake up. We all had tacos Saturday night. Later, the wife and I watched Sinatra in a 1980 concert.

One morning we went to the golf club my parents belong to for buffet breakfast, and guess who showed up? Santa! Got a lot of cute pictures with the little ones. Patch wasn’t buying the whole thing, but my older one, the original Little One, was brave enough to sit on his lap and tell him a couple of toys she wanted. Later, she made a stained-glass gingerbread man tree ornament before we left for home.

Sunday afternoon, while surfing on their PC, I came across the sad fact of the death of Robert Holdstock. Who was he? He was a British science fiction and fantasy writer, active since the mid-70s. When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Napa Valley in April of 2001, in our room at our deluxe resort, on a shelf, sat one of Holdstock’s most famous book, the award-winning Mythago Wood. It was hardcover, with fantastical illustrations between its covers. I was taken with it, but in all the excitement could not really read it. So I put it on my list, and I found it at a used book store in September of 2007. Its behind me right now, dutifully standing on line, ready to be read. Mr. Holdstock died, tragically, of all things, of an e coli infection. Think I’ll move that paperback up in the reading rotation.

Anyway, what great holiday R&R! I’m now looking forward to Christmas week, when the family motors down to South Carolina to spend some time with my wife’s parents.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hell on Earth

Was the Soviet Union.

From Oswald's Tale (1995), by Norman Mailer, page 333:


"... he began by speaking of his parents:

Very important people, he would say. He waved a finger in warning. Let nothing in the air be ready to disagree! Very important people, he repeated, but all the same, obedient! When they received their big Soviet encyclopedia and an order followed years later to cut out certain pages because they were now historically incorrect, his father obeyed. Yuri's parents were not average people, but still, they were afraid. For example, his father kept a private diary, yet even his own pages were not truthful ..."


Not the most egregious example, I am aware, but still, could you even imagine living in such a society? Where your innermost thoughts were managed in such a manner? Where a knock at the door could bring intense, visceral fear: did I keep my official encyclopedia updated properly? Do I have in my possession any books that the government deems unacceptable? Did I say anything to anybody - even a family member - that I am not allowed to say? Does my own private journal hold anything incriminating to me?

I normally shun dystopian novels but I have read my fair share over the years. This just struck a deep chord within me, because, quite likely, had I the cosmic misfortune to have been born into such a society no doubt it would only be a matter of time before I was labeled an Enemy of the People. All because of my curiosity and my choice of reading material. What a horrible, hellish time and place to live.

Sure, there were and are other hells on Earth (when has there ever not been?), but we must be ever vigilant. Do I think that such a thing as hell on earth could happen here, in the United States of America? Probably not, but I can not say unequivocally and with certainty that it will not. I do believe there are elements in our society that are working towards such an evil goal. And because of that we must never let our guard down.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Deserted Village

...


These were thy charms sweet village: sports like these

With sweet succession, taught even toil to please:

These round thy bowers their chearful influence shed,

These were thy charms - But all these charms are fled.




Above lines struck me as exceptionally sad; I don't know why exactly.

From The Deserted Village (1770) by Oliver Goldsmith

...



While searching for an appropriate representation of The Deserted Village I came across this jpeg. I had to share it with you. It strikes not so much a sad, mournful tone with me, as a nightmarish one. Perhaps if we saw it under a blue sky, aware of the barren fields surrounding it and pale mountains in the distance; that might be more in keeping with my feelings about Goldsmith's poem (which I've printed out but do not have the energy and focus to go through at the moment). Still, I find the black-and-white picture quite unsettling and almost hypnotic. More a set of toothless skulls lined up under the baleful eye of something terrible, something cyclopedean that sees you. More than a few horrifying short story ideas can erupt from the psyche after long and thoughtful study of this image ...

...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Purchases

What do these four paragraphs have in common?


He awoke and did not know where he was.

‘Everybody all set?’ Young Ross Jenkins glanced nervously at his two chums. ‘How about your camera, Art? You sure you got the lens cover off this time?’

It is written in the Eternal Scripture that one should come to whom the Tower would yield her secret. For untold billions of years hath the Tower guarded her Mystery, aye, since that the Children of Aea set forth from this Galaxy and returned to that place from whence they came in the Beginning, even to that strange region called The Fire Mist which lieth beyond the Universe of Stars.

Once upon a time there was a sane scientist who had an ugly daughter.


Give up?

They are the opening paragraphs of four paperback SF books I bought today while the whole family did their Black Friday shopping out here in PA.

The first is from The Stone God Awakes, by Philip Jose Farmer, a really, really talented writer who should be more famous than he is. Meaning, outside of SF circles. About a scientist who is “accidentally petrified” and awakes a few million years later on a completely alien Earth. This’ll be the fourth book of his, I think, that I will have read. So far, each one gets better than the previous. I hope the trend continues.

Any guess on the second paragraph? That word chum should be a huge clue. You know it’s from the Golden Age of SF, probably 1950 or earlier, so it’s got to be, well, any educated guess would have to name Heinlein. And that guess would be right. Rocket Ship Galileo, though aimed at a “juvenile” audience, should be a quick, fun read, and it’s one that I don’t recall getting to when I was a juvenile. Had a great time reading his similar Red Planet, which I read twice three years ago as a writer’s exercise type thing.

The next paragraph, about Eternal Scriptures and Fire Mists, is a guilty pleasure. Something so bad that it’s gotta be good: The Tower at the Edge of Time by Lin Carter. He was a writer whose heydey was in the 50s through the 70s, specializing in those short, “exotic” fantasy paperback tales. You know, some Conan-like dude with a scantily clad babe splashed upon the cover. My dad had a couple of these books I read as a kid, and about ten years ago I finally found one in a used book store. Kinda like an Arabic Tolkien, but not as good as that might sound. Still, should be a quick, fun, guilty read.

The last comes from the book that I’m most excited to read. It’s called Atoms and Evil and is a short-story collection by Robert Bloch, the guy who wrote the book Alfred Hitchcock snatched up and filmed called Psycho. Don’t know much about it but it looks like some creepy mesh of horror and SF. Very, very interesting …

Since I’m hooked on these George R. R. Martin epics, and each is a thousand pages long (I’m 300 pages in to the second one of four written to date), I think I’ll start these paperbacks once I finish Mailer’s book. So, lotsa reviews in the near future.

We might go back in to town (a different one, that is) tomorrow. Towns are like a half-hour driving distance from each other around here. If so, well, I may be forced to scope out another book store. Never know what treasures may be found …

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope you all have a wonderful day and enjoy your feastings. I'm looking forward to some varied reading (what else is new) while the kidlets run and crash all around here at my parents house in the sticks of northeastern PA.

Oh, and for your enjoyment if you should be so inclined, one of the best scenes from the greatest Thanksgiving movie, Planes Trains and Automobiles. (Seriously - check out the subtle changes of emotion in John Candy's expressions throughout ...)




And if I still have your attention, the same scene, rendered by Peter and Lois Griffin:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Kindred Spirits

The nympholepts of old were curious and unhappy beings who, while carelessly strolling amidst sylvan shades, caught a hasty glimpse of some spirit of the woods, and were doomed ever afterwards to spend their lives in fruitlessly searching after it. The race of Fanatics are somewhat akin to these restless seekers. There is a wildness and excessive extravagance in their notions and actions which separates them from the calm followers of Truth, and leads them into strange courses and curious beliefs. How far the sacred fire of enthusiasm may be separated from the fierce heat of fanaticism we need not now inquire, nor whether a spark of the latter has not shone brilliantly in many a noble soul and produced brave deeds and acts of piety and self-sacrifice. Those whose fate is here recorded were far removed from such noble characters; their fanaticism was akin to madness, and many of them were fitter for an asylum rather than a gaol, which was usually their destination.

From Books Fatal to their Authors, by P. H. Ditchfield, c. 1894.


What an awesome concept for a book! I have this on a CD and I’ve never read it, but I’m going to bring it with me over the weekend to peruse. Might be something of interest – ghoulish interest, perhaps – with this topic. I mean, can you think of anyone who was killed by a book he wrote? Off the top of my head I can recall one, Tyndale maybe, who translated the Bible into English vernacular and was burned at the stake a short while later. I think. But Ditchfield’s book literally talks about over a hundred writers subdivided into various fields, such as religion, philosophy, politics, even science.

I can’t tell you how many strange and usually pointless books I read, mostly in part but sometimes in full, because I’ve “caught a hasty glimpse of some spirit of the woods.” I think it began when I was young, in the 1970s, becoming enraptured with science fiction and just plain science books (yes, and pseudoscience). My mother was a librarian back then, and some of my fondest memories are camping out in the 001 section of the library. Reading Tolkien at the cusp of manhood while my parents split up was enormously influential and formative. And, of course, slowly traveling through the Bible from Genesis 1 straight through to Revelation 22, beginning in a cold February and culminating on Easter, 1992, was a genuine spiritual, almost “mystical” experience for me.

But it left me dry. Cursed now, forever, to seek out what it was that I was allowed to see. I conservatively estimate close to 500 books in those near-20 years, but nothing satisfied me, though some have come close. I am even thinking the sacrilegious thought that perhaps what I am seeking cannot be found in a book. But that is too radical a thought for me to handle right now.

Sorry for being somewhat cryptic; this is a rather personal subject.

More on this man Ditchfield’s book in the days to come. Also, more from my friend, Michio Kaku, and his fascinating Physics of the Impossible.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nothing of Note

Almost missed posting something today. Not that today was worthy of anything to post.

Nothing learned. Nothing read. Nothing experienced. Nothing gained. Nothing of note.

It started quite early and never let up. Got up at 6:15, unable to get back to sleep. Went to the basement to write but had block. Little ones up, fed them. Ran to the post office to pay a late bill. Dressed the girls, walked them to school. Got back, ate, fed Patch, put Patch down, showered, cleaned, made lists. Got the Little One from school. Disciplined the Little One for not listening: no TV. Fed Patch, out on the road doing errands: buy a gift, buy diapers, home to feed, clean, feed, clean, feed, and clean. And do some laundry. And later some packing.

One thing after the other. One step forward, two steps back. Occasionally, two steps forward and only one step back. Usually X step(s) forward and X step(s) back. Overall, after fifteen hours awake, I’m about a step, step-and-a-half ahead.

Tired and uninspired. Tomorrow, though, I hope to write something interesting. This is an earnest hope. And I earnestly hope you’ll find it interesting. What it is, I don’t know, yet. But I’ll think of something overnight.

Big crunch tomorrow. Wife is swamped – and I mean, swamped – with last-minute work. I’m too boneheaded to help her out effectively. Then we head to my parents in PA for the long Thanksgiving weekend. They have a computer out there, so I’ll post stuff while we’re off for some serious R&R as a family. Blessed relief. We all need it.

By the way, lots of strange songs going through my mind all day: “O Holy Night,” sung by Cartman of South Park; the Three’s Company song, “Come and Knock on Our Door,” complete with wah-wah pedal intro; the Super-Readers super soulful theme song (it’s a kids show); “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” People giving me lots of quizzical looks, especially my children. Oh well. I chalk it up to … nothing of note.