Sunday, May 31, 2009

When Worlds Collide

[Possible mini-spoilers ...]

When Worlds Collide

© 1933 by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

I can’t imagine a more difficult set-up to write about. Face it, the destruction of the Earth and the near-total sum of all its inhabitants, intelligent and sentient as well as all the lesser members of the biosphere, the annihilation of the incredible beauty of the natural world – Niagara Falls, the Himalayas, the deserts, the ice-blocked oceans, the Grand Canyon to name only a few – as well as the Beauty created by man himself – the pyramids, Jerusalem, all the treasures in the Louvre and all the museums and libraries of the world containing all the histories and biographies and great discoveries and thoughts of Man – this destruction is an existential crisis of the ultimate degree, for after it is gone, after it is obliterated in cosmic cataclysm, there’s absolutely nothing left to show even the un-guaranteed existence of other species that We Were Here and Did This.

What would you do if you had privileged information that the earth would be destroyed in a collision with a random stellar object just happening to be passing by in a year or so? Don’t laugh – there are asteroids called Near Earth Objects, grouped into three broad families based on their orbital radii, which regularly cross Earth’s path and do pose the potential of danger. Certainly not of complete disintegration as threatened in this novel, but definitely of a catastrophe comparable to that which eliminated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. There is even an international arrangement called Spaceguard which is tasked with cataloguing all such objects in an effort to have plenty of warning should such a collision seem immanent.

So, now, seriously, what would you do? Well, there’s not much you or I can do. Wylie and Balmer don’t focus on the ordinary man, for the simple reason that in such a terrifying situation there’s not much the powerless can do. At first society is maintained at the butt of a gun, but soon it all breaks down. What happens in Hindu India unnerved me in its finality. Back home not every person, but large segments of the populace shed their humanity, roaming in gangs, pillaging, murdering. While not a morally preferable choice, it’s an expected one, given man’s fallen nature. Our heroes must cope with the self-destructive rage of a humanity that is under a death sentence.

But what would you do if you did have power? There is the story. A group of top scientists, in America, at least, formulate a plan and put the bestest and brightest men and women to work. It seems two objects are heading Earthway: Bronson Alpha, a Neptune-sized gas ball whose gravitational tug will destroy our world on its second pass, four or five months after destroying our moon on the first go round. But this invader has a companion: an earth-like class M planet which might – just maybe! – be able to sustain human life once its orbit round the sun, where Earth’s once was, is stabilized. So a thousand young, courageous, brilliant and fertile scientists of both sexes roll up their sleeves and get to work building a Space Ark.

The science and mechanics of it sound hokey and unsound to me, but this was written in 1933, so I guess it was plausible back then given what they knew at the time. I thought the program details to build a ship and launch it was fascinating. Even more so the inevitable “there’s only room for a hundred people, and there’s a thousand of us working on it” dilemma. How its resolved as well as the answer to the question of “how do you rebuild civilization, and what do you bring with you, given limited space” was compelling and intriguing. For instance, the head egghead stuffs books in between the ship’s dual hull to act as insulation as well as maintaining the continuity of human thought on Bronson Beta.

It showed its age in a couple of places (“he’s a good egg!” “the ship’s propulsion will harness the energy of the atom!”) but that’s part of its charm. The years have turned this book from a doomsday scenario to a tale of alternative history. And that’s how you gotta read it to fully enjoy it. The unabashed religious expression; a social strata where men were men and women were women, with well-defined and established roles; the slang; the weird spellings, such as “cañon” for “canyon”; saying someone was “gay” with absolutely no sexual-socio-political connotations – you just gotta read it with those things in the back of your mind. And you know what? It kinda works.

How does it compare to the 1951 movie of the same name? Hmmm. I liked the book better, I think, but only slightly. There is a fairly blunt personal conflict between the two protagonists and the dame scientist they both are keen on that’s not done as well in the book, and there’s the conflict with the wealthy industrialist who bankrolls the Space Ark project just so long as he’s allotted a spot in the passenger compartment that’s not in the book at all. So it’s almost two different takes on the same story, both of which I’d give a solid B. Nothing earth-shattering, pun possibly intended, but a good read or a good watch that will keep you involved throughout its duration.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tolkien Lite

Spent some time the past couple of days starting to read Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara. It’s the first entry of a possibly endless series of something like seventeen or eighteen eight-hundred page books. I got three chapters in – fifty-seven pages to be exact – before I put the book down.

It’s basically Tolkien lite.

I remember a buddy of mine in high school trying to foist the book on me as the next-greatest-thing, but something just didn’t gel with me. It sat on my bookshelf over two decades ago, for as long as I can remember, unopened. The title sounded silly; the backpage teasers seemed derivative; the artwork looked a bit goofy if I recall correctly. A month ago I found it in a book store the other day and bought it for a few bucks. Hey, I have an open mind when it comes to lit, and I’m always on the look-out for a world to escape to, though I know nothing can full well compare to Middle Earth.

But Brooks tries awfully hard.

How is this Tolkien lite? Well, for starters, every person or place in Shannara has a counterpart in the Lord of the Rings. Obviously I don’t know how far into the series this phenomena continues (the dude’s written six times as much as J. R. R., so I should hope it eventually turns original at some point), but I found this copying-substitution to be distracting, preventing me from falling into the storyline.

For any of you in the know, here’s what I found:

Shea Ohmsford = Frodo Baggins
Flick Ohmsford = Samwise Gamgee
Allanon = Gandalf
The Druids = The Wizards (Istari)
Balinor = Strider / Aragorn
The Vale = The Shire
Culhaven = Rivendell
Warlock Lord = Sauron
The shapeless black creatures = the Nazgül
Skull Mountain = Mount Doom

And of course Brooks’ world is populated with Elves, Dwarves, and Trolls, with Trolls seeming to fill the role the Orcs played in LotR. Shea and Flick must flee the Vale (Shea wants to leave by himself, but Flick is fiercely loyal and insists on traveling by his side) because the Warlock Lord is hunting for him (however, because he is the last in a kingly lineage, not because he has the One Ring of Power). Alannon reveals this to the brothers, but cannot help them because of other urgent matters, so he sends Aragorn – I mean, Balinor, to protect and guide them.

It’s the freakin’ whole plot of The Fellowship of the Ring, written just slightly different to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits from the Tolkien estate.

I put the book down, spent the rest of the day doing yardwork and cleaning out my garage for the first time in nearly four years. I’m now awfully achy, so I think I’ll soak in a nice hot tub reading some H. P. Lovecraft.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Last King of Scotland

Quick quiz – who won Best Actor Oscar two years ago? 2007. Quick!

Give up?

Forest Whitaker.

He’s the big, gentle actor best known in my circles as one of the hunters in the decent SF flick Species – he was an “empath” – but general audiences may know him from such diverse roles as those in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bird, Platoon, and The Crying Game. Normally he’s soft-spoken and gives off a relaxed, peaceful vibe. He’s also obviously extremely well-ranged in his acting spectrum. Just how so is proved in his chameleonic role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, a magnetic, charming, and very, very frightening portrayal that earned him the well-deserved Award.

I didn’t know much about the dictator, recalling only those things I heard peripherally growing up in the late-70s. Cannibalism, I think, plus lots of people indiscriminately butchered in a faraway land. I was not even aware that this evil man lived on past his overthrowing, being somewhat surprised to hear that he died in 2003 after years of exile in – you guessed it! – the land our allies, Saudi Arabia, a land flowing with oil and extremism.

But I read mucho good things about the movie, so I decided to check it out. It follows the path of a youthful and idealistic Scottish doctor who decides, quite randomly, to go to Uganda to ply his skills and save the world (and more likely to escape his overbearing father). He arrives in the hot and sweaty equatorial country at the beginning of the coup that brings Idi Amin to power. He, like we, very, very quickly become enthralled and hypnotized by the cult of personality that is Amin. A chance meeting where he heals the injured General’s arm draws our hero deeper and deeper into Amin’s graces, eventually becoming a “trusted” advisor. The young doctor finds out too late that it is impossible to extricate himself unscathed from the evil he has willingly wallowed among, a slumbering fly spun methodically into a cocoon by a black widow.

Forest Whitaker is jaw-dropping phenomenal as the dictator. Charming, psychotic, mercurial, imbalanced, persuassive and powerful. We’ve seem them before – Hitler and the upper-echelon Nazi aristocracy, Stalin, Mao, Minh, Hussein, even home grown phenomena such as John Gotti and his predecessors. That fascinating variable that is called by the blanket-term charisma, that indefinable, terrible element of personality that makes men follow its possessor up to and even through the gates of Hell. Whitaker nails it perfectly, it seems to me, in this two hour movie, of which he has perhaps a little over an hour’s screen time.

There’s lots and lots of tension and some violence, but nothing excessive save for two scenes, one brief and one drawn out, near the very end that were not entirely necessary to move the plot along, save to further show us how soulless and amoral men like Amin are. The young actor playing the Scottish doctor (I forget his name but my wife’s seen him in a couple of recent roles) does a tremendous job as well, making an incredulous story (one apparently “based” on true events) entirely believable. I guess I’m giving it a positive grade in this little post. I didn’t set out to review the movie, nor do I feel I’m qualified to do so, but I just felt obligated to say something about it, if only to praise the artistic value of a really good acting performance.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fountains of Paradise

[Spoilers small and medium-sized, but nothing too overwhelming, I think …]

I found The Fountains of Paradise, a 1978 novel by Arthur C. Clarke, a mixed bag o’ nuts. I must confess I expected quite a different novel based on the back page “summary” and the blurb on the cover page. I hate it when that happens (though I understand this is just the publisher’s attempt to solely sell more units). Frankly, I think the book I anticipated I would be reading would have been much better.

But I don’t want to trash the work. Even though it’s not the greatest thing I’ve read, being a Clarkian story, it’s still better than ninety percent of the genre. From the view point of pure hard-SF creativity, Clarke is rarely topped. Perhaps by the chemist-writer Hal Clement, or the physicist-writer Poul Anderson, or the jack-of-all-trades-writer Frederik Pohl. Anyway, the creator/discoverer/inventor of the geostationary satellite has now championed another ingenious mode of transportation to the stars, though one he himself has not created nor discovered nor invented.

The centerpiece of the novel is the space elevator. Imagine this: a tower anchored on the equator, built straight up thirty-thousand kilometers, connecting to a satellite-station in geosynchronous earth orbit. A stationary tower that tall. Or, if you think about it, it’s a bridge. A bridge to earth orbit. The primary advantage would be lowering the cost of payload expense. Every pound you want to launch into orbit, with the ultimate goal of either staying in orbit or leaving for the moon or other bodies in outer space, costs you X amount in astronomical fuel costs. With the space elevator, this X amount is eventually reduced down to a fraction of the cost. The novel is filled with details – quite interesting, I have to say, and obviously impeccably researched – and the minutiae of how it would work, how it could be constructed, and how it finally is built.

Most of the work takes place at the end of the 22nd century, following our intrepid engineer as he overcomes obstacles to build his Great Work, with periodic flashes back two millennia prior describing the reign of a brutal Buddhist king. The cover would have you believe that the two men are related somehow, or even ultimately work together somehow. That would be a story. But no. I’m not quite sure why Clarke includes the chapters of the ancient past, as the book has a distinct anti-religious tone to it. The remaining monks are booted off their temple to make way for the elevator. The whole point was lost on me.

Apparently, mankind has encountered a race of aliens in the form of an artificially-intelligent space probe. I often find that Clarke’s empathy and interest with alien races is more pronounced than that with his one-dimensional characters. The Starholmers, as they are called here, make a cameo at the end of the novel, and it’s possibly the best chapter of the book. A whole work based on those beings and their society, or a work where they play a more prominent role, also would have been better. And to continue with the anti-religious vibe, the Starholmer probe “deconstructs” the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas one hour after a group of earthbound philosophers beam it up to it. Okay …

Though I snarked that the characters are pointlike in their dimensionality, the death of one of the major characters took on a surprisingly touching quality. The man can write very, very … humanely, I suppose, when it suits his objective. But then he throws in extremely clichéd caricatures, such as the bossy, ballsy, plays-with-the-big-boys older newslady. And a potentially fascinating character, a brilliant and iconoclastic physicist and Jewish-convert to Buddhism, is thrown away, underdeveloped.

I’d take value in The Fountains of Paradise from a strict hard-science angle. That category gets graded A+, everything else, a D, so the book averages to about, oh, let’s say a B-. The best thing I ever read by Clarke is still Rendezvous with Rama. That book absolutely captured my imagination and held it viselike for two weeks one summer many years ago. Think I’ll hunt that one down next trip to the old book store …

See here for my short post on the death of Arthur C. Clarke.


It can be argued – though I won’t argue it here – that Science is the religion of twenty-first century America. Be it the tremendous advances from medical research, the dogma of global warming – excuse me, climate change, whatever that is – and evolution, the visual awe of space exploration, you name it, in this culture we are saturated in it. No one is immune, not even priests and religious, not even the most devout of practitioners. It’s just the sea we swim in. It’s in the air we breathe. We expect answers from our High Priests of Science.

So imagine my frustration, and that of my wife and my family members, when Science and these High Priests cannot solve our problems. The results of my CT scan came back yesterday, and I got a call from my doctor. My left pulmonary vein has almost closed up, again. In fairness to their ignorance, they did give this a bold 50/50 chance of happening. We will have to repeat the procedure of ballooning it open, this time with a larger balloon, and then play the waiting game, again.

What causes this, I asked him, as I have in the past.

We don’t know.

What can prevent this from happening again?

We don’t know.

What can I do to keep myself healthy so the vein doesn’t close up?

We don’t know.

Will I be on drugs again? (I hated being on toprol and coumadin.)

We don’t know.

Will I be billed for this?

Ah, that they know the answer to.

It’s amazing what these guys don’t know about my condition. I feel as if I’m a guinea pig. Wait, I think I am. I get the sense that I’ve been written up in papers and published in journals as Patient X. And I’m not getting any royalties or at least a fee for using my case. I can see a dozen doctors in the cafeteria, munching on their salads and veggie wraps, my X-rays, lung VQ scans, and CT scans scattered about the tables, with much pointing and chin-scratching. My doctor’s thinking about how to parlay this into a marketing bonanza for his department in the hospital.

So I’m waiting for a call to see when the next procedure can be scheduled. It will probably be sooner rather than later. But it shouldn’t be an ordeal like last February was for me. Just an hour job, local anesthesia, an overnight stay, and discharged the next day, walking on my own two feet. Still, though, I get queasy and nervous at the thought of anything invasive, and having myself drugged up and out. Now every twinge and pinch of pain in my left side sends my mind racing – is that blood rupturing an artery in my lung? I just hope and pray that this time’s the last time it will have to be done.

When this is all over and done with I’m of half a mind to spend a dozen hours and get a website up and running detailing all the ins and outs of this crazy ordeal I’ve been through, beginning in the Spring of 2006 and still continuing, now, going into the Summer of 2009. If it helps a single person, as they say, it would be worth it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Game of Chess


Red knights, brown bishops, bright queens,
Striking the board, falling in strong “L”s of colour,
Reaching and striking in angles,
holding lines in one colour.
This board is alive with light;
these pieces are living in form,
Their moves break and reform the pattern:
Luminous green from the rooks,
Clashing with “X”s of queens,
looped with the knight-leaps.
“Y” pawns, cleaving, embanking!
Whirl! Centripetal! Mate! King down in the vortex,
Clash, leaping of bands, straight strips of hard colour,
Blocked lights working in. Escapes. Renewal of contest.

- Ezra Pound (Lustra, 1916-1917)

What does it mean? I don’t know. I like the exclaimed words, the suggestions of capital-L letters, the short, shouted language. Whirling, spinning vortices hinting at the intricacies of tactics of that 64-square board where medieval men hack, swords clanging. Pound, as a poet, always intrigued me, and I always wished to spend time studying him. Never did, except for a brief couple of weeks in 2002 thumbing through the Cantos. Perhaps a poem here and there might help take my mind off intrusive things of lesser and greater importance …

The On-Deck Circle

Went to the used book store this morning after my CT scan as a reward-of-sorts. Also, I’m getting low on the SF paperback reserves, having put away four or five in the past month. What’d I get, you ask? All right, here they are:

(By the way, nerd-that-I-am takes a two-page list of titles with him whenever he hits a book store; so far I’ve knocked off about ten percent of the most-wanted list.)

Time and Stars by Poul Anderson. As a kid, I loved this guy. I fondly remember Tau Zero, the book that introduced me to Einsteinian stellar travel and rudimentary cosmology. Don’t know much about this book, ’cept that it deals with aliens and robots and, yes, war and weaponry. Cold War saber-rattling set against the stars, I assume. Looks like an interesting quick read.

Casey Agonistes by Richard McKenna. Don’t know much about this author, but apparently this seems to be a highly-regarded, in some circles, short-story compendium. The book cover informs us that this is the dude that wrote The Sand Pebbles, which I assume to be that Steve McQueen four-hour nineteenth-century naval epic. I’m willing to give it a go. I notice I have been somewhat neglectful of my short story collections, as I count seven anthologies on the shelf behind me. This’ll be the eighth. But I promise to get to it.

Wolfhead by Charles L. Harness. Another book whose author and storyline I am unfamiliar with. Seems to be more fantasy than SF. Looks like a quick read, too, probably something I can put away in three or four days. Okay. I’ll take out whatever I can get from whatever I have in front of me. Quotes from The Inferno on its prologue page, referring to the Italian as the Prophet Dante. That makes it interesting …

And though I resisted for so long, I finally bought it: A Game of Thrones, an epic fantasy saga by the master, George R. R. Martin. This 835-page tome is proudly announced to be “Book One of A Song of Fire and Ice.” Hmmmm. Maps in the front, genealogies in the back. Could this be Martin’s pilgrimage to the shrine of Tolkien? A billion other writers have gone there (as I intend to do, too, soon), but I am very, very keen on seeing his original take, his interpretation, his intelligence, his creativity, his wit – I can go on and on, but you know what I’m saying. You can also see this post to read further my opinion of this man.

I also slated At the Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft for a reading (probably towards the end of the summer), and I still have a couple of titles to get through from the old shelf. These include hard-SF such as a pair of Frank Herbert efforts (Destination: Void and The Jesus Incident) and another trip to the shrine of Tolkien, Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. The latter was foisted on me over two decades ago by a school chum, but I forgot about it, unread all these years, until I spotted it at the used book store a month ago and decided to give it a new home.

Happy readings! May you enter fully the world before you in the printed page …

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day pics

Here's Patch, aka Apache, aka Charles (soft-c), aka Chuckles. It's her first time touching real grass with her toes and hands, and I don't think she was quite sure what to make of it.

And this is the Little One, who is absolutely in love with the ocean. "It appears to want more mud," she'd say, drawing big clumpfuls of sand in her hands and tossing them into the onrushing waves. The water was ice cold, but that didn't faze her.

Here's where we stayed for the weekend. My wife's father used to live in the bungalow on the left; now he's in his new bachelor pad a mile down the road. We stayed in the house on the right. Very quiet, but very small. Good thing the girls are little.

Lastly, here's the two engineers, me and my father-in-law, wondering how in the heck we're going to get this kite monstrosity up in the air without crashing down and reigning destruction upon the innocent men, women and children on the beach.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 09

Just got back from our mini-Memorial Day vacation. It was good, very, very good. Well-deserved rest and relaxation. I’m almost sorry to be back home, except that I now have a renewed vigor and am currently cleaning the house and getting our family affairs in order for the start of business Tuesday morning.

We drove to visit my wife’s father, BK, down at the Jersey shore on Saturday morning. No traffic, blue skies, a slight chill to the air. After some wraps for lunch and a tour of his new apartment he took my wife and the girls to the nearby beach for a couple of hours. I stayed behind and got a lot accomplished. Read over half of When Worlds Collide, worked on my three websites, took care of some email business, did a lot of brainstorming, and overall chilled for five hours without hearing the plaintive phrase, “Hey Daddy …”

It looked rainy and a thick fog bank had rolled in from the Atlantic, so our hopes of going to a fair walking-distance away faded. Instead, we went to a relatively inexpensive but nice Italian restaurant. My daughters were charming as usual with the staff. Got to the old bungalow which we now had all to ourselves, put the children to bed, stretched out and crashed.

Unfortunately, I woke the next morning at 4 and couldn’t get back to bed. So I read some more of my little paperback and watched the sun rise. Later, the girls went out for coffee and muffins. Went to church with BK, then brunch afterwards. Returned to the bungalow, read George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell while the girls napped. Played Frisbee golf with the Little One. BK put together a box kite and we all took it to the park but it refused to go airborne. Motored down with it to the beach and the kite did go about fifty feet straight vertical, only to reverse trajectory and crash down hard, breaking. Me and the little chickens then went to the ocean’s edge and dipped feet in. The ice cold salt water chased us back, but we kept going after it, defying the tide, playing a little game. Lots of pictures; I’ll post one later.

Me and BK purchased some supplies from Shop Rite, then returned and had a Memorial Day feast of rotisserie chicken and potato salad (too late to barbecue). BK and C had a couple of screwdrivers and got very chatty. The girls were wiped out and went to bed early, on their own accord. I put away about thirty pages of a neat little physics book a bit before bed. Slept like the dead until our daughter woke us at 5 coughing. Read more of When Worlds Collide and helped her draw cars and dinosaurs. Tidied up the bungalow while the girls watched the parade a couple blocks down. Loaded the car and said our goodbyes around 11:30. Sat in traffic for an hour – the remnants of a terrible accident on the Garden State Parkway – and got home about two hours ago.

Not much to report, except this: That was my picture-perfect definition of an awesome good weekend.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Blues Album

Egads! I have a blues album on my hands!

In the continuing saga – or soap opera – that is the life of a hopper, I appear to have discovered a knack for blues playing. I’ve written extensively about my musical past (just go to the January archives over there on the left and click on any post that says “Subtle Hint” if you’re that bored). But I haven’t played in a band since 1996, haven’t jammed with another dude since 2002, and haven’t played an electric guitar since 2004, when my Les Paul was stolen. There followed a two-year non-performing-or-playing interlude where my musical style and ability rusted, neglected.

In 2006 my stepdad, quite out of the blue, bought me a six-string acoustic guitar. In no time those finger-tip callouses were thick and growing. I bought a classical songbook with accompanying CD to learn all those Spanish 16th- and 17th century ditties, but made little progress, having six-thousand-five-hundred-and-ninety-some-odd other things I wanted to do. So the guitar stays propped in the corner of my dining room. And I play it, anywhere from a minute or two or ten, every time I walk by, which happens to be about twenty or thirty times a day.

Now I have enough material for a blues album.

I don’t know where it comes from. I didn’t plan it, and I certainly don’t listen to it. 12-bar blues with seventh and ninth chords are a far cry from Miklos Rosza and Maurice Ravel, my two most-played CDs-du-jour. For some reason, though, whenever I pick up that guitar I’m suddenly like Robert Johnson reincarnated.

What to do, what to do.

I used to have a four-track Tascam mini-recording studio thingie, which I kept set-up in a corner of my bachelor pad. Whenever the spirit moved me and I came up with a cool riff, I’d record it for posterity. There’s a sealed plastic tub of just under a hundred cassette tapes in my basement which I haven’t listened to in years.

But the Tascam has long been consigned to the dustbin of history. I lost track of all my old bandmates. I know nobody who plays nowadays. This acoustic blues album, it seems, is fated to perish once I do, hopefully in seventy or eighty years.

Seventy or eighty years is a long time, by human standards. Surely I could get something up and running by then. But no, after thinking about it for a while, I realize I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm. My little plunkings on those metal strings are a nice little stress reliever, a nice little way to get those endorphins flowing. The Grammies will have to wait.

In the meantime, I think I’ll just jot all my blues tunes down in tab notation, in case Eric Clapton wants to give me a ring …

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Doctor Hath Spoken

Good news and bad news regarding my health, care of my cardiologist. First of all, and perhaps most important, the echocardiogram revealed nothing amiss. It’s absolutely perfect. Big huge sigh of relief, and now I’m looking forward to getting the CT scan at the hospital next Wednesday. Bring it on!

The bad news is that my blood pressure is still high. It got higher, in fact, and is now 150 over 100. Remember, normal is 120 over 80, and the past two months I’ve been read at a borderline 140 over 90. However, I have been eating very, very poorly lately. Stress eating. Definitely off my TRFD diet, as espoused here. Lets see, in the past week I’ve had sushi (with high-sodium soy sauce), Burger King, chocolate shakes, french fries, pizza, soda (Diet Cokes), and about a gallon of ice cream. No, more like a gallon-and-a-half. But I’m not drinking beer! I also had a terrible night’s sleep, or lack thereof, the night before, getting only about four hours’ shut-eye, tops. And I’m still learning to deal with attention-starved little ones as a house husband while still getting rejected and ignored for jobs I don’t want to do.

Is it any wonder my blood pressure is high?

My doctor wants me to come in next week for a quick blood pressure reading. Then he’ll decide what treatment is necessary (anyone wanna bet it’s prescription drugs?) In the meantime, my goal is to lower my BP. At least down to 140 over 90. Last night we had raw veggies with brown rice. I managed to abstain from ice cream for dessert. Lots and lots of water. And I’m avoiding dairy, cheese particularly, which has a surprising amount of NaCl in it. I meditated last night and enjoyed it – which I usually do: I wonder why I can’t make it a habit? – so I’ll keep repeating it over the next couple of days.

Will report back with results next Thursday for my legions of fans.

LE out!

The Whitehall Bigfoot

Wednesday night, bored with all the manufactured hoopla that is the American Idol finale, I channel surfed and stumbled upon Monster Quest, a show on the History Channel that I’ve watched every now and then. This one was about sasquatch – a cryptid whose existence I mostly find doubtful but keep open an outside chance of plausibility. Specifically, this episode dealt with a bunch of sightings that took place in Whitehall, in upstate New York.

Wait a minute. Whitehall … that sounds familiar.

My parents had a weekend house just north of Lake George, which itself is just north of Whitehall. They had it for ten years and would go up just about every weekend. I would go now and then, and spent a couple of week-long vacations up there by myself.

Good Heavens! I was sequestered alone right in the very heart of Bigfoot country!

The weekend house sat on the forefront of three acres of land, just off a two-lane, moderately-traveled road. A crescent of woods surrounded the property, in a radius of about a hundred yards away from the gently upward sloping hills. Directly behind the house was a small, web-encrusted woodshed, and about thirty or forty feet diagonally past that was your traditional, red-painted barn. There was a screened-in porch in the front a few yards from the road and a small patio in the back. The kitchen had several large exposed windows looking out over the patio and on to the fields up to the woods. Our nearest neighbor was probably a half-mile away. Their house, that is. I don’t think I ever saw its occupants.

It was a perfect get-away place. During the day, during those beautiful Adirondack summers (and springs and falls, too), it was absolutely gorgeous. At night, though, it did get a little spooky. There was a quality to the sheer quiet that even a suburban dweller like me finds a little unsettling. And the darkness of the night sky, particularly if it was a cloudy night, threw a blanket over the mountain deeper, darker, and denser than anything I’ve ever experienced. In contrast, on clear, moonless nights, the sky sparkled with dazzling gem-like stars so bright and colorful it could rival any ancient royal jewelry box.

Alone up there it was downright spooky. The quiet, the dark, the isolation … and those woods. All these elements combined perfectly to create an eerie environment if you allowed yourself down that path. I always had an inkling, a little tickle of certainty, that there was something lurking out there, silently weaving in and out of the pine trees come down from the mountain. Who knows? Perhaps it had the courage to come close to the house, enticed by the light and the warmth and the smells of cooked food. Perhaps it even stepped up on the patio and peered into those kitchen windows. I know I was always a little on edge walking in to that kitchen after the sun went down.

And now my suspicions have been confirmed, thanks to Monster Quest. I mean, if there were sightings in Whitehall, why not forty or fifty miles north, where I stayed? After all, half of New York state is one giant forest.

Did anything happen while we had that house? Anything concrete? Footprints? Anybody hear anything – howls, growls – or see anything, like a big, shadowy figure at the wood line? Wellllllll … not exactly.

There were two odd little occurrences, both of which, even if explainable with the most strangest of possibilities, are probably completely unrelated to our Whitehall friend. Shortly after purchasing the house (which was built in colonial times or close to it), my mother was alone in the half-renovated living room when she heard someone – or something, BWAHAHAHA – yell at her either “Hey!” or “Hey you!” Scared, she turned around, but no one was there. She looked for my stepfather, but he was in the barn, fifty feet away. We doubted her at first, but she insisted she heard something. She thinks it was the ghost of the original owner, upset at all the renovation. I’m not sure she’s entirely jesting, either.

A couple of years later I was up there with a girlfriend and some friends, and we were partying. This was during my dry days, after my first, original “conversion,” so I was living clean: the designated driver in those days. It was night, we went for a walk down the road in the inky black darkness. There were streetlights, though, spaced far apart. Suddenly, my girlfriend stopped, frozen in place. She had been drinking but was not drunk, but she was acting weird. Pointing down the road, she asked me what that light was. I said it was the streetlight. She said, no, the light just past it. I turned and looked again, but could only see the streetlight. I told her so, but she insisted there was another light. Coming closer. There were no cars on the road; it was completely quiet. Covered in goose bumps, I suggested we return to the house. Where it was safer, I suppose.

A bunch of anecdotal evidence, sure. Possibly due to emotional stress, suggestive mental states, or even, in the case of my girlfriend and I, mass hysteria. Hey Spock, whoever said we are rational and logical creatures?

But the closest I came to actual danger, I think, would have been my encounter with the Toothless Meatman. No, he was not a sasquatch, but I do not doubt he was slightly more closely related to the missing link than, say, you or I.

Bigfoot, ghosts, flying saucers, and toothless meatmen. Ah! What a great time we had at that little house by the woods!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wise Words

Please, memorize and repeat often throughout the day:

Let nothing disturb you
Let nothing frighten you
All things pass away
God never changes
Patience obtains all things
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing
God alone suffices.

- St. Teresa of Avila

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wassup Bunnykiller?

Still a little swamped, that’s wassup, but I see that light at the end of that tunnel!

Most importantly, it looks like we have the Little One’s kindergarten year all shored up – and get this! – it’s affordable! And it won’t tax our time, either, shuttling her here and there and everywhere! Yay! What a weight off our shoulders.

Applied to three jobs today. None of which appeal to me, but all that I can do and, more importantly, get paid for. Now to play the waiting game. Tick tock tick tock …

We still have money in the bank. Now, I have to face a pile of bills. There’s a couple of crazy doctor bills and a hospital bill for $19,000 – yeah, right, that’s why I have insurance, fellas – requiring me to pick up the phone and make some calls. Here’s where I insert a sarcastic Yay!

Gearing up for the cardiologist tomorrow, for a routine checkup. He’s a nice doctor, but doesn’t really help me in any way. Once he tried to push anti-depression medication on me, but I refused. Otherwise he sits there benevolently and grins, saying little, agreeing with me no matter what I seem to say. I’m gonna tell him my energy level is really low from an endurance point of view. My lung capacity appears to be the same, in the healthy range, but I get tired real easy. And my attitude rockets up and down on a daily basis, sometimes even on an hourly basis.

I went for a brisk walk yesterday morning instead of doing yoga – 1.4 miles in 23 minutes. By my calculations that’s a 4 m.p.h. clip. Not bad. I was able to do it without getting too winded, but it was early in the morning. If I did it later in the evening, I don’t think the results would be the same.

Chatted with a knowledgeable dude in the publishing business, and he gave me a couple of really good tips. He also grounded me, to my disappointment, though I’ve since risen above it. Yes, I know it’s hard. Yes, I know it takes tons of effort and perseverance. No, I didn’t know that the average published author made only $5,000 in 2006. Yes, I know I need a literary agent. Yes, I know I need to show something to a literary agent to get him or her interested in me. Yes, I know I don’t currently have anything to show a literary agent. But I’m still working on it.

Getting ready to launch my websites in a couple of weeks. Which means I have a vague outline for each. But seriously, with a couple of hours I can narrow my focus sufficiently where I’m confident that it won’t be too difficult to get something of quality up and running. I have a lot of raw material here on the Hopper, and besides, this is what I’m really passionate for. Keep you updated in the future.

On deck: Finished Arthur Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, with mixed feelings. Kind of indecisive on which SF to read next – a never-read classic from the 30s, a short classic from a wallflower from the 60s, or a book whose title and premise seem oddly close to that of my second novel? Hmmm. Part of what’s also making me procrastinate is late-night headaches from eye strain. Maybe it’s just stress, I dunno.

That’s all that’s going on at Casa LE. Some fun stuff coming up, with an absence of griping. Check back over the next couple of days.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Surrender of Self


CHRIST: My son, renounce self, and you shall find Me. Retain no private choice or personal interest, and you will always be the gainer. As soon as you yield yourself unreservedly into My hands, I will grant you even richer graces.

THE DISCIPLE: How often shall I yield myself, and in what way forsake myself, Lord?

CHRIST: Always, and at all times, in small things as well as in great. I make no exceptions, for I desire to have you wholly divested of self: otherwise, unless you are wholly stripped of self-will, how can you be Mine, or I yours? The sooner you do this, the better it will be with you, and the more completely and sincerely you do it, the better you will please Me, and the greater will be your gain.

Some resign themselves, but with some reservation; these do not put their whole trust in God, and are therefore concerned to provide for themselves. Others at first offer everything, but later are overcome by temptation, and return to their former state. These make very little progress in virtue, and will never obtain the true freedom of heart, nor enjoy the favor of My friendship, unless they first make a complete surrender and daily offering of themselves to Me. Without this, no fruitful union with Me can exist or endure.

I have often said to you, and I now say once more: Renounce yourself, surrender yourself, and you shall enjoy great inner peace. Give all for all, look for nothing, ask nothing in return: rest purely and trustingly in Me, and you shall possess Me. Then you will be free in heart, and no darkness will oppress your soul. Strive for this, pray for this, desire this one thing - that you may be stripped clean of all selfishness, and follow Me in complete self-abandonment, dying to self that you may live to Me for ever. Then will all vain fantasies be put to flight, and all evil disorders and groundless fears vanish. Then will all fear and dread depart, and all disordered love die in you.

- The Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chapter XXXVII: How Surrender of Self Brings Freedom of Heart

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Definiteness of Purpose

We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go the Moon in this decade and to do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win... This is in some measures an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us... But space is there and we are going to climb it.

--John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

Six years and ten months later, Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.

* * *

Probably the greatest quote ever. Definitely the most inspiring.

Just watched a special on NASA mission control on the History channel yesterday. God, what those men did with what they had at their disposal in the limited time they were allotted. If you think about it, think really hard about it, what could you do with but one percent of their drive? Write a book and get it published? Or maybe start your own business and make a success out of it? Hmmm? Hmmmm?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Man Who Fell to Earth


In 1963 Walter Tevis wrote a tight, highly-original novel entitled The Man Who Fell to Earth. Thirteen years later it would be made into a creepy, somewhat indulgent vehicle for David Bowie. It is slated to be remade this year or next, but I don’t know the whys or hows or whens. But suffice it to say, it will be remade badly. Why? Because Hollywood today rarely grasps the essence of the source material, by choice or by chance.

The book fascinated me; it was all I could think about for three or four days. Intense, gripping, unique, well-written, an extremely interesting protagonist – or possibly an antagonist – what more could a jaded reader ask for? I’ll tell you right now – this book gets my highest grade. It’s been sitting on my SF shelf for almost two years now; I can’t believe I’ve looked at it time and time again and said, “Eh, maybe later,” a dozen or so times. It’s being kept, and will be reread in a year or two. It’s one of those books where I metaphorically slap my head and say, “LE, this is the type of book you need to write.”

Thomas Jerome Newton is more than just an undocumented worker. He is more than an illegal alien. In fact, our protagonist actually is an alien, a being from a world called Anthea, which may or may not be the planet we call Mars. Despite profound intelligence surpassing ours, the races of Anthea have destroyed their planet through devastating nuclear wars. Currently, there are only 300 of Thomas’ fellow beings left, suffering through a horrible drought. They spend what remains of their dwindling resources to train and educate Newton on the ways of Earth, and then send him on a one-way trip to our planet.

He crash lands in the Kentucky wilderness and spends the night vomiting in a field because of his nerves. A year later he is one of the wealthiest men on Earth. How does he accomplish this? By trading in his advanced knowledge, first through patents and the legalities around them, then through his entrepreneurial acumen. With the aid of a lawyer and a chemist, Newton creates and manages World Enterprises Corp, which has its hand in everything from photo film to nuclear engineering processes. He amasses great wealth rapidly, and immediately turns to the great work which will save his suffering people.

However, he also draws the scrutinizing eye of the United States government.

What is Thomas’ master plan? To build a ship, a ship capable of traveling the vast expanse between Earth and Anthea, to bring his remaining people back to our world. Surreptitiously, of course. Infiltrating the highest ranks of our world’s governments, the benevolent guiding hands of the Antheans will steer our planet through the inevitable nuclear wars that they themselves could not manage to avoid on theirs.

The complete and total existential loneliness and alienation of this stranger in a strange land very, very quickly takes its toll. Before long Thomas finds companionship in a frivolous uneducated woman named Betty Joe. She teaches him how to drink, and before long the Anthean uses alcohol to self-medicate his fears and depressions away and then becomes very, very careless.

There follow some very unpleasant scenes involving, let’s just say, interrogation rooms, medical tests, and an X-ray machine which has very nasty effects on Newton’s eyes. Ultimately a broken man, Thomas gives up on his people, eventually sending them a poignant message (or perhaps a defiant middle finger, it’s rather vague) in a very unique way, sidestepping any governmental interference.

I’ve given much thought as to whether I prefer the book to the movie. I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, but I did see it and do remember it vividly. Most times in situations like these I go for the book over the movie, though there have been rare times where I’ve preferred the visual experience over the cerebral one. Not here, though. The movie is excellent for what it tried to do, but I think the presence of David Bowie overshadows the story, as well as the gratuitous sex and alcohol abuse (though Newton is a real lush in the book, there is no sex). However, the scenes which take place on Anthea, showing the drought conditions and the suffering of Newton’s family, do tug at the heart very effectively. But the book just does everything right, in my opinion, and that really goes a long way. If I give the novel an A+, the movie gets a solid B, maybe a B+. I’ll have to re-rent it again, maybe in a year or so. Perhaps it would be a good experiment to read the book then immediately watch the movie and do a comparison. [LE duly notes this project on his Microsoft Outlook calendar.]

Modern Update

Sorry for the slim postin’s. Quite busy. You’d think an unemployed guy who can’t move too fast due to a recovering heart condition would have plenty of leisure time on his hands. Not so, much to my regret (I still fantasize about waking up in a massive king-sized bed – alone – after thirty-six hours sleep in an open-air upper room in some castle in Switzerland. Weird, huh?).

Upgraded the PC mid-week, so now I’m officially in the 21st century. Now I can work efficiently on my two new blogs. One will be devoted to literature, the other to Catholicism. My two great loves, in addition to physics and astronomy as well as esoterica. In a different life I was a priest; in this life I’m trying to get some of my work published. I burned out on the physics thing, but I still love it, just not enough to write about it daily. Or perhaps I’m afraid my ignorance would be glaring. Not that it wouldn’t concerning literature or Catholicism. But I’m learning, and I’m trying.

It is incredible the effort parents need to put in today to get their child into Kindergarten. Can I gripe a moment? Kindergarten, those three-hour daily sessions for five-year-olds, may have been perfect in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Back then mothers stayed home. Back then your child could walk to school without the fear of abduction. Back then, Kindergarten was an easy-stepping stone for a child to enter school. Not so today. Most parents both work. Children need to be ferried in army troop carrier-sized vehicles door-to-door. And most children have been in day care or preschool before Kindergarten. My kid is working on a Kindergarten-level math book and she’s so far passed it I wonder if it’s even a good use of time. So, since our child was put in to the mid-morning session, we need to find (and pay mucho dinero for) morning care and afternoon care until 6 pm. Buses will be ferrying her to and from her various locations. It’s insane, but we’ve chosen this life, I suppose, deciding to live in this crazy expensive über-materialistic locale.

Still applying and getting turned down for jobs. It’s depressing. The more money you need, I’ve discovered, the harder it is to find employment. I flirt inadvertently with depression and self-pity, but I eventually right myself like a sailboat tottering on rough waters (and I get the accompanying belly butterflies, too).

Health is still status quo; checkups this upcoming Thursday and in ten days will give me a good idea how I’m progressing and will set the tone for the next couple of months. I continue to struggle with eating healthy, though I haven’t had a drink in over a hundred days. Doing yoga every morning, but have found it difficult to find the motivation and energy to go for evening walks per my doctor’s instructions. Oh well.

A lot of posts on the horizon, just haven’t found time to write them all. Expect another one later this evening.

LE … out!

Thursday, May 14, 2009


by Edgar Allen Poe

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule-
From a wild clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE- out of TIME.

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters- lone and dead,-
Their still waters- still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,-
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,-
By the mountains- near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,-
By the grey woods,- by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp-
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls,-
By each spot the most unholy-
In each nook most melancholy-
There the traveller meets aghast
Sheeted Memories of the Past-
Shrouded forms that start and sigh
As they pass the wanderer by-
White-robed forms of friends long given,
In agony, to the Earth- and Heaven.

For the heart whose woes are legion
'Tis a peaceful, soothing region-
For the spirit that walks in shadow
'Tis- oh, 'tis an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not- dare not openly view it!
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have wandered home but newly
From this ultimate dim Thule.


Eidolon – a phantom or apparition
Thule – the farthest point; the limit of any journey; the point believed by the ancient Greeks to be the farthest north

I would like to see this poem rendered in a lush, bill-board-sized canvas by Dali or Magritte. That or a detailed etching by Escher. Or, better yet, in 3-dimensional CGI on the big screen. Something that appears infinitely dark the farther away you are (its black as three-in-the-morning in Thule), but as you near, and cozy right up with a magnifying glass, the emotional palette simply overwhelms you. I would think I was witnessing the end times, I suppose.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Doomsday Scenarios

This popped into my head the other day while listening to some talk radio. Michael Medved, I think it was, or it might have been … I don’t know, Rush or either of the Dennises, Prager or Miller. Not sure. But anyway, I realized this listening to the host go on and on about the immanent and widespread possible collapse of the American economy.

I call it the Law of Equality of Doomsday Scenarios.

Simply stated, it’s thus: It’s never, ever as bad as partisan commentators make it out to be.

Remember the hysterical ranting of the left over the past two Bush terms? How Bush was worse than certain unnamed fascist dictators? How the Patriot Act would target innocent native-born law-abiding citizens? How the war in Iraq was turning the entire globe against us?
Didn’t exactly turn out that way, did it?

So now I’m listening to another set of moonbats – this time conservative talk radio – stating how economic apocalypse is upon us. Not much from them during the past couple of years when Bush was spending more money than a drunken Democrat. No, but now we’re teetering at the brink of financial chaos: be it jobs, homes, credit cards, medical insurance, you name it, Obama is out to sabotage it.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Obama and his policies are wrong for this country. Terribly, terribly wrong. But we’ll survive. If things are still bad in three years, he’ll lose the election.* A good corrector will be the mid-term elections. I’m predicting something similar to the ’94 Republican sweep, with Obama forced to govern like Clinton did (as a true moderate) for the majority of his term in office. Were those years so bad for us?

Yeah, I know, there’s arguments and statistics and damned statistics to turn my simple, uninformed-by-choice observations this way and that and prove I’m wrong. But I don’t need the hypertension that comes with daily monitoring of How Bad Everything Is. Life is too short, and I’m trying to enjoy it just a little bit more.

* I used to think this, but now I’m not so sure. To me, I see a smooth talker who fooled a lot of folks into thinking he had all the answers to all the problems. That’s not what I’m seeing or sensing, but what do I know? I’m just trying to save my soul and make a living writing SF.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rabbit Killer

Perhaps you do not know this about me. Perhaps you may have guessed from my fictions. Possibly you may have heard rumors about it on the Internet, or in the corridors of power in this great country, or on the streets that have no names. Yes, it is time for confession. It is said that confession is good for the soul; I pray only that it is good for the souls of those I have sent to their Maker.

All kidding aside, what I am talking about is killing rabbits.

Only two fell because of me, it is true, and after the last (both were claimed on a drab and overcast March day in the Meadowlands, New Jersey) it is also true I threw away the shotgun in disgust. Well, metaphorically, at least, since my father would have shot me if I threw a potentially loaded and expensive gun into the dirt.

How did this come about?

From the awkwardness of the father in a divorce, I suppose. Suddenly whisked out of the picture, my father sought to connect with me and my brother, who he now only saw every other weekend. But only on his terms. He was an interesting figure, complicated only in his simplicity. In a vague and shadowy way, though, as my memories of him have faded irreparably and exponentially over the years. He died a dozen years ago, suddenly and unexpectedly, though I had not really seen him for ten years prior to that. In this post I mean no disrespect to the dead. He is in my prayers every night.

However, as a powerless young teen, I had no choice but to follow my father’s demented foray into armed hunting.

Shortly after my parents separated, my father suddenly became interested in hunting. He was an avid fisherman before that (nothing against fisherman, but I absolutely hated the activity). Maybe it was the blue collar guys he was hanging out with. He bought a twelve-gauge and a twenty-gauge, as well as a Beretta handgun which he carried in the trunk of his car in a hard black case with red spongy foam on the inside. I fired the shotguns and a .22 rifle, but never that Beretta.

It started off innocently enough, I suppose. Early that first fall, he would take us hunting with his friend, Mr. G. Mr. G. had two sons he hunted with and two beagles to help flush out game. They usually went down to the cattail swamps of East Rutherford, New Jersey (a.k.a. the Meadowlands) but occasionally they went to a lodge on some mountain I forget, about an hour’s drive away. We would go with them originally to the Meadowlands and help them flush out rabbits. This entailed spreading out in a long line and following my father’s instructions on where, when, and how fast to move through the brush. If all went as follows, based on the baying of the hounds, a rabbit would rocket out and the G’s would all blast away. We’d repeat this over and over for six or eight hours, covering a good chunk of the Garden State.

After a couple of fortnights of this, my father suggested that me and my brother try our hand at blowing away some glass bottles set up on a rock. Mr. G. handed over one of his boy’s .22 and instructed us on its use. I remember quite vividly the first time I squeezed the trigger and felt the recoil against my shoulder. The acrid, detergent-like smell of gunpowder wafting over me. The sharp retort and the crisp clean sound of breaking glass a split-second later.

Before long, my father had us firing the shotguns at clay pigeons. This, strangely enough, I really, really enjoyed. It was very Zen, this thing called marksmanship. And equally surprising, I was very good at it. I would probably hit over 90 percent of my targets, with most of my misses coming at the beginning as I got adjusted to the gun, weather conditions, who was watching, etc.

In fact, a couple of months after that, at my father’s prodding, my brother and I applied for a hunting license and/or gun permit. I don’t remember what exactly we filled out and what we got and what we legally were required to have to shoot small game in New Jersey, but whatever it was, we did it. Including a couple-hour course over a couple of days. Boring recital of laws and safety tips and the like for about a dozen of us. A few kids like us and a few adults. The best part was a slide show where you had to identify the hazards in each picture. My favorite was a photo of two yokels: one throwing empty beer cans over his head and the other, ten feet away, trying to shoot them out of the air.

There was a written test, which my brother and I both passed, as well as a field test, which involved, yes, clay pigeons. You needed to hit something like three out of four. The only caveat was that if the instructor loaded a red pigeon and launched it, you had to lower your weapon. If you fired at it, or, God forbid, actually blasted it apart, you’d fail. My brother went first, and he hit his 75 percent. No problem. Then, my turn. I hit the first two, and then, unbeknownst to me but visible to all the spectators behind me, the wily old instructor loaded a red pigeon into the launcher. My father held his breath, and I pulled the gun up to my shoulder and sighted through it … but did not fire, and lowered it. I passed.

It went downhill from there.

It may be that the first time we went hunting in the Meadowlands I didn’t bag anything. It may have been similar the second and third times. Certainly by the fourth it had to happen. I remember it was a cold, dark and cloudy day. Snow had come and gone, but piles of it still remained here and there, crunched under my Timberlands. When it happened, it happened as a quite literal blur: a blur of peripheral movement, fantastically fast, activated my body but not my mind. Before I knew cognitively what was happening I raised the shotgun and fired. God help any man who may have been scavenging the brush next to me. But there was a sound and a movement like someone had thrown a sack of baseballs into a bush. It was the mottled gray body of the first rabbit I killed.

How I got the second one I don’t remember.

A week or so later we went up to the mountain. A year later my brother would bag his first and only deer here. I liked the mountain because often they would ask me to go over it, by myself, and make a lot of noise, flushing any deer over to where they would be as the circumnavigated the base of the mountain. I liked it, because I would be alone for a half-hour or an hour. I hated it because of all the creepy crawlies, especially in the spring and summer. Once I walked through a wide gap between two trees and still got entwined in a massive spider web. And those spiders are as fat as golf balls. Believe me, I made plenty of noise that day.

But this time we were hunting birds – grouse and pheasant, I think. As the hours wore by, we had no luck. We hardly saw any birds to even aim at. Finally, in the lengthening shadows, my father spotted a bird high on a tree branch. I’m so bad at this I don’t even remember what type of creature it was. He told me to fire at it. Doesn’t it need to be flying? I asked, remembering the laws we went over at the licensing class.

He told me to just shoot it.

It was above me, about twenty or thirty feet, sitting still. I aimed at it and squeezed the trigger. It fell off the branch, dead weight, and hit the ground silently.

Unexpectedly, before we packed it in that day, one of the dogs kicked up a whole bunch of birds from a clump of vegetation. Again, reflexively, I pulled up, aimed, fired. One bird tumblesaulted to the ground. We all went over to see what I had bagged. It was a pheasant, I think, but it was not dead, only wounded. My father picked it up and killed it by twisting its neck around and around and around.

That was the last time I picked up a gun, physically as well as metaphorically.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I rediscovered something about myself the past two weeks. Right now I’m outta work, at a crossroads of various uncertain paths, with no common consensus among my closest circle of advisors. Physically I’m iffy. My endurance levels are low. I’m falling back into old unhealthy patterns for dealing with mounting stress. Stress of my own creating, as well as all those monocled Monopoly men pounding on my door wanting a piece of the action – what little there is – in my wallet.

In a fit of manic depression I began reading Ouspensky two Mondays ago. Kind of a middle finger to God, I suppose. But that didn’t last. Still, though, I need a cure for these blues, one that isn’t going to put me in a premature burial plot. So, a week ago, I spotted Harry Harrison’s book Planet of the Damned on my bookshelf with about twenty other ancient SF novels, and I said, “LE, there’s no redeeming value in reading this. It ain’t good literature. It ain’t going to make you a better writer. It ain’t going to make you a better man. It’ll just be a waste of time.” Maybe true, maybe not, but right then, I just wanted some distraction.

I read it, and enjoyed it. I moved on to the next novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Yes, that one. It’s the original source material for that creepy and somewhat indulgent 1970s David Bowie movie, snippets of which I vividly recall stealth watching as a young boy.

Anyway, someone recently pointed out that this blog is my therapy. To a small extent, yes, but my real therapy, I realized and rediscovered, is reading these strange and fantastic books. I love everything about them – from the physical texture and smells of an old paperback to the psychedelic visual cover designs and “futuristic” lettering to the men and women and aliens and monsters that populate them and all the craziness they must overcome with all their space ships and ray guns and teleportation devices and psychic abilities. It gives me a blessed release from the everyday demands and frictions. Thirty years ago I climbed the roof of my house to read a book in peace; now I hide in the basement or in the bathtub or in my car to read. Pathetic or resourceful? You decide, but I know it’s necessary and healthy in an odd way.

Perhaps by the fall I can finish off my SF shelf. A pair of non-Dune books by Frank Herbert. Classic stuff by Philip Wylie, Greg Bear, Gordon Dickinson, Fred Hoyle, Roger Zelazny, and Arthur Clarke. And one of my all-time favorites, a sports dystopian work by Gary K. Wolf. End up with a lengthy Terry Brooks novel (I’ve never read him). Yes, it looks like a very exciting summer for LE, at least in one-hour-a-day increments.

Happy Mom's Day!

To all the mothers in my life – through biological, sacramental, and friendship relationships –

Have a Wonderful and Blessed Mother’s Day!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Planet of the Damned

Warning: Spoilers! Spoilers!

Just finished reading Planet of the Damned, by legendary SF writer Harry Harrison. I think it’s the first novel I read by the man (who’s 80-something – does he still write, I wonder?). I may have read some of his stuff as a kid, though. Deathworld sounds familiar, but I might be confusing it with Planet of Death. So much pain and suffering in the world of SF, no?

It was a quick read. So quick, in fact, that I needed to read it with a fire extinguisher handy (that’s really, really poor book reviewer humor). Three days, but three hours of actual reading time. If you saw the stacks of books I have on deck, you’d see how read speed really appeals to me. While I don’t hold that against a book, there was something that didn’t feel right about this. I wasn’t looking for Tolstoy, obviously, but early on I realized this felt like an extended episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation: Picard and Riker try to avert an interplanetary war.

Planet of the Damned is the story of two neighbor planets, Dis and Nyjord, about as antithetical as any pair freshly sprung from the mind of an SF grandmaster. Dis is dry, hot, and thoroughly inhospitable. Water’s rare and the plant life’ll kill you. Mankind has adopted to this world, but it hasn’t been pretty. Loose confederations of barbaric natives are lorded over by an even more vicious class of warriors – the magter. Props for the very Germanic, very guttural, and very menacing name for the bad guys, Mr. Harrison. These emotionless killers wind up playing a very important role in the story.

Unfortunately, it’s kind of downhill in the journey from concept to specifics. Specifically, the hero, the lad we’re supposed to be cheering on. I tend to dislike characters whose names are cluttered with colorless consonance. In this case, Brion Brandd. And that second “d” at the end? It just gives an inappropriate air of cutesiness and sounds very unrealistic.

Anyhow, Brion Brandd turns out to be not too likeable – not unlikeable, but not likeable, either. Kind of a big dumb slab of meat, a Schwarzeneggar without the personality. He won a planetwide Olympiad of twenty competitions, including not only fencing and martial arts but chess and poetry (which in itself is a good idea) – yet all he does is slug it out and shoot it out with baddies. Why not use brains and creativity, in addition to brawn? Why tell us he’s this awesome strategic thinker and Byronesque master of the rhyme and metaphor, and only have him do a Hulk smash on everything?

I was also surprised at a lack of imagination for various items that cross our paths in this distant future tale: “sand cars”? “radios”? “blow guns”? “cobalt bombs”? Okay, cobalt bombs are better than hydrogen bombs (which they were called in the beginning chapters). But couldn’t he think up slightly more futuristic-sounding modes of transportation and communication? The Disan natives have this symbiotic relationship with a vine they carry that trades water with them while drawing blood from little fangs inserted in the native’s mouth. All right, that cancels out the blow guns. Still, though …

Brandd must discover the five w’s – who, what, where, why, and how – concerning the threat of cobalt annihilation of Nyjord by unfriendlies on Dis, before Nyjord defensively bombs Dis to disintegration. Nyjord is as loving and peaceful as Dis is dirty and nasty. Truthfully, the Nyorders interested me more than the Disans. They are these nonviolent cultural specialists in the philosophy of interrelationships. Kind of like anti-Disans, but much more appealing as I’d like to know a bit more of this philosophy that’s somehow valued above all others in this Harrisonian universe. Anyway, for them to preemptively strike Dis would destroy them as a society, so there’s this no-win situation that our big dumb slab of meat has to solve. Does turn out it’s the bad guys, the magter, which we all knew from early on, but their “secret” – mind-controlling brain parasites – is sufficiently icky and explanatory to seal the deal and end the crisis and the book.

This review sounds harsher than intended; the book was enjoyable to read. I also know Harrison has a tendency to be very tongue-in-cheek, so maybe I misread a lot of the book. If so, I apologize. I would like to read more of his work, especially as he became quite the satirist – often parodying the swashbuckling ultra-conservatism of Robert Heinlein. I give the book a C+, but with the coda that I will gladly give another Harry Harrison novel my time and attention.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Jesus Tree

The first time I saw it must have been sometime in the fall of 1980. Around this time my uncle, who was more like an older brother to me due to the closeness of our ages, attended Fordham University. One of the highlights of our weekend – for my younger brother and I – was hitching along with Grandma and my mother as they drove my uncle back to school on Sunday nights. It was the great end for the weekend, an exciting and often side-splitting adventure into a strange city before the mundane terrors of middle school engulfed me for the next five days.

Fordham is located in the Bronx. It’s a fairly high-crime area, or at least was in the 70s, and the campus is surrounded by spiked iron fencing. My younger brother always vied for a window seat on these trips so he could “see a murder.” That’s what New York was to him. And a little bit to me, too. Remember, this was only two or three years after the Son of Sam killings. My folks subscribed to the New York Daily News back then, and headlines proclaiming weird things about demons and killers entered our house every morning. It was truly a scary and confusing time to be a kid. Three Mile Island, Love Canal, Jonestown, hostages in strange lands, those Atlanta serial killings, the assassination attempts on the Pope and Reagan … those final few years in the house of my childhood, before my parents divorced and yanked us out of it, were honestly kind of frightening.

Anyway, the Fordham run was a scary-cool trip every Sunday night. We all knew of my brother’s hunt for “murders.” Even one of my uncle’s buddies, who we also dropped off once. Pointing to a cordoned-off Con-Ed dig, he said, “I wonder how many dead bodies are down there?” As for me, I mostly just stared agape at the buildings and bridges and the incredibly illuminated city life, and pondered the dangers just outside the doors of the old Ford Galaxie.

There was hushed talk, at first, of the “Jesus tree,” then marked enthusiasm. Apparently, if you drove up, slowly, at night, along one of the narrow car paths on the college campus, you could see what appeared to be a head and arms growing out of the massive trunk and perpendicular branches of a tree. It looked eerily like the crucifixion – it could be nothing else. My uncle, behind the wheel, quickly located it for us all. Approaching slowly, I squinted but could not see it. Could not see what they were all talking about, when suddenly – bam! – it was like spotting a constellation for the first time. It was just there, abruptly. Jesus, crucified. In all its terror and majesty. I saw it; it could be nothing else. Goose bumps sprouted up and down the flesh of my arms. So lifelike, ironically, this tree with strange growths resembling nothing but Christ in death.

My uncle mentioned something about someone splashing red paint on the tree. I don’t know if it was just a rumor or something that had happened long before. Even in the odd lighting and shadows, I’m sure there was no red paint on this tree. Regardless, twenty feet away, in the headlights of the car, at the edge of the lane, I could swear I was looking upon the Cross. We made this pilgrimage a part of our Sunday night drop-off rituals; the last time I saw it was probably in the spring of 1981.

I did a couple of brief Google searches, unsuccessful, to see if I could come up with anything more current. Something concrete, factual, to lend support to my anecdote. There was a hint that the tree was cut down in the early 90s, but the link I clicked on failed to give relevant supporting information and I was unable to even determine if this was the same tree I saw. But I’ll keep hunting around in my down time, usually around four in the morning when I can’t sleep.

Uncle T – or Uncle J, you were at Fordham, too – if you’re reading this and know anything, please, comment!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Apocalypse Forever

Despite all the useless demands on my time
I’ve kept you on my mind …
The hours and days and the clocks moving backwards
Thirteen o’clock – why must these things run in 26-hour cycles?
Sentenced in burning deserts and over melting ice floes
Over blistered pavement lined with creeping vines
I’ve kept you on my mind …
Fat ol’ sun keeps on smiling
Sunny yellow moon is climbing
Dirt and dust and sand and ice
The weeks and months and the shadows I’ve known
Four hundred forty-four – why always that number?
Like some leering super-intelligence a half-inch away
A game – sure, why not? – a game a day
Your life to gamble. No! Several million lives
A penny for a pound and a piece of pretty flesh
All that I’ve known and all that I’ve seen
All that and the unshaved face in the mirror
Visions of frozen towers of ice and iron
A shack in the woods – “there’s a dog in the woods!”
Will I be forever alone, covering these well-worn paths
time after time after time after time
I’ve kept you on my mind.

Best sung over a fast and droning A power chord, with G’s and D’s thrown in at the chorus. The best version I ever heard was with Søren Kierkegaard at the mic and both of us under the influence of far too many Grolsch lagers.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Swamped Part CXXXVIII

I was planning to pen a short review of Borges’ “The Theologians,” similar to what I did yesterday for “The Immortal,” but I’m a bit swamped today. The Little One is at school until 3:30 and Patch is at the sitter and my wife is at work, so it would seem I have an ideal writing situation set up. Unfortunately, there’s a pack of angry creditors at my door and a checkbook to balance, doctors’ and their accounts receivable ladies to speak with, a house that’s in dire need of a cleaning, laundry to get done (we were away over the weekend) or at least filed away discretely in hampers, a major decision to make on where Little One will be attending kindergarten which requires a PhD dissertation of reading and research. And I caught a bit of the black dog to top it all off. So I may go out at lunch time for a bowl of Chinese food. Eat it while watching a good old-fashioned monster movie. Then it’s off motoring to pick up the little chickens between 3:30 and 6. Return to the ranch to cook up some cheese macs for them as the wife’ll be working late tonight. Get ’em all in bed then see who gets booted off of Idol (a terrible vice of mine). Finally, between 9 and 10 pm, half a day away, I’ll return to Borges.

Until then, let me leave you with a nice little quote I found, by the Spanish existentialist poet-philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset:

The hero’s will is not that of his ancestors nor of his society, but his own. This will to be oneself is heroism.

I like that a lot.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Immortal

WARNING: here be spoilers …

“The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges

What would it be like to live forever? To never taste death? Or, for that matter, disease, corruption, and possibly never to feel pain? Would that be heavenly, or a hell?

While our natural, immediate choice would be, perhaps, to consider it hopefully, in varying degrees of disbelief (and I say this from the perspective of one who spent too much time recently in a serious condition in a hospital), I think you know the answer deep down to that last question.

But nobody can quite make a metaphysical point like Borges.

A withered antiques dealer, himself an antique, sells a princess an old copy of Pope’s Iliad, whereupon she stumbles on an ancient manuscript. Old, ancient, antiques … right from the get-go we have some idea where this story is heading. But it is in the manuscript, ostensibly by the hand of a Roman tribune, where the story’s ideas concerning immortality are found.

Marcus Flaminius Rufus has the misfortune to encounter a dying man at the sands of the Nile. The man comes from the East, and is searching for the river of immortality, a river that winds through the ravines that cloak the City of Immortals. Dying before Marcus can satiate his curiosity, the Roman puts more easterners to the blade until the story becomes clear. Outfitted with a partial legion, he sets off with the proconsul’s blessing in search of this fabled city.

The heat of the desert, baking men’s bodies and men’s brains, the thirst that leads to desertion and mutiny – Marcus’ ill-launched expedition is not immune to this. The tribune flees, barely ahead of the assassin, loses his loyalists in a sandstorm, and awakens in a shallow grave carved in the side of a mountain, one grave among many, and finds himself surrounded by mute ascetics at the foot of … the City of Immortals.

And driven by that mad thirst, Marcus drinks of the river of immortality.

The days flow countlessly into the weeks, the weeks, months and years. A mute falls headfirst into a well and seven decades lapse before his companions throw down a rope. Marcus finally manages to engage one in conversation after – miracle of miracles! – a rainstorm, and he discovers his new friend is none other than Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

As his sanity becomes more and more questionable as the years escape, Marcus begins to understand immortality. It is summed up in a few horrifying sentences in the story: “They all knew that in an infinite period of time, all things happen to all men . . . Homer composed the Odyssey; if we postulate an infinite period of time, with infinite circumstances and changes, the impossible things is not to compose the Odyssey, at least once . . . I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon, and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.”

Woe if LE ever became immortal! Every book in every library would be read, once, twice, a dozen times; eventually a memory as fragile as mine would memorize all books, and once all memorized, all would converge into a blur of grammar. Every occupation would be had, tried, and ultimately succeeded at. Even the fine art of cocktail party chit-chat. Wives, friends of both sexes, children and their children, all would age and die, never knowing they were watched by my ancient eyes. The promise of reward, the promise of salvation meaningless. Woe indeed! Salt would lose its saltiness, and the light on the hill would fade – why indeed light it at all? Why care for the body, this unchanging, unvarying thing we wear? Why care for anything at all? For LE realizes that immortality is hell – immortality, that is, without God, Who does not grace this Borgesian tale.

But what happens to Flaminius Rufus, you ask? Eventually – and that word “eventually” does take on an ironic connotation speaking of immortality – eventually he and his cursed companions startle upon this simple datum: If there is a river which grants immortality, might there not be a river which takes it away? They scatter throughout the world in search of this second river, and the final paragraphs of our tribune’s manuscript is littered with details of his search – towns of the Hegira, Arabia, the Norman Conquest of 1066, astrology in Bohemia, discussions of philosophy with Giambattista Vico. But he does find that second river; the pain he receives from a small cut on his arm confirms this. All that remains, then, is for him to put his past to paper and pen.

Then, a shocking realization. Marcus is a solder, no? A Roman soldier, despite the centuries and centuries of wandering. As he finishes his tale, he notices something odd. Something not quite right. Yes, he’s a soldier, yes, he’s participated in the wars of the Middle East and in Europe. But … the details. The eye for details … a poet’s eye … the splendid and fancy words of one who knows – like those of Homer’s.

In an infinite period of time, with infinite circumstances and infinite changes, the impossible thing is … not to have been Homer. “I have been Homer; shortly, I shall be No One, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall be all men; I shall be dead.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Patch at the Puppy Party

Here's the Littlest One ... Normally I don't post family pics and stuff, but this was too good to pass up.

Medical Update

Today is the 90-Day Anniversary of my hospitalization.

Physically, I’m doing okay, although all the doctors seem to be amazed that I’m still vertical. That kind of scares me a bit. I feel in almost perfect health except for two slightly disturbing items: I still get an ouchy feeling when I inhale deeply, and I still get out of breath fairly easily. In fairness to the medical establishment, I was warned about both. The ouchiness is due to the scar tissue inside my body, the healing process, and I will continue to feel them over the next several months. I wonder if the damp weather affects it, too. And the shortness of breath is just an ongoing symptom I’ve had for over three years now. The hospital gave me a cylinder I breathe into which measures my lung capacity; so far it hasn’t diminished, and my doctors think that’s good. I’m also instructed to begin walking for the purpose of expanding my aerobic endurance, and to track my progress.

Mentally, I’m in a better place, obviously. For one thing, I’m not in a hospital. Those places’ll kill ya. More importantly, I was let go from the grinder I worked at, thank God! I have money for a little while. Probably not enough until the economy turns around, though. So that’s a source of stress. As is the discrepancy in the futures I envision for myself and others envision for me. Still, though, that stress is far and away more tolerable than that insane asylum I slaved for. More thoughts on that – as anonymously as possible, for the sake of all parties, of course – once the severance runs out.

Spiritually, still struggling. Oh the sinfulness of man! How we drown in the quicksand of our fallen natures. I had such a spiritual renewal – who wouldn’t? – with all those IVs and catheters in me. Three very deep conversations with the priests from my parish. The daily Eucharistic ministers, breezing into my room like wandering minstrels, giving me physical and ethereal sustenance. And the promises I made! … And yet, still I struggle to be faithful, to live up to a small measure of what I babbled under the waves of morphine, waiting to be opened up and, possibly, cured. Perhaps I am too hard on myself. A priest in the confessional once told me I was. Which is why I make efforts to go easier on myself, knowing that the Father would want the same. Still, though …

The third week in May I meet with my cardiologist, but I anticipate little here. However, the past two times my blood pressure’s been taken the results were a little high, 140 over 90, so that’s something to discuss with him (“Let me write you a prescription for some b. p. medication” – “Noooooooo!”). The end of May I go in for a CT scan, and this is where all the cards’ll be turned over. My electrocardiologist really, really wants to see what that pulmonary vein is doing – as do we all, I suppose. Is it closing, or staying open? So much is riding on that short, simple question.

That’s where we stand at Day 90. I am enjoying life a bit more, I think, taking it a bit more easy. Even the sound of the Littlest One crying is now music to my ears …

Weekend Update

Ah! Relaxation …

Spent the past weekend visiting our best friend out in Pittsburgh. It was basically a testosterone-free forty-four hours, really, surprisingly enjoyable: my wife, my two daughters, our friend, and her three daughters, the oldest of which was having her sixth birthday party and the youngest two being twins, age three.

Let me reiterate: it was surprisingly enjoyable.

I’m not one for the small-talk chit-chat cocktail party scene, and even more so do I dread – and I mean dread – the uncomfortable parents-taking-children-to-other-children’s-birthday-parties scene. So, to my pleasant surprise, the ladies let me off the hook Saturday afternoon and allowed me to hide, monk-like, in an upstairs room with my books. I reciprocated later by helping clean up various rooms at various times as the pre-adolescent hurricanes tore regularly through the house.

I feasted on some mighty fine organic veggie lasagna, some broccoli pasta, homemade pancakes and plain old scrambled eggs, which I don’t have very often. Went a bit off my diet by indulging in some brownies, but hey, with all the cupcakes and chips and cheese doodles the little ones were assimilating, I think I did a pretty good job. Remember, this is my heart I’m eating for (actually, my pulmonary vein). Got to do some yoga, too, and watched some very funny SNL skits.

What did LE get done? Well, I finished Augustine’s On True Religion. The first go-round. Did not understand most of it – no, that’s not exactly true. I understood it as I read it, it made sense to me intellectually and intuitively, but once I finished I realized that I could not adequately summarize the book and its message in a post. So, I’m re-reading it, slowly, noting stuff that I found remarkable and profound. I always had a fascination and a deep respect for Augustine, finding somewhat of a kinship with him, I suppose, having read his Confessions many years ago. I’m about a third-way through the second reading. I think I’ll put a book by Pope Benedict in the batter’s circle after this.

Also put away two very, very awesome stories by Borges: “The Immortal,” and “The Theologians.” I think I’ll post some thoughts about them tomorrow and the day after. I can only shake my head and hope that one day I may write something half as good.

The trip to and from Pittsburgh went better than I expected. Let me just say that for all the bad publicity GM is getting right now, Chevy Impalas ride like you’re on a cloud. We made the trip, one-way, in six hours both times. Hit a lot of sporadic heavy rain showers and some traffic resulting from numerous convoys of eighteen-wheelers, but I found the highways actually fun to drive. And I hate driving. The girls were excellent – even Patch, who, at seven months, had to man-up and skip a feeding so we could maintain our schedule.

All in all, a good time had by all!

Thanks RL!