Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cat Lassie

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Now, I’m not really into fighting it out in the trenches of the political wars. Especially as so much – too much, really – is juvenile name-calling. One such member of the juvenile name-calling brigade, from Team Left, is Janeane Garofalo. I don’t know much about her other than seeing her a bit on SNL fifteen years ago. I know she’s a stand-up comic, which strikes me a bit odd as any interview I’ve seen her in (admittedly, only a few), she comes off as really bitter and angry.

Anyway, I came across this interview with her and decided to read it. Man, does she come off as bitter and angry. All conservatives to her are evil sexist racists who either want to kill, enslave, or otherwise dominate their peace-loving, hand-holding liberal brethren. At least, that’s the best I can make of her positions.

However, the best deconstruction of Ms. Garofalo – far, far better than anything I could come up with even if I was motivated to do so – is from one of the commenters after the interview. This is so on-the-mark perfect:

If you want to have some fun with a Garofalo interview try this: simply replace the words "conservative" or "republican" with either "jock" or "preppy."

Janeane's entire worldview was set in stone when she was about 16 or so. She's never deviated or grown. She's still that disaffected and angry teen girl who views every cultural disagreement through that prism of her high school experience. That's why anyone who disagrees with her can't just be wrong, they gotta be evil super Nazis. Listening to her blather on against the dangerous other is so tedious and really boring. You can go read an emo girl's diary and essentially get the same thing. BTW, I never see Janeane around people of color. Probably because she doesn't understand them either and treats them like an exhibit instead of real human beings.

If you want to read the interview, you can find it here. The original comment where I cut-n-pasted the above is from June 25, 2010 at 6:12 PM CDT.

By the way, I am a conservative, and I have no desire to kill, enslave, or otherwise dominate anyone who does not agree with me. I’m content to duke it out at the ballot box and vote with my dollars when necessary.

All right, enough nonsense. How about something weird and fun tomorrow, huh?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

Watched the Quentin Tarantino flick with the wife on Saturday night. I heard mixed reviews about it, about the glorification of violence and, perhaps, the moral vagaries rolled up in that evil called “suicide bombing.” Initially, I wasn’t interested in seeing it, or at least contributing in some microsmall way to Mr. Tarantino’s net worth. But I do like him nonetheless, and enjoy his movies. So, when I saw this on the library shelves, I borrowed it on the taxpayers’ dime.

Never has my opinion of a movie fluctuated as widely as it did during the course of the 153-minute Inglourious Basterds.

You may know the basic story. Brad Pitt, as Lt. Aldo Raine, a Tennessee good ol’ boy who hates him some Nazis, is in charge of a band of Jewish American commandos. Their sole mission is to operate behind the lines in German-occupied France, killin’ and terrorizin’ Nazis. The action slowly zeroes in on a movie theater in Paris in which Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and most of the German high brass will be present to watch a morale-boosting movie of Germany’s Sergeant York. This tale is told, I believe, in five “chapters” on the big screen.

Chapter 1 introduces us to Colonel Landa. The actor who portrayed him, Christoph Waltz, went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a completely worthy decision. Colonel Landa will go down in the pantheon of the best of the best of the villains in the Tarantino-verse. Only, he’s much much more repugnantly evil than anything before we’ve seen in a Quentin Tarantino movie. It’s his character, not Lt. Rayne’s, who is the centrifugal force within the movie. His is the magnetism which pulls us in. Being the perfect, unpredictable mix of cultured genility and throat-strangling insanity, he is simply and simultanenously frightening and fascinating to watch.

Lt. Rayne and his boys are the subject of Chapter 2. It’s here where I paused the DVD player and said to my wife, “You don’t win over the audience by making your good guys more sadistic than your bad guys.” I almost turned off the flick. A lot of the violvence is unnecessarily graphic and stomach-turning. “Why show this?” I asked myself. Isn’t World War II the noble war we fought, where we were the noble saviors on white horses? This chapter kinda took anything that was redeeming about our presence in Europe 1941-1945 and beat it to death with a baseball bat.

However, the last three “chapters” completely redeemed the movie. Completely. Yeah, it was still violent, but mostly machine-gun fire violence comparable to something you might have seen in Saving Private Ryan. Violence wasn’t being fetishized; it was used as an end, as a way to tell the story. And the story sucked me in, I have to admit.

Tarantino is the unquestioned master of at least two things in my amateur opinion: Dialogue, and the Mexican Standoff. Throughout the entire movie – which has huge chunks at a time solely spoken in either French or German – the dialogue hooks you, draws you in. It is a pleasure to listen to these characters interact. First, they all come awake to us, become alive, as convincingly real men and women stuck in a horrible time in horrible circumstances. Second, you never know fully where the conversation is going. It’s like watching the volley in a tennis match. It meanders through dark alleyways and over thousand-foot crevices in tiny, ill-kept foot bridges. Third, you always know that the verbal kill shot is going to come, that danger lurks at every word, every expression, even a hand gesture. It’s incomparable, and as a dialoguist (?) Tarantino has no peer.

Then there’s the Mexican Standoff. Indeed, one character even pontificates on the exact characteristics of the Standoff and whether the standoff he happens to be in qualifies as one of the Mexican kind. There’s at least three in the movie; one where one player holds all the cards, another where no one (or perhaps everyone) holds the cards; and a third where the one holding the cards is not the one we may or may not think is doing the holdin’. Regardless, watching any of these standoffs is hypnotic, surreal, and absolutely breathtaking.

So, I started off being quite disgusted and offended by the flick, but then I turned around and thought it possibly the best thing I saw all year. Weird, huh? If you can stomach the voilence, some gratuitous grotesque images, and sequences of … let’s say, mental torture, then you should watch it. Because what remains after you remove all that is a film that will be talked about when we’re all very old men and women.

I give it a conditional A minus.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bought Some Time

I’m back!

But the Hopper’s days are numbered.

Well, everyone’s days are numbered, and I don’t mean to imply that my demise is imminent. I was referring to this blog, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

My surgery went well. I got to New York Presbyterian Wednesday at 11:30. The CCU nurses there are phenomenal, exceptional, wonderful, and a whole host of similarly-synergetic adjectives. They got me prepped fairly painlessly (my IV had to be done twice), and I was tripping the light fantastic a little after 2 pm.

By 5 o’clock I was in the recovery room – much sooner than anyone had anticipated. My wife and father-in-law were there to keep me company. The doctor discovered that tissue had grown in my pulmonary vein stent, squeezing that channel down to a millimeter from an optimal ten. They put a catheter up in me, one with a science-fiction-ish robotic razor rotor (good thing it didn’t go mad and attempt world domination!), and cleaned it all out. Then he put a second stent inside the first one and blew that one up to ten millimeters.

I was blessed, heavenly blessed, with a single room, all to myself, with one of those swing-out-of-the-wall teevee thingies. Even though I felt no pain and had no medication in me (other than residual anesthesia), I was restricted to bed rest until 9:30 that night. I didn’t get fed, either, until past 10, and I was quite ravenous, having fasted since midnight Tuesday. Even so, I grazed and dozed and hypnotically watched TV and didn’t get out of bed until the next morning, stiff and a little bit sore.

The doctor visited me at 6:30 a.m. and delivered the old “cautiously optimistic” lecture. Which means he doesn’t know what will happen. Much to my un-nerved-ness, he reminded me that lots of people go on to live long, healthy lives with only one lung. To that effect he warned me to take better care of myself: improve the diet and get into the habit of regular cardio exercise. I’m not ready to give up the lung, though, so we’ll see what happens.

I’m scheduled for a lung scan in three weeks to get us a baseline and see how things are progressing. Subjectively, I feel great. For the first time in I can’t remember how long I can fully expand my chest, inhaling deeply, with no pain. Everyone is saying I have my color back, and by “color” I mean a nice normal reddish flush, not the pale, zombie-like pallor my skin normally exhibits. I’ve been getting plenty of sleep and – hey! – for once I’m not getting winded going up a flight of stairs!

They released me about noon on Thursday after getting the results of bloodwork. I spent the morning watching two episodes of the Sopranos and two of CSI: Miami. So I got in the quota of televised murders for the day. The wife picked me up and drove me home, stopping along the way at a Whole Foods to get some healthy lunch vittles. The little ones were excited to see me, and having been warned extensively not to jump on Daddy, they were good.

Spent the past two days just recuperating. Read a couple of SF short stories, watched some DVDs and some TCM, took some long naps to catch up on my shut-eye. (Book and movie reviews to follow shortly.) I’m actually functioning at about 97%, I think, which is remarkably good 72 hours after I had metal wires in my heart. Friday, for instance, I drove the Little One to the local library to sign her up for the Summer Reading Program, and yesterday me and the Little One were able to do our cherished Errand Run. I’ve been eating really, really clean, and already lost 5 pounds (I know, I know). But my goal is not necessarily to lose weight (though my doctor noted I’ve put on a little bit since he last worked on me). Though my cholesterol is good, my HDL’s are too low and my triglycerides are too high. So, in addition to fruits and veggies, today I’m going start back up on the exercise bike.

One thing I haven’t had time to blog about was the “Get Published!” seminar I went to last Tuesday. I picked up a lot of ideas, and learned a lot about the business – and it is a business, something we artsy types forget too often. With that in mind, I need to market myself more effectively, meaning the kind of writer I am and the kind of writing I want to produce. I also need to manage my time a little better. Consequently, The Recovering Hopper may either cease or simply be a repository of family updates and other miscellenea. Taking its place will be a more billboard-sign approach to LE the Catholic SF geek. But all that’s still a formless nebula of vagueness in my cerebellum at this point.

Thank you AK and LW, for watching the girls for us during this ordeal, and thank you BK for driving up from the shore to be with C while I was under. Thank you Dr. S and all the fantastic nurses at NYP.

Lots of neat stuff in the near future. Check back, okay?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Technical Difficulties, Part III

Hello. Just a little note to say I’m putting the Hopper on short hiatus until the beginning of next week.

I have to go back in for a little surgery on my pulmonary vein. This will be the sixth time doctors have been inside my heart since November 2007. It will be the eighth time I’ve had a “surgical procedure” done in a year-and-a-half. I think. I’m noticing that I’m starting to lose track of the exact count.

Anyway, it should be less risky than the surgery I had almost a year ago to the day. It seems, according to my cardiologist, that the tissue around the stent in my left superior pulmonary vein is growing over the hole, impeding blood flow from lung to heart. Hence, fatigue, the feeling of constantly being out-of-breath, and possible damage to the lung (I’ve coughed up blood last week). My doctors will go into my heart via catheter and inflate a small balloon at the site of the constriction to open it up. I’ll be under for four hours, five tops.

If you’re curious to this whole pulmonary vein stenosis thing, here is the up-close-and-personal details of the surgery I had this time last year. Another post, here, details the frustration with this crazy thing I have.

The plan is to go in to the hospital early Wednesday morning. They’ll probably put me under sometime in the afternoon, and I’ll overnight there. If all goes well, like it did last year, my wife will probably pick me up around noon on Thursday and drive me home. I should only need a day or two to recover. So I’m going to take it real easy, and not post anything until Sunday or Monday.

Have a great weekend, y’all!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where with the choir of saints forevermore
I shall be made thy music, as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place:
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapped, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preached thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
Therefore, that he may raise, the Lord throws down.

- John Donne, “Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Amplitude of Time


And I know I am solid and sound;
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow;
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

I know I am deathless;
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by the carpenter’s compass;
I know I shall not pass like a child’s curlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.

I know I am august;
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood;
I see that the elementary laws never apologize;
(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.)

I exist as I am—that is enough;
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content;
And if each and all be aware, I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself;
And whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

My foothold is tenion’d and mortis’d in granite;
I laugh at what you call dissolution;
And I know the amplitude of time.

(excerpt from Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Grayspace Beast

By Gordon Eklund, © 1976

Intriguing Characters – CHECK
Dubious Motivations – CHECK
Alien aliens – CHECK
Hyperspace and Associated Physics – CHECK
Story within a Story – CHECK
Quest to Slay a Dragon – CHECK
Big Bad Monster – CHECK
Twist Ending – CHECK

Yeah, it’s all there, to varying degrees.

This was a pleasant read, more so for the fact that I had a dreamlike déjà vu that I traveled with these men and women before. I believe I have, as a boy in the 70s, though for the life of me I can’t attach a tangible memory to the book. Oh, well. Regardless, it was still a solid and enjoyable science fiction tale, phantom nostalgia notwithstanding.

The book was such a quick read that any attempt to summarize it would make drastic and unfair in-roads to the plot itself. So, how about …

We’re eavesdropping on a storyteller whose audience of children is quite demanding and precocious. Neither may be who we think they may be. The story being told is of the Grayspace Beast and the men and women who come together to hunt it down. The beast itself is some planet-sized blobby thing that lives in the gray-hued regions of hyperspace.

But the Grayspace Beast is not really the subject of the novel.

Eklund focuses on character. The half-dozen main characters are full-fleshed three-dimensional people with all shades of motivations. No one is entirely good, no one is entirely evil. Most are not who we think they are, any more than we think we know the family that lives next door to us. I like that; it’s real; it’s intensely interesting. I liked the origin story of the bad guy heavy, for instance. He wasn’t born twisting his waxed moustache evilly; life and his youthful reactions toward it brought him to his specific situation and attitude toward it.

Anyway, the hero, warts and all, is an aging swashbuckling Flash Gordon type named Kail Kaypack. And boy are the warts plentiful. The character is all tongue-in-cheek, all bluff and bluster, but there are real endearing moments with him. He meets a boy, Darcey, raised in an alien culture, who is tasked with slaying this Grayspace Beast. The two assemble a team from a planet resembling a cross between a carnival midway and a mob-run casino and make a getaway worthy of Jerry Bruckheimer. Soon they’re tracking the monster, at each other’s throats, and we’re wondering, with them, just how you kill a thing that’s a trillion cubic miles big.

The aliens were authentically, legitimately alien, not just dudes with funny masks on. Even these non-humans had dubious motivations. It’s always a joy to be pleasantly surprised when reading a novel you superficially feel you know where it’s going. It’s even more so to be surprised when you think you know a character through and through. Eklund has packed a couple of worthy surprises in this neat little throwback to 1970s science fiction.

I give it an A.

Saturday, June 19, 2010



Then something caught his attention:

ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE. A small white sign with tiny uppercase letters on a plain gray door.

Tom leaned forward and placed an ear against it. He decided he was going to find out what was behind this door. Hearing nothing, he gently turned the handle. Locked. Oh well. He turned to get back to the others, thinking their break long over, when a bad idea jumped into his head.

On tiptoe, he reached up, felt along the top of the door frame – yes!

A key!

It slid easily into the door. He turned the handle and slipped in.

He was in a stairwell. All was quiet. He adjusted to the darkness, then noticed a dim light originating from below.

Tom crept down a long flight of stairs, one creaking step after another, and met another door. This, though, was unlocked. Quietly he eased through, and found himself in the basement of the warehouse: same dimensions, he guessed, but absolutely barren.

Except for something which looked like a big cage at the far end of the room, dim in the distance. He began sneaking down toward the strange sight, when suddenly he sensed movement in the darkness around him –


Something screeched that weird word, minnick, as it raced past him – no! It was above him! No – it was circling him in the dark, crying “Minnick! Minnick! Minnick!”

Tom spun quickly on his heels and slammed back through the basement door. He didn’t care who heard. In fact, his heart was beating so fast he hoped his irritable bosses heard the commotion to save him.

He raced up the stairs, two at a time, and hit the first landing when the door below burst open again. “Minnick! Minnick! Minnick!”

A few seconds after he was through the first level doorway, racing in the red-lit darkness towards that oasis of light and, perhaps, safety, the truck and the small circle of his friends eating sandwiches. “Help!” Tom yelled, out-of-breath, rushing full speed forward away from the NO ADMITTANCE door.

Then the creature – whatever it was – banged through that door. Tom sensed rather than saw it speed past him, up on the upper metal shelves which made the warehouse a three-dimensional labyrinth. His first thought was that it was a monkey, but, no, that wasn’t right, because monkeys weren’t colored bright purple.

Or were they?

And they didn’t shout “Minnick!”

Or did they?

His friends heard the critter, too – they must have, because they all dropped their dinners and stood up. “Tom, what’s the matter – ” someone began, then all chaos really ensued.


An excerpt from “The Minnicks”, a neat little novella (or big short story, can’t decide which), that I just finished writing last night, aimed at a younger audience in mind than normal for me.

Friday, June 18, 2010


This has been on a couple of blogs I travel on the past few days. It’s the perfect intersection, to me, of the weird and the hilarious that I had gleeful tears in my eyes barely a minute into it.

(Boy, I hope I didn’t oversell it!)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

From the Mouth of Babes

Can I share a theological discussion I had last night with my daughter? I am still absolutely floored that this child, age five-and-three-quarters, this soul who did not exist six-and-a-half years ago, was able to hurl a moral boomerang back at me, leaving me almost speechless.

Every night before bed we try to read for twenty minutes or so with the Little One. Tuesday night she was reading – at her own request – her Child’s First Bible with her mom. Last night I continued with her. My daughter really likes this book. Every major bible scene takes just two pages and there are lots of fun and gentle illustrations. A few months ago we punished her for something by sending her to her room, and she read 65 pages of it during the hour of her exile!

So we skipped around, reading a bit about Gideon, Cain and Abel, Samson, Jesus with Nicodemus and Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. As the twenty minutes were finishing up we ended with the story of the paralytic who wanted Jesus to heal him. The crowds were too dense in the home where Jesus was teaching, so the paralytic’s friends cut a hole in the roof and lowered the man down to the floor in front of Christ. The Lord marvels at the faith shown, forgives the man’s sins, and heals him.

“Why did he lose the use of his legs?” Little One asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe he had a disease, or maybe he got into an accident and broke both legs.” I don’t want to get too graphic, and I want to keep it simple so she doesn’t get lost in the details.

Then – pow! – it comes. “Did God take away the use of his legs?”

Uh-oh. “No, honey. God would never do anything to harm any of us. He loves us.”

I think she’s accepted my rebuttal, so I make noises to get her up and put her to bed. But she stops me with the second pow! “Daddy … I remember … a man named … Job. God let bad things happen to him …”

Job! My kindergarten grad is bringing up Job with me! Oh dear. How do I explain it to her, when I myself don’t fully understand all the spiritual lessons in that book? I’m not ready to discuss the theology of suffering, of evil, of seemingly-unrequieted faith, with the Little One. I’m not even sure I could answer any further questions she might throw at me. Do I plead the Fifth against this kindergarten theological assistant D.A.?

I regain some semblance of composure quickly. “Well, sweetie, there’s an expression that goes ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways.’ It means that we may not understand all that God does to us or allows to happen to us. We just need to have faith that ultimately, in the long run, things will work out well because He has our best interest at heart, because He loves us.”

Little One meditates on it, in that way that five-going-on-six-year-olds do, where you’re not quite sure if they’re thinking about what you just said or about a cartoon they watched earlier that afternoon. She hugs me and I carry her in to her bed, tuck her in, and turn out her bedroom light.

O Lord, grant me strength! And, more importantly, wisdom!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Words I Hate VII


“Make No Mistake”

I hate this phrase for one simple reason: Every single presidential address or speech that calls for our POTUS to appear tough uses it. I think I first heard it back in 2001 right after 9/11 in one of Bush’s speeches. I distinctly recall thinking, “Wow. That sounds tough. Like he means it.” I thought it was a good turn of phrase. Back then. Now, I suffer from Make No Mistake fatigue.

So we had seven years of Bush tossing the phrase about every time he wanted to be strong or macho. He’d usually pause a split second, throw a Harry Callahan stare into the television camera, and utter it in his hyperventilated Texan drawl. Usually he hurled his “make no mistakes” at a foreign leader, country, or army.

The second time I heard it, most likely later that year, I gave him a pass. Then I heard it a third and a fourth time, and it started to lose its punch. But it was Bush sayin’ it, and, like him or not, he backed up his words with action. The military undoubtedly liked him, and the military basically became George Bush’s fist. And I say that without any intended disrespect. Though I have problems with GWB – mainly stemming from his Democrat-like spending and his popped-clutch speaking style – I have no problem with his strong foreign policy stance. Especially in light of the attack on our country on 9/11.

Then I started hearing Obama test-driving the phrase. Just a few days ago he tried it on while appearing on stage with dozens of military personal in the background. Hearing Obama talk tough in front of the military is like hearing Lawrence Welk shout, “Let’s rock” (to paraphrase Jonah Goldberg at National Review). Something just doesn’t sit right. But every time he gets in trouble in the polls, he does a primetime speech, and before you know it he’s make-no-mistake-ing over the place.

In his televised address last night, bingo, the phrase duly came in, a little bit earlier than I expected, at the 2 minute mark of his 15 minute speech.

Yeah, I watched it since he preempted one of my few guilty pleasures, Hell’s Kitchen, to assure us he is in charge and doing all the right things and kicking all the right behinds to heal the gulf oil spill. Eventually. At some point in the near future. Or the distant future.

Make no mistake about it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Yesterday the Little One graduated from kindergarten. Did a school year go by already? Wasn’t it only last week or the week before that I was posting about Pi and Miami CSI and was having technical difficulties with the PC (that ultimately cost me $250)?

Yes, time flies, as we have all been warned. And the older one gets, the faster it zooms by. I don’t even know where the aughts went. All I remember is getting married, buying a house, and having two children. Yes, that’s about it.

Anyway, we got our morning zombie up out of bed at 7 am, herded her into the shower, put her in a pretty summer dress. Mom blow-dried Little One’s hair while I simultaneously stuffed bits of muffin and yogurt into her mouth. We went out into the humid overcast day at 8:05 and I left her at her school ten minutes later.

The ceremony started at 10:30 and lasted an hour. The school blasted Beach Boys music over the intercom as all the little ones marched into the auditorium single-file, and sat according to class on the stage. There are four kindergarten classes at her school, for 75 total students, almost twice what they normally expect. Something in the water six-and-a-half years ago …

They sung a few songs, said the Pledge of Allegiance, and each received their kindergarten diplomas in turn. We met the Little One out in front of her classroom for pictures with her teacher. Then we walked home and my mother treated us to lunch. It was a fun afternoon.

No more graduations for another four years, when the Patch will be leaving kindergarten. Then, the following year, the Little One will have her “moving on up” ceremony at the end of fifth grade before heading to Middle School. And after that, well, high school and college. We’ll be having dual graduations for those years as Patch is four years behind her big sister.

After lunch my mom watched the girls while me and the wife splurged and bought an air conditioner. Later, I took the Little One out for some Dairy Queen. We had salads and sandwiches around 7 pm and ate in the living room watching the video from earlier in the day. Got the girls in jammies and put the tired little things down by 8.

What a day! A milestone.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Essence and Behavior

The great sociological and cultural struggles in 21st century America are, it seems to me, a result of a disagreement on one simple, fundamental point.

Is behavior a civil right?

Traditionally, civil rights have been understood to stem from an individual’s inherent, unchangeable being or essence. For example, the color of one’s skin, one’s gender, one’s age, and any permanent physical disability, if applicable. The individual has no choice in the matter; he is born with the feature and has no say in whether he desired the particular skin color, gender, age, or disability he is or has.

Behavior is a choice and, like it or not, society as a whole has an obligation, for its survival and self-perpetuation, to favor certain behaviors over others.

The two hot topics of the day both center squarely on behavior. I am talking about the push for amnesty for illegal immigrants and the efforts towards the normalcy of homosexuality, as manifested in the oxymoron of homosexual marriage. The first violates the legal law, the second the natural and moral law.

I’ve sometimes heard it declared by proponents of amnesty that “a human being cannot be declared illegal.” That is certainly a correct view, but it is a mischaracterization of those who interpret the law as something to be enforced. That adjective “illegal” refers not to the person’s inherent, unchangeable being or essence (and thus has nothing to do with his race) but whether or not that person chooses to obey the legal system in his process to go from visiting non-citizen to naturalized American citizen or legal immigrant. If they choose to disobey the law, they are referred to as “illegal”.

Common sense, right? Just as commonsensical as the fact that no one is denied the right to marriage, provided we keep the millennia-old definition of marriage as the legally recognized (and sometimes sacramental) unity of a man and a woman. Two men or two women uniting is what’s called a civil union. Civil unions have the same legal rights and protections as marriages do. This is not an issue of civil rights. It is an issue of changing the culture to approve of homosexuality.

That is the gist of the whole fight. Anything otherwise is misrepresentation, name-calling, exaggeration, and various crows of self-superiority of intellectual or emotional natures. Venting or arguing, in other words.

Just a Clarification from the Department of the Ostensibly Obvious.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Convince Me

Emerson said somewhere, “Arguments convince no one.” Because they are presented as arguments, not as reasons to change one’s beliefs or opinions, I suppose.

This got me wondering. What changes a person’s beliefs or opinions?

The only thing I could think of, the only times I’ve been truly convinced to change my stance on any particular subject, is by example. Lived and living example. That’s what changes hearts and minds.

How could this work?

First off, we should realize the difference between venting and convincing. A lot of political discourse, perhaps as much as ninety percent, I’d venture to say, is venting. Venting involves a whole slew of elements, such as mischaracterization, name-calling, exaggeration, and various crows of self-superiority of intellectual or emotional natures.

That does not interest me.

One of the examples I’m thinking of, first and foremost, is Jesus Christ. Reading His life story in the gospels for the first time on my own, that springtide of 1992, changed me. Fundamentally changed me. Currently, the examples of some fine men in the Catholic Church are cementing that change.

But it does not have to be entirely big-picture, this “example over argument” angle of the art of persuasion. It can work in politics, too. The very next example I thought of is Lincoln. Now, I’m no expert on the sixteenth president, and I know that there are huge chunks of mythology built up around him. In reality he did do some legitimately ambivalent things. But one phrase associated to him has always stuck with me:

If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.

Then I remembered those Dale Carnegie books I read a thousand years ago. If you want to make a friend:

Never criticize, condemn, or complain.

The basic strength to any attempt at convincing has to be the strength of the cause you are promoting. You must take your egotistical self out of it, you must take your objectified listener out of it, and like a proud yet nervous parent watching his child toddle on two shaky legs the first time, you must leave the idea to do battle in your listener’s mind.

That’s the only way.


Did I make any sense here?

I’m not sure I did … maybe I need to think out this whole darn subject a little bit more.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gold Dust

During the Apollo mission developments in the early and mid 1960s much thought was put into where exactly the lunar module should land. The moon was still largely an unknown entity. All through the decade it was consistently visited by probes which chipped away at her mysteries. Still, some scientists were raising flags and calling for extreme caution, some much louder than others.

One such scientist was Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold. Despite pictures radioed back of Surveyor probes sitting unharmed on the lunar surface, Gold was convinced that the astronauts would be in terrible danger. Due to eons of bombardment from meteorites, he believed, the moon’s surface would consist of a layer of fine powder, dozens of feet thick. He envisioned the lunar module sinking down below the surface after touching down, and urged the astronauts to drop colored balls onto the surface for observation before any landing was attempted.

After data from numerous Surveyor missions eased NASA’s worries, Gold took his arguments public, and thus earned much scorn and ridicule from his colleagues.

In fairness to Gold, though, he had later revised his estimates of the sinking factor to about three centimeters – which was confirmed by Apollo 11 astronauts. Armstrong and Aldrin even confirmed that in one area they sunk five to eight centimeters while exploring, and samples brought back did reveal the lunar soil to be fine and powdery.

Also, Gold was a harsh critic of the shuttle program, correctly deriding its trumpeted objectives of flying 50 low-cost missions a year. He was a well-acknowledged trailblazer in many fields in his long career, as well as occasionally being on the wrong side of things, such as the steady-state theory of the universe and, well, a moon covered in, essentially, quicksand.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sacred Heart

Back when I was having my serious health issues in February 2009, in the very thick of things, my parish priest came to visit me. After inquiring about my state, both physical and mental, conversation turned quickly and obviously to spiritual matters. The crucifix which hung in my hospital room directly in front of me focused my mind on such all-important but too-little-dwelt-upon topics. It was probably the first time I really opened up to another person.

I must confess to being really drugged up during those two weeks, so I kinda rambled a bit. Well, a lot. I don’t think Father minded. He let me ramble on, sufficing himself to be there for me, attention undivided. I mentioned the crucifix, and I mentioned my heart issues, and I said that for a long time I had been contemplating some sort of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ. His reply was, “Why not?”

Today in the chronology of the Catholic Church is the feast day of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

I posted a litany and a meditation on the Sacred Heart this time last year.

Today I intend to recite them every hour on the hour.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Who Wrote Shakespeare?


William Shakespeare the man may not be one and the same with William Shakespeare the playwright. In other words, someone else may have written those plays and sonnets, using Shakespeare as a cover, and that person is the near-universally acknowledged greatest writer of the English language.

Since I’ve long been a fan of history’s mysteries and conspiracy-oriented stuff ranging from the weirdestly fringey to the commonly-accepted commonplace, I’m a little shocked I never came across this theory before. Well, I heard about it, but never explored it in any depth greater than a minute’s worth of reading. A few days ago I read a coupla pages on the “Will the real Shakespeare please stand up” theory and am intrigued. But be forewarned: I have no idea how legitimate this position is, so if I’m posting here on something truly outta left field, forgive me.

So what’s the main argument that Shakespeare did not write the plays upon which his name graces?

Well, there’s a couple of circumstantial-evidence-type clues that adherents believe, taken all together, point to an anonymous writer of the plays.

According to Shakespearean scholars, it would be tough to argue against the view that the writer of the plays would have to have understood military terms like a soldier would and naval terms like a sailor would. He would have been familiar with courtly etiquette and court mannerisms. Legal language and the machinations of legal courts appear to have come second nature to him, almost as if he was a lawyer or a legal scholar. And as far as the historical plays go, the playwright must have been fluent in Latin and Greek. Why? ’Cause many of the source materials for these works had not been translated into English yet.

Now, what do we know of Will Shakespeare? Not as much as you’d think. We do know that he had a somewhat humble, middle-class birth, the son of a glove-maker. There is no record of him attending any school. In fact, the only real, authenticated record we have of him are a bunch of commercial transactions, some familial sacramental records, and his will. Interestingly, there are no books mentioned in Shakespeare’s will. A bed, yes, but any books, which were rare and valuable and presumably owned and utilized by the Bard, no. Also, no contemporary poets or playwrights ever wrote anything commendable about the presumed greatest writer of the English language.

Why would someone have the need to publish anonymously as Shakespeare, who, by proponents of this theory, is just a moderately successful actor of somewhat average talent? For one, being a playwright was not considered a worthy occupation, at the time, for a nobleman. Nor for a variety of social, political, and even legal reasons would a highly-placed wordsmith want to make his name public. Due to the pretty much nonexistent copyright laws at the time, it would not be too difficult to disseminate works under another author’s name and even get them performed.

If not Shakespeare, then who?

Just about everyone in Elizabethan England at the time, including the Queen herself, has been proposed as a possible candidate. The most common and plausible is Sir Francis Bacon. After him, you have Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford; the poet and playwright, Christopher Marlowe; the author Sir Walter Raleigh; the poet Sir Edward Dyer; and, actually, Queen Elizabeth.

Sir Francis Bacon has the frontrunner credentials: philosopher, scientist, statesman, legal scholar, cryptographer, student of Latin, Greek, and several European languages. However, nothing in Bacon’s acknowledged writings point to anything as epically artistic and … Shakespearean. But the fact that he did create several ciphers make certain proponents foam at the mouth searching the Bard’s works for scrambled clues.

Marlowe makes an interesting candidate, being a renowned playwright and poet himself, save for one thing: he was murdered in 1593, and by 1593 only 7 of the 38 plays had been written. But here’s where the conspiracy theorists come out full-force: What if Marlowe, for reasons political and personal, faked his own death, and continued to write under nom de plume? Heh heh heh … I like that.

Bottom line: While it can’t be conclusively proven that Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets, it can’t be conclusively proven that he didn’t. It’s just a mystery for the ages.

And I hereby add the truism regarding any conspiracy from an unknown Shakespeare to the JFK assassination to the alleged Moon landing hoax: the more participants you have, the least likely it’s a real conspiracy. Presumably an unknown Shakespeare would have at least a handful of co-conspirators, such as a publisher, a go-between, and maybe Shakespeare himself. As the adage goes, a secret held by three or more people is a secret no more.

Literature buffs, aficionados, and professionals who wade into this debate and believe that Shakespeare is Shakespeare are called Stratfordians, after Stratford-on-Avon, Will’s place of birth. Those who take an opposing point of view fall under a variety of labels, depending mainly on who they propose as the real Shakespeare. For example, you have the Baconians, Oxfordians, the Rutlanders, the Marlovians, and the Groupies. To name the most prominent.

Until further notice, I consider myself a Stratfordian.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


One thing I’d like to do before I die is to read completely through Shakespeare. Take a whole year, a whole leisurely year, and read one play after the other, slowly, with understanding and appreciation.

Of his 38 plays, I’ve read 5. I recall trudging through Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear, like Napoleon’s army through snow-bound Russia, way back in high school. I read parts of Othello and Hamlet looking for selections for my public speaking class in college. About ten years ago me and my wife (fiancé at the time) saw Kelsey Grammar (!) star in Macbeth off-Broadway. And around the winter of 2007 I made headway into about half-a-dozen Shakespearean sonnets.

That’s it.

But what really bugs me, the thorn in my literary side, so to speak, is that I just don’t get Shakespeare. And I want to. Those five or six sonnets I waded through – that took a supreme act of will. I’m shaking my head as I write this, because I want to read them. I want to enjoy them. I want to appreciate them. And while I was reading them it was like I was reading Esperanto. In fact, I made a similar comment to my wife right after our Grammarian Shakespeare experience: It’s like watching a play in a different language.

Yet this is something I must do! I have read that William Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the summit of the English language. I wholeheartedly believe that statement. I have to believe it; if not them, then who? At some point in my life I will master the Bard.

Some things have to fall into place, obviously, before I can do the Shakespeare Project. First, my girls need to grow up. There’s no humanly possible way I can get through even a scene – no, even a page – with the six dozen plaintive hey-daddy?s I’m bombarded with daily. Also, I’d need some income and financial security. Nothing is as drearily debilitating as being suddenly yanked out of the novel you’re reading wondering if you paid the mortgage or the credit card bill with money you have for neither. And, yeah, it would be nice to have a little bit stronger physical health. Consistent bone-deep fatigue is not conducive to reading high lit.

Will there ever be a time in my life where these three conditions are optimal? Probably not. But if I haven’t done it by … let’s say age 50, then that will be the present to myself. While some may view reading all of Shakespeare one play after another Purgatory or at the very least cruel and unusual punishment, there is a sizeable minority of us who actually consider such a project as a too-brief vacation in Paradise.

Now – did you ever hear the controversy that Will may not have written those 38 plays attributed to him? I think I did, once, a long time ago, but I dismissed it out of hand. A few days ago I just read something that has inspired me to do a little research into this intriguing piece of literary detective work. I’ll talk a little bit about that tomorrow …

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Go Scope Again

Hey, remember the Go Scope?

Well, last night my buddy popped over and we drove up to the lake at Harriman, just past the border into New York state, to check out the night skies. There’s an alleged triple play of planets going on (Venus, Mars, and Saturn), so we had a couple of goals. Mars is starting to grow quite distant and small, but we thought we could image Saturn’s rings and perhaps see what phase Venus is currently in.

No go on our objectives.

Despite being June, the weather crept down into the upper 50s. That didn’t stop the bugs, though. When we pulled into the parking area – thoroughly in the dark save for car headlights, as there are no streetlights up here – we saw a father with a couple of sons pulling a boat off the lake. “Caught some bass; we had a good time ” he said, “until the bugs came out.”

And boy did he mean it! Within minutes a swarm of gnats converged upon us. We only spent a little over an hour there, but by the end they infiltrated the van, the telescope boxes, my clothes. One even flew into my eye, and a couple tried to see how far they could explore my ear canal. But at least they weren’t mosquitoes. If they were we’d be in Intensive Care right now.

There were plenty of stars out, especially as it got darker, shortly after nine. Venus was a large, glittering bright diamond about 30 degrees high in the north-western sky. By the end of the night it was dipping below the mountains on the horizon. We found it quickly and easily, but were unable to resolve it down to anything other than a fat slightly-blurred orb. Kinda disappointing.

There were two reddish objects around Venus, but we couldn’t tell which was Mars, if either one was. The bugs made it too difficult to read my Astronomy magazine in the van. Both proved too tough for the Go Scope to track down (the finderscope needs batteries which I never got around to buying and installing). And Saturn wasn’t scheduled to make an appearance until later in the night.

We decided the best target for the telescope would be the moon. Alas, it wasn’t out either. Perhaps later in the month, off my backyard deck. So, we got to the lake, unpacked and set up the scope, and really had nothing to look at for the next hour and a half. All in all, though, it was a pleasant evening out, bugswarm notwithstanding.

Soon me and my friend were the only ones at the lake. If we’d turn off the van’s headlights we’d be submerged in complete darkness. Only the moderate light from the celestial dome gave shadings to shadows. Around 9:30 we started hearing the howling of wolves from the mountain in the not-too-distant distance. That spooked me a bit, so I suggested packing up and heading back home. Once in the car the headlights lit up a section of foliage about a hundred yards across the lake. I wondered out loud what we’d do if we saw the tall bushes part and a large, dark creature crash through on two legs to snatch some bass from the lake, then pause, crouched, slowly glancing up to meet our gaze.

If I was to grade January’s excursion with a B (due mostly to the frigid fingernumbing weather), I’d give yesterday a C.

Monday, June 7, 2010

On the Road

Spent the last three days on the road. Specifically, the road that leads to northeastern Pennsylvania. Me and Patch were the road warriors in question, visiting my parents. The wife was also traveling the countryside, taking the Little One to Ohio for a graduation celebration on her side of the family. Altogether, the LEs logged a little over 1,160 miles on that lonesome highway this past weekend.

I did manage to get a lot done. I can't emphasize that limpy, milquetoast phrase "a lot" enough. I put in 11 solid hours of thoughtwritework in front of the Dell flatscreen in a 51-hour period. I tell ya, it's amazing the things you get done when you don't have to tend to a pair of toddlers all day long. Thanks Ma and Pa!

Most of my work was on my website. Very, very exciting. I fluctuate wildly over how successful I think it will be (ranging from "not in the least" to "barely pays for itself"). But only time will tell, and the more TLC I put into it, the better results will come from it. At the very least, it pads the ol' resume. You can see here and here for prior recent thoughts on this effort.

The other significant project was to finally finish outlining and really fleshing out a 20,000-word novella I've been working on for 22 months now. Well, I worked on it for a few hours 22 months ago, set it aside for 660 days, then resumed working on it Saturday. It's from a germ of an idea my uncle suggested to me while he was examining my teeth. (He's a dentist, just so we're clear ...) I think I can bang out a first draft in a week or ten days, eight chapters of 2000-2500 words each, plus a few days to edit it. Then we'll evaluate.

The weather in PA was a little bit crazy; beautiful though extremely muggy Friday and Saturday, and alternating Cat-5 gale storms and crystal-clear blue skies on Sunday. My mother wanted to take Patch poolside, but that didn't quite happen. We did take the littlest one to a stable where she smacked a pony on the nose. I also saw the world's fattest hog. Well, the fattest hog I myself ever saw live.

Took an early morning trip into town and visited one of my outta-state book stores I frequent once or twice a year. This time, for a little over $9, I bought

The Mindwarpers (1965) by Eric Frank Russell
Agent of Byzantium (1994) by Harry Turtledove
Ben-Hur (1880, but this edition printed in 1959) by Lew Wallace

Another satisfyingly eclectic group of reads! All spontaneous purchases. I know nothing of The Mindwarpers save I wanted to read something by Eric Frank Russell, having heard lots of second-hand praise for him. As far as Agent of Byzantium goes, I know nothing of it, either, save for a glowing rave by the guy I bought my wife's engagement ring from a decade ago. We talked more about Harry Turtledove and Why I Need To Read Him ASAP than about karats and facets and settings and platinum bands. And finally, I bought the Ben-Hur to read this Christmas season to feel a little more ... I dunno, reverent, maybe? I love the movie, so I'll try the book.

Got caught up on my sleep, ate like a king, listened to good music on the way out and the way home. A nice, relaxing mini-working-va-ca. Lots and lots of writing on the agenda this week, maybe as much as 4,000 words-a-day, if you total the website, the novella, and this here blog. So I'll be pleasantly and not stressfully busy. I also need to read through my short stories and select something to send out. That's a project that's way overdue, and definitely doable. I'll keep all you fans updated on all fronts as the days fly by.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Nailed to the Cross, Again


"For how can those who fall away be brought back to repent again? They were once in God's light. They tasted heaven's gift and received their share of the Holy Spirit.

"They knew from experience that God's word is good, and they had felt the powers of the coming age.

"And then they fell away! It is impossible to bring them back to repent again, because they are nailing the Son of God to the cross once more and exposing Him to public shame."

- Hebrews 6:4-6 (TEV)

What a terrible, terrible reality! I read these verses a few days ago (they were quoted in a spiritual book I'm reading) and I haven't really been able to put them from my mind. Every time I'm about to succumb to habitual sin, these three lines come at me from out of the mist, and more often than not, with a bit of effort and a silent prayer, I am able to get back on the narrow path.

But how haunting is that last verse to any true believer!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Howling

[warning: some spoilers to follow]

Strange ... Last weekend I bought a couple of books that were all published in 1977, the year I seriously started to read weird stuff. The Grayspace Beast and Midnight at the Well of Souls are science fiction, both of which I have not previously read. The Howling is pure classic horror, and I did read it way back then, probably as a fifth grader the year it came out.

My initial reaction after a quick re-read was: How was I ever allowed to read this as a ten-year-old? I mean, it's quite sexually explicit. I didn't remember how much so, though there was one scene I seemed to recall ... but I'm blushing, and I want to get on with this review.

Werewolves. My earliest memories of them are from those black-and-white Universal flicks made in the early 40s. Sad and tragic Larry Talbot, the Werewolf. Then, nothing major for three decades. That's something like 375 full moons. Gary Brandner's The Howling and Whitley Strieber's The Wolfen were responsible for a semi-renaissance resurgence of the hairy beast in the late 70s. Both were made into moderately successful flicks, and both were dwarfed by the 1981 smash hit An American Werewolf in London. Then the beasties went back in hiding for almost another three decades, like "It" from Stephen King, until Benecio del Toro and Stephenie Meyer enticed them out in the open for film and print treatment.

I re-read The Howling in one three-hour sitting. I have to admit I enjoyed it, enjoyed it in a way I am not enjoying Thomas Mann's magnum opus. In fact, even mentioning The Howling in the same paragraph as The Magic Mountain is sorta like mentioning Rocky IV and Doctor Zhivago in the same breath. But it was a welcome break from German angst, a well-spent diversion. I mean, I could've watched two SciFi channel originals in that three-hour period and come out much the worse.

The plot's simple and direct, if a little contrived. Stylish seventies couple Roy and Karyn Beatty are newlyweds living the swanky lifestyle out in LA. By page four Karyn is raped. The offender is caught and plays no further role in the novel, but Karyn is emotionally scarred, and the Beattys' marriage suffers. At the suggestion of a psychotherapist, Roy takes a sabbatical from his work, finds a home to rent in a sleepy town (named Drago!), and hopes that some healing will take place there.

As is not uncommon in such horror novels as this, that sleepy town is a deathtrap. All the usual clues are overlooked: strange taciturn sheriff, overly friendly general store lady, no children, no pets, a history of mysterious disappearances over the years. And, of course, nightly howling. Like, right-outside-the-window howling.

Karyn's dog Lady is left out overnight and becomes werewolf chow. Convinced the pup was killed by wolves, Karyn begins researching them, and soon comes into contact with an ex-nun named Inez Polk, who introduces the werewolf theory as an answer to Drago's missing person problem. Roy falls for a mysterious woman named Marcia Lura, a raven-haired gypsy-like beauty clothed in pheromones. You know where that's heading. Later, he gets bitten by a black wolf (who do you think that is in human form?) and begins his own personal transformation. Karyn has a standoff with a menacing wolf and manages to blow half its head off with a shotgun. The next day, she and Inez spot a prominent Drago citizen with a bandaged ear. Hmmm. And then there's the doctor, who the pair of women bring into their confidence. Do you think he's a werewolf, too? Do you? How 'bout the whole town being werewolves? Hmmm?

The Howling is actually a fun read. Though I know nothing of Gary Brandner, his prose is such that the pages turn, and even though you can spot what's going to happen a couple hundred yards away, you still want to read it to confirm your guess. Everything's neat and tidy and not a single sentence, paragraph, or chapter is wasted. Well, with the exception of a short digression where a peripheral character has to hunt down a gunsmith in LA to manufacture some silver bullets. But I did learn that the melting point of silver is 960 degrees, so there.

I'm still amazed at the blunt sexuality of the book. While it's not explicitly hardcore, per se, it did expose ten-year-old LE to ... let's say, a non-procreative way of intercourse and, well, improper nun-on-nun relations, through flashback. The book could have been written without those three or four scenes, but then it wouldn't be The Howling, a thorough product of its times, enjoyable despite its faults.

I give it a generous B minus.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Damien: Omen II

Something strange and terrible invaded our home sometime around 1976 or 1977. Like a vampire given permission to enter our premises, it sauntered in, pulled each of us under its spell, changed forms, and never left. We loved it under the masks it wore: good times, entertainment, familial bonding, excitement and adventure. It was a false messiah masquerading as our friend, as our savior. It was the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was cable teevee.

Now, in the beginning my parents kept it under tightly enforced lock and key. That great big box, half the size of a shoebox, connected to a thick cord that ran to the back of the television. In those days channels were numbered 2 to 13, then lettered up to “P” if my memory serves me well. That’s 28 channels. I think it had fourteen big rectangular buttons you pushed down, plus a master switch that pointed up or down, necessary to get all 28.

Some channels my parents did not purchase. These were the channels that brought … let’s just call them adult movies into our house. Those channels were scrambled. But with a little experimentation, word spread throughout the neighborhood kids that if you depressed such-and-such buttons simultaneously, you’d get image resolution. When that didn’t work, we unscrewed the back of the box and twisted the silver dials with a screwdriver to unscramble those movies. After a while the cable companies caught on and that no longer worked.

I saw my first murders around this time. I know this may sound quaint compared to the hardness of heart our children now have with the great media complex swooping in claiming their innocence, but it was very traumatic for me at the time. I remember watching a distasteful movie with my parents, Homebodies. A group of senior citizens, not wanting to be evicted from their rest home, go on a murder spree. I’m sure it was meant as tongue-in-cheek, a “black comedy” or whatnot, but that’s not how I experienced it. I saw a gentle old lady run a young woman through with a twelve-inch kitchen knife, and watched her agonizing death. I wanted to throw up.

Before long I was sneaking out of my bedroom late at night, creeping into the hallway, watching what my father, reclining on the couch before me, watched on cable. He had no idea I was there. I watched A Clockwork Orange in its entirety. Now, I’ve since read the book (twice) and regard it as a masterpiece. I even own the DVD. But back then it was all quite confusing and more than a bit disturbing.

It was not entirely all bad. I, along with my friends, now could watch much more cartoons aimed at our level. There were also true family movies and shows I remember watching. For some reason we watched that movie Midway like a hundred times. It was even on while we were celebrating Christmas. It’s on the teevee in the background of some photos that first year.

Why the semi-sanctimonious condemnation of cable teevee? I guess to rail against unnecessary and unenjoyable warpage. And the saddest part of it is that it’s just a fraction of the warpage that my kids and your kids will have to deal with when they’re adults.

As a form of therapy, one thing I like to do is revisit all the movies that either

a) scared the hell out of me


b) confused the hell out of me

as a wee young lad. I don’t have a master list, mind you. But when something comes across the radar, something else clicks in my brain. There’s a hole-punch card that shoots down one of those vacuum tubes to my cerebral cortex, where the captain picks up that acoustic horn thingie and shouts, “Engine room! All engines full stop!” And as if by magic I blink, snap my fingers, and say, “I need to see this movie again!”

This happened to me last weekend. The movie was Damien: Omen II, and thirty-two years ago I watched it stealthily on the cable teevee when no one was around. It not only scared the hell out of me, it not only confused the hell out of me, it completely freaked the living daylights out of me.

With steel courage I watched it again late last Friday night. From start to finish. My recollections of my youth was a slick, colorful movie with a confusing plot where lots of innocent victims die suffering in many horrible ways. The boy, Damien, is super creepy, and emanating from him was a palpable evil that suffused the entire film. I don’t think I was able to watch the whole thing. As a matter of fact, I do remember the elevator scene made me sick to the point of nausea.

Just in case you’re not in the know, there were three Damien movies between 1976 and 1981, each less successful artistically and financially. Damien is the antichrist, as Hollywood understands him. The first movie had Gregory Peck to anchor it and give it some street cred and class; this one has William Holden. Their plots are similar. As Damien grows from an infant to a teen, his identity is gradually discerned, and those discerners are dispatched off to their eternal reward in ever-more-violent and ever-more-Rube-Golbergian ways. The last one to confront the existential-eschatological horror are the dads, who are killed before they can kill their devil-spawn son.


So, in Damien: Omen II, there are something like eleven major character deaths. My scorecard reads

- 2 buried-alive-burials
- 1 psychic heart attack
- 1 by eighteen-wheeler-smackdown-after-eyes-plucked-out-by-crow
- 1 by taking the phrase skating on thin ice a tad too literally
- 1 toxic chemical casualty
- 1 bisection-by-broken-elevator-cable
- 1 psychic embolism
- 1 by train sandwich
- 1 by the old twelve-knives-in-the-gut trick
- 1 by exploding-boiler-itis.

Double whew.

I actually laughed at a few scenes, and marveled at how old the movie looked. So much for the slick, modernized pastel of evil, with Bill Holden talking on shoe-sized telephones and Lee Grant parading around in pantsuits. The elevator scene was still disgusting and jolting, but tame by today’s standards. That’s what struck me. How far we’ve come in cultivating the art of portraying horrible deaths onscreen. This is one pillar of our society’s self-immolation, this fascination with violence in all forms. But I digress. I made it through the movie, and the movie lost its power over me and my memories.

Now, if anyone knows when Homebodies is playing, let me know so I can DVR it!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

American Mythology

Here’s a thought, and it’s not a wholly original one. We can all agree America has a fuzzy, hazy pseudo- or semi-mythology, right? We learned it in grade school. The tall tales such as George Washington’s cherry tree, Ben Franklin’s kite, Johnny Appleseed, and Paul Bunyon, the Pony Express. The bootstrap, roll-up-yer-sleeve gumption of Horatio Alger and Thomas Edison. The doomed heroes of the Alamo. The stoic courage of Lincoln.

Right after the Second World War things changed a bit. Quite a bit. In the summer of 1947, businessman and airplane enthusiast Kenneth Arnold spotted seven flying disks over the mountains of the state of Washington while on a business flight. A reporter mangled Arnold’s description of the machines, and the term “flying saucer” was born.

Which swept the nation like wildfire.

Over the next ten years, hundreds and thousands of sightings thrust the nation into a state of rapture and our government into a state of worried concern. Air Force studies were commenced and the CIA got involved in research and disinformation campaigns. Now while the idea of flying saucers intrigues and interests me for reasons of creepiness and camp, I don’t believe in extraterrestrial visitors. Yes, despite my lifelong fascination with science fiction. But I do think there were several large-scale psychological warfare studies, experimenting, and theorizing going on at this time. But I’m getting away from my thesis here.

(After writing those last couple of sentences I realize that I sound even more paranoid than saucer crash coverup enthusiasts.)

Anyway, one important component of this ten-year period was the “contactee” phenomenon. These were seemingly normal folk from various walks of life who claimed to have been contacted by the occupants of these omnipresent UFOs. Some of these contactees were learned intellectuals, others poor and street smart, but all had the gift of marketing. A score and more of books flowered that first decade. Fairs and conventions followed. All these prophets expounded the same message: we have nothing to fear from our friends from the stars; they merely wish to show us their way to enlightenment.

Then, the mythos began to subtly change.

The first recorded “abduction” occurred in the fall of 1957, in South America. In what would become patternomic, there was a strong sexual element to the event. Four years later we have the relatively famous abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill. By the late 60s and mid-70s UFO abduction became much more commonplace. Here’s were campers, loggers and fisherman inexplicably began being targeted by the dozens for abduction. The Pascagoula abductions and the Travis Walton case are probably the most famous of the two.

All right. Now things take a downright nasty turn.

Sometime in the early 80s the abduction phenomenon became the primary paradigm for UFO encounters. You know the scenario. The greys, short telepathic insect-like entities with big black almond-shaped eyes, slits for mouths, and no nose or ears, enter the victim’s bedroom. The unfortunate paralyzed semi-sleeper is mysteriously taken aboard a spaceship for a gynecological exam. Men get their version of the anatomical exam.

The mythology slowly becomes one of genetic experimentation. The greys, despite their extreme advancement, are dying out and need our fresh DNA. Or something. Authors such as Whitley Streiber, Budd Hopkins, and John Mack are significant for a large part of this becoming disseminated to the public. It’s been argued that the million-plus books of Streiber’s Communion in the late 80s, with its cover art full-faced alien grey, is resposible for shaping the image of the aliens in our minds.

Watching The Fourth Kind over the weekend just made me think about all these things. If I was a sociology major, I think I’d pursue this whole “American Mythology” aspect of UFOs and abductions in our culture for my thesis. My task is to figure out where the mythology is going next and write a book about it. (For the record, I think I have, but that project is about seven or eight projects down the road.)

Me, I’m a child of the 50s, UFO-wise. I like the thrill, the innocence and wonder of the possibility of seeing something moving under non-human intelligence in the night-time sky. I actually saw something strange and inexplicable-to-this-day as a young man myself. I’m kind of a pleasant debunker who hopes he’s wrong. I shy away from the craziness of government coverups, simply because I don’t think the government has the competance to cover up something as huge as first contact. I also shy away from the darkness of the abduction phenomenon. It’s too demonic at heart and, quite frankly, doesn’t hold up under intense scrutiny. I think it was Mack who asserted that something like 5 million people are abducted every year. That was, for me, the camel back-breaking straw, the tipping point to self-absurdity for the abduction movement. I mean, c’mon, 5 million people a year?

The whole field of this new American Mythology is like that, though. Overfilled and overflowing with landmines of ludicrosity. But I’m forced to admit there are some truly baffling and interesting nuggets in there, if you’re patient and lucky enough to find them. The Green Fireball phenomenon in New Mexico, the acorn-shaped object retrieved by the military in the woods near Kecksburg, PA, and the two weird sightings by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (he discovered Pluto) are just a couple off the top of my head. Perhaps I’ll delve into one of them in a near-future post …

My point is, I guess, that if you assume a culture’s mythology is sort of a mirror to that culture, then the path our mythology has taken is alarming. From those early, reverent tall tales to a fascination with impossible things allegedly seen in the skies to evil creatures abducting our citizens out of their bedrooms for psychological and physical torture sessions … well, that leads me to believe that there is something twisted or warped in our culture. For at least 1.7 %, or 5 million, of us.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Fourth Kind

For some reason I can’t fathom, a serious horror movie about the subject of alien abduction has never been done. It seems to me to be ripe for pickin’ as they say, or said a hundred years back. I mean, it has all the classic elements that have scared and scarred adults since their preadolescence: Something peeking into your windows at night; something entering your bedroom while your in a paralyzed half-sleep; nasty trips to the doctor and all those sharp instruments; the fear that no one will believe a word of what you say.

A sharp screenwriter could turn this into box office gold, right?

Well, yes and no. At least where The Fourth Kind is concerned.

For some reason that I don’t fully grasp, the creators of this film wanted to frame their alien abduction story within a pseudo-documentary. It’s a cousin to flicks such as Blair Witch and the more recent, and much better, Paranormal Activity. Through the movie’s ninety-minute running time we’re watching both the grainy “original” documentary interview – which is clearly not “original” – and a parallel Hollywood re-enactment with beautiful actors and actresses on beautiful sets acting in tandem with each other.

Honestly, it seems a little too much. I have to believe some effort was wasted adhering to this technique, effort which would have been better spent trying to add scarier footage. Like more things peering into windows in the background (one of the scariest things I can imagine viewing onscreen, and so rarely done).

The set-up works. On paper, it does. In Nome, Alaska (filmed, I believe, in Bulgaria and which in no way resembles the real Nome, I’ve read), there are a rash of individuals who are having trouble sleeping. Desperate trouble. Suicidal trouble. They all have in common the odd observation that just before falling asleep they see white owls at their windows. Creepy ….

If I was helming the flick I’d have focused on those owls. Gradually reveal more and more what they actually represent, and then show what they actually are at the end of the movie. The Fourth Kind doesn’t do this. In fact, with the exception of a brief but thoroughly awesome, chill-inducing glimpse of a menacing UFO, you might not even know the movie was about abductions. It could have been about demonic possession. That’s why the movie is constantly talking about abductions. A lot cheaper, budget-wise, I suppose, to talk about them than to show them in progress.

And does the movie talk! From the very opening where Milla Jovovich and the director recite a short Mulderish I-want-to-believe speech, to the “documentary” Q and A about the main protagonist’s experiences, to our actors in character trying to convince each other and then the authorities that abductions are actually occurring. Over the end credits we listen to abductees tell their stories in telephone interviews. Talk talk talk.

However, as any devoted SF fan knows, mediocre SF is better than nothing at all. At the very least, it’ll provide camp. While The Fourth Kind is definitely not camp, it’s still worth seeing, under the caveat that you only rent it if these sort of stories get your juices flowing. I must admit having to pull the shades down after watching it. There is an eerie, paranoid, uncomfortable and infectious feeling the film conveys effectively. And there are three or four scenes that make renting the DVD worthwhile: the aforementioned UFO glimpse; some truly scary sounds and images unknowingly recorded; and a quick and nightmarish flashback sequence.

Plus, it has Milla Jovovich in the lead role.

Anyway, I give it a B – , because some of it works and it’s not an insufferably long movie.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day '10

Had a long, enjoyable, relaxing and productive Memorial Day weekend! How about you?

Want some more detail? Okay. Friday the Little One had a school field trip to the town park: a pond, tire swings, fields to chase geese. All the things that matter to a five-year-old. Me and Patches rented a few movies to watch over the weekend. C brought home some burritos around 6:30; burritos are our official “It’s the Weekend!” food. After we put the girls to bed, post-bathal, we watched (at the wife’s request, plus I need a little goodwill) It’s Complicated, starring Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, and Steve Martin. And you know what? I went into it thinking I’d despise it, but it was actually very, very funny.

Couldn’t sleep that night, though, so went down to the living room and watched Damien: Omen II, of all things. However, this experience deserves its own post, later in the week. I’ll explain why then. As a result, I got to bed super late, like 3 am, and the girls woke me by 8, which is late for them. Paid some bills, got our task list ready, and me and Little One hit the road for our weekly errand run. This week’s special guest stars: Dry cleaners, post office, recycling center, library, and pizzeria. These Saturday afternoon pizza stops with the Little One are the best hour of my week, hands down.

We occupied the rest of Saturday doing laundry, packing all our bags, and watching The Tooth Fairy with the girls. Went to evening mass late, but in time to receive communion. I grilled us some salmon, which was amazingly delicious (amazing that I was able to grill it such, that is). That night, at the last minute, my wife’s friend called her for a movie date, so I watched the Sci-fi/horror movie The Fourth Kind by myself. Well, me and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. But that’s okay, because C wasn’t really into it. I can’t imagine why. I liked the flick, conditionally, and I think I’ll review it for tomorrow’s post.

Early Sunday morning we loaded up the car and drove down to visit my father-in-law, halfway down the Jersey shore. He, my wife, the girls, and my wife’s sister spent most of the day on the beach, leaving me blessedly alone in the bungalow for seven hours! Oh joy! I read me some Magic Mountain, finished outlining a 20,000-word novella I owe someone, went for a leisurely walk, got a sandwich, watched a bit of the French Open, took a refreshing nap. The ladies came home around 6; we all showered and changed, then went to my father-in-law’s ex’s house (they’re long divorced but very good friends) and had some mozzarella and tomato and chicken. My sister-in-law got the girls a whole bunch of Disney Princess-type costumes, which they modeled under a very artsy lamp out on the deck. If she emails me the pics, I’ll post a few later in the week.

The Memorial Day parade was only two blocks away from the bungalow. We watched, sitting on the curb in the shade. Down in this neck of the woods its tradition, apparently, to throw candy while marching or riding in parades. The Little One caught and scavenged close to a hundred pieces – enough to last until Halloween or serious tooth decay, whichever comes first. The fire trucks rolled by slowly, blaring their thunderous horns, scaring little Patch.

The girls returned to the beach for three hours. My father-in-law drove me to meet a lady who’s helping me in the epic struggle to get my book published. He dropped me back at the bungalow at 2; I cleaned up while he retrieved the ladies from the beach. We said our goodbyes and hit the road around 4 and got home surprisingly quickly by 6. C made us sandwiches; we all ate watching a Scooby Doo movie. Bathed the girls and put them to bed. Then, feeling unusually energetic, I did 10 minutes on the exercise bike, some pushups, and went for a two-and-a-half mile walk. Showered, then read some more Tommy Mann while the wife dozed. A perfect ending to a perfect holiday weekend.

There! That’s the play-by-play! Now – come back tomorrow, and every day this week, ’cause I have some good stuff swinging the donut in the on-deck circle.