Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Vay-Cay



Well, we’re back. 1,725 miles later, we’re home, safe and sound, from our week-long voyage down to Hilton Head, SC.

It was a good Christmas, I might add. We drove down to my in-laws in 14.5 hours on Thursday, the 23rd. The next day we went to 4 pm Mass and actually had seats. My father-in-law did his Feast of the Seven Fishes, although we combined them all into three courses.

Christmas day brought presents, plenty of presents. As you probably know, it’s primarily for the little ones. And as far as I can tell, they were all quite pleased with this years haul. For myself, the wife gave me Quadrophenia, the double-CD rock opera by The Who, a paperback The Planet of the Apes, the 1963 source material by Pierre Boulle (the same author who wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai) that started that late-60s early-70s phenomenon, and the Rush concert/documentary CD, Beyond the Lighted Stage. I also got some fine merino wool shirts and a pair of B&N gift cards. Little One bought me a stress ball “to squeeze right before you start yelling at me.”

There was an uncomfortable dinner party afterwards at their friends’ house (uncomfortable meaning for me because I didn’t really know anyone). Sunday brought Mass again plus snow – Snow! – in South Carolina. There was some drama because up in NJ we got 30 inches. Fearing a possible ticket and fine if we didn’t get our walks shoveled, we had to contact a buddy to plow our walkways. Thanks, Steve, plenty of cold beer and Chambord coming your way tonight.

Watched two terrible New York football losses, but we did so in front of a roaring fire, so it wasn’t that bad.

The rest of the week basically consisted of Nana and the wife doing nice things for the girls – taking them to the stables, to Build-A-Bear, to the park, to the outlets to get properly-sized outfits. My father-in-law was back in his office, so I basically floated back and forth between their house and our hotel room, reading, thinking, and studying. More on that last part later.

Oh – I went to B&N and bought Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. I really only know about a paragraph of information about the book, from a New York Times book review, but it was enough for me to purchase it. Stephenson delves deeply and richly, Tolkien-like, into an earth-like world, focusing on a monastery where math and philosophy are studied without the benefit of technology. There’s some sort of an “extraterrestrial threat” (love that phrase) that requires our hero to leave the order and do some heroic deeds. I read Cryptonomicon way back when I started this blog, and it took me five months to machete my way through it. So, it seems that once I’ve finished The Lord of the Rings and The Planet of the Apes, I’ll turn my word-weary eyes towards this epic.

Helped install a flat screen and upgraded cable box for my in-laws, and also get everything controlled by one remote. With only two calls to tech support.

Little One came down with a mean sinus infection – so bad it was coming out one of her eyes. A visit to one of the emergency centers scored some antibiotics and steroids for her, so she improved by visit’s end. Unfortunately, she passed her germs on to me, her sister, and my wife. The night before we left I only got about three hours sleep. We left yesterday morning, sick and highly caffeinated, at 7:12 am, and pulled into our driveway, 825 miles later, at 9:16 at night.

Still trying to figure out if we’re healthy enough to go over our friends’ house for New Year’s Eve partying.

On behalf of me and mine, I wish you and yours a happy, fun, and safe New Year’s Eve!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Accomplishments


Wow. This year went faaaaaaast. So much done, yet I still seem to be in the exact same spot (read: dilemma) I was in a year ago. But I want to focus on the positive here, as we all should in the waning days of December.

What have I accomplished in the past twelve months?

Hmmm.

I edited my two science fiction novels a third time to send out. Sent the best one to a fairly established literary agent.

Wrote an 11,000-word novella that I’m quite pleased with, aimed at, oh, say a “tween” audience.

Collected eight rejection letters for a couple of short stories sent out to a couple of magazines.

Attended two writing seminars – one a 90-minute lecture on the biz by a literary agent who’s done everything over the course of a 25-year career, one a Q&A by a young, established Broadway playwright.

Completed about 50 percent of my two other websites – one on the Apollo Space Program and the other on fringe weirdities. Goal is to make a few bucks a week from them. They’ve been lowest of my priorities this year; next year I need to bump them up.

Maintained my blog-a-day par here at the Hopper, which included two week-long vacation stays down in South Carolina. The only layoff was my brief stay in the hospital in June. I think that daily writing habit is now fully established.

Speaking of hospitalization, went through my eighth surgery done on my pulmonary vein. Always had three lung scans done. Not really accomplishments, but my behavior through them all was so exceptional you’d think I was going to the dentist for a teeth cleaning.

Changed 1,620 diapers per my estimation. Sat with my oldest daughter for close to a hundred homework and special projects sessions.

Soldiered through thirteen children’s birthday parties (not including those of my own), one pool party, and seven trips to the town pool. I’m not a social butterfly, so this is astounding for someone like me.

Chased roughly 600 tennis balls my daughter hit off the backyard deck. Proudly watched her weeklong tennis lessons in South Carolina followed by a four-week lesson in my town. A month later watched her for a dozen soccer practices and eight games. Yes, this is an accomplishment for me, due to the proximity of myself with coaches and other parents.

Read 47 mostly fascinating books, 24 short stories, and 4 lengthy essays. Each and every one has shaped me, my writing, my thinking, and my ideas.

Gained 7 pounds over the first 11.5 months of the year, then lost 7 pounds. Did just shy of a hundred heart-healthy workouts.

Applied to over two dozen online job postings, sent out over 70 personalized letters and resumes to businesses in my industry in my area, made contact with an old colleague, and done follow-up when and wherever possible. Did a phone interview – I was good but lacked experience in one critical area. Though my efforts are still not fruitful, I’m gonna say I’m making progress.

Performed my Eucharistic Minister duties at my church a dozen times without messing up! Whew!

Kept the wind- and wave-tost skiff LE afloat for another year, keeping creditors and all the other hands reaching for my wallet at bay. How I did it I can’t quite say, but thank you, Lord, for answering (most) of my prayers.

All right. Now go and think about what you’ve managed to accomplish in 2010.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Top Ten Epic Songs


Let’s have a Top Ten list, shall we?

Okay!

How about, “Top Ten Epic Songs” …

Hey LE, what is an “epic song”?

Well, there are no hard and fast rules, but there are some general guidelines. Obviously, an epic song has to be long. Let’s set a minimum at six or seven minutes. It should also have several distinct sections to it, differentiated by different keys or time signatures or musical-slash-performance style. And it has to have an absolutely undefinable quality of “grandeur.” It has to have majesty and know it. That kind of an attitude.

Now that I’ve coalesced the elusive idea of an “epic song” from nebulous to sketchy, here is my top ten list, in a vague sort of ill-defined order:

10. “The End” by The Doors

I was very much into this song and the Doors my freshman year at college. I can’t tell you how much courage I had to summon to admit that. But the music is good, as is all the music of the Doors, with the exception of some over-played radio tunes.

9. “1984” by Jimi Hendrix

Truly a masterpiece! Runs chills up and down the arms, still. For ages I’ve been trying to figure out how to make a post out of this song. Could be the first science fiction-themed rock song. I don’t know, but I do know this song is jaw-droppingly epic.

8. “Drown” by the Smashing Pumpkins

Went through a huge Smashing Pumpkins phase in the early-to-mid 90s. This song is off that Singles soundtrack. It’s epic. There are also a couple of selections off of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness I could have included on this list (“Porcelina” for example) but could not, alas, due to space restriction.

7. “Prophet Song” by Queen

Betcha thought I’d say “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This is much, much better. You have Brian May slide-guitar, studio effects, end-of-the-world lyrics, and a Freddie Mercury a capella signature piece lasting two or three minutes that’s simply mind-blowing and deserves to be studied by mankind for millennia.

6. “And You and I” by Yes
5. “Starship Trooper” by Yes

Yes is an epic-song generating machine. And there are no better examples than these two masterpieces. Try this: buy these two songs and pipe them through a quality stereo system at about 110 decibels, making sure you are the sole occupant of the house. Listen to both these songs. If you are not reduced to a quivering pile of jelly by the sheer awesomeness of what you have just experienced, you are not human.

4. “2112” by Rush

Rush, too, is quite at home with epic songs (“Xanadu,” my favorite). But this 20-plus minute phenomenon, a whole album side for those of you who remember what an album was, is the best definition of “epic” so far on this list. It’s got it all – a half-dozen motifs, different keys, styles, tempos, and a romantic – in the 18th century definition of the term – theme about the little man and life! triumphing over the machine.

3. “Three Days” by Janes Addiction

Best epic song in terms of pure guitar crunch factor. A somewhat sleazy beginning followed by nonstop chugging throwback power chord acrobatics for five minutes, concluding with perhaps the most ethereal couplet of chords ever to grace mine ears.

2. “Terrapin Station” by the Grateful Dead

First heard this January 9, 1996. That’s right, I remember the date. Not a big Dead fan, but this song is not really typical Dead, at least what you might hear on the radio. My first thought: (exclamatory expletive) These guys can play guitar! Why wasn’t I informed?!? My second thought: This is one sublime sixteen-minute epic song.

1. “Dazed and Confused (live)” by Led Zeppelin

Just like you never forget your first girl, you never forget your first epic song. This was mine. Completely shocking to my fourteen-year-old ears. Such an eye-opening experience that I was never completely the same again. No – “Dazed and Confused”, the live version from The Song Remains the Same changed me. Never again would I see a violin bow and not envision Page playing an audience of 10,000 as he did that sunburst Les Paul. Songs-within-songs like an Escher painting. A twenty-six minute odyssey of, basically, the guitar of the 1970s. The wah-wah pedal. That fat bass. Bonham’s tinfoil crisp power drums. Still awes me to this very day.

Those are mine. What are yours?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Next Level Tolkien II


All right. Here are the answers to the pop quiz I offered last week.

1. Read the concise Ainulindalë at the beginning of The Silmarillion for the best treatment of who and what the Valar are. I always viewed them as archangel-type having analogues with the gods of the ancient Greeks.

2. Saruman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and two “blue wizards” named Alatar and Pallando.

3. Númenor was destroyed by the Valar for attempting to seize the Undying Lands. The faithful of Númenor landed at Middle-earth and set up the kingdoms of Arnor (in the north) and Gondor (in the south). Tragedy struck the heirs. Arnor split into three kingdoms and faded under Sauron’s influence. Gondor survived under the Stewards.

4. Wow. That would take up a full day of writing – I don’t get paid for this, you know! Consult the appendices in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. A working overview of the Ages makes for clearer reading of the Rings.

5. See previous answer. Read the short and sweet Akallabêth found in The Silmarillion for the history and downfall of Númenor.

6. Vilya, the Ring of Air, with a blue stone, wielded by Elrond; Nenya, the Ring of Water, with a pale stone, worn by Galadriel; and Narya, the Ring of Fire, with a red stone, given to Gandalf by Elven lord Círdan the Shipwright.

7. Four Dwarven Rings were consumed, with their owners, by Dragons. Three Rings were recovered by Sauron. The last was taken from Thorin Oakenshield’s father while undergoing torture in Dol Guldur. (Thorin plays a big role in The Hobbit.)

8. Glaurung, Ancalagon the Black, Smaug the Golden, Scatha the Worm.

9. Ungoliant, Shelob.

10. The Noldor and the Sindar.

11. Grey Havens, Rivendell, Lothlórien, and the Woodland Realm.

12. Try it!

13. Old Forest, Fangorn, Lothlórien, the Mirkwood.

14. Elves led by Gil-Galad and Men (Númenoreans now in Gondor and Arnor) led by Elendil. Both died in the Battle. Elendil’s eldest son Anárion died early in the siege. His youngest, Isildur, was killed by Orc arrows two years into the Third Age when the One Ring he was wearing slipped off his finger as he was swimming a river to escape.

15. Yikes! That’s another dissertation. Suffice it to say that the prime antagonist of The Lord of the Rings was a maiar gone bad. Followed Melkor, survived First Age overthrow. Became fair, seduced Elves, forged One Ring. Beaten by Númenoreans than worked his seductions on them. Beaten at the Last Alliance; can no longer assume bodily form. Waited patiently, gained strength, hunted for Rings in Third Age. You know the rest.

16. One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum ishi krimpatul.

17. Sauron, Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, the Balrog, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, the Ainur, the Valar, the Maiar, Eru / Ilúvatar. Did I forget any?

18. Aragorn is descended of the long line of kings of Gondor, Arnor, and Númenor. Denethor is descended of the long line of Stewards of Gondor, tasked with running the kingdom until the king returns.

19. Consult the short chapters of XIX for the story of Beren and Lúthien and XXI for Túrin Turambar in the Quenta Silmarillion.

20. Three jewels of exquisite almost unearthly beauty containing the light of Two Trees of Valinor. They were fashioned by the greatest craftsman of the First Age, Fëanor. They were stolen by Morgoth with assistance from Ungoliant. One was recovered from Morgoth by Beren. The other two were recovered by the Valar after the great war of the age, only to be stolen again by two sons of Fëanor. Ultimately, one was cast into a great chasm, the other into the sea.

21. Ered = Mountains; Amon = Hill/Mount, Emyn = Hills/Mounts; Minas = Tower, Dor = Land, Dol = Hill/Mount, Nan = Vale, Valley; Tol = Isle/Island.

Monday, December 27, 2010

An Enemy of the State



© 1980 by F. Paul Wilson


In searching for the paramount adjective to describe this book, a lot of words flashed through my mind: strange, odd, unusual, niche, allegoric, economic. It’s that last word that’s demanding to be heard, pushing and shoving its way to the front of the line. Okay. The book is best described as “economic” but not in the sense of “efficient” or “concise”. This is a science fiction novel that has “economics” at its core.

Now, if you’re like me, chances are your eyes glazed over at that last sentence. Economics has been famously defined as “the dismal science,” but to me it will always be known as “the boring sorta-science-y thing.” Which is a shame, because the topic of its study affects us all on great and small levels, every single day. We’re all woefully ignorant of economics, myself included.

But I must admit I liked it. Particularly because I liked the setting, the characters, and the philosophy by which the protagonist, Peter LaNague, lives. Because although LaNague chooses to wage his David-versus-Goliath war economically, it is his personal philosophy which plays a shaping role in the way the story plays out.

We open a couple of centuries in the future. Man has left Earth and settled other worlds; Earth became Empire; Outerworlds rebelled and gained freedom. Now, the uniting government of these outer worlds has grown to a massive bureaucracy that’s taxing the member planets to death – both economically and, as the novel argues, by the restrictions of freedom which inevitably arise through economic dominance.

One man, Peter LaNague, has dedicated his life to the overthrow of this suffocating soft dictatorship. But he’s different from 99.9 percent of all the revolutionaries who have ever walked the earth (or those that will walk other planets in the future). He adheres to the philosophy of Kyfho. If you don’t know what “kyfho” stands for, google it. At its core it’s a philosophy either directly descended from libertarianism or a close cousin to it. There are differing strains of Kyfho, depending on how one chooses to react when Kyfho is violated.

Anyway, LaNague chooses to attack the “Imperium” economically. He comes across as a bizarre composite of between Mohandas Gandhi and – I hate to say it – George Soros. LaNague models himself after Robin Hood, and begins hijacking tax caravans heading to the Imperium’s home city, and dropping it from the skies down on the general populace. His people steal the special paper the currency is printed on and release flyers educating the people and noting significant statistics: price index, money supply, and unemployment rate. And he’s always one step ahead of his foes, despite a strict policy of non-violence which, unfortunately, compels him not to take action against a maniac wanna-be revolutionary right in his midst.

The weirdest thing about An Enemy of the State is how accurately it’s mirroring what the US is going through right now. Every move the Imperium makes, our government seems to be making. The last third of the book details what happens on the ground level when hyperinflation destroys a currency and unemployment sweeps over the land like a tidal wave – and it’s not a pretty picture. These chapters were quite hard to get through, fearful as I am that this is where we as a nation are heading.

I liked it. B-plus.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What I Gave My Nephew


For Christmas.

The little guy is eleven. He’s my brother’s oldest and he’s also my godson. He’s smart, he’s a scout, he plays all sorts of sports, he’s trying to master that sonorous piece of metal tubing called a saxophone. He’s handy like his dad, and, like all eleven-year-old boys, he’s into explosives. Just kidding – I’m talking about fireworks.

Anyway, I decided it’s time to see if he’s susceptible to the SF bug. Not a hard question; I mean, come on! Eleven is the golden age of science fiction, which lasts until the early teen years or so, and in some of us never quite dies out.

So I went through my stack of 50 or 60 SF paperbacks to see a) what I was willing to part with and b) what would be appealing to an eleven-year-old kid. Here’s what I came up with:

Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein
Night of the Dragonstar by Thomas Monteleone and David Bischoff
Planet of the Damned by Harry Harrison
Moreau’s Other Island by Brian Aldiss
The High Crusade by Poul Anderson

There! Now he’s got boys his age building rocket ships, dinosaurs, evil Jedi-warrior assassins, genetic experiments gone awry, and knights in shining armor fighting invading aliens with lasers and starships. The books, despite their titles or themes, are mostly light-hearted, some downright comic, some with a delightful monster-chomping only a kid my nephew’s age could love.

Happy Reading, J!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Star-led Wisards


On the Morning of Christs Nativity

Composed 1629, John Milton


I.

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherin the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

II.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherwith he wont at Heav’ns high Councel-Table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome House of mortal Clay.


III.

Say Heav’nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no vers, no hymn, or solemn strein,
To welcom him to this his new abode,
Now while the Heav’n by the Suns team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

IV.

See how from far upon the Eastern rode
The Star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet,
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honor first, thy Lord to greet,
And joyn thy voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret Altar toucht with hallow’d fire.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!



Best wishes, to you from me, and my family, including Patch and Little One, above.

Enjoy the Holy-Day!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Travelogue


Seasons Greetings!

As you read this, we’re on the road. Me, C, Little One, and Patch, hurtling down I-95 at 70 mph. (80 if the wife is behind the wheel). We’re motoring down to Hilton Head to visit with my in-laws for a week, relaxing in the moderate Christmas climes of South Carolina.

The car’s packed with snacks, drinks, blankets, games, books, magazines, CDs. I’m looking forward to safe but exciting 15-hour adventure down the east coast of the USA – the New Jersey Turnpike, the Delaware Bridge and the quick blink that’s our first state, the familiar sites of Maryland, the Fort McHenry tunnel, BMI, our nation’s capital on the near horizon, Virginia, that giant cigarette smokestack, the flat expanse of North Carolina, the Ava Gardner museum, the fireworks billboards, the South of the Boarder billboards, South Carolina, Myrtle Beach, Florence, counting down the exits as we near HHI, then the Island itself – the palm trees, the golf courses, the plantations – and then Nana’s house. Oh, and the pit stops and the quickee fast food fix.

It should be a great week. As always, my in-laws generously pay for a hotel for us, down the road. Little One will probably sleep over nights with them. My father-in-law is a passionate amateur gourmet, so they’ll be phenomenal eating. A dinner party or two, which though I am not comfortable with, I can handle. I’ll check out my yarn store and perhaps score a couple of overlooked classics. Regardless, I got my Tolkien and a tome on the development of philosophy. Nana’s tasked me to setup Skype on their laptop. Perhaps we’ll eat out – an always entertaining with the two little ones. And though there won’t be snow, there will be cozy fires as the nights do get a bit chilly down there.

Keep checking back daily; I’ve cued up a post a day until we get back next week. And if you leave a comment, don’t be offended if I don’t respond – I’ll have very limited PC access over the next couple of days.

Feliz Navidad!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fat Smash


Three-and-a-half years ago, the wife and I went on a special diet. This guy’s diet:



The author is Dr. Ian Smith, and you may or may not know him from a reality show called Celebrity Fit Club. Yes, we watched it for a season back then, which is why we picked up the book. Well, after a rough first day or two on the diet, we both wound up losing weight. I lost 7 pounds in the first nine days.

Guess what? Nine days ago I tipped the scales at the heaviest I’ve ever been in my entire life. That’s scary. Mid-life crisis scary. I couldn’t even fit into my fat pants anymore. So, we took one of our B&N gift cards and picked up Ian Smith’s book, and went on the diet.

Results?

Again, I lost 7 pounds in the first nine days.

Hooray! I can now fit into my fat pants again. (FYI, the wife lost 5.5 pounds.)

What’s all this business about “the first nine days”?

Smith’s diet works on three phases. Phase I, which last for nine days, is the detox phase. Your severely limited in the types of food you can eat, but not the quantity. Your allowed a wide range of fruits and vegetables, some oat meal, some brown rice, a tiny bit of cheese, egg whites, and some other odds and ends. No meats, pasta, sugar, or breads. And you’re only allowed water and green tea.

For nine straight days.

It isn’t so bad as it sounds. In fact, your body quickly grows accustomed to the healthy food. The effect is like a man crawling out of the desert to an oasis of cool, refreshing water. Sure, the first day I had a killer headache that would not go away, and two minor headaches later on. It’s the bad stuff coming out of your system. Yes, I had random cravings here and there, mostly for chocolate, but they only last for 30 seconds or so, and each time they pop up they’re weaker in intensity.

Want a concrete example of my change? My standard lunch would be a can of Campbell’s Chunky Soup mixed in with a cup of pasta. That’s something like 1200 calories and 10 or 12 grams of fat! And I’d have this every single day of the week. It was a ritual for me. On the Fat Smash Diet, I now have a giant fruit salad consisting of half an apple and a banana, all chopped up, plus two dozen grapes, two dozen blueberries, and a quarter cup of granola. You know what? It’s actually delicious. I now look forward to it (I have to say that granola’s essential). So now I’m eating about a third of the calories and a fifth of the fat, on a daily basis, and getting so much more in vitamins, nutrients, and fiber.

Phase II lasts for three weeks. This is the foundational phase. We’re allowed to eat skinless, broiled meat, a lot of seafood, some more dairy, and some healthy cereal. This is where you train your body to expect to eat better nutritionally and calorically. Phase III, the construction phase, adds more variety and trains you to work in “treat” foods.

Of course, you’re expected to exercise throughout the program.

So, we’re staying on the program during the holidays. Yes, there will be cheat meals, but we made a pact not to seek them out. If a plate of pasta is laid out in front of us by our hosts, well, we’ll eat it, but not gorge ourselves on it. And then eat extra clean at the next meal.

Nine days ago I was 30 pounds heavier than when I left the hospital in February of 2009, and though that was not a healthy weight for me back then, I’m looking to settle in about 10 pounds heavier than that. All while increasing my cardio and firming up a bit with some free weight exercising.

I heartily recommend Ian Smith’s book.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Next Level Tolkien


All right, fellow Nerdosauri!

Want to take Tolkien to the next level?

Before your next LotR reading, make sure you can answer:



1. What are the names/traits of the Valar?

2. Name the Istari (at least four out of five).

3. Know the basic history of Arnor and Gondor in the Third Age.

4. Know the general outlines of the First, Second, and Third Ages.

5. Know the history and significance of Númenor.

6. Name the Three Rings given to the Elves. Who possesses them at the time of the War of the Ring?

7. What happened to the Seven Rings given to the Dwarves? Who held the Seventh?

8. Name three of the four dragons Tolkien mentions.

9. Name two giant spiders.

10. Know the phyla of the Elves (This question alone is a dissertation on Tolkien, so how ’bout naming the two main groups).

11. Name the four primary Elven “settlements” at the end of the Third Age?

12. Get a map of Middle-earth, and holding it at arm’s length, point out the locations of – Minas Tirith, Barad Dûr, Dol Guldur, Orthanc, Isengard, Moria, Lothlórien, Erebor, Orodruin, The Shire, and Rivendell.

13. Name four major forest regions in Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age.

14. Who fought at the Battle of the Last Alliance to defeat Sauron at the very end of the Second Age? Who died? Who survived to die only two years later in an Orc ambush?

15. Know the origin and history of Sauron.

16. Recite the inscription on the One Ring. Now recite it in the Black Speech.

17. Which characters in The Lord of the Rings are higher order beings (angelic or demonic)?

18. What is the ancestral difference between Aragorn and Denethor?

19. Briefly describe the backstory of Túrin Turambar and the backstory of Beren and Lúthien.

20. What are the Silmarils? Who made the Silmarils? Who stole the Silmarils? What was the ultimate fate of the Silmarils?

21. What do these Elvish geographic terms mean? (They pop up a lot …) Ered, Amon, Emyn, Minas, Dor, Dol, Nan and Tol.


Answers, such as they may be, next Tuesday.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Smecky


As a lover of words, I’ve had the privilege of listening to my two children tackle that patchwork behemoth of language, English. Little One speaks quite well for her age (6), but Patch is still wrapping her lips and her brain around “speech,” making sense of the weird sounds the rest of the family uses to communicate with one another.

We estimate her vocabulary at about 250-350 words. She turned 2 three months back.

Anyway, I love the words they make up, which usually turn out to be butcheries of commonplace words.

For example, we wondered for the longest time what Little One tried to get across when she’d say


Kermis

or

Kermis Car


Any guesses? It turns out she was speaking of Christmas and Christmas cards.

One day in the car discussing dinner plans (we were traveling on the road), Little One shouted out:


Mee-fee-toe!


This was her suggestion to go get Mexican food.

That was all four years ago. Now we have another two-year-old, whose coining her own verbiage as they days and weeks go by.

Lately, whenever I’d offer her a snack that’s not up to her liking, she’ll turn up her nose and say,

Smecky


And if she really, really doesn’t like it, she’ll shake her head furiously, noting,


Too Smecky! Too Smecky!


We haven’t cracked this one yet. Any ideas?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Prescient


Know that expression, “the truth is stranger than fiction”? Well, sometimes the truth is just as strange as fiction, especially when it’s bad truth. *

Read this yesterday and my jaw just dropped. It’s found on page 40 of F. Paul Wilson’s An Enemy of the State, an SF hardcover I picked up at a library on a whim. It was published in 1980.


The duplicators at the Imperial Mint are working overtime these days, turning out new mark notes at an alarming rate. The idea is to give our sagging economy a “shot in the arm,” which is what deliberate inflation of the money supply is called in Bureaucratese. The theory holds that the extra marks in circulation will increase consumer buying power, which will in turn increase production, which will lead to greater employment, resulting in a further increase in buying power, and so on.

Sounds good, but it doesn’t work that way. With more marks suddenly available to buy existing goods, the prices of those goods go up. And stay up, which means more marks are needed.

Let’s continue the medical analogy: it’s like treating a steadily weakening patient who’s bleeding internally by giving him a shot of Zemmelar and nothing else. True, he feels better for a while, but he’s still bleeding. After the Zemmelar wears off, he’s weaker than before. So you give him another jolt of Zem and he feel better again, but for a briefer period this time. He continues to weaken. Before long, he’s lost. Even if the internal bleeding halts spontaneously, he’s too weak to respond .. and he’s now a hopeless Zemmelar addict anyway.


Now, let me just state for the record – which I always do in posts like these – that economics is not my forte by choice, primarily based on a lack of interest. ** But, this was written 30 years ago – and it was written with an almost mocking and derisive tone. Is this not, at least in part, what the Obama Administration is trying to do to stimulate our economy (unsuccessfully, I have to add) over the past twenty-two months?

I guess economic theory doesn’t change over the years. But surely observation and analysis can tell us by now what will work and what won’t! Right?


* I’m not exactly sure what this opening paragraph means. It didn’t quite say what I wanted to say, at least in an obvious-sort-of-way, and I’m too brain-fried at the moment to sift it through.

** I really, really need to read a good, short book on economic theory in ’11.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ben-Hur



© 1880 by Lew Wallace

Ben-Hur surprised me by living up completely to my expectations. I really liked it. To my honest amazement, the 19th-century prose was accessible – dare I say enjoyable? – to my 21st century attention-deficit-disordered mind (thank you, Google). Despite detours into lengthy page-length paragraphs and meandering thoughts followed rigorously to their logical conclusions, I was hooked from the beginning. But the final act gave plenty of chills to a spiritualphile as myself. How I wished I were there! What would I have done?

I think most people my age or older have seen the 1959 epic Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston. Younger folk may or may not. I have never seen it on regular teevee; TCM airs it a couple of times a year. The only time I watched it – all four hours – was two years ago this Christmastime. The house was warm and cozy, all decorated in reds and greens. Snow blanketed the street outside. The wife was cooking something warm and delicious over the stove and the newborn dozed in the bouncie at her feet. Little One snuggled with me as we watched the film, though she often grew bored and played with some games or toys before coming back to me.

Perhaps a quick refresher might be beneficial, to contrast with the even-more-rarely experienced novel. After a brief prologue detailing the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, we’re introduced to young Judah Ben-Hur, first overjoyed to see his childhood friend Messala, then bitterly arguing over Israel’s future under Caesar’s boot with the Roman national. Shortly after a new procurator from Rome arrives. Accidentally, Ben-Hur’s younger sister, watching from a rooftop with the family, dislodges a tile which inadvertently leads to the procurator’s death.

Ben-Hur and his family are immediately arrested. His heartfelt pleas falling on Messala’s deaf ears, Ben-Hur is condemned to become a galley slave, a grueling and drawn-out two or three year death sentence. He knows not the fate of his mother and sister, who, we later learn, are sent to a leper colony as punishment.

Along the forced march to the sea port, sun-burned and in shackles, a mad-with-thirst Ben-Hur is given a cupful of water by Jesus. It is one of the powerful highlights of the film.

Two potent, single-minded drives enable Judah to survive his ordeal as a rower in the belly of the Roman ship – the urgent quest to find his mother and sister, if they even are alive, and the desire to wreak terrible vengeance upon the traitorous Messala. Christ’s supernatural act of charity has done nothing – surprisingly – to ameliorate the latter drive.

The movie shows us how Ben-Hur catches the eye of the duumvir in charge of the vessel, how they both escape a drowning death, how he becomes a prominent Roman citizen, how he has mastered the art of charioteering, and, finally, how he gains his just revenge over the childhood friend who destroyed his life – and those of his dearest mother and sister – without a care.

In the final act, Judah finds his loved ones in the leper colony. Driven to desperate despair, huddled under a bridge, the mother and daughter are cured as the blood of Christ, flowing from His broken body on the cross, mingling with running water, pours down on them during the storm that followed Jesus’ death.

The problem I always had with the movie, regarding it’s spiritual element, was that this ending always seemed tacked on as an afterthought. Or as a way of keeping the movie at four hours instead of five or six had they followed Wallace’s story more faithfully.

Ben-Hur the novel is subtitled, “A Tale of the Christ.” Barring a few minor details, the film stays true to the book. With one exception and a major diversion, however. Composed of eight “books,” Book I of Ben-Hur spends its time developing the characters of the three Magi, the three Wise Men, especially Balthasar, who visit the baby Jesus in the manger. Also fleshed out are several representative characters of Bethlehem, particularly Joseph.

Then twenty-five some-odd years pass and Judah Ben-Hur enters the story. He’s much younger than Heston; he’s probably seventeen or eighteen. For the next three hundred pages or so we read the story as we’ve seen it on the big screen. With minor details. The procurator doesn’t die in the book, for instance. There’s still that encounter with a pre-ministerial Jesus at the well by a thirsting Ben-Hur, though that tribune from the movie (what a perfect scene!) is not present.

The major diversion between the two works occurs during the final act.

I’ve already summed up what happens in the movie. In the book, Judah returns to Antioch a very rich young man, and though his foe is vanquished, he still harbors a deep grudge against Rome. However, word is spreading through the countryside of – the Messiah! The Savior of Israel, prophesied to come and deliver her from oppression and usher in an era of military, political, and economic might. This has now inflamed Judah Ben-Hur’s passion, and he sees this mysterious King as the means of his retribution.

Judah begins tailing the wandering Messiah and observes the wonders of Christ’s ministry. He’s present at the baptism by John, he’s tasted the water-turned-wine, he feasts at the feeding of the thousands. Being a trained soldier, he both observes the apostles, learns their names, overhears their talk, while simultaneously winning over Galileans to his military cause, eventually growing a force the size of three legions.

Then, Palm Sunday, and – his mother and sister are healed of their affliction by the passing Savior.

And after Palm Sunday, Good Friday. Judah, torn, desirous to swoop down with his men and rescue Christ, fights his passions, following the events of that terrible day. Realizing that he has been led by the same Spirit that has led his friend Balthasar thirty-three years back, Judah finds himself at Golgotha, watching the crucifixion. I will not say what happens to him, but – a few pages later and at the novel’s conclusion – what Ben-Hur does touched me in a very unexpected and satisfying way.

Check it out! There are many, many worse ways one can spend a dozen hours.


[note: Ben-Hur was the best-selling American novel for 56 years, until Gone With the Wind was published. Lew Wallace also had the distinction of being a Union general in the Civil War. His most notable and perhaps controversial command was at the Battle of Shiloh.]

Thursday, December 16, 2010

ID, Please?


There’s an unusual pair of verses in Scripture that occurs only in the book of Mark. While Jesus is being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, this strange event is recorded:

There was a young man following him who was covered by nothing but a linen cloth. As they seized him, he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.” (Mk 14:51-52)

Traditionally, authorship of this Gospel is credited to John Mark, the now middle-aged attendant to an older Peter. Many commentators over the centuries have speculated that this follower of Jesus is actually a teenaged Mark himself. Thus the seemingly insignificant incident takes on meaning as the author is stating, “This was me! I was there!”

But according to 19th century novelist Lew Wallace, this man is none other than – Judah Ben-Hur, the vengeful charioteer most famously portrayed by Charleton Heston. (See Ben-Hur, Book VIII, Chapter VIII.)

Hmmmmmm.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My Problem with Self-Help


Or rather, the “Self-help movement,” a multi-billion dollar publishing industry. 158.1 in the Dewey Decimal system. In most libraries, it’s the biggest shelf-squatter in the building. I’ve read my share of self-help books, some required for college courses, like Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, to the Anthony Robbins “personal power” mental techniques, to a lot of touchy-feely kumbaya 60s and 70s detritus I’m too embarrassed to list.

Has anything stuck, to my knowledge, in my life?

Yeah. Somes. Maybe one or two percent of what I’ve read. Certainly not worth the investment in time and money.

So what’s my problem?

Let’s forget that self-help authors operate in a “Savior Mode.” What this means is that they promise to solve all your problems – as long as you work their program (a convenient and, admittedly, valid out). The problem is, to someone who promises to solve all your problems, what are they going to do when you have none? They have a vested interest in the status quo, in the general malaise and dissatisfaction of mankind. If their message actually worked, eventually they would be out of business. So, much like a lot of PACs in Washington today, they actually need the problems to continue so the money will flow. And flow it does …

Let’s also forget that 95 percent of “self-help” stuff (books, CDs, DVDs, etc) are just different ways of restating the same old gunk. And what is the same old gunk? Well, anyone who’s read a self-help book will be quite familiar with the basic repertoire: affirmations, goals, and hefty doses of syrupy, gooey self-okayness. Now, in and of itself, setting goals is an effective way of bettering oneself. Something one should have been taught by one’s parents, and something one should teach one’s children. Same goes for positive self-talk. But do we really need to spend four or five billion dollars a year to read and listen to people who can write and speak well to tell us this?

My real problem is that so much of “self-help” is founded in New Thought. This is a philosophy quite popular about a century or so ago which has some of its foundations in old-time pagan beliefs such as gnosticism and pantheism. It’s New Age, though it’s very, very old. The basic tenet is that your mind shapes reality. Literally. We’re little gods. If you want more money, just think about it often and with much conviction. Before you know it – voila! – your making five grand a year more. Or ten grand. Or a million. It all depends on YOU.

I think deep down we all know this is hokum to a certain extent. Yes, a positive self-image will lead to people liking you more, will lead to you doing more, which should lead to material rewards at some point. No, a positive self-image will not result in scads and oodles of money mysteriously being funneled your way. And I think that is the suggestion a lot of these books attempt to plant, implicitly or explicitly.

A couple of years back I read something that immediately floored me. I can’t dig up the exact quote right now, so I’ll paraphrase, and apologies to the author: If you call yourself a Christian, that means Jesus Christ is your Savior. You believe everything He says. You put your trust in Him, and Him alone. (A long list of potential candidates for the number one spot in your life follow and are cast aside, including – ) You can throw away all those “self-help” books, you can disregard all those “self-help” gurus, because you now have the ultimate Helper.

Do you believe this?

It’s how I’ve been living the past two years, and, honestly, it’s a lot tougher than dropping fifteen bucks for the latest Tony Robbins book.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Elbereth Gilthoniel


A Elbereth Gilthoniel
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-díriel
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, sí nef aearon!

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-díriel,
le nallon sí di'-nguruthos!
A tíro nin, Fanuilos!

A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath,
Gilthoniel, A! Elbereth!

Monday, December 13, 2010

New Purchases

Went to the local B&N a few days ago; browsed the used book shelves and scored a pair of potentially interesting reads. For $4.05. Total pageage is 395, so that just a tiny fraction more than a penny a page. Despite being stuck in some tight economic straights, I can’t spare any guilty feelings over a purchase like this.

Anyway, I found two hardcover SF books. One I started to read as a lad when it came out, way back in 1980. The second I picked up on a whim, based on what I knew of the author.

The first book’s Voorloper, by Andre Norton. Norton is something of an enigma for me. She’s published hundreds of SF books. I’ve seen them by the dozens on the used book shelves I regularly cruise. Yet I’ve never read a single thing of hers cover-to-cover, this book included. Three or fours years back I tried to get through her “classic” Witch World, but stopped a third in, disillusioned and disconnected. So, I want to read Voorloper for some bookworm closure.

The second score is The Killer Thing, by Kate Wilhelm. She was the co-author of The Year of the Cloud, a book I recently read and one I remember from my youth. The Cloud did not exactly bowl me over, like Witch World, but at least I finished it and I liked the premise. So based on the picture of the authoress on the back page, plus that title – The Killer Thing ! – I couldn’t resist picking it up. I’ll get to it sometime in the spring.

Also, digging through some books in search of my old copy of The Silmarillion, I came across two books I’d like to re-read and then review for this blog, sometime way down the line. Lord of Light is an epic from Roger Zelazny, about a group of futuristic astronauts who set themselves up like the Hindu gods on a primitive world. I read that during the Hindi phase of my comparative religion quest a decade ago between fielding help desk calls at my job. The other book is the much-touted Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, a book I began around the same time in my life – twice, actually – and never got beyond page one hundred or so.

All right. Happy Reading to you all.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Footsteps

“When God walks the earth, His steps are often centuries apart.”

- Ben-Hur, Book V, Chapter VII


One of the most difficult things to accept, I think, is that we may have already played a part in God’s master plan. It is not up for us to know in this lifetime. Perhaps if we lead a life of remarkable and heroic piety, we may be granted the grace to see how we have participated in His Will. However, a life of remarkable and heroic piety is beyond my grasp, at least at this moment in time. So I must be content wrestling with the difficult question: what if the moving hand, having writ, has moved on? What if, for example, it was only to be required of me that I marry my wife and have children, and my children will play a much greater role in the Grand Design than me? Humility demands I accept this. I only hope and pray that, if this is so, I have responded with the yes that God desires of me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Happiest Song in the World

It’s a tie, so I’m going to break it up based on the time of the year.


For the month of December, it has to be:

Linus and Lucy

- from A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi trio.


For the remaining eleven months of the calendar year, it has to be:

Here Comes the Sun

- from Abbey Road, written by George Harrison and performed by the Beatles.


What unbounded bliss and joy in both songs! The test is how expressive the dancing of little girls, those paragons of present-moment innocence, becomes when such music fills the air.


And as a personal, adult corollary …

The most happy album ever produced:

Van Halen’s 1984.

Based solely subjectively on a memory I have of Puerto Rico, August, 2007. The women had taken all the children somewhere else for the afternoon. Me and my buddy Steve the Pilot, a case of ice cold Medallion beer, 80 degree temps and cloudless blue skies, a football, and an in-ground swimming pool on a hundred-foot cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Eddie, Dave, Alex and Michael at their peak blasting through the outdoor surround-sound stereo system. It doesn’t get any better than that, before or since.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West


I watched the 1968 Sergio Leone western epic Once Upon a Time in the West by myself a few nights back. Clocking in at just about three hours, I didn’t finish it until nearly 1 am.

Some people find the film agonizingly slow, with long minutes passing in glacial silence as characters stare meaningfully at each other. Others find the film agonizingly pretentious, with all the ritualized choreography and artsy camera shots of all things western, from the mano-a-mano gun fight to the ordering of a whisky at a saloon.

I agree with both opinions.

So, why did I subject myself to this?

One reason: Henry Fonda playing a bad man.

Sergio Leone is the spaghetti western guy. The man responsible for those mid-60s dubbed Italian flicks that made Clint Eastwood a star. The Man With No Name trilogy (of which I can only recall two movies: A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; I’m only a mild fan of the genre). The haunting whistling scores. The taciturn, morally ambiguous gunslingers. Sweat, dirt, and grime. Cackling barkeeps. Feisty prostitutes. That sort of thing.

While most of his movies were immediate superhits on the European continent, they took a while to become established here in the US. Eventually they gained recognition as the critical masterpieces they undoubtedly are. However, the intensity level of existential angst surpasses my Schwarzchild radius of tolerability, so I can only watch one Sergio Leone movie a year.

2010 was the year of Once Upon a Time in the West.

And Once Upon a Time in the West is, as I’ve read it put, Sergio Leone on steroids.

In one sentence the plot could be summarized thus: a railroad baron hires a cold-blooded killer to obtain a parcel of land at any cost while a mysterious stranger hunts down said killer to right a long-ago wrong. But that hardly does the movie justice. Not until two hours pass do you figure everything out, though I just might’ve been slow on the uptake.

I’m a pretty big fan of TCM. When we were dating, the wife and I would rent and watch all sorts of classic flicks from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Cary Grants were her favorites; mine tended to be Hitchcock’s stuff. But we sampled everything. Henry Fonda always had a reputation of playing good, grounded men. Men of honor, men of a different age, the Greatest Generation men. Men like my grandfather, for instance.

Over the years, in clips I watched in documentaries and such, I would see quick scenes of Fonda as “Frank,” the icy psychotic gunslinger who – allegedly – shoots down a young boy with a half-smile on his lips. Henry Fonda? Psycho killer? This is Jack Palance territory. So when I saw that it would be playing on TCM, I DVR’d it just so I could check out and judge the authenticity of this apparent discrepancy.

You know what? It works. Give that man another Oscar. He’s so convincing it’s scary. He’s scary. Intimidating, dangerous, intelligent (someone writes somewhere he’s the only character to be seen with a book in the entire movie), ambitious, a deadly accurate shot, and completely devoid of a soul, let alone a conscience. There’s a flashback of Frank thirty or so years ago and he looks positively like a cross between Johnny Ringo from Tombstone and Norman Bates from Psycho.




The Man With No Name here is played by Charles Bronson. You can get very philosophic about the flick, too. Bronson’s character is hunting Frank for something terrible – even for Frank – that the latter did years ago. So is this character death? Excuse me, Death-with-a-capital-D? Several hints are dropped. Normally lethal wounds do not kill him. He has a weird habit of silently appearing, startling the most well-worn prescient gunmen. He knows the names of numerous men Frank has killed over the years. He, too, is a deadly accurate shot. Or maybe he’s just a dude obsessed with killing Frank. Twenty or thirty years of single-minded brooding can make a man do such aforementioned things, I suppose. At least in a Sergio Leone western.

So, though the movie is an ordeal, it’s well-worth a watch. Think of it as a self-test over one’s ability to overcome snail-paced pretension. And if you get through a watch, you’ll probably want to view it again. It’s the type of movie that would have a lot of revelatory information bubble to the surface with subsequent viewings.

I grade it an A-minus.


RELATED POST: The Missouri Breaks review.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ditch the hat, Goober!


Me and Patch in NYC to see the tree last Sunday ...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Day Lennon Was Shot


I remember that day, kinda.

I was in middle school, eighth grade I suppose. While no one in our house was a big Beatles or John Lennon fan, I seem to recall the teevee being on all day. Lots of weepy newscasters interviewing distraught fans. Heard a lot of Beatles music around this time, especially the Lennon songs. There was an analysis of his music in a newspaper column I read. The lyrics to I Am The Walrus, possibly being the most bizarre and slightly distasteful thing of poetry I had ever read up to that point, burned scar tissue in my memory.

Still too young to understand the repercussions or the significance of this man at the time of the shooting. Some of the “cooler” kids in my grade knew I guess, but I was on the far periphery of “cool” back then. The only knowledge of music I had was probably my mother’s collection of ELO records and Free to Be You and Me. I was much more a book worm at this point.

A few months later I would come home to an empty house and the attempted Reagan assassination on the tube. I watched it – as we all did – over and over and over and over again and the networks replayed it again and again and again. It didn’t warp me or anything, but it did lend a surreality to the day only surpassed by 9/11.

I did later listen to a lot of Beatles music, and though I was never a true-blue fan, I did form some opinions on the band and its members. Here, if you be interested.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tolkien By The Numbers


Number of works published during his lifetime:

9

The Hobbit
Leaf by Niggle
On Faerie Stories
Farmer Giles of Ham
The Homecoming of Beorhnoth
The Lord of the Rings
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
The Road Goes Ever On
Smith of Wooton Major


Number of posthumous published works to date:

12

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Father Christmas Letters
The Silmarillion
Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien
Unfinished Tales
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
Finn and Hengest
Mr. Bliss
The Monsters and the Critics
Roverandom
The History of Middle-earth
The Children of Hurin


Number of years Tolkien took to complete The Lord of the Rings:

13


Percentage of profits Tolkien received per his contract with publisher Allen and Unwin:

50 percent after production costs recovered


Number of words in The Lord of the Rings:

600,000 (approximately)


Number of pages in The Lord of the Rings:

998 – actual text only
1,145 – when including a Prologue, six Appendices, an Index, and four maps

(per my current copy: Houghton Mifflin large paperback published just after The Return of the King motion picture)


Geography of Middle-earth (very, very rough estimate):

1,200 miles east-west;
1,150 miles north-south;

1.38 million square miles.
A little more than a third of the contiguous US in area.

Number of languages Tolkien invented:

14

(Arguably as high as 21 depending on what one defines as a “language”)


Number of poems that appear in The Lord of the Rings:

50-60, depending on one’s definition of “poem”

The longest – Bilbo’s poem of Eärendil – comprises 124 lines in length


Number of dreams that appear in the text:

8 (all but 2 dreamed by the four principal hobbits)


Timeframe of Tolkien’s mythos:

Something on the order of 10,000 years, though who can put a number on the exact length of the First Age?


[Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards by Michael N. Stanton is the source for a little more than half of these statistics.]

Monday, December 6, 2010

Common Sense


I do not choose to be a common man,
It is my right to be uncommon … if I can,
I seek opportunity … not security.
I do not wish to be a kept citizen,
Humbled and dulled by having the
State look after me.
I want to take the calculated risk;
To dream and to build,
To fail and to succeed.
I refuse to barter incentive for a dole;
I prefer the challenges of life
To the guaranteed existence;
The thrill of fulfillment
To the stale calm of Utopia.
I will not trade freedom for beneficence
Nor my dignity for a handout.
I will never cower before any master
Nor bend to any threat.
It is my heritage to stand erect.
Proud and unafraid;
To think and act for myself,
To enjoy the benefit of my creations
And to face the world boldly and say:
This, with God’s help, I have done
All this is what it means
To be an Entrepreneur
.

- Excerpt from Common Sense, written in 1776 by Thomas Paine

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Priorities

...

As to the rowers, those up on the first and second benches sat, while those upon the third, having longer oars to work, were suffered to stand. The oars were loaded with lead in the handles, and near the point of balance hung two pliable thongs, making possible the delicate touch called feathering, but, at the same time, increasing the need of skill, since an eccentric wave might at any moment catch a heedless fellow and hurl him from his seat. Each oar-hole was a vent through which the laborer opposite it had his plenty of sweet air. Light streamed down upon him from the grating which formed the floor of the passage between the deck and the bulwark over his head. In some respects, therefore, the condition of the men might have been much worse. Still, it must not be imagined that there was any pleasantness in their lives. Communication between them was not allowed. Day after day they filled their places without speech; in hours of labor they could not see each other’s faces; their short respites were given to sleep and the snatching of food. They never laughed; no one ever heard them sing. What is the use of tongues when a sigh or a groan will tell all men feel, while, perforce, they think in silence? Existence with the poor wretches was like a stream under ground sweeping slowly, laboriously on to its outlet, whatever that might chance to be.”

- Ben-Hur, Book III, Chapter II.


I thank the Lord that I was not born into such times.

Now, click on this short post and read it.

I know what and where my priorities are, I think, at least for a little while. How ’bout you?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Jam-Packed

Just a quick note …

Have a really packed schedule this weekend, one of those weekends I secretly hate because seemingly every single minute of my day is taken up by something. I don’t know how I’ll get through it except by taking it one minute at a time.

Sigh.

Today I have to pay bills and balance the checkbook, take Patch out with me on errands (post office, library, grocery store, et cetera), do a few loads of laundry, put up Christmas decorations outside the house in the afternoon, go to 5 pm mass. I am also pushing hard to get significant amounts of my two other websites done, websites where I hope to make a few bucks a week. Weighing heavily on my shoulders is the fact that I will have no income in 72 days.

Tomorrow, instead of relaxing watching some football games, we have to get up early and drive into New York City to meet up with my father-in-law and sister-in-law. It’s her birthday, and she’s the godmother of Little One. We’ll all go see the big tree – Little One made a bagel bird-feeder in Daisy Scouts and wants to hang it up somewhere in Rockefeller Center (it’ll be lunch for a homeless person, my mother says). Then we’ll all have an early dinner somewhere in the Big Apple and head home when it gets dark.

I also want to reach the halfway mark in Ben-Hur and skim through a couple other books I have. Plus we have about 18 hours recorded on the DVR, so I’d like to watch something; only problem is teevee watching is starting to feel more and more like a guilty pleasure, emphasis on the word guilty with images of ticking clocks and overturned sand glasses abounding.

But I don’t want to sound like a wet blanket. Well, a 24/7 wet blanket, that is. Occasionally I’m fun. I will enjoy seeing my in-laws, as I always do. And it’ll be nice putting up decorations with my six-year-old. But damn am I tired and stressed. I want so bad that drink or five or six that I’m afraid to have due to my heart/lung condition. It’s just impossible to say, “Honey, the kids are really getting on my nerves. I’m going upstairs to meditate!” So instead I drink soda and eat cookies for the short-term fix (about ten or fifteen minutes), then I feel worse than before.

Double sigh.

Okay – I promise no more venting for a while. That’s another short-term “fix.”

I do have a few interesting posts coming up in the next few days if I can find some undisturbed time to write (also a chore and, now, a guilty pleasure). Something definitely on Tolkien, something possibly about Henry Rollins, something about dreams, and probably something about seeing the Tree, which will no doubt be the setting for something weird, interesting, or unusual, knowing the cast of characters involved. Oh, and on a positive note, I picked up two “self-improvement” CDs from the library which I want to find time to listen to as a pick-me-up of sorts. I am very wary of the “self-help” movement since 99 percent of it is utter b.s. But I had such a great time listening to one I bought (recommended to me by a literary agent) during my solo PA-NJ commute last week, I decided to try these two. If worthwhile, there will be a post about them, too.

All right, LE – now get to work!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Busted

So me and my friend are tromping through the woods, making too much noise, talking way too loud. We’re both under the influence, and we’re both underage. So’s everybody else back at the campground, a couple hundred yards out near the water. We’re down at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, a whole bunch of us. Reason is, three of us, myself included, have to appear in front of a judge for some, uh, indiscretion committed earlier in the summer.

I’m stumbling about in complete awe. It’s like a little city, a little medieval village, all these tent cottages. The little pathways through the woods take on the look of well-worn winding streets and avenues, worn well under the hooves of horses and farm animals and mailed soldiers over centuries of feudal living. The colored lights that some campers string about the trees over their lot – red and yellow and blue and orange – dance in my eyesight. Campfires flicker all over, crackling warmly in the humid night, speckling the hilly forest off the beach and I wonder why the whole thing doesn’t go up in a Chicago-style conflagration.

Anyway, we’re stretching our legs, out for a little stroll. Whatever I’m on – and I don’t really remember what it was, but it was generously washed down with Miller Light – is making me anxious and sweaty and itchy. So my buddy takes me out for a two-cigarette walk to calm down.

We emerge from the brush in a lighted area, when suddenly we’re accosted.

The rattling engines of a souped-up golf cart destroy the rustic majesty of the night. Zipping out of the darkness, it skids up to us, halting so abruptly I think for a wild second it’s gonna tip over. The driver’s wearing a uniform and an extremely angry expression. He’s got one of those curly-wired cop car mic thingies to his moustache, which he slams down into its cradle. Uh oh. It’s Johnny Law.

He leans over to us suspiciously. “Can I help you two gentlemen?” he drawls.

One of my pet peeves is the old, “Can I help you?” spoken by someone who has no intention of helping you, let alone is interested in your well-being. For instance, years later, I was on the swings with my daughter at a playground when a woman came up to me asking if she could help me. When I said I didn’t need any help, she informed me that we were trespassing.

Okay.

So, now this dude is fishing for info on me and my buddy. This time, however, we’re very, very guilty.

Thinking much more quickly in his state than I am in mine, my friend says, “We’re looking for the bathrooms.” All campsites have them. They encourage campers to use them as opposed to using the Great Wild as your toilet.

While our would-be interrogator is looking us over, we’re looking him over. Immediately I notice that he’s wearing pants too small for his rather husky physique. He’s also wearing a leather jacket in August – in August! And how can he see wearing those dark sunglasses when it’s gotta be nine or ten o’clock at night? This guy’s a wannabe me and my friend telegraph simultaneously to each other with a glance. For crying out loud, he’s a security guard at a campground, and he’s scrutinizing us like he’s Harry Callahan and we’re hippies (which we kinda resembled, I hate to admit).

“Bathroom’s over there,” he whispers, half-nodding over his shoulder.

“Good day, sir,” we say, and make our way to the first building we see.

I pause at the door, though. “Is this the men’s room or the women’s room?” For the life of me I can’t tell. I have the sinking feeling that in my altered state I’m missing a vital clue. And Sheriff Fat Boy is still there, a peripheral glance reveals, still eyeballing us.

“Just go in!” my friend hisses.

Inside we’re in a tiled room, pleasantly light blue and white. Sinks, waste baskets, mirrors. Stalls off to both the left and right of the door. I panic. “Oh no! No, no, no. Where are the urinals?”

I plant the seed of doubt in my buddy. We look at each other, confused. “That guy’s gonna bust us now for going into the ladies room!”

“Relax,” my friend says. “We’ll just head back out.”

“What?!”

“LE, get a grip. Did you see that guy?”

“Yeah …”

So we head back out, chatting nonchalantly, back past young Kojak on the beat.

As we walk by, he removes his sunglasses and catches me with a glance. “Thought you had to go to the bathroom?”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Ponderance

Hmmm. I’m being called to re-read The Lord of the Rings again. That’s the best way to describe it. And it’s weird, because it doesn’t fit into my life right now, you know, schedule-wise, stress-wise, things like that.

Now, I know I happen to be reading a book about the trilogy. But I’ve read books both about Tolkien and about his works before and haven’t felt this strong push. The most recent case was the Lin Carter book on the professor I read a year ago. So I don’t chalk it up to Stanton’s tribute. At least I don’t think so.

My first and only reading of The Lord of the Rings was back in the summer of 1981, after whipping through The Hobbit. I made a half-hearted attempt at The Silmarillion a few weeks later but only got two books in. Towards the end of the 80s I finished that encyclopedic work. I re-read it again in April of 2008.

I made an abortive attempt to re-read the Rings epic in 1994, I think, summertime again, but didn’t get too far into it.

But something is strongly pulling me to take Tolkien’s masterpiece back off the shelf. I don’t know how long I can resist. Maybe I’ll start it at the beginning of the new year.

If I’m being honest, I am often “called” or “pulled” to read certain books, mostly out of the blue, so this is nothing new to me. It’s the strength behind it that’s really noticeable this time around, though.

Anything like this ever happen to you?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Game of Glory

Vestal, the little town where my paternal grandmother lived when I was in my tweens. Upstate New York, but closer to Buffalo out west than Albany up north. Still, it was noted (by us at least) for its snowy winters. It was during one such snowy winter, possibly in 1979 or 1980, that I read Poul Anderson’s Flandry of Terra, a Christmas gift no doubt.

So despite its setting in a humid waterworld, I will forever associate the first novella, “The Game of Glory,” with snow.

These memories came tumbling back to me this past weekend as I reread it after scoring it at a local used book store. Flandry of Terra is a trio of long short stories concerning a Bondian hero of the far future. In this case, Dominic Flandry is the stand-in for 007, and instead of serving the interests of Her Majesty’s Empire, he fights the shades of gray skirmishes to keep the Terran Empire – all one million planets – functioning smoothly against its nemesis, the Merseians. Now, I haven’t researched this, so don’t hold me to it, but Anderson wrote a whole bunch of Flandry stories way back in the 50s, so it’s not exactly an Ian Fleming rip-off. I also think I’ve seen other Flandry compendiums.

Anyway, Anderson can write. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a youngling. Tau Zero was probably the first “hard science” SF book I read, way back when I was ten or so. So the science is all there in these stories. But so is the intrigue, the espionage. And the characters. In “The Game of Glory” we have not only Flandry but Flandry chasing a lead on a waterworld called Nyanza, trying to get to the bottom of a whispered conspiracy against the Empire by some shady folks.

The shadiest is thrown at us almost as a coda. The force fomenting dissension, smoked out after some delightfully unanticipated subterfuge by our spy hero, is a Merseian operative called A’u. How I loved A’u as a kid. That name! And what A’u exactly is – a massive, whale-sized slug-like creature who was hiding out on the ocean bed on Nyanza. * And yet he, too, is a spy, Flandry’s mirror opposite, merely doing his own best for his own king and country. In these stories, no one is really in the right, there is really no white knight in shining armor. There is only one side doing a better job than the other.

It took me 90 minutes to relive the story. 90 minutes well spent. I give it a solid A. The other two novellas are significantly lengthier, so the remainder of Flandry of Terra will wait its turn in the reading queue. But I’ll get to it, eventually, for it’s definitely worth a read.


* Picture Jabba the Hut sparring with Sean Connery at the climax of Thunderball, and I think you come close to what ran through my head at the conclusion of this story.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Escaping a Room

Over the Thanksgiving holiday we all hung out with my uncle and his family. After throwing around a few riddles, including the two cat-centric mathematical ones recently seen on this blog, my 17-year-old cousin tossed this one out:


A man escapes from a room. It has four walls, a roof, and a mirror, but no windows or doors. How did he escape?


Now, he outright admitted the solution was kinda dumb, in the sense that you’ll groan when you hear the solution. Though that’s diplomatic; his mother said the answer is, I quote, “stupid.” Anyway, I did groan when he told me (for neither me nor my wife could figure it out).

The next day I got to wonderin’ about it. Could I come up with, say, fifty different valid answers to that riddle? Valid, of course, being a somewhat variable adjective. So, here is my list of potential answers to my cousin’s riddle. His answer, the true “answer”, follows at the end.


1. The room is a hexagon, and he walks out the space where the fifth wall isn’t.

2. The roof is sloping and he’s able to escape through those triangular spaces above the opposing walls.

3. There is soft dirt – “loam” as they say – instead of a floor so he is able to tunnel out with his hands.

4. The man is able to access a higher dimension to escape.

5. Through quantum tunneling on a macro scale, he is able to transport himself outside of the room.

6. He is a ghost. Ghosts can float through walls.

7. Like the superhero Flash, he is able to accelerate his molecular structure so fast he vibrates through the walls.

8. The man somehow has a tool from a vastly futuristic society which is able to warp spacetime so he can simply walk out of the room, now twisted like a Mobius strip.

9. He breaks the mirror and cuts through the walls with a sharp shard of glass.

10. Like Peter in Acts 12:6-10, the man is rescued by angels.

11. Like Enoch in Genesis 5:22-29, he is of particularly heroic piety and is “translated” out of this world and into heaven, not having to suffer death.

12. Like Ulysses Singing Bear, the protagonist of Philip Jose Farmer’s novel The Stone God Awakens, the man becomes petrified, outlasts the room by millions of years, is somehow revived, and thus escapes his prison.

13. The man has the ability to time travel backwards, and chooses the time immediately before the construction of his doorless, windowless room. He walks away.

14. Conversely, the man has the ability to time travel forward. Like H. G. Wells’ time traveler in the movie by the same name, he watches as walls of his prison fall down, most likely the result of war, probably in the not-too-distant future.

15. The man is abducted by aliens, by the Greys, who have the uncanny ability to move through solid walls with their victims at will.

16. He is a master of the Dark Arts, and can astrally project his body outside the room.

17. He reads really, really, really good books, and thus “no physical room can imprison his mind.”

18. Or maybe he commits suicide, and finds escape that way. (Though he might wind up in a much worse place.)

19. A wizard casts a “soul migration” spell and our man now finds himself inhabiting the body of a golem a thousand miles away.

20. Scotty beams him up (and out of the room) at the command of James T. Kirk.

21. A giant boy unwraps a giant box and pulls the man out of the room (Twilight Zone!)

22. There’s a smoke detector in the room. The man sets it off, MacGuyver-like, and judo chops the firemen who burst through the door. Then he escapes.

23. The man disappears in an eerie greenish glow, a la the Philadelphia Experiment.

24. He wakes up in a cozy, warm bed. “Ah, it was all just a dream …”

25. Or, as a corollary, the man is awakened in a slimy pod by Morpheus and crew – and realizes the “room” was in the Matrix

26. There’s an explosion and the man is thrown to the ground. When the smoke clears, Arnold, Stallone, Van Damme, Segal, the Rock, Wesley Snipes, Jet Li, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jason Statham, and Sigourney Weaver materialize, and rescue the poor guy.

27. The man dies in the room, fifty-seven lonely years later. His bones are put on display in a museum two-hundred-six years after that. Four-hundred-and-twenty-two years after that, scientists are able to retrieve viable DNA from the marrow and are soon able to grow cells. A hundred-sixteen years later, the man is cloned. Eight centuries after his death, a duplicate of the man is now in a lab, “escaped” from that room. But is it the same man?

28. Our trapped man is actually a seventh-degree Tibetan shaman, and after sitting perfectly still for seven months is able to telekinetically crumble down the walls of the room. Then he floats out.

29. Similarly, the man is an accomplished Indian fakir, able to slow his heartbeat, brain waves, and general metabolism down to an unobservable crawl. After some time passes, his cruel imprisoners think he’s dead, and remove the body. Then the fakir pops back to life and pulls a crouching tiger hidden dragon on his hapless captors.

30. The man dismantles the mirror, polishes it, focuses it, and is able to use it like a laser to polarize the light from that single dangling incandescent bulb to burn a hole through the wall.

31. Or he uses his rock hammer and tunnels out a hole behind the mirror over the course of thirty years, much like Andy in The Shawshank Redemption.

32. A disembodied voice shouts “Cut!” and suddenly a half-dozen men appear and dismantle the room, a cheap Hollywood set. The man goes to his trailer to prepare for an interview later with Ryan Seacrest on E!.

33. The man is a liberal and the ACLU gets him sprung in less than 24 hours. Later, the man settles with the builders of the room for a hefty sum.

34. The man isn’t a man at all, but a composite being made up of billions and billions of nanobots. These are micron-sized robotic entities. So he seemingly “melts,” and escapes through the teeny-tiny gaps in the plaster and wood and concrete of the walls.

35. His room is not to be escaped from, but to be endured, for he is there to be purified and refined. He is in Purgatory. Heaven is only a second or a millennia away.

36. The room is actually part of a massive AI supercomputer responsible for imprisoning the man. Our hapless fellow, though, is not so helpless. Craftily, he informs the computer that “I never tell the truth, and I am lying now,” he escapes when the computer, and by extension, the room, self-destructs and collapses.

37. The man is imprisoned in a room in Japan. The room, or dojo, is constructed of tissue-like paper. The man tears a hole and slips out into the night. Whether he’s then hunted down by ninjas is the subject of another riddle.

38. The man is actually Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. His communist Chinese captors let him escape, so he can make his way back to the US and find himself in the middle of an assassination plot of a presidential candidate.

39. Let’s think about the physical room itself, shall we? It’s not explicitly stated that the roof touches the wall, the wall touches the floor, or even that the walls touch each other. So, the man squeezes out through an opening in the room.

40. The man is actually Dave Gilmour, and once he finishes the chords of “The Trial” the wall falls to pieces all around him. Then the crowd hoots and hollers like crazy, demanding encore after encore.

41. Twenty-four hours go by. A policeman enters, says, “Okay, son, you’re detoxed now. You have a court date in three weeks. Don’t let us catch you outside again doing drugs. It’ll fry your brain.” The man then leaves the room, noticing for the first time that it was white and padded.

42. The man is illusionist and magician Chriss Angel, and he just mind-freaked us by escaping from the room without any of us figuring out just how the heck he did it.

43. Perhaps we need to look at that word “room” in a metaphorical sense. Maybe it stands for the “body,” and the lack of doors or windows symbolizes our inhibited sensations of true material reality. In that case, all I can suggest is that the man seriously meditate and live a life of extreme asceticism a la the Desert Fathers to “escape the room.”

44. Then again, perhaps the “room” stands for planet Earth, cradle of mankind. How do we escape? By pursuing, of course, a privatized, incentivized program of space exploration beyond terrestrial orbit.

45. The “man” is a mummy, a sarcophagus, the ancient dried remains of a Pharoah. Two or three thousand years later, Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter crack the seal and the “man” escapes, this time to a room in a museum in Britain.

46. Maybe the “man” is an semi-intelligent killer whale, an orca, and the room is the “tank” or “bay” he’s confined in. He escapes by befriending a young boy and later jumping over some large rocks to seek freedom in the sea. Oh, wait …

47. The room is actually made of glass. Like Bugs Bunny entrapped by that dopey giant, the man pulls out his Acme Glass Cutter, cuts out a silhouette of himself, and escapes.

48. The man decides to take a bite of the McDonalds meal he just happens to have, and Mayor Bloomberg and that dude who made the documentary SuperSize Me bust in – in the nick of time! – before all those triglycerides and saturated fats can get into his bloodstream.

49. The room I’m in happens to have a vent screwed into the bottom of the wall. I’m looking at it now. So why can’t this room have one? Then the man just has to get the grating off and shimmy his way out to freedom.

50. Ah! The whole setup – a man trying to escape from a windowless, doorless room – is a vision! The man’s having a vision of something terrible that’s going to happen to him in the future. In that case, heck, just realizing it is a big step towards not winding up imprisoned in a windowless, doorless room. Don’t go out on that date with the crazy chick. Don’t vacation in Phoenix or Mexico City, the kidnapping capitals of the world. That kinda stuff.


AND MY COUSIN’S SOLUTION:

The man left through the open door frame. The room had no door, but all rooms have a framed-out doorway! Right! Right?

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Play-by-Play Thanksgiving

1. Me, the wife, Little One, and Patch spent 100 hours at my parent’s spacious home in the peaceful PA woods.

2. Thanksgiving dinner was, as always, delicious and filling. My favorite: sweet potatoes. Crazy and loud afternoon with my brother’s family driving over. Little One and her little cousin got in trouble by spilling deer feed all over the garage floor.

3. Enjoyed satisfying Jets and Giants wins, plus a win by Chicago over Philly as a bonus.

4. Watched the young’uns have an awesome time with their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. They truly are little performers, little extroverts-in-training, high-kicking like Rockettes and singing, running, flipping, somersaulting, laughing, and giggling all through the house.

5. Very proud of my oldest daughter, who read Sammy the Seal and Dinosaur Hunter with me for her November book report. Included were sentences describing three scenes from each book accompanied by very cute drawings of seals and triceratops bones.

6. Read 80 pages of Ben-Hur, and 220 pages of Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards, an appreciative literary analysis of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings by a professor who genuinely loves the work.

7. Also read one of my long short stories, “The Minnicks”, up in the loft. Quite satisfying and better than I remembered, if you forgive me the self-pat on the back.

8. A great Friday afternoon with my hilarious uncle and his family stopping by; listened to Young Padowan play his guitar for us. (Plus, I got to play it, too, which was fun.)

9. Group-viewed the classic Christmas Vacation, easily the best holiday-themed comedy ever made. A family tradition to watch it right after Thanksgiving, dating back to the early 90s. We pretty much can quote the darn thing line-by-line.

10. Little One and Patch got to see Santa at Papa’s golf club buffet. We snapped some pretty good digital pics, plus some of them in front of the Christmas tree. Captured this year’s card photo.

11. I drove home by myself Saturday night. Fed Indigo the Fish. Hibernated for 9 hours (still fighting a slight cold). Did my Eucharistic Minister duties Sunday morning, then motored back over to PA for Sunday afternoon and evening. Listened to a bunch of informative and inspiring books-on-CD in the process.

12. Got my hair buzzed short. And I mean short. But you’ve read about that already.

13. Scored a pair of awesome SF paperbacks from my outta-state used book store: Cycle of Fire (1957) by Hal Clement and Flandry of Terra (1957-61) by Poul Anderson. Read classic novella “The Game of Glory” from the latter novel one afternoon.

14. Laughed with my honey watching a half-dozen Big Bang Theory Season 3 episodes. It’s our current favorite show on the tube.


Overall, Thanksgiving for us is the best four-day sequence of the year. Can’t wait for next year.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Three Men and a Stairway

I just finished Book I of Ben Hur, the 1880 novel of which the famous Chuck Heston movie is based. The 432-page paperback version I’m reading has eight such Books. Book I deals with the birth of Christ as experienced from the peripheral players, such as the magi, the shepherds, Herod, anonymous Jewish folk in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and, of course, Joseph and Mary.

Two points I found interesting.

First, the three magi, or wise men, Caspar (called Gaspar in the novel), Melchior, and Balthasar. Now, they are never mentioned by name in the Bible. Nor is their number fixed on three. Tradition has given us their number and names, and, by extension, their places of origin. In Ben Hur we learn that Balthasar is from Egypt, Gaspar from Greece, and Melchior from India.

Upon their palaver after meeting in the desert west and south of Jerusalem, guided by the Holy Spirit, Balthasar expounds on their place in a historical context. After the Deluge, the three sons of Noah repopulated the earth. The lineage of the oldest, Shem, account for the peoples of the far, far east. The second son, Japheth, had descendants who repopulated Turkey, Greece, and lands to the north, presumably Europe. The youngest, Ham, has a lineage of descendants in Africa.

Thus, the dispersion of peoples after the Flood by Noah’s three sons is represented by the three magi:

Shem = Melchior = India

Japheth = Caspar = Greece

Ham = Balthasar = Africa

Second, the Star of Bethlehem. As the shepherds are resting their flocks in the cool night, they see a new star overhead. But its not a star, or at least a star in its familiar sense, for it does not seem to be a fixed, distant twinkling object. It seems to be over a distinct spot on the earth, a near spot. Something like a geosynchronous satellite, only instead of being 26,000-some-odd miles above, it’s only a bright beacon a mile or so up, in my 21st-century imagination.

But to the mind of a shepherd in the year 6 (or 4) BC, it appeared as Jacob’s ladder, the stairway to heaven seen by Jacob in Genesis 28. The mystical vision of the patriarch where angels traversed up and down a ladder or stairway, from the earth to heaven. Try thinking of that next time you hear the Star of Bethlehem mentioned during the mass readings and homilies this month.

Interesting, no?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hair

I’m still over at my parent’s house in the woodlands of PA. I’m stuffy, tired, sleep-deprived, and still bloated from Thanksgiving. Yesterday morning, cold and rainy, my stepfather took me to his barber’s down in town. Town is a 30 minute drive from their house.

For the past year my wife has been cutting my hair. I like it, but I don’t think she has confidence in herself. Or maybe she finds it too tedious. Anyway, it’s saved us over $300 by my reckoning. That’s some great penny-pinching.

Before that I had a succession of chicks cut my hair. The last time a man touched my hair was probably Mickey the Barber, an old Italian gentleman who buzz-cut me when I was six or seven. So it was with a little trepidation that I sat in the chair desperately waiting to get my hippie hairdo shorn off.

Also, it may have been a tactical error to walk into the barbershop wearing a Giants cap. This is Eagles turf. As I walked through the door, every man in the shop turned and looked me over. Good thing Philly spanked the Giants last week, or I might have left the barber chair looking like Cletus the Escaped Psychiatric Ward practiced his shearing on half my head.

I now have the shortest haircut I’ve ever had in at least thirty years. I’m happy with it.

So what do I look like now?

All right. See this guy?





Take the length, softness, and grain of his fur, and put it on this guy’s head:



And that’s me. That’s LE, Recovering Hopper, Unemployed Bookkeeper to the Stars, Unpublished Author of Philosophic-Theologic-Scienterrific Fiction novels.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Night of the Dragonstar


© 1985 by David F. Bischoff and Thomas F. Monteleone


I picked this and Guardian up from a local book shop to get a sense of the writings of SF author Thomas F. Monteleone. Way back in college I read a bunch of his short stories that really stuck with me over the years; I’ve read nothing else of his since. So it was with eager anticipation and the sneaking suspicion of a potential Guilty Pleasure that I plucked Night of the Dragonstar off the bookshelves for a reading.

Verdict: OK. Exactly what I thought it would be.

[minor spoilers ...]

Fairly early in the novel one thought popped up in my mind, and I think it essentially encapsulates what the story’s all about: Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama II meets Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. (Even though it was published five or so years before the Crichton novel hit the stands.)

That being said, it was a Guilty Pleasure. As my wife rephrased for me, “not high art, but entertainment.” That nails it, I think. I’m a very visual reader, so towards the end of the novel I was thinking that this would make an excellent Syfy channel movie. That also nails it, I think.

It’s a sequel, so there’s a lot of background that the authors have to fill in as the story progresses. It’s also probably the second installment in a series, as determined by the wide-open unresolved ending. I haven’t checked. We’re told a lot of what happened in the first novel mostly in a “press conference” setting, which worked, and in some chunks of exposition here and there, usually as a character is ruminating about his or her sexual and relationship dilemmas. There, not so much, but it had to be done, I suppose.

Apparently, an alien spaceship is discovered approaching Earth and is brought into orbit. The Rama-like object is a cylinder 320 km in length and 65 km in diameter. Inside, bizarrely enough, is a Mesozoic preserve, populated with the foliage and fauna of that era, along with, well, dinosaurs. Triceratops, stegosauri, T Rexes, an allosaurus and a brontosaurus here and there, even those little chicken-like critters that did in the old man in Jurassic Park. Piece by piece we discover that the first teams investigating the object, labeled the “Dragonstar”, met with failure of Crichtonic proportions.

But that’s all been solved by this novel. Indeed, there are science outposts on and in the Dragonstar. We are cooperating with a semi-intelligent lizard species called the Saurians. Things are going so well that one haughty Colonel decides to film a documentary within the artifact and flies all sorts of dignitaries and fish-outta-water soon-to-be victims up to participate.

The back cover tells us that – quite suddenly and unexpectedly – the Saurians go mad and embark on a feeding frenzy. Simultaneously, the Dragonstar arms itself with some type of force shield and seals itself with the couple-hundred humans trapped inside with the hungry dinosaurs. And while all this is hitting the fan, the ships engines come to life, propelling the ship out of Earth orbit to – who knows where?

This happens about halfway in. The remainder details how the survivors survive, regroup and respond to this unfortunate series of events. It ends abruptly with none of the great questions answered. But at least two major characters don’t make it through alive, which is enough to keep the reader on his toes.

Truth be told, I was expecting a more bloodthirsty novel, based on what little I’ve read of Monteleone. I mean, Jurassic Park was almost a horror novel in the gruesome deaths foisted upon the main characters for their sins of pride. Hubris plays a big role in this book, too, so there’s justification in the couple of deaths by dinosaur fang. However, it was remarkably subdued, almost as if the authors were going for a G rating. Which is okay, I’m not gonna pout over being shorted on gore, but I thought the horror aspect could have been played up much more to the novel’s success.

Overall it was an interesting concept that’s not as juvenile as one might first think. Is the artifact a seeding vessel or is it a species retrieval probe? Conceivably, could not the human race construct such vessels five or ten thousand years hence, to travel the star lanes, automated robotic ships containing labs and DNA and whatnot, both seeding humanity on suitable alien worlds as well as bringing back whatever life it might find? If not five or ten thousand years, then certainly at twenty-five or fifty thousand, no?

Interesting …