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


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.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Theology Lesson 2

Two theological items I came across this past week, both in my various reading. Perhaps you might find something here interesting?

First, I came across a unique analogy skimming through an online book by John C. H. Wu. Don’t know much about him, except he’s one of those converts who seemed to soak up the faith, dangerous and alien to his culture and environment, immediately and exponentially and had the power to spread it with the same force.

Two of my dozen interests (passions, to varying degrees) are physics and Catholicism. Never before have I read a connection between the two. Until now.

Mr. Wu suggests in a footnote a comparison which those of you who are familiar with the saints may find intriguing. In The Science of Love, he states that the theology of Saint Teresa of Avila compared to that of Saint Therese of Lisieux is analagous to the physics of Newton compared with that of Einstein.

Hmmmm. What the heck does that mean?

I dunno, but I think it would make for a good post in itself. Of course, after much study, thinking, and prayer.

Second, as Catholics, we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That is, through the process of transubstantiation, instituted during the mass, the wine and bread becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I wrote about it at length here. The main point is that Christ is really present in the wine and bread.

Now, while reading a book on saints, I came across a paragraph stating that, traditionally, it has also been believed that the Real Presence is also in Scripture. The actual Bible, the physical book you can hold in your hands. Christ is really present there, too.

Wow. I had never even thought that or about that, nor had I ever heard it before. So I extend it here for your consideration, with the caveat that I don’t have anything official to back it up save this one book I read it in. If I find it in the Catechism, or something more weightier, I will pass that information on. At this stage, to me at least, it ain’t what we call dogma.

But it’s still something I find quite mind-blowing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pet Rock

His name was Louis.

He was black, round, craggy. Could fit in the palm of my hand. Spent most of his short life on the painted ledge of my window sill. All the neighborhood girls would come to my window. They acted like they wanted to see me, but I know better. They wanted to see Louis.

I told them all, Stephanie, Jennifer, Mary Ann, Florence, and, of course, Cathy, I told them all that he was volcanic. Spewed out of Mount Vesuvius. You know, the volcano that covered Pompeii with hot, poisonous ash and left all those mummified and contorted bodies. That’s what I told them. I have an active imagination. They might have believed me.

Actually, I found him at our local swimming hole. Stubbed my toe on him; the original meet-cute. Picked him up and I just knew his name and his whole backstory. In reality, he was a chunk of tar from the paved road a few yards away.

Regardless, Louis was the star of my block that July. And me, too, by a degree of separation.

Then, one day, he fell off my shelf, and broke in two.

Louis had done the impossible: he had reproduced via some sort of macroscopic mitosis.

Now I had Louis and Clyde; double the attraction. So I thought. Suddenly, the zeitgeist had shifted. The moving finger, having writ, moved on. Louis was no longer the “It” rock.

At first I blamed Clyde. Instead of my palm-sized pet, I now had two irregular-shaped friends, one larger than the other but both small. No longer was Louis larger than life. In fact, I held a press conference from my bedroom window. Stephanie, Jennifer, Mary Ann, Florence, and, of course, Cathy showed up. I made my announcement.

Louis had died. So had Clyde.

There was an immediate commotion: Was there to be a burial? Any last words? What had happened, exactly?

No! No more questions. I pulled the shade closed. Once the girls had all departed, I placed Louis and Clyde in the pocket of my bathing suit.

That weekend we went back to the lake. I walked to the water’s edge and withdrew my friends, placing them down at the gentle shore. “Go, now,” I whispered. “You’re free …”

They sat there motionless.

“Go, damn you!” I cried. “Go!”

Still, they stayed.

I ran to the edge and picked up my pet rocks in my hand. I squeezed them one last time, thinking of all the memories of that week in July. Then, I hurled them out towards the center of the lake.

The lifeguard blew a whistle at me and told me to stop throwing rocks at the other swimmers, but I paid him no heed.

Wiping a tear from my eye, I went back to the picnic table where my family sat, and had some barbecued chicken.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Night Out

Ahh. Tonight, the wife and I are going out by ourselves. This is a very, very rare event. Due to a combination of unavailability of quality baby sitters, lack of funds, and a lack of nearby relatives, we hardly ever do this. In fact, I think this past year we went out by ourselves, just the two of us, exactly … one time.

For my birthday two months ago my wife bought tickets to see comedian Jim Gaffigan. You’d know him if you saw him. He kinda became a cult favorite with us watching his Comedy Central specials while channel surfing. Though he has some gig on a regular mainstream sitcom, we never watch it for some reason. But he does do a recurring skit called Pale Force with Conan O’Brien (where he and Conan are two very pale animated superheroes) and it is quite hilarious.

Here’s one of his funniest standup bits:

So my mother’s coming over around noon to watch the little ones. We’re gonna head out, drive down to our old alma mater, where the show’ll be. My wife got a recommendation for a pretty decent Italian restaurant where we’ll grab a bite before the show. Should be a great time; I’ve been looking forward to this for eight weeks now.


Friday, November 20, 2009

In the Cornfields

Onward through leagues of sun-illumined corn,
As if through parted seas, the pathway runs,
And crowned with sunshine as the Prince of Peace
Walks the beloved Master, leading us,
As Moses led our fathers in old times
Out of the land of bondage! We have found
Him of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote,
Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph.

Can any good come out of Nazareth?
Can this be the Messiah?

Come and see.

The summer sun grows hot; I am ahungered.
How cheerily the Sabbath-breaking quail
Pipes in the corn, and bids us to his Feast
Of Wheat Sheaves! How the bearded, ripening ears
Toss in the roofless temple of the air;
As if the unseen hand of some High-Priest
Waved them before Mount Tabor as an altar!
It were no harm, if we should pluck and eat.

How wonderful it is to walk abroad
With the Good Master! Since the miracle
He wrought at Cana, at the marriage feast,
His fame hath gone abroad through all the land,
And when we come to Nazareth, thou shalt see
How his own people will receive their Prophet,
And hail him as Messiah! See, he turns
And looks at thee –

From Christus: A Mystery (1871), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Strangers on a Train

[Spoilers galore!]

Last month I posted some thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock and his films, here. I concluded with the observation that Hitchcock himself noted: a viewer has to see any one of his films three times before he “gets” the movie. Not only is that a sharp comment business-wise, I think it’s true.

I bought Strangers on a Train and watched it three times over a three week period. With each viewing I discovered something new about the film.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Guy Haines … Farley Granger (Hitchcock wanted William Holden, who declined)
Bruno Anthony … Robert Walker
Ann Morton … Ruth Roman
Miriam … Laura Elliot
Barbara Morton … Patricia Hitchcock
Senator Morton … Leo G. Carroll

The movie is about two men with no connections performing “each other’s murder.” At least, that’s what dandy psychopath Bruno Anthony proposes. He meets tennis player Guy Haines on a train by accident, and the two strike up conversation. Bruno knows Guy from the sports pages and, also, the society page. It seems Guy is trying to get a divorce from his two-timing faithless wife Miriam so he can marry Senator’s Morton’s beautiful daughter, Ann. Problem is, Miriam, pregnant with another man’s child, has just decided she doesn’t want that divorce, now that Guy is moving up in the tennis world. Over drinks Bruno suggests that he get rid of Guy’s problem, and Guy will get rid of Bruno’s – in the person of his distant but domineering father. No motives, and no connections. Guy sees that Bruno isn’t all there up there, and humors him: “Sure, okay, Bruno. Riiiiight.” Then, a few days later, Bruno appears outside Guy’s apartment with Miriam’s shattered eyeglasses …

Hitchcock’s main motif here is “intersecting doubles or pairs.” From the opening minutes, the criss-crossing train tracks, the pairs of feet (Guy’s and Bruno’s) walking through the train station. The two women, Miriam and Ann’s scene-stealing sister Babs, with key ostentatious eyeglasses. Then, also, the blind man in glasses Bruno helps cross the street moments after pocketing the murdered Miriam’s glasses. The pair of young men who accompany the flirty Miriam to the carnival on the night of her death. The pair of distant, authority-figure fathers, Senator Morton and the all-business industrialist Mr. Anthony. Bruno even makes a point, emphasizes the fact, that he’s ordering “doubles” – drinks – for he and Guy during their initial meeting on the train. And though Guy declines at first, he’s soon downing his drink with his new acquaintance. Even Hitchcock’s cameo (there’s one in almost every one of his films), the portly director is struggling to haul a double bass – his physical twin – up the stairs into a train car.

There’s also plenty of contrasts in the film, too, an old, old directorial device that was probably well-used by 1951. Primarily and obviously we have the contrasting characters of Guy and Bruno. Bruno is Guy’s id; Bruno is the uncensored (and unhinged) underside of the civilized Guy. He acts on Guy’s innermost desires (i.e., to “get rid” of Miriam). Early in the movie we see Guy at the train station talking to Ann, telling his girlfriend how his wife now won’t grant him the divorce – “I could just strangle her!” he shouts, just as a train storms by howling its siren (and linking Guy to Bruno and Bruno’s immoral plans in our minds).

But there’s even more straightforward contrasts. Foremost is Bruno watching Guy and a policeman from the distance of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Bruno, standing tall in a black suit, contrasted against the large white pillars of the monument. And there’s a long, tense segment of the film where Hitchcock flips back and forth between Guy’s brightly lit tennis match and Bruno struggling to reach down into a dark, dirty sewer to retrieve the lighter in which he aims to frame Guy. (Guy’s lighter, by the way, features criss-crossed tennis rackets and the inscription, “from A to G”; though we’re told it stands from “Ann to Guy”, might it not also refer to “Anthony to Guy”?)

I also noticed Hitchcock’s fascination with shadow. Guy’s apartment is always filmed semi-dark, with the camera slightly lower than Guy filming up. We see the rectangular shadows against the walls behind him, forming something like prison bars. It reminded me of the famous scene in Suspicion, where the light coming in from an upper window forms a spider-web lattice in shadow for Cary Grant to move about. And speaking of prison, when Bruno first calls out from across the street at Guy’s apartment, he’s behind a sliding gate that very obviously calls up the image of a prison cell. Interestingly, Guy, talking to Bruno from the other side of the gate, sees a police car arrive and jumps behind the gate (and into Bruno’s cell) in panic.

There are other miscellaneous bits of technique I noted in my three viewings: Bruno’s clawed lobster tie prefiguring his penchant for strangling; silly Mrs. Cunningham, who Bruno play-strangles at a party as a surrogate for his ditzy mother; the weird stop-motion photography when Bruno goes into a trance during the encounter with Mrs. Cunningham; the name of Bruno’s boat, Pluto, the god of death, as he sets off to follow Miriam to the Tunnel of Love; the dog at the top of the stairs at Bruno’s house, suggestive of Cerberus, the canine monster-thing that guards the underworld.

As far as watching a Hitchcock movie three times, I would say that I caught 50% of the above with the first watching (my wife watched with me, so she called out interesting things as she saw them, too). The second watching, alone, brought maybe 40% to my attention. The third and final time was really just a reinforcement of what I’d spotted before. The only new things I saw were, I think, a magazine called “Suspense” in Bruno’s train compartment, and a book titled “Murder!” at Guy’s shoulder in the Morton’s apartment. Oh, and Bruno seemed to get more and more effeminate with each viewing.

So, I’d suggest that if you really, really are a Hitchcock fan, buy his films and watch them as often as you like. I think once or twice a year is fine. The creepy, dark ones in the fall and winter, the more light-hearted and adventurous ones, such as the later films with Cary Grant, in the spring and summer. If you just want a good experience in teaching yourself how to spot good film techniques, watch one of his films twice within the span of the week. Really do it; it’s fun and find yourself really getting into the film.

The creepiest scene in Strangers on a Train? That’s easy. There’s a scene midway, as Guy is trying to avoid Bruno while simultaneously being hounded by the police, when he’s coming out to the tennis court for a match. You know how spectators in the crowd slowly turn their heads left, then right, then left, then right, during a tennis match, following the volley? Well, that’s what Guy sees as he sits down. Then, something catches his attention. Slowly, the camera starts panning towards the crowd … then it gains speed .. zooming in to the center of the crowd. Guy’s face shows startled shock as he realizes there’s one head not turning, not following the action. One head, one face that’s unmoving, focused only on Guy. It’s Bruno.

Grade: A+, of course

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Da Vinci Hoax

I finally got around to reading The Da Vinci Hoax, about five years too late. Note the title: that’s Hoax, and not Code.

Written in 2004 in response to all the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code twaddle, it’s been on my radar to read but with my incredible self-feeding black hole of books to get to, I never got to this one. Sad, in hindsight, because it does perfectly what it’s supposed to do: Prove to the discerning reader that Brown’s novel is a really an awful work of pure fiction, successful only due to the rampant anti-Christianity prevalent in 21st-century America.

A quote from the Hoax’s closing pages:

“Imagine a novel based on the premise that the Holocaust had never happened but was the invention of a powerful group of Jewish leaders who have used that ‘myth’ to garner themselves power and fortune. Or consider a theoretical novel claiming that Mohammed was not a prophet at all but a drug-addled homosexual who married multiple wives in order to hide his deviant behavior and who killed non-Muslims in fits of rage against heterosexuals. Needless to say, such novels would be immediately and rightly condemned by a majority of critics and readers. Yet The Da Vinci Code, a novel claiming that Christianity is fraudulent, that the Catholic Church is a violent, misogynist institution run by murderers and liars, and that androgyny is the answer to life’s problems has met not with condemnation, but with incredible success and even significant critical acclaim.”

Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel, writers who I’ve followed online for the past couple of years, do a commendable job of systemically dismantling each and every one of Dan Brown’s allegedly well-researched talking points.* The nature and identity of Jesus Christ, gnosticism, paganism, Mary Magdalen, Constantine, the Holy Grail, the Templars, you name it – if Brown distorts it beyond all logical belief in his novel, Olson and Miesel set the record straight. With over 540 footnotes and over 110 books in the bibliography to support their conclusions. And they do it in a manner I found both interesting, informative, and – importantly – non-inflammatory. In other words, in a very Christian manner they correct Brown’s errors spread about the faith.

Another significant point from the Hoax’s closing pages:

“Some readers, puzzled by the concern over The Da Vinci Code, insist that it is ‘just a book’ or ‘only a novel’. However, what we read says much about who we are, both individually and as a culture … The Da Vinci Code is custom-made fiction for our time: pretentious, posturing, self-serving, arrogant, self-congratulatory, condescending, glib, illogical, superficial, and deviant. It has managed to tap into a deep reservoir of spiritual longing, restlessness, distrust, suspicion, and credulity.”

Don’t buy into the Dan Brown nonsense, even if you see his novels in the bargain bins at the used book store (which I often do). It’s not ‘just a book.’ But if you want to sharpen your knowledge of true historical and theological Christianity, the stuff you don’t necessarily hear in the pews every Sunday, pick up this book.

* Brown cribbed most of the “theory” for his novel from the 1982 book Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. He even named one of his protagonists Leigh Teabing, from those authors – “Teabing” is an anagram of “Baigent.” Despite this sort-of acknowledgement, Baigent et. al. unsuccessfully sued Brown for copyright infringement.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Jobs Summit II

Something I forgot to word into yesterday’s post:

I have heard an economist say, off the record, that …

During periods of normal economic growth, multiply the government’s officially announced unemployment figure by 1.5 to get some idea of the actual percentage of people out of work.

During a recession, multiply their number by 2.

It’s a good rule of thumb when listening to the news and commentary.

Remember, no matter who is in power, the main goal is not to serve you or help you. The main goal is to remain in power. And for the party out of power, the main goal is to get back into power. You (really, just your vote) are only a means to that goal. So are statistics.

This is the end of my public service announcement. You may now resume your normal Internet surfing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jobs Summit

It was announced sometime last week that President Obama was going to hold a Jobs Summit at the White House in the near future. His position is that despite saving the economy from a massive meltdown by an infusion of debt called the Stimulus Package, businesses are just not hiring. Unemployment is hovering in the low double-digits, and Obama and his advisors are scratching their heads over how to solve this problem. So they’re going to invite a diverse group of thinkers – economists, intellectuals, and even union leaders – to debate how the government can create more jobs.

Okay. Deep breath. Where to begin?

How about a disclaimer. I am not an economist nor am I active in politics. But I am an intelligent man, a college graduate and avid reader and writer, and I was laid off eight months ago for economic reasons. I’ve met with three headhunters. I’ve applied to over twenty jobs online, even to an opening with my wife’s employer. I’ve mailed out over 140 resumes and cover letters to targeted local businesses. All this effort has resulted in securing for me exactly one interview. I was one applicant among several for the position, and was turned down because I was overqualified. Which I was.

So I have direct experience of the Obama Recession. I am a victim. I am one of the underclass. Doesn’t President Obama view me, therefore, as a constituent? Don’t I make up his base, at least theoretically? So, shouldn’t he be interested in what I have to say?

I don’t think so, considering what you’ll be reading in this post.

I know how to end this recession, get the economy booming, and get us back to normal employment.

It would necessarily involve President Obama changing his game plan, though.

But first, let’s address the question of why businesses are not hiring. I think the reason’s pretty straightforward. They are uncertain of the future, so they maintain their status quo, try to make do with what they have at the present moment. Like ships floundering in a storm, they throw overboard all the non-essential equipment (and sometimes even personnel) that they can and row hard back to port with whatever’s remaining. Another way of stating this uncertainty, a way that I think is fair, is to say that American businesses are, by and large, scared.

Why this fear, this uncertainty of the future? The stock market is slowly recovering, sort of. But businesses are not expanding, not growing, not hiring. Heck, banks aren’t even lending to them to aid them to do so if they wanted. Banks are sitting on their money. The entire private sector is acting very, very cautious. Kinda like a socially awkward kid at a dance, trying to fade into the background, motionless against the wall to keep from being noticed. So, why all this fear?

I think it’s because American business is scared of President Obama’s agenda. By “agenda” I mean all that he and his advisors have done, are doing, and said they want to do. It also includes the discrepancy, both perceived and actualized, between their words and their actions.

Do you agree?

I think it’s as simple as that. If I’m wrong or off the mark, please, let me know.

So, how to turn this ship around, and get back some prosperity?

First, drop the overhaul of the health care system. Half of the population doesn’t want such a drastic and rushed razing and rebuilding of one-seventh of the economy, one so extremely vital and important to us all. If the pressing emergency is the xx million uninsured, address them. Fix Medicare/Medicaid and roll those uninsured into the new revisioning. Whatever. Then, begin work on a half-dozen separate bills designed to address specific problems in the health care system. An important bill should address tort reform, which is rarely mentioned in soundbites but I think is a big chunk of the problem. Keep the bills simple, specific, and unladen with pork. Aim to get two passed a year. By the end of his four-year tenure, President Obama will have fixed the leaks in our health care system. And businesses will not be terrified they alone will be footing the bill.

Second, cut taxes across the board by ten percent. Why the heck not? Put government on a diet and give the guy on the street ten percent more of his paycheck to put in his pocket. He’ll either spend it or bank it, so we’ll have that much more consumption or investment. Either way is a prescription for a bustling economy. Same thing for businesses. Let them keep more of their money. They’ll also consume or invest, and hiring employees is a major investment businesses will have to make to expand.

Third, give incentives for businesses to hire, in the form of tax credits. Again, why the heck not? Let’s assume an average new employee costs a business $100,000 a year in salary and benefits. Give the company a $5,000 tax break if they keep the employee a year. Or prorate rate the credit depending on the length of employment. It’s a drop in the bucket to a business but it will change perspectives and have a long-term positive effect. Right now, CEOs and CFOs are looking at every new hire primarily as a liability, rather than an asset.

This thinking is undergirded with the old-time American philosophy that we are not in a class war. Indeed, there is no such thing as class warfare. What is good for the upper classes, the “owners of capital” as one nineteenth-century German intellectual once phrased it, is good for the lower classes, the “workers” or “proletariat.” It’s a symbiotic relationship. How can it not be? How? How is the success of one not bound up in the success of the other?

This thinking also has a proven track record of success. Again, I’m not a political scientist nor an economist, but I have read that similar measures have been taken, successfully, going back to Calvin Coolidge, and more recently, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Even Bill Clinton stopped pushing through Hillarycare when he saw how unpopular it was throughout the country.

Can we just put the financial well-being of the country first, above ideology?

Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Besides, I think I know the answer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Theology Lesson

... Passing on a couple of things I learned recently ...

Q. What makes God laugh?

A. When you tell Him your plans. He has other, better ones for you.

Q. What makes God smile?

A. When you perform little, unexpected, and often unappreciated acts of love throughout the day.

Q. How does a child spell Love?

A. T - I - M - E.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pumping Gas

Hey, I never thought I’d be saying this, but why can’t we pump our own gas in New Jersey?

Every other state I’ve been to you’re allowed to pump your own gas. I lived in Maryland for two years and pumped my own gas. My family had a weekend home in upstate New York for ten years and we pumped our own gas. For the past five years my parents live in Pennsylvania. When we visit them, we pump our own gas.

Everywhere except New Jersey.

Why am I venting?

I’m sick and tired of wasting ten minutes filling the tank when I can be in and out in three.

I’m sick and tired of dealing with surly, underpaid attendants at understaffed chain gas stations.

I’m sick and tired of said attendants looking at me like I’ve just handed them a cuneiform tablet etched on a dog turd every time I hand them my debit card.

I’m sick and tired of attendants hanging back by the fuel door, refusing to come up to my window to ask me what I want.

This morning it’s pouring out, and I’m rustling a five-year-old and a one-year-old out to do errands. First thing I need to do is gas up the car. There’s a station about a half-mile down the highway that’s just a block away, it’s situated along our errands and at least has a roof over the pumps so we all won’t get soaked. I’ve had problems there in the past, but I keep thinking that things will have changed.

I get there and there’s one dude working sixteen pumps. Shuffling along from car to car, in no particular hurry, y’know, it’s Saturday morning. He’s got an iPod on; that’s a bad sign. I make eye contact with him as he nears, then he suddenly remembers he forgot to check the pump on a car four rows back. He’s gone for five minutes (I watch the clock on the dashboard), and I turn the ignition on and get back on the highway.

There’s another station right next door, but it’s a little inconvenient because the exit takes you to a side street instead of back on the highway. I’ll deal with the extra driving. I pull up to a vacant pump, and some dude in a snorkel approaches and camps out by my fuel door. He’s talking on an ear-phone in some other language, so I don’t know if he’s talking to me or not. Great. I pretend to shuffle through my wallet until he finally comes up to the window and holds out a hand. “Fill it with regular, please,” I say, and give him the debit card.

I’m out of there in under five minutes, though.

Look, I understand these guys are paid next to nothing, have no benefits and what-not, have to deal with busy self-important jerks in their cars (really, I try not to be one), and have to work in all kinds of inclement weather. I understand the job basically sucks. But it doesn’t have to be forever. My brother pumped gas for a summer or two while in college. Then he moved on. And you don’t have to approach it with a crappy attitude. I know, I know. I myself have often failed to live up to this basic standard of human interrelating many, many times. S flows downhill, S standing for Stress or Something Else That Begins With S. So it’s a power trip for these guys to make me stick my head out the window and shout how much gas I want.

Oh dear. I need a break … Or the opportunity to simply pump my own gas.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Clarke's Laws

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is famous, among many, many things, for coining three laws concerning Science-with-a-capital-S and, well, the way we think as human beings, I guess.*

I’ve only seen the last one with any frequency in books about science and science fiction. In Michio Kaku’s interesting little book which I’ve been thumbing through this past week, I’ve come across all three laws stated in full. Want to hear them? They’re all fairly commonsensical, but with a neat little twists to make them memorable and pithy.

Clarke’s First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Possibly formed in honor of Lord Kelvin, the eminent British physicist of the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to a couple of his pronouncements, here, I think he may also have been the source of the (para)phrase “All that remains in physics is to measure out the decimal points.” In other words, everything worthy and worthwhile has been discovered, all that’s left is to fine-tune our measurements. Physics is a dead-end science. All this said on the eve of the incredibly revolutionary discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Clarke’s Second Law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

I like this one. It’s poetic in a way. I agree with the often-heard commentary that the word impossible should be stricken from language, both one’s personal self-dialogue as well as anything said or written for public consumption. Impossible self-limits us as individuals and as a society. Nothing is impossible; everything is a matter of will, resources, and time. And no, I do not think these ponderings are in violation of Matthew 19:26. Think about it.

Anytime anyone, anywhere or anyhow, says anything is Impossible, red flags must go up. I’m talking more red flags than you’d see at Pamplona when they let all them damn bulls run free. In my imagination I see a multi-gazillionaire philanthropist creating a school for a hundred exceptionally bright and gifted students, and at the start of school on a crisp September morning, he hands these kids a list – a list of all the things that have currently been labled as “impossible” – and he clasps his hands and says, “Now, children, get to work!”

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This is the one you’ve most likely heard if you’ve read anything in the science/science fiction nonfiction field. It’s also the one most fun. Used as something like a hind-sight tool, you can go back in literature (or even history) and hypothesize what “magical” phenomena might have been. Merlin’s spells, such as when he transformed Uther’s features to resemble a rival king?** Crystal balls or palantirs? We’re on the verge of that technology, or will be in a few years. Some have spent their days writing how the Ark of the Covenant was a great electrical battery.

Star Trek: The Original Series, the series I’m most familiar with, used this Law frequently in episodes. Kirk and Spock would find themselves on some planet with an apparently primitive society. They’d make contact with various members of the populace who were being oppressed by evil rulers or beings who used “magic” to keep them in line. Spock would deduce the actual technology behind the magic, and Kirk would go ahead and free the enslaved, Prime Directive be damned. For a kid, it was instructive. Like solving a mystery.

For my thoughts on Mr. Clarke, a great (though flawed in some respects) writer, scientist and engineer, who died last year, see here.

For a review of The Fountains of Paradise, the latest Clarke novel I’ve read since the awesome Rama series I put away in the early 90s, see here.

More tidbits from Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible in the days to come.

* Odd note: as I was typing the end of this sentence, I typed human begins instead of human beings. I like that. It’s very teleological. It kinda denotes our humanity as a starting point. We’re not “beings,” we’re “begins.” Now, the supreme question is: Where are we heading? And I’m not necessarily talking about us as a species, but as individual, specific begins. Hmmm?

** Also, I seem to remember, didn’t Merlin experience time backwards? What would be the purpose of that, and what device could possibly produce such a magical effect??

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Worm Moon

Little late in posting this since the November full moon was ten days ago. But let’s go full-force forward, eh? Nerds-with-guns-a-blazing-type stuff.

A couple of years ago I stumbled on some trivia that I had never heard before. Nothing Earth-shattering, but neat for an amateur astronomer. Did you know that there is a traditional name for every full moon? Probably goes back to our agricultural days, I reckon, when farmers with blades of grass in their teeth stoically mumbled about plantin’ and harvestin’ times to one another. They’d develop a personalized name for each moon as a kind of short-hand so they’d know what season or time a’ year they was referencin’. Anyway, just another one of the many things we’ve sadly lost as we have evolved as a culture towards city-dwellin’ and then suburban livin’.

Because there’s about a tiny bit more than 29-and-a-half days between full moons, on average, every two-and-a-half years, again, approximately, there will be two full moons in one month. One at the very beginning of the month, and the other at the tail end. This second full moon has generally become known as a “blue moon.” (Though technically it’s not quite the official definition.) Next month will have a blue moon in it. Bring that up at your New Years’ Eve parties, ’cause it’s happening December 31st .

But most of the time we have one full moon per month. Each month’s full moon has its own name. Most of the time more than one, as the following list shows:

January – Old Moon
February – Snow Moon, Hunger Moon, or Wolf Moon
March – Sap Moon, Crow Moon or Worm Moon
April – Grass Moon or Egg Moon
May – Planter’s Moon or Milk Moon
June – Rose Moon, Flower Moon, or Strawberry Moon
July – Blood Moon, Thunder Moon or Hay Moon
August – Green Corn Moon or Hay Moon (again?)
September – Fruit Moon or Harvest Moon
October – Hunter’s Moon or Falling Leaves Moon
November – Frosty Moon or Beaver Moon
December – Long Night Moon or Cold Moon

Most non-astronomer-types have heard of the Harvest Moon. I’ve known of it myself for at least twenty years (I was a huge Neil Young fan in the late-80s). A Harvest Moon can actually occur in October every so often, because it is precisely determined. It’s the first full moon that falls closest to the autumnal equinox, the first full day of Fall, September 22 or 23. A full moon can occur up to fourteen days before or after this date, so a Harvest Moon can occur anywhere between September 7 and October 7.

My goal is now to somehow use the phrase “worm moon” in everyday conversation over the next week. Possible examples:

Chatting the economy with my local bank teller – “Yeah, I’ve been out of work since Worm’s Moon Eve” (March 10). Just rolls off the tongue.

Reminiscing with the neighbors – “Can you believe we still had snow on the ground last year at Worm Moon?” Neighbors enjoy such arcane references.

On the phone with out-of-state friends – “Well, we’re kinda tapped out until Worm Moon next year; then we’ll be able to drive out and see you guys.” You’ll spend at least $1.05 in long-distance phone charges wasted in silence as they try to figure out what you just said.

The possibilities are as endless as my wife’s patience is not. In any event, I bet from now on you’ll always remember the traditional name of the March full moon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Junior Junior Tennis

Well, it seems the Little One has a new passion in her short life: tennis.

It began back in July. We spent a weekend at a relative’s summer house, which just happened to have a badminton court. Little One showed a desire to play with the big kids, so they humored her, but what she also showed was a talent with a badminton racket. After the games ended, both my aunt and my wife worked with her and to their surprise she was able to hit the birdie over the net more often than not with a heckuva good swing for a not-quite-five-year-old.

(Just a quick background note: My wife started playing tennis, at her own prompting and no one else’s, around the age of six or seven. She’d spend hours volleying off the garage door. Some lessons followed, then junior tennis and high school tennis. She went to two colleges on tennis scholarships, and at her peak was ranked somewhere in the top one hundred women players in the United States … My maternal aunt, her husband, and one of their daughters are all active in tennis, having played for many, many years. They even had me and my brother out on the court when we were little ’uns. My cousin coaches at a local high school. So, my Little One has some definite, invaluable advantages already going for her …)

Her birthday was about six weeks ago, and my aunt and uncle bought her a junior tennis racket and a bag of balls. She immediately took to it, and we had to teach her, with a little verbal force, not to swing the racket in the house. You know, glass cabinets, flat screen TV, one-year-old sister, etc. So she makes the knob of the door leading out to the deck the permanent hanging place for the racket and her net of balls. Hint hint?

About three weeks ago my wife and I went out to the deck. It was a beautiful fall day before the leaves fell, almost shorts weather, and we spent a good hour, hour-and-a-half out there. My wife began the first lessons: shake hands with the racket, trace out the letter “C” in the air, hit with one hand, hit with the center of the racket. Before we knew it she was belting them off the deck, over my wife’s head and out in the yard. I positioned myself out there and she had me running all over the yard.

The problem is, she gets a little greedy and whacks away with both hands on the racket, swinging for the fences. That iconic image of Mark McGuire swinging at the plate, breaking the home run record in all his ’roided glory, flashed through my mind. Later, I think I see flashes of Serena Williams digging in and smashing them over the net with incredible force, but that could only be parental pride peeking out.

So we keep reminding her to hit forehand with one hand. Yes, she’s still lacking a bit in strength, being only five, but it will come, my wife assures her. And she’s already working on the head game with the Little One. Psychological coaching. Did you notice how you felt when you blasted that ball way over Daddy’s head? Or, did you hear that nice fat sound when you hit the ball with the center of the racket? Yeah? Didn’t it feel good? Yeah? Remember that feeling!

We’ve been out about four times already, and I’m going out again with her later this afternoon after Patch goes down for her afternoon nap. Now that autumn’s fully here I have to spend about ten minutes sweeping leaves off the deck. We have a broom handy to scoop out balls that ricochet and wind up underneath the deck. As a corollary we’re also working on throwing overhand (underhand tosses are still a bit random), and I noticed she’s got a deceptive arm, hurling something like a knuckleball or slider at me. She takes about fifteen minutes to get warmed up, normal according to the wife, during which she slices and hooks balls here and there, and sometimes even completely misses. But she stays focused, and soon she’s volleying them straight over me out into the yard. Sometimes they go into the neighbor’s yard. Sometimes she fires one right at my head and I have to duck or else eat a Penn (and maybe lose a tooth).

My wife is working late tonight, otherwise she’d be out there with us, tossing the ball at the Little One, coaching her, praising her, both of them ecstatic. And I would be out in the yard, waiting for the yellow balls to come flying over the deck wall.

I will gladly spend hours in the yard chasing every one of her sky-high returns, without complaint.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

That's Funny ...


“Radio has no future … Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible … X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”

- Lord Kelvin, c. 1899

“The (atomic) bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.”

- Admiral William Leahy

“If you haven’t found something strange during the day, it hasn’t been much of a day.”

- John Wheeler

“If time travel is possible, then where are the tourists from the future?”

- Stephen Hawking

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka (I found it!) but That’s funny …”

- Isaac Asimov


Monday, November 9, 2009

A Game of Thrones

(c) 1996 by George R. R. Martin

A Game of Thrones is, hands down, the best fantasy novel I have read since The Lord of the Rings. And I read Tolkien almost thirty years ago. Admittedly, I’m not a true disciple of the genre, but since that time, I’ve read the Stephen Covenant books, Stephen King’s forays into the field (The Dark Tower series, Eyes of the Dragon), C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet stuff and some of his Narnia stuff, and a bit of Robert Jordan’s never-ending Wheel of Time series. All while gritting teeth, I might add, books read for reasons other than pure aesthetic enjoyment. But this book by Martin is the best I’ve read since the Rings trilogy all those long years back. However, this is not to infer that the two series are alike.

No, A Game of Thrones is much more Arthurian than Elves and Dwarves, Orcs and Ents. This world is comparable chronologically to ours circa 500 AD. Yes, there are dragons in the novel, there are witches and black magic, perhaps; Martin is a very, very good at, among many things, quietly hinting at such things, leading you to believe that such dark and nasty oddities cannot exist in his world, yet, when they do, you are simultaneously shocked at the revelation and disappointed in yourself for not seeing it coming down the haunted trail.

But at its heart A Game of Thrones is a thoroughly modern story. It is Arthur for the 21st century. The story that unfolds must be something similar in framework to what developed from the intricate web of alliances and betrayals that was the canvas for pre-World War I Europe, or the growing global conflicts of World War II or the Cold War. Martin’s work hails a cast of hundreds, led by a score of major characters, who live and breathe with more reality than those dry and dusty figureheads from European history less than a century old.

The book starts with the one essential template to create a fantasy world: there’s a map of a strange water-girdled continent. Towns, citadels, rivers, mountains, and something called The Wall in the north. As we read, we discover that the land consists of seven vague kingdoms or “houses” that have been united under a single kingdom for an undetermined amount of years. It appears now shakily ruled by King Robert, a hard-living, hard-drinking monarch who has no desire to rule, only to conquer. An advisor dies, or perhaps is murdered, and our hero, Ned, lord of one of the Northern Houses and boyhood friend of Robert, is summoned to court to serve as the King’s Hand.

There are at least four forces that want to wrest control of the land from Robert’s hand. Some close to the king, some far away in exile, some hiding in woods and dangerous mountain passes, and some possibly not even human. Ned’s family finds itself the unwilling center of the conflict. He, his wife, his trueborn son and his bastard son, his two younger daughters, even his seven-year-old boy – all grow and find themselves scattered to the far corners of the world, reacting, fighting back, deceiving and being deceived. And sometimes merely trying to survive as great events quickly bring the kingdom to the brink of war and beyond.

Was that an adequate teaser? I’m trying not to give too much away. So, let me just say that by novel’s end, 800 short pages later, four major characters will unexpectedly meet their demise. More than a few minor ones, too. All unanticipated. Something truly incredible will happen in the last couple of pages. Jaded me thought I had it all figured out, where Martin the author was going, but it turned I was thrown from my figurative horse. Pleasantly though, as I got up laughing with the crowd and wiping the manure from my leggings (keeping with the medieval theme, see?).

Martin’s genius is that he knows how to make your blood boil. First, he carves out characters for you as real as the last person who touched you (or the last person who cut you off in traffic). Next, he places them in a rich, vivid world, at once both hypnotically attractive and somewhat dreadful. It passes the test, the one which gets the reader to ask himself: What would I do if I lived in this world? Then, each and every chapter, without exception, unwinds a terrible revelation, or a gripping conflict, be it life-threatening or an intense face-to-face confrontation we spend most of our waking lives avoiding. Everyone will eventually get his or her ultimate comeuppance, though it may take hundreds of pages, for the god of Martin, though vengeful, is just.

How good is A Game of Thrones, the first book of what Martin calls A Song of Fire and Ice? Well, I paid him one of the best compliments I can pay any author. I went out and bought the second book in the trilogy (Or tetralogy. Or … ?). Yes, poor sadsack me, denizen of a hundred used book stores, actually bought a new book. So a sale is registered for Mr. Martin, and he gets 45 cents from me. Fine enough and well deserved. But even more important, this next book, A Clash of Kings, gets moved ahead to the front of the line, after two dozen other books, books that have been sitting on my shelves for two or three years, for immediate reading, probably later this week. It’s that good.

Grade: A+.

NOTE 1: See here for my pre-review of Thrones, a shorter but more enthusiastic mid-term grading.

NOTE 2: I just found out that HBO has been casting all throughout the fall for a pilot episode for a series on A Game of Thrones. Hmmmm.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The 85% Rule

Attention Regular, Occasional, and Accidental Readers of this blog:


85 % of what you will read here is completely, utterly, and oftentimes painfully true.

10 % is exaggerated hyperbole – real experience stretched to varying lengths to make a point or to engage in dramatic emotional manipulation.

5 % is complete and utter b*llsh*t.

Thank You.

The Management.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

One and the Same?

Watching the opening ceremonies at the Olympics last year, I was shocked to see the idol from my youth, Jimmy Page, on a moving float with some chick:

He let his hair go completely white (he was 64 at the time), tying it into a short ponytail. Seeing his choice of wardrobe for the high-profile five-minute segment, I had but no choice to refer to him as "George Washington" to my wife, who wondered who the heck he was.

But now I'm rethinking it. Since I've been reading a whole bunch of light Physics-for-the-masses books, I realize that I may have stumbled upon a minor conspiracy. Take a look:



Is it even remotely possible - hear me out, okay? - that these two men might be the same person? I mean, can anyone prove that they are not? All right, I know you can't prove a negative, but I would settle for a photo of the two on stage, together, somewhere. Hmmm. Okay, there's probably no event on the planet where these two men would be on the same podium. But still I wonder. Kaku's been extremely active over the past two decades, while Page really hasn't ...

Oh, enough of that. Bad joke, I admit. (It seemed infinitely better in my head a few days back.) The six or seven of you regulars don't come here for the komedy. Jimmy Page is and always will be the greatest guitar player of all time. I can still play half the songs from the Led Zep catalogue, and would still buy anything he put out. And honestly, the way the man abused himself in the 70s, I should look as good when I reach his current age.

Michio Kaku is one of the greatest populizers of physics writing over the past two decades or so. I read his first book, Hyperspace, a dozen years ago and have read a couple more since. I am currently surfing through his latest, Physics of the Impossible. He's always readable, humorous, and interesting. The book has got me thinking, and it's packed with a lot of fascinating esoterica, which never ceases to draw me mothlike to the flame. Great, great stuff. I think I'll post some little tidbits here and there throughout the upcoming week.

Friday, November 6, 2009

1960s Physics Book

How I loved that book! I hope it is not lost to the ages, or more precisely, lost to me for the ages. May I describe it to you? All right, and if you can help out with a title or anything, any clue or hint, well, I’d be more than obliged. I’d be indebted.

It was a physics book, one aimed at kids, printed sometime in the middle 1960s. Hardcover, oversized. It had about a hundred pages, maybe a little more. On each and every page were colorful illustrations and diagrams. Little stick figure men danced around contemporary models of atoms. Pre-Apollo rocket ships illustrated relativity. Two whole pages devoted to the Periodic Table.

The text was aimed right at me at this age, I’d guess, a ten-year-old boy, and it didn’t talk down to me. Nothing was cutesy or overtly simplified to spare my self-esteem or tainted by political correctness. It had a utilitarian, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work, pre-Hippies-1960s-America attitude about it. You know: Science can do everything and anything It set Its mind to, and didn’t have to declare war on Faith to do it. But perhaps my overfond memories are reading too much into it.*

My mother, working as a librarian, brought it home for me one late spring day, and I kept it within arm’s reach through the long, hot, air-conditioner-free summer. While the family watched one of the three or four stations on TV, I laid on the floor and thumbed through it. I must have read it a couple dozen times. Not sequentially, but subjectively, that is, by subject. But I read, studied, analyzed, and practically memorized every page in that book. I loved the texture of the pages, the age-faded colorful hues, the smell of the binding glue.** For all I know I slept with it.

Around this time I started reading science fiction. I got a five-book paperback set of Isaac Asimov for Christmas that year that I read through systematically.*** I began my methodical attack on the SF section in the local library. I would page through the two sets of encyclopediae we had at home and study every science-related article that had a chart or table or color plate. I think this lost physics book started that whole ball rolling.

Fifteen years later I would attend Seton Hall University as a physics major. I only lasted three semesters before dropping out for ultimately unimportant reasons, but I still had the physics bug (and still do). I loved the classes – the classrooms, the chalkboards, the lecture halls. I loved getting the textbooks the first day of classes; I often ignored assigned homework and read different chapters. I loved the theory behind the phenomena and the theory behind the equations. However, I had absolutely no hands-on ability, and no patience for solving problems-at-the-end-of-the-chapter. I just wondered at the ideas which encompass the subject of physics.

I’ve spent about three hours total online searching for it over the past couple of years. A few minutes here, twenty minutes there, that sort of thing. Whenever I remember. So far, no luck. I don’t even recall what the cover looked like, but if I saw it again I would recognize it instantly. Maybe I’ll go online later today when the little ones are napping and search again. Once I get a title, an author, a publisher, I would expect to be able to buy it from any one of those rare book sites, or even eBay. I’d skip lunches for a week and drop $50 on it if I could find it. Maybe even more.

Man, I loved that book.

* Though I don’t think so.

** I realize I may have mentioned my enjoyment of the smell of binding glue more than once on this blog, and I hope it doesn’t come back and haunt me when I go up for a trumped-up morals charge sometime in the next ten or twenty years. Just to be absolutely clear, this has nothing whatsoever to deal with altered states of consciousness. It refers much more to the fact that some scientific research suggests smells can contain the strongest triggers for our memories.

*** The Bicentennial Man, The Caves of Steel, The Gods Themselves, Nine Tomorrows, and Pebble In the Sky.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Distant voices called out to me, but I lay on the mattress motionless. Visions and portents, omens and dreams, countless sights and scribbles, one following another, though somehow I knew I was in that withdrawal men call awakening. I listened, immobile, only the blackened tips of my fingers twitching, dancing on linens, or perhaps that was my imagination. I lay and listened to the distant voices.

Soon said voices resembled greater and greater the disembodied cry of terror. I discerned shouts, screams, the twin moans of panic and pain. Women’s voices, though I’ve heard (don’t ask me to recount) men’s voices risen in timber when the terror turns too magnificent a burden. Squeals as children squeal quickened my heart a piece, but still I lay motionless upon the mattress, eyes unopenable.

An uninvited acrid smell pried them apart. Nausea and the singe of disgusting fumes invaded me. I gasped unexpectedly harsh; a tremendous fit of coughing blew spittle across the walls. My alarm increased geometrically – no, hyperbolically, for though I did not know who I was, where I was, or why I was, I sensed extreme danger and realized I simply could not move.

Burning, I realized; something nasty’s burning, and I prayed it wasn’t human flesh. I hesitated, not wanting to breath in, not daring to breath out lest a cry escape my lips and call attention to myself. But I gave in, and, surprisingly, joyfully, I was able to turn to my side, testing both the components of the air and the joints in this unfamiliar body. Both were unwelcome, though not as badly as I might have first assumed.

Treated wood, it was, I believe, the cause of that horrid smell. Wood and fabric, perhaps grasses and other foliage. But there was a distinct unnatural odor in the air, too. Nevertheless, buildings or houses nearby were aflame. I squinted through the haze in my room and the tears in my eyes and after an endless moment I was able to resolve my whereabouts. A small rectangular room, something like a monk’s cell. Stone and mortar, and I breathed a sigh of relief, for at least the flames at the edges of my awareness would not engulf this room, at least before I had time to flee.

My body had not been so safe, it seemed. I had been bandaged about my torso, my left shoulder, my left leg, and around my head. The wrappings were dirty, stained with grime and old blood, much to my dismay. The thought of infection occurred to me – was I given antibiotics? – but a quick glance at the table nearest the bed indicated only a pan and pitcher of water. There was a dull ache behind my ears; perhaps a blunt object struck me back there in the near past? I inspected my fingertips: black from caked mud beneath the nails.

It was also impossible to steady their shake.

Carefully, cautiously, I pulled my legs up, fearful of reopening any wounds. A sharp flare of protest from the left leg quickly warned me to proceed very slowly; with minor adjustments I was able to shimmy to the edge of the wooden cot with its straw-stuffed mattress and throw the right leg over. Bracing my upper body with my right elbow, I pivoted up to a semi-sitting posture with a minimum of groaning, and only a dull throbbing pain generalized in my left extremities. As I raised myself my sight and my very self swam for a moment, and I feared falling. More nausea, but only for a brief moment, for at that exact instant an explosion, nearer than I would have desired, rocked the small stone cell.

I was clothed as a soldier, it appeared to me on narrow inspection, though of whose army I knew not. Anyway, the uniform didn’t feel right – and not just the fit. I wore fairly new leather boots on both feet, which clicked heavily on the floor, cold stone covered by the short fur of some large gray animal. The blue yellow-lined pants were torn and dirtied, and my bloodied white shirt held epaulets of two sapphire emblems.

Thirst! I had never, ever been as thirsty in my life as I was in that moment. I think, at least, for all I knew of a life previously was blank and void. The burning smoke – yes, a darkening haze of smoke entering my cell through a small aperture across from the bed – the burning smoke made my dry throat painfully raw. Pray to God, I hoped, that the bedside pitcher was filled with water.

Unsteadily did I rise to my feet; indeed, I almost tottered over. Two short steps brought me to the table and I seized the pitcher with both hands, splashing water to my mouth and greedily gulping it down. The water was pleasantly warm and tinged with some spice. I downed the whole thing in a half-a-minute, and paid the immediate price for avarice by vomiting half of it up.

A second explosion, louder this time, punched at the air in the cell. The pan fell from the table, shattering. I tossed the empty pitcher on the mattress and wobbled over to the aperture. Not quite a window, its sole purpose must have been ventilation. I had to stand on tip-toe to see out of it, but it was wide enough to allow me to rest my chin and fit my whole face. I held myself steady with my hands, my bandaged left side turning up the tactile volume of its protests angrily.

The scene before me was nightmarish; I don’t know exactly why but I had the vague sense that I had seen it before. Apparently my position was in some sort of keep on a hill of variable steepness; below the whole landscape opened up before me in vivid spectacle. A cove brought what must have been normally tranquil waters directly up to the shore a hundred yards below, splitting in half a small port town. To the left sat a few modest buildings and acres of full fields, to the right a half-dozen docks extended out into the cove, attached to larger wooden enclaves and a walled stone castle, nearer to my view.

On both sides of this inlet flames leapt hungrily through the air, hundreds of feet into the air.

Three large sea-going vessels, double masts, still bobbed tied to the docks. They were neither burning nor crewed. A fourth double-mast floundered adrift near the center of the cove, motionless except for perhaps a slight backward drift. Its sails were still furled; it must have come unmoored from the docks during the commotions.

Closer to my position a different type of vessel, with rounder and different hued sails than the docked vessels, was sinking.

And closer still were two similar ships – one moored at a dock below me, the other approaching rapidly and soon to be docked. The smoke thickened and spiraled about the landscape, making it quite difficult to see detail, wet black clouds rolling in on the wind from the enflamed fields a mile or so to my left. I had to rely on other senses. Outside the screams and shouts magnified in volume and diversity, given the overall impression of surprise and confusion. The clang of metal reached my ears, punctuated with several more minor sounds of explosions – gunpowder, instinctively I knew, though I knew not how or why.

Then I knew exactly what was happening.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election Returns

Well, for the first time in twelve years, my state will be governed by a Republican. Not a RINO, but as close to a true conservative, I suppose, as we could get. Chris Christie is pro-life and pro-family. And coming from a career in law enforcement, he’s quite tough on crime and corruption. Which is what New Jersey desperately needs.

Along with tax relief.

I got the break-down of my town’s election results in an email this morning:

Christie, 1805 (54%)
Corzine, 1317 (39.4%)
Daggett, 204 (6.1%)
Other, 18 (0.5%)

I’m actually surprised it was as close as it was, with the discontent we’re feeling up here over exorbitant property taxes and the mire that is the Obama Recession. Chris “Jesse Ventura polled as low as I consistently have and still won” Daggett failed to impact the election one way or the other. What also amazed me was that 18 of my fellow neighbors voted for such candidates as the Green Party or the Socialist Party or any of the other six fringe parties on the ballot.

I’m happy, I guess. Doubtful anything substantial will really change since, well, this is New Jersey. Thinking the big man will sweep into office this January and immediately slash taxes on individual wage earners as well as businesses is probably wishful thinking. The temptation to put a hand in the kitty is far too great for most politicians to realize the basic formula:

a) Lower taxes = more money in my pocket = more money I spend and invest = a more bustling and robust economy

b) Lower taxes = more money in your local business’ coifers = more money to invest in growing their business to make greater profits = greater demand for new hires = a more bustling and robust economy

If I’m wrong here, please, let me know. And yes, PROFIT is good. My wife makes a pretty good profit from her work, and you know what? It goes to paying the mortgage, the utilities, and to feed and clothe the family. Too much, however, has been going to Jon Corzine and Uncle Sam.

But I doubt too much will really change. No doubt it will send a message to Obama and force him to temper his aggressive and disagreeable agenda. In that it’s a good thing. And there might be some property tax relief. Still, though, as soon as we’re able to get some return on the house, probably not until the economy’s turned and not for a while after that, as soon as we get what we put in plus a few dollars more, we’re outta here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Are You Doing?


It is related that while Gaoan was leader of the community at Yunju, whenever he saw students who failed to comprehend his devices in private teaching, he would take them aside and upbraid them in a most serious manner, saying, “Your parents nourished your body, your teachers and companions formed your mind. You are not oppressed by hunger or cold, you do not have to toil on military campaigns. Under these conditions, if you do not make a dedicated effort to accomplish the practice of the Way, how can you face your parents, teachers, and companions?”

There were students who wept on hearing the words of the enlightened teacher. This is how correct and strict his order was.

- Anecdotes of Qiean

[Selection quoted verbatim from Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, by Thomas Cleary]


Monday, November 2, 2009

Sunday NFL

Two random thoughts watching the first half of the Giants-Eagles game yesterday:

1. I think the Giants should donate this week's salaries to charity.

2. Who would have been a more effective deterrent to Philly's offense ...

... the Giants defense?


... one hundred Patches?

My money's on the Patches. There'll be a lot of crying on the field and that'll distract McNabb's play calling. And one hundred Patches equals two hundred chubby sticky arms to wrap around Eagle receivers and running backs. Plus, there will be no discernible pattern to the Patches lineups; that alone will unnerve Andy Reid, causing him to rethink his game plan.

But who knows, really? I handed the remote over to the wife halfway through the second quarter and went out to rake leaves.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Day

To call attention to just a few, who have very seriously influenced and, yes, even helped me over the years …

St. Joseph … to be a better husband, father, and worker.

St. Paul … who lifted that metaphorical-but-oh-quite-so-real lead dentist’s vest off my chest with the words of Christ.

St. Francis de Sales … to be a better writer, in both how as well as what I write.

St. Francis of Assisi … for providing a beacon of what a man can and should attain in this world.

St. Thomas Aquinas … for keeping me grounded when I’m tempted to treat the silly thoughts of man as ultimate wisdom, and for showing me how to think.

St. John the Evangelist … for writing the loftiest Gospel.

Sts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke … for their witness of Jesus Christ.

St. Teresa of Avila … for helping me learn to relax and trust.

St. Ignatius Loyola … for the truest example of a soldier of Christ.

St. Josemaria Escriva … for whispering in my ear how to live day-to-day.

As well as future saints, such as John Paul the Great and Benedict, and a few others ...

May God bless them all!