Sunday, October 31, 2010

Random Personal Tales of Weirdity

Did I ever see a ghost?

No. But I had a friend who had a friend who lived with a friendly one.

Did I ever see anything inexplicable?

Well, I saw some strange lights in the sky when I was twelve years old. Once I saw Bigfoot walk past my window and completely froze up, overdosing on adrenaline. But seconds later I realized it was only my mother taking out the trash.

Did I ever hear anything unexplainable?

Another time, laying in the dark of my room, pretending to be asleep, I heard one of my dresser drawers being pulled out. A few times there were frightening night-time bangings on the window of the small bedroom me and my brother shared. But that turned out to only be my father sadistically pretending to be Santa checking up on us.

Any recurring weirdities?

Yes. I usually wake up within a few minutes of 3:15 am every night. Remember The Amityville Horror? George Lutz would always wake up at that time in the morning to go outside to check the boathouse. There’s tradition (or urban myth) that 3 am is the devil’s hour, being completely opposite of the time of the day Christ was crucified, redeeming us all. How that quarter-past-the-hour came to be, I don’t know. But I’ll usually wake up between 3:10 and 3:20 every night. Must have something to do with those 90-minute REM cycles.

Did I ever feel anything otherworldly?

Yes. This one’s serious. One night I was sleeping downstairs on the couch (my pregnant wife commandeered the upstairs bed) and I woke at 3:15 (natch). I went to the bathroom but as I rounded the bend I sensed something … not exactly demonic, not exactly a presence, even … but something in the corner of my children’s playroom. Hard to put into words, but I do believe I felt something that night. Haven’t since, which is a good sign. Possibly I was still partially asleep.

What were some of the Halloween urban legends of my youth?

We lived a block away from “the Woods”. There were lots of strange, wonderful, and spooky things in those woods. I can immediately recall a story – don’t know if there’s any truth in it – that circulated a lot when I was in grammar school. Seems there was this big cardboard box found in the woods, and whaddya think was in it? … Body parts! Dismembered limbs and such, part of a torso … but no head! I heard that delightful tale every year, year after year, more so during late October.

Any brushes with disaster?

On vacation with the family at Lake George, li’l ol’ ten-year-old me was playing on the dock by the boathouse. Oh look! I remember thinking, someone’s left a big black hairy rubber spider right there on the deck! I think I’ll go over, reach down and pick it up! Ahhhhh! It moves! … I’ve been scarred ever since.

Any encounters with bats?


Black cats?

I like cats.


Maybe. I think, based on hints dropped over a two-year period, that mother of one of my ex-girlfriends may have been a witch. I may have been under a spell for a four-year period, too, but that’s pure speculation.

E V E R Y B O D Y !

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Little One is being Tinkerbell this year, wings and green slippers and all. She’s been, so far, a Pumpkin, an Oatmeal Bear, Cinderella, Minnie Mouse, and the Little Mermaid. Patch, who’s a little taller and a whole lot bigger than her older sister was at age two, is skipping a costume and jumping to the Cinderella hand-me-down.

Which got me thinking about what I used to dress up as, oh so many years ago.

My most creative costume? The invisible man. Bandages, shades, gloves, scarf, and a great big black overcoat. Good thing it was a cool Halloween that year. Must’ve been ten or eleven that year.

Lamest costume? I don’t remember those ones that you’d wear as a real young kid, with the painful plastic mask attached by a rubber band and a picture of the monster you’re supposed to be on your chest. But I do recall being in eighth grade or so, too-cool-for-trick-or-treating, when my brother and I suddenly decided to go out on a whim to score some candy. We went into our uncle’s closet and found a Yankees baseball cap and a cowboy hat. And those were our costumes: a fan and a rustler. Believe it or, we got a lot of candy.

Most ubiquitous costume, c. 1975 – 1980? That’s easy. Bum. Hobo. It seemed every year there was about a half-dozen of us who dressed up as bums. They even have bum kits in the stores for our parents to buy for us. I was a bum maybe two or three years. Now, not so much. I don’t know if it’s a case of political correctness or Christian compassion (probably something in between), but you don’t see many bums today. Or maybe that’s because I have a six-year-old daughter. I’ll get back to you once she gets to the fifth grade.

Best costume for those hard-drinkin’ adult Halloween parties? That’s easy, too: Angus Young. I was a huge AC/DC fan back in those days, and being a guitarist, I played a 1969 Gibson SG. I was Angus I think three times in my early twenties. Have a couple of pictures, so I’ll see if I can figger out how to post them here. There’s one of me as Angus and my singer as Jimi Hendrix that’s just loaded with memories for me, and not all of them stupid.

Last costume? Gee, this is embarrassing. The wife and our best friends, a couple, decided to throw a big Halloween party in 2003. We all went to a local party shop to buy some authentic, well-done costumes. The wife was a 50s bobby-soxer, for example. So I searched in vain for a Catholic priest costume – hey, no jokes now! I was going to be an honest man of the cloth. But, no, none was to be found, and to make matters worse, they all decided I should dress up in a bathrobe, pipe, and yachtsman’s cap … yes, paragon of virtue, Hugh Hefner. Sigh. I was embarrassed during the whole party. Good thing there’s no surviving pictures from that night.

What would I wear if I was going to a Halloween party this year? What does the father of two young girls who’s in his early forties go out as? Hands down:

DJ Lance from Yo Gabba Gabba!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Year of the Cloud

© 1970 by Ted Thomas and Kate Wilhelm

[minor spoilers]

Perhaps the most simple yet utterly terrifying doomsday scenario I’ve ever read. That being said, overall the book was a rare disappointment for me.

That’s a towering high and a piteous low for a simple two-sentence paragraph. Let me explain with a bit of background first.

Over the years, the only thing I remembered about this book was its premise: all the water on the Earth slowly thickens into a gel-like substance incompatible with life. That and a bunch of scientists on a boat in the Caribbean doing science stuff.

I even forgot the title of the book for the longest time. Only recently it came back to me, and I wondered why I couldn’t recall the rest of the tale. So I went to an online used book store and purchased it.

Almost immediately I noted a few problems with the novel. Character motivations and the specific vignettes of conflict the authors chose to highlight come to mind. But after some thought, I realized the story focuses more on the symptoms of the premise than the reasons behind the premise, which would be far, far more interesting.

So what’s it about?

A near-translucent cloud five days out from Earth is discovered by the Palomar Observatory. Approximately three Earths wide, it appears to be composed of simple polymers and hydrocarbons. * Though the governments of the world declare little to be worried about – “enjoy the vivid sunsets!” – within a few weeks there are noticeable changes in the water.

The polymer from the cloud adheres to water molecules, thickening the liquid. Viscosity readings in the sea rise through the roof. Fish cannot swim, hunt, or breed in this new water rapidly spreading over the globe. Not only that, but rain falling on crops takes the form of a rubbery slush. Even more dreadful, it’s determined that the polymer can pass through membranes, such as those found within the human body. Our blood will thicken, too, over time, leading to sluggishness and cardiac problems for mankind and animals who have higher heart rates.

The standard apocalyptic end-times scenario plays out. Panic, rationing, martial law, every-man-for-himself-itis, the astonishingly quick breakdown of society. I’ve never enjoyed stories of this type, since my nervous personality fearfully realizes how fragile our society really is, how every little thing influences every other little thing, and how hard-wired the domino effect is in our world.

Anyway, that’s the backdrop while our intrepid playboy scientist, our standard-issue-egghead oceanographer, the woman they both love, a New York Times reporter, and a tough-as-nails failed actress struggle to find a way to survive and, possible, overcome this global threat.

The characters felt one-dimensional to me, with the possible exception of Carl Loudermilch (love that name!), the Times reporter. I envisioned him as the rumpled seeker of truth, a la Carl Kolchak from The Night Stalker teevee series. But then he’s hooking up with the butch actress, who’s fallen madly in love with him after a dangerous cross-country drive. Then, out of the blue, the oceanographer declares – with no clues whatsoever telegraphed to the reader – undying love for the playboy’s girlfriend, jeopardizing the search for a way to defeat the polymer. All this left me scratching my head.

Defeat the polymer! I’ve never read a story that had a chemical compound as its main antagonist. Admittedly it’s an ingenious mechanism for planetary annihilation, but throughout the novel I felt adrift, not having a specific sentient foe to root against. Reminds me of The Magnetic Monster, one of those cheapo 50s sci-fi flicks where the threat is a newly-discovered radioactive element. Remember the first Superman flick with Christopher Reeve? It’s like Superman spends the whole movie tracking down and disarming those two stolen nuclear missiles and doesn’t even bat an eyebrow at Lex Luthor. But I guess the best vibe Cloud produces would be that of one of those Irwin Allen disaster flicks of the 70s: Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Meteor, et al.

So what I’m saying is that, as a reader, I wanted to know more about the Cloud, not the polymer. Who put it there? Surely its placement, its size, and its effects on the planet lead one to believe it was not a coincidence. Such a question is alluded to but never followed up on in the novel. Is it an act of war, or a long-view nudge to evolve? Maybe if a sequel were to come, had the book been more successful, we’d discover the answer to that question. Maybe we’d encounter another Cloud with a different effect. Maybe there would be vengeance war of Heinleinian magnitude (think Puppet Masters meets Starship Troopers). But that would be quite a different novel from Year of the Cloud.

Ted Thomas and Kate Wilhelm (both alive and in their 80s at the time of this review) are legends in the SF community. Though I was disappointed with this one, I might seek out their other collaboration, The Clone, an expansion of a Thomas short story. And I may seek out another Wilhelm SF work after a bit of research and get back to you.

* I am not a chemist by profession or passion and am recalling most of this from memory.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


SCENE: State-of-the-art conference room at SuperPharm, a state-of-the-art drug corporation. The lean, balding CEO sits at the center in the largest chair. Two well-dressed Executives are at his left; the Director of Marketing at his right. A lab-coated scientist with a clipboard hovers over in a far corner.

CEO: So, what’re the latest test-outs on the new batch of BLLSHT?

EXEC #1: Good news and bad news, sir.

EXEC #2: But, sir, the good news is really good!

CEO: Give me that bad first.

EXEC #1: Well, as you know, the BLLSHT compound trials have yielded an unexpected side effect –

CEO: You’re going to tell me that this side effect doesn’t cause cancer to go into remission, aren’t you? Remember: we want to market a cancer cure. That’s the goal. That is why SuperPharm spent $2.8 billion and ten years of research developing it.

SCIENTIST: I’m afraid it doesn’t –

EXEC #2: But we’re approaching this with an open mind, and I think you’ll like where we want to go.

CEO: Wait – is the side effect harmful?

EXEC #2: Nooooo.

CEO: Phew! (Fake-wipes fake-sweat from bald brow; group laughs on cue)

EXEC #1: Not per se.

CEO: What does that mean?

SCIENTIST: BLLSHT-1drg has been determined to make the eyes yellowish, but does not damage the liver, as might be suspected in such a condition. At least in 98 percent of the trials we’ve run so far.

CEO: Hmmm. (long pause). Okay. Where do we go with this? I have a shareholders meeting on the seventh.

DIR OF MARKETING: Already have it mapped out, sir.

CEO: Go ahead.

DIR OF MARKETING: We’ve envisioned several scenarios we can explore. For example … (points a remote control at a large video screen)


A middle-aged woman dressed smartly is making a salad in a clean, well-lit kitchen. “Hello,” she says, looking up. “I have it all. I’m a mother, a wife, an office manager, and I’m part of the ladies club here in town. But for years something has always held me back, kept me from being the best mother, wife, manager, and club participant I can be:

“My eyeballs are too white.”


“It’s a condition called Extreme Ocular Albinism, and it plagues 7.2 percent of the human population. Now there’s a cure for those of us who suffer in silence – ”

CEO: Perfect! Run with it. Get me a transcription of that commercial. I want a plan for hitting all the women’s mags: Cooking Light, Ladies Home Journal, Self, Good Housekeeping, oh, and hit the men’s too: GQ, Playboy, all the fitness rags. Make it a self-esteem issue for the women, and a sexual one for the men.

DIR OF MARKETING: Already done, sir. We’ll have copy for both on your desk by the end of the day.

CEO: But … cut out that 7.2 percent figure. That may require expensive verification.

DIR OF MARKETING: We just made it up anyway. We can cut it from the video for the shareholders meeting.

* * *

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a capitalist. I am enthusiastically for corporate research, economic opportunism, and entrepreneurial get-to-it-ness. I am for that find-a-need-and-fill-it niche exploration so unique to American business. Kept within obvious, well-known moral boundaries, of course.

But this drug stuff drives me crazy. The drugification of American society. We get Cooking Light as a gift from my in-laws, and in each issue there’s close to 30 pages devoted to selling drugs. The first page is the smiling victim of varying demographic, and the next page or two is the fine print legalese. In a cooking magazine!

What really called my attention to this is the weirdness of the “disorders” the drug is trying to cure. You’ve probably seen the ads about dry eyes (people who can’t “manufacture their own tears”) or twitchy-leg syndrome. That’s what my parody is about. I honestly think pharmaceutical companies discover some strange side effect and set out to market it by making the “disorder” the side effect “cures” a mainstream ailment.

Is this ethical? Is this a fair use of resources? I suppose if I spent the time to take everything to its logical conclusion, I’d have to say, yes, so long as the research was done ethically, the public is informed of any risks and participation with the drug is completely voluntary. But I don’t believe the public is informed enough and I do believe some of these types of drugs will be given to people in some degree of involuntary capacity.

Oh, that reminds me – I forgot to take my Plavix this morning …

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lee's Mummy

I DVR’d a couple of those Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee Hammer horror flicks that TCM has been showing this month. I remember, in a vague sort of way, watching these as a boy in the 70s. My local ABC affiliate in New York, channel 7, would show a movie every day at 4:30, and these would follow a weekly theme. Invariably, a Hammer horror week would surface every year around Halloween.

As a boy it was coded in my DNA to be fascinated with all things horror – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy. I also recall quite fondly watching the black-and-white Universal films of the 30s and 40s featuring these creatures. But it was the Hammer flicks that always left me a tad uneasy. Perhaps it was Technicolor richness of the films, in which blood was always a bright red. Perhaps it was the gaunt and skeletal acting duo of Cushing and Lee. Whatever the reason, I hadn’t watched these movies in over three decades, so I decided to record a bunch of them this month.

Last night I watched The Mummy (1959). I learned a couple of things. First and foremost, as a victim of both early MTV and modern movie editing techniques, I am desensitized to violence. Though regarded as pushing the limits for a 1959 film, The Mummy doesn’t show any onscreen deaths. There are a couple of successful and not-too-successful strangulations, some blasts from a shotgun, but not much of that rich red blood I somewhat anxiously remembered.

Compare this with the Brendan Fraser remake 40 years later. Over-the-top violence, gruesome fates lustfully portrayed for our eyes, nonstop and often tiresome action sequences. Hammer’s Mummy is like reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV while 1999’s is like reading the comic book – excuse me, graphic novel – of the English king’s exploits. But my eyelids did droop during certain long stretches of exposition and padding as I would often contemplate the phony sets or the hammy acting of the extras.

But what makes Hammer’s Mummy better than its remake – or it’s predecessor starring Boris Karloff two decades earlier, if I may be as bold to say so – is Christopher Lee’s mummy. What a nightmare, especially for an enthusiastic boy with an overactive imagination! The most chilling scene, easily, is when the Mummy arises from the bog, a golem of decayed bandages, rotted flesh, and dripping mud and muck. You can almost smell the damned thing as it rises to do it’s master’s unholy bidding. When it pays a vengeful visit to Cushing’s father, trapped in an insane asylum, chills ran up and down my arms.

And its eyes! Twice the film closes in on Lee’s eyes, as his character, Kharis, caught in an act of perceived desecration, is entombed alive in the crypt of the Princess, his love. Sheer panic and dread, terror and desperate resignation. So much more emotion glimpsed in those few seconds than all of Kharis’s agonies at his testosterone-fueled gruesome punishment in the Fraser remake. Which is why, I guess, you know the name Christopher Lee and not the name of that other actor who played his character in the remake.

As a side note, I absolutely love the English culture’s stress on manners and social protocol. It’s like what I read in James Clavell’s Shogun, only minus the plethora of random beheadings over social faux pas. The verbal interplay and the jousting subtext beneath it, when Peter Cushing pays a welcoming call to his “neighbor,” Mehemet Bey, the Egyptian who is coordinating the Mummy’s murderous rampage, is screenwriting – and acting – par excellence. Next to the bog scenes, it probably held my interest most.

I liked it. I did.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

For the past couple of years, I’ve made it a ritual to read something macabre during the lead-up to Halloween. Mostly, my macabre finds it authorship by either Edgar Allan Poe or H. P. Lovecraft. This year I wanted to read something a little longer, so I settled on an old copy of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, purchased on the somewhat mistaken notion it was similar in plot to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Not quite. Lovecraft’s sole novel compares only to Poe’s sole novel in the fact that both have the then mysterious continent of Antarctica as its setting. Lovecraft has most of the action happening in an eldritch city discovered deep within the frosty kingdom; Poe has ill-fated Arthur Pym enter a veiled misty Southern Pole at the book’s final page.

Pym is a concatenation of conglomerated composition. I saw, obviously, Moby Dick by Herman Melville there, as well as some Kidnapped by Stephenson early on and a heaping of She and King Solomon’s Mines by Haggard in the latter chapters. It must be noted here that Poe precedes all these writers, however, and undoubtedly influenced them. But the hodgepodge of Melville-Stephenson-Haggard is thoroughly and oppressively saturated with the grim, ghastly ghoulishness of trademark Edgar Allan.

What a truly macabre tale it is! What starts off innocently enough – young Arthur stowing away on a whaler captained by his best friend’s father – soon devolves into a maze of psychological, physical, and moral horrors. Early on Arthur finds himself cocooned and forgotten in the coffin-like hold of the ship, a pre-Premature Burial. Then, in rapid succession:

* an uneasy alliance with a dog mad with hunger
* a mutiny sandwiched by a pair of bloodbaths
* a horrible death by poison
* gale winds which nearly capsize the whaler
* slow starvation as saved supplies swiftly fester
* the madness which drives men to – cannibalism
* the drawing of the straws – and what happens after
* a rescue ship, populated with rancid, decaying bodies
* the foul image of a seagull eating its way through a corpse
* the descriptive death of Arthur’s friend from gangrene

Then, our plucky lad – how is he not bat-raving mad by now? – and a mutineer are rescued, and Poe turns the novel into a travelogue. Huh? We learn the longitudes and latitudes of various South Sea islands, the histories of exploration and discovery in said regions, as well as detailed exposition on local flora and wildlife. In truth, battered from the intensity of the previous third of the novel, my eyes glazed over much of this miscellanea. It did nothing to further the story and everything to make me impatient to see where the heck it would wind up.

Before we get to Antarctica, we have a perfunctory scene where sailors battle polar bears. Perhaps this was exciting to early 19th century readers, polar bears being a rarity of tall-tale sorts and such. Then we meet the natives, written about as can no longer be written about without the taint of racism. There’s a betrayal and ambush – but no more cannibalism, thankfully – and Arthur is again fighting for grim survival against thousand-to-one odds.

He manages to escape the island in a stolen canoe, pursuit on his heels, when he drifts into the dreamlike vision of the South Pole. But I recall thinking, in this oddest last chapter, is Arthur dead? But he’s written his tale now for me to read. The waters warm and turn milky, steams and mists hide the horizons, a “veil” parts and he comes face-to-face with an impossible giant being clad all in white. Is he on Earth, or has he fallen through to a hollow Earth, so tantalizingly believed during Poe’s time?

The abrupt ending is frustrating. The ghastly first third is torturous to get through. The second third is filler to modern minds, and the final third is inexplicable. There are some images burned into my mind that I won’t long soon forget, on par with some of the most terrible fates ever put to paper by Poe. I don’t regret reading it, but I recommend it only for fans of true, classic horror. C+, if I, an unaccomplished novice, had to give a grade to this, the great man’s longest and most erratic work.

Monday, October 25, 2010


What can one describe analogically as “cold, crisp, clear water”?

How about –

* A Mozart symphony

* An argument from Thomas Aquinas

* A Hitchcock movie starring Cary Grant

* Polar coordinates and trigonometric identities

* Transubstantiation at Mass

Though, of course, each does not equal the others in degree or quality. The last, for example, is worth an infinitude of any experience of the prior four.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Not much going on – rather, much going on. We’re taking a brief holiday, over at my folk’s house in the woods of northwestern PA. Furious relaxation going on. Eating like royalty. Finished my Poe book, read a bunch of poems and some of St. John of the Cross. Watched a marathon of “Big Bang Theory,” our current favorite teevee show. Little One doing book reports. Patch amazing us all with her newest form of communication: sentences. Football games. A perfect lazy Sunday afternoon.

Also spent an hour figuring out the girls’ ethnicity. The wife and I are both mutts, genealogically speaking. Just about every European country is represented it seems, with the exception of the continent’s left and right sides. So, FYI …

I am:

25% - Italian
25% - Czech
12.5% - Austrian
12.5% - Hungarian
12.5% - German
6.25% - English
6.25% - Irish

I won’t go into the wife’s, but if you add hers up with mine, our girls come out to:

25% - German
15.6% - Irish
12.5% - Italian
12.5% - Czech
12.5% - Polish
6.25% - Austrian
6.25% - Hungarian
6.25% - English
3.1% - French

So Little One and Patch are German-Irish mongrels (no disrespect intended, of course). With Italian last names, nonetheless. And, with a tiny fraction of Ashkenazy Jewish blood on the wife’s German side. The Ashkenazys are the super-achieving overly-representative subethnicity on the intelligence bell curves of all major groups. So that’s a welcome bonus, in my opinion.


Back to our regularly scheduled blogging mañana.

Saturday, October 23, 2010



Me and the wife are in the basement. She’s working at her desk, doing the stuff she gets paid to do for her job. I’m paying bills, trying to find this and that, stressing out over the Herculean task of keeping Ship LE afloat for the next 30 days. I feel my pulmonary vein slowly squeezing shut.

Finally, I kick back and throw my hands up. “You know what?”

“What?” she says, typing away on her laptop.

“I can envision myself in a tent in Antarctica.”

She gives me a sideways glance.

“Yeah. I’d be in a tent. Just me. I’d bring – ” I glance behind me at the bookshelf. “This book and this one and this one and this one.” A big grin and a faraway look spread over my face. “It’d be me and a thermometer, and my books. Every week I’d take a temperature reading, and radio it back to headquarters.” I’m excited. “Ahhh. Now that would be contentment. That, believe it or not, would be, for me, peace!”

There’s a long spell of quiet. I look up and see her sideways glance for the first time.

“Oh, and I’d miss you and the girls,” I quickly add.

“You better get those thoughts out of your mind!” she scolds me. “You’re not leaving us high and dry!”

We laugh, of course.

But I’m thinking of riffing through one of my science magazines in search of an arctic landscape. To hang up on the wall behind my desk. If, for nothing else, to tweak my better half.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Stone God Awakens

© 1970 by Philip Jose Farmer

This is the fourth book of Farmer’s that I’ve read (the others being Dayworld, The Lovers, and the colorfully-titled The Wind Whales of Ishmael). While I’m not an expert on the man’s writings, I’m beginning to detect some patterns.

First, Farmer creates incredibly detailed, rich and alien worlds for us. That word “tapestry” has become a ho-hum cliché, but if it applies anywhere, it applies to Farmer’s worlds. The biodiversity in his novels simply floors me. This is nowhere as total as in this work, The Stone God Awakens, but you’ll find it in the others books I mentioned. Wind Whales takes place on a different planet, if I remember correctly, as does The Lovers. Dayworld takes place on Earth a few decades in the future, but the extreme differences you’ll see are of a sociological rather than biological form.

Second, I find Farmer somewhat inexplicably lacking in developing his human characters. When I invest a couple of hours in one of his engrossing and fantastic worlds, I want to know my characters. I want to empathize with them. I want to care for them. I want to be on the edge of my seat, not because of their predicaments per se, but because I like them enough to want to see them through their predicaments.

Third, as a writer, Farmer never lets up. There are no lags in a PJF novel. There’s usually one action scene after another. It never lets up, which is a good thing, most of the time. Liken it to a movie; sometimes the endless action, the endless assault of stimuli which never lets up, sometimes that’s a good thing. Think The Terminator (good thing) or a Nic Cage car flick (bad thing). It depends on the story, I suppose, the appropriateness of this style. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing; both my unpublished novels strive for this same relentlessness. Stone God and Wind Whales fall into this category, Dayworld less so, and The Lovers was more a psychological sort of thing rather than an action extravaganza.

Now, let’s talk about The Stone God Awakens in more detail.

[minor spoilers to follow ...]

A man finds himself suddenly in the middle of a battle. There’s smoke and fire, bodies with axes and knives throwing themselves at each other. Disoriented, he kills a man in self-defense, but realizes that what he has killed is not a man, but some type of hominid resembling a raccoon in fur coloration and patterning.

This man is the Stone God, and he’s now awake. Oh, and his name struck me for some reason as one of the strangest name of a protagonist in a book I’ve ever read: Ulysses Singing Bear. He’s also a physicist, and his last memory is sitting at his desk in a Syracuse lab in 1985, watching the test of a “matter-freezer.”


Soon Ulysses is worshipped by the feline Wufea as their god-come-to-life. Quickly he determines that he is on Earth millions of years in the future. Mankind has died out somehow (he finds out What Happened later in the novel), and a score of species have evolved from felines, canines, elephants, bats, raccoons, alligators, and more. Most to a primitive level, but a few have developed simple technology.

The best part of the novel takes place in these first few pages as our protagonist is trying to piece together what happened, how it happened, and where he is. Of course, lacking any records or true technology, it’s all guesswork, but educated guesswork.

The novel’s most intriguing image is found here: in his frozen-matter state, all the atoms and molecules (and, presumably, quarks and electrons and strong and weak forces) are completely stopped. In his petrified state he is impervious and indestructible. What, then, could have happened to this Stone God over the millions and millions of years that have passed? How many museums did he stay in? How many worlds was he on? (It turns out he was on the Moon for a spell.) The Earth even could have been destroyed, and he may have spent millennia free-floating in space. After the inevitable Fall of Man, how many primitive cultures before the Wufea worshipped him as a god? (It turns out that these feline creatures somehow found him at the bottom of a lake a couple of centuries before he “awakens.”)

After exploring this world, Ulysses discovers his nemesis: The Tree, a massive, continent-spanning living entity which houses and controls thousands of species in a benevolent dictatorship. The main body of the novel focuses on the mission to discover what the tree is and how it can be destroyed, though, honestly, I was a little confused as to why it necessarily had to be destroyed.

The novel was essentially one long, long story, with no paragraph breaks and no chapters. A little strange for me, because I like little divisions in a novel where I can logically stop and pause and sleep, for example.

Farmer doesn’t tell us much about Ulysses’ backstory other than those few pages in the beginning of the book. We don’t get to know him as a person, either, though this may be because he has no humans to relate to. Though he does form a strange relationship with a female feline. I thought that might go the way of interspecies hook-up, something Farmer has done in the past, but not so; it was an empty thread in the story. And I found it annoying Ulysses’ knowledge of guerrilla warfare. Yeah, I know he was a physicist, but is that an adequate explanation for his knowledge on how to make gunpowder, bombs, firearms, dirigibles, and to master several completely alien languages and even an alien Morse code?

I didn’t know Farmer had died; he passed away in February of 2009 at age 91 (strangely, he died the day I left the hospital after my three-week stay). Although I give the book a B-minus, it was entertaining, and I will continue to seek out more of his novels.


N.B. I reviewed The Lovers, here. Dayworld and Wind Whales of Ishmael were both read pre-blog. Just thinking about it now, I would reread Whales but not Dayworld.

Also, I kept thinking of the Alan Dean Foster novel, Midworld, reviewed here, while I read Stone God. That book, too, was an incredibly descriptive journey into a dense biological world, and I highly recommend that if you are into this sort of thing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Myoclonic Jerk

Had a weird and mildly disconcerting episode in the middle of the night.

I went to bed around 11, fairly early for me, alone in bed. The wife was downstairs watching some DVR and fell asleep on the couch.

Out of a deep sleep I suddenly jerked awake. Someone – or something – had just grabbed my toes, which were slightly sticking out from under our snug comforter. My heart skipped a beat, all the muscles in my body tensed, and I sat up immediately.

My first thought was that my daughter had crept into the room. Not a common occurrence, but it has happened once or twice in the past, mostly due to nightmares on her part. I strained in the darkness to make out her shape, her form or outline, but nothing came.

The clock across from me read 12:35. I had been asleep exactly 90 minutes, which, I believe, is the amount of time a normal REM sleep cycle takes.

Goosebumps rose up all over my arms and body as I felt really, really weird, just sitting there in bed in the dark. As far as I could tell, I was alone in the room, but my feet were still tingling from whatever it was that brushed across them, be it a dream or a random breeze in the room, or – who knows? – maybe even a mouse.

I went to the bathroom across the hall without waking anyone up or turning on the lights. By the time I hit the sheets again, five minutes later, I convinced myself that it was just a dream. I was in one of those states where you say, “Uh oh, now I’m gonna be up for the rest of the night,” but before I knew it I was out again, fast asleep.

Until 3:40. Then I was up for the rest of the night …

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Lost and Found

Let’s say your wife or girlfriend is traveling, staying at a hotel, and she’s carrying some jewelry in one of those little, hand-sized pouches. When you return home a few days later, she discovers that the little bag o’ jewels is missing. She searches through all her luggage and laundry frantically and comes up empty. It’s also not anywhere to be found in the house, the driveway, or the car.

So she calls the hotel and asks to speak to the person in charge of Lost and Found.

This made me wonder.

What percentage of the population, finding such a pouch of jewelry, would return it to the hotel’s Lost and Found?




My initial response, which I can’t justify adjusting upwards or downwards, is 30 percent. Do you agree or not? Does this make me a pessimist, or a realist? Would it matter if my wife was traveling abroad? Our country is supposed to be anywhere from 80 to 95 percent Christian / believing in a deity. Should I revise my estimate upwards based on that, or something else?


One of the 30-percenters found my wife’s jewelry, by the way …

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pointless, I'd Say


The wife and I had fun with this one this past weekend ….

Finish this sentence:

“This is as __________

( _ ) ridiculous

( _ ) stupid

( _ ) weird

( _ ) pointless

( _ ) inappropriate

( _ ) head-scratchin’

as barbed-wire tats on the biceps of a NFL kicker.”

Monday, October 18, 2010


© 1980, by Thomas F. Monteleone

[minor spoilers]

I wrote elsewhere on this blog (I think) of a book of short stories by Thomas Monteleone that I read in college some 25 years ago. It has stuck with me all these years. Two, in particular, still send chills down my spine. Science fiction, but with a generous injection of nasty horror. The dozen or so tales revolved around the city of Chicago, how it gradually gains sentience over a couple of centuries.

Anyway, down at my really, really cool used book store that I visit once or twice a year, I came across two novels by Monteleone that I knew basically nothing about. On the basis of that lost short story work, I picked both novels up. Two weeks ago I breezed through Guardian in four days. That book cooked.

But what a strange book! And I’m not referring necessarily to the story and the characters. Almost immediately I got the sense that I was reading something like the Cliff Notes to a vanished epic tale. Later, I refined that metaphor to listening to a medley overture of a now-forgotten-to-the-ages rock opera.

What do I mean, specifically?

Guardian starts off with a dozen-page overview of a vaguely familiar world. We’re reading an excerpt from some future history, and by “future” I mean something like three or four thousand years ahead. The map shows a land resembling the coastlines of the Mediterranean. Any lands beyond the couple-hundred-mile-wide shores devolve into deadly desert wastes or smooth sheets of radioactive glass. Something terrible has happened in this world’s past, our distant future.

However, they are aware of us. Or rather, relics of us (war machines, mostly, buried in the sands). They refer to us as the “First Age.” One of the most fabled relics of the First Age are the Guardians, sentient machines tasked with defending cities. A Guardian has never been found, but long have they been rumored to still exist, hidden among the edges and outskirts of contemporaneous civilization.

In this semi-medieval Arabian-nights post-Apocalyptic world, five main characters are sketched and then fully enfleshed through action, dialogue, and stealthy exposition. I liked that, and I liked them. One character happens to be – a robot, a sentinel of sorts for the eponymous entity of the novel. Then, a little too quickly for my tastes, all the characters come together and begin The Quest.

A lot more too quickly for my tastes, the Guardian is found, in something like two months of searching. Searching an area roughly the size of northern Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe combined, in a glorified Lincoln Navigator, with no hints or clues or aerial photography or whatnot. Nuttin’. There’s a perfunctory fight with some desert pirates, and then – they stumble upon the ziggurat that houses the Guardian.

Okay. I can forgive the novel because I think Monteleone wants to get to more meatier issues: in this case, exploring what exactly this Guardian is. Our characters become unwilling guests of this strange AI, which manifests itself as a Kindly Old Gentleman. One by one, separately, our characters are put through a series of tests – tests in the form of morality plays straight out of Greek mythology.

Interesting. Now: why? Is it really a test? If so, what type of a test? Are our character’s lives at stake? If it’s not a test, what information is Guardian trying to obtain? Is it amnesiac? Is it insane? Or is there some further, ulterior motive the reader can’t even guess at?

Suffice it to say that while I found the ending satisfying, the whole thing came to a close, again, a little too fast. Which leaves me scratching my head as I try to figger out all these science fiction writers. Monteleone has enough material here to make a 500-page epic masterpiece. He could conceivably and easily expand it to a trilogy or one of those ongoing sequelologies you see so much of in SF & Fantasy nowadays.

But it clocks in at a sveldt 182 pages, and I feel strangely somewhat dissatisfied. As a pessimistic, underutilized square-peg-in-a-round-hole, I enjoy being immersed in fascinating new worlds, and the lands of Guardian are lands I want to spend time exploring.

So, balancing out the vision with the austere sense of economy, I grade the novel a solid B.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mental Health Day

I'm taking a day off today and labeling it a Mental Health Day.

Back to normally scheduled programming tomorrow ...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Deficit Envisioned

Perhaps yesterday you heard on the news that the budget deficit this year is a nice, tidy 1.29 trillion dollars. For the second year in a row.

That’s the difference between what the US government is spending and what it is taking in.

1.29 trillion dollars!

For a sense of proportion, of what this number actually represents, consider this:

1.29 trillion dollars =

$ 1,290,000,000,000.00

That’s a lot of zeroes.

How much money would you have to spend every day, since, say, the birth of Christ, to equal this amount of our annual deficit?





$50,000.00 a day?

Hahahaha. Even more.

Try $1,750,000.00 a day, every day, from the birth of Christ, AD 1, to now, October 16, 2010.

That’s 1.75 million dollars a day!

Any one of us, should we come into 1.75 million dollars, would consider it a windfall, a blessing beyond all blessings, a take-this-job-and-shove-it and trot-the-globe gift. Some of us might be lucky enough just making 1.75 million dollars over the course of our lifetime.

But this figure is what you’d have to spend, every single day over the past two millennia, to equal the United States Government annual budget deficit.


Bring on the November elections!

* * *

My calculations are approximate. The exact figure might be 1.8 million dollars a day or 1.6 million dollars a day. Not much of a difference, though.

To calculate the number of days –

2010 x 365 = 733,650

Add 500 for the approximate number of extra days due to leap years.

Ignore the hundred day discrepancy between the traditional day of Christ’s birth (Dec 25) and today’s date.

Number of days = 734,150

Break out your scientific calculator and divide 1.29 trillion by 734,150 and round.


Bring on the November elections!

* * *

Another point of interest. What if you divided the deficit figure by the number of Americans. What is the share of the deficit that falls on you?

This one’s easy.

Divide 1.29 trillion by 300 million.

My scientific calculator is telling me that the answer is 4,300.

So, each and every one of us has $4,300 hanging over our heads this year alone. That comes to $11.78 a day, every day, day after day, week after week, month after month, this year.

Did I say, “Bring on the November elections!” yet?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Seeking Something Weird


I need to read something weird.

I need to be dropped into something strange and bizarre. Something mind-blowing and quixotic and warped and weird. I need to be subsumed by something sublime.

“Hopper,” you say, “what do you mean by this?”

Here’s what I mean:

Something that will open my eyes to something new. Something that will give me a different way of looking at the world. Something that will force me to put the book down, stare into the distance at nothingness-aeterna, and utter in my best Keanu Reeves voice: “Whoa.” Something that will raise goosebumps on my arms.

Something like Nietzsche crossed with Philip K. Dick, with PKD convinced that Nietzsche is still alive and running an underground global government.

Something like Gurdjieff after Gurdjieff commits Gödel Escher Bach to memory in a yogic trance.

Something like Lewis Carroll updated and adapted by Richard Feynman made into a movie by Terry Gilliam and then novelized by Ray Bradbury.

Something like Kant reinterpreted by Robert Heinlein, then the whole thing done up as a rock opera by Pete Townsend.

Something like Jorge Luis Borges unifying the thought of Thomas Aquinas with that of Martin Heidegger, in a series of 2,500-word vignettes taking place in a South America transplanted to another world. Oh, and the whole thing will be translated into English by Kurt Vonnegut.

Something like Colin Wilson developing a new theory of human consciousness after reading H. P. Lovecraft – wait, that’s been done already (see The Mind Parasites).

Something like a transcription of a 12-hour acid trip conversation between Arthur C. Clarke, Aldous Huxley, Albert Magnus, and Anaxagoras.

Something like an inverted and upside-down Tolkien trilogy, where 21st century America is as magical, mystical and ethereal to Middle-earth in the same proportion that Middle-earth is now magical, mystical and ethereal to shallow, vain, and dullish 21st century America.

Something like a Miltonesque song-cycle recapitulation of the dozen or so strains of quantum mechanical thought couched in the language and metaphors of the pre-Socratic philosophers.

Something like Ramanujan and Riemann and Russell carving out a multi-dimensional mathematical world which uncannily mirrors human psychology and historical-eschatological development.

Know what I mean?

Can anybody help me here, or do I have to write these things myself, and most likely make a complete damn fool of myself in the process?

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Imagine you’re at a school board meeting and the principal takes the podium. In a frantic, panicking voice, he exclaims: “We think 30 students dropped out this past year! We need more money to address this problem immediately!” Wasting zero time, the board promptly votes and okays a resolution to petition the state government for more money.

What would come to your mind?

For me, I can think of a couple of questions right off the bat.

First, I suffer from tax fatigue, so any time a bureaucrat starts panicking about a “problem,” both my hands go to my wallet and I assume a protective, self-defense stance. My property taxes have gone up an even one-third the past five years I’ve been a homeowner in New Jersey, under the Democratic regime of Jon Corzine. I’m looking for some relief now that Chris Christie’s in, so there’s some hope. That one-third increase has translated into an extra $46 a week Trenton is ripping out of my family’s income.

The other questions I have refer to the principal’s numbers. As you can tell, this did not really happen. But I am using it to illustrate by analogy a larger point.

Take note of the fact that the principal said “… we think 30 students dropped out …” Interesting. What does that word “think” imply in this sentence? A guess? A running average? The mean between, say, 29 and 31 students, with two students showing up for only partial classes?

Also take note of what was omitted. How big is the actual class size? Don’t you think that is an important figure to consider? Why do you think the principal forgot to mention it? I don’t think it was because of emotional handwringing.

Let’s ask him: “Just how big is the student population you’re taking this approximate-30 number from?”

He doesn’t want to answer the question, but several of us concerned parents in the audience hem him in. “There are 150 students in this graduating class,” he states.

Then he quietly adds, “But we don’t know for certain. We can be off an order of a magnitude or two.”


If there are 150 students in the grade, and 30 drop out, that’s a failure rate of 20 percent. Indeed, that is cause for alarm. A one in five chance any particular student will not get his diploma. But if he’s off by one order of magnitude, that brings the student population to 1,500 and a dropout rate of 2 percent. Not optimal, but not as terrible as the prior instance. And if the principal’s estimate of student population is off by two magnitudes, that’s a student body of 15,000, and a resulting dropout rate of point two percent. Still not utopian, but acceptable, given the nature of the human beast and all.

Where am I going with all this?

I’m creating an analogy to the scientific philosophic principle of extinction, one inspired by The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (© 2005 by Tom Bethell, who cites the work of scientists Edward O. Wilson, Aaron Wildavsky, Julian Simon, Matt Ridley, among others, and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, in his chapter on extinction).

The main point is, much like most controversy in contemporary science, is that there is so much that we don’t know and that we’re simply assuming or sometimes even guessing. We don’t know how many species fall extinct every year. Nor do we know just how many species there even are on planet Earth. (I take that orders of magnitude leeway figure directly from Bethell’s book.) There’s a lot of meaning between 20 percent and point-two percent, and a lot of responses dependant upon where you fall in that vast spectrum.

The problem ultimately boils down to, of course, money. Taxpayer-provided money from government largess. The more panicked your thesis, the more likely you’ll get money. The greater consensus, the more likely you’ll get money. (And who decided of late that “consensus” makes science? It certainly wasn’t Francis Bacon.) So Science devolves into a panicking herd mentality in the scramble for fundage.

That’s my problem with contemporary science. And part of me is a scientist at heart! There is so much cool and strange stuff out there to investigate and popularize that all this other P.C. nonsense non-issues sadly detract to all our detriment.

C’mon, Science! Buck up! Get rigorous and adventurous! Stay true to the inspiring vision of your forefathers!

I know you can do it!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

34th Man


This was nice to read, to say the least …

Jimmy Sanchez, one of the 33 Chilean miners who have been trapped for over two months in the San Jose copper-gold mine in the Atacama Desert, would like to make one small correction to all the stories about life in the mine:

“There are actually 34 of us,” the nineteen-year-old miner wrote in a letter sent up from the mine on Tuesday, “because God has never left us down here.”

- Via Christianity Today via The Corner.

Brings to mind that oft-repeated phrase about atheists and foxholes, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

So so close

The in-laws came in from South Carolina for a short visit this weekend. As usual, we ate very, very well. They took us out to a superb local restaurant Saturday night. I had a garlic-free pasta dish in a creamy Italian sauce. It was delicious – thick linguini with lots of shrimp, scallops, clams, lobster, and some unidentified fish meat. My mouth is watering now, just writing about it. Sunday they made us fresh salads with rotisserie chicken for lunch followed by a juicy steak with potaters, broccoli, and carrots for dinner later that night. Now my stomach’s growling.

Truth is, my daughters entrance them.

Unfortunately, since they live 850 miles south of us, we see them but two or three times a year. We alternate Christmases and Thanksgivings driving down (flying with the little ones and all our luggage is simply impossible), and we’ll drive down around the fourth of July. Last year it was just the wife and the girls; this year I went down, my first summer in Hilton Head. And usually around January they’ll fly up to jaunt about New York City, and will stop by for a visit.

A Columbus Day weekend visit is a first. I think there will be more short visits up north for them, for they miss Little One and Patch so.

It’s good for us. I just put the child seats in their rental car, and they take the girls with them wherever they go. Their hotel, Church, the store. It gives me and C a little break.

Sunday, however, we all piled into the SUVs and drove down to a park next town over. I packed the wagon and the bicycle, and the bicycle is now training-wheel free. The park has a three-quarter mile paved loop, and we walked it while peewee football games went on in the center. The game plan was to have Little One finally ride that bike under her own power and volition.

Little One is so, so close to riding that bicycle. We did one full circuit of the loop coaching her, trotting next to her with a hand on a handle, lowering the seat, teaching her how to stop by kicking out a leg and gently tipping the bicycle over. Despite all this, though, she didn’t really officially for-the-record-book ride that bike under her own power.

There’s two philosophies at work here. My wife and her mother instructed Little One in this and that, that and this, explaining patiently how to stay centered and balanced, what to do in case she gets into trouble, why she needs to keep pedaling to stay upright. They taught her little exercises like walking on her toes on her bike to learn some fundamental balance. They want her reassured and thinking about every step of the process.

A month ago, during our last bicycle excursion in her school parking lot, I ran with her, balanced on her bike and pedaling, about fifty yards and then let go. She’d go as long as she didn’t realize I wasn’t there any more. Then she’d careen and wipe out. I figure that sooner or later something would just click in her mind and she’d attain bicycling satori.

Now, I can understand what my wife and mother-in-law were going for. And it is beneficial, and probably will help her “click” and suddenly know how to ride a bike. You need to have a minimal comfort zone with anything before you can expect to master it.

But, of course, you don’t learn how to, say, swim, by reading a book about it or attending a lecture by Michael Phelps. No, you jump into the deep end of the pool and begin the physical mechanics of swimming. In the marine corps, if you’re unfortunate enough to have some type of water phobia, guess what? They toss you in anyway. Now, don’t get the impression that I interact with my daughter like a drill sergeant with a new recruit. I am, however, in the minority when I try to explain this philosophy of trial-by-fire to my relatives.

So there was a compromise that Sunday afternoon. After all their coaching and moral support, it was I, LE, Recovering Hopper, unemployed bookkeeper slash bibliophile with a lingering lung-and-heart issue, who ran next to my Little One, my hand gently on the end of her seat, steadying her, balancing her, building up speed and confidence and then – then I would quietly let go, and she would sail forward, tottering, full of that wide-eyed wonder and attention to the present moment Zen monks strive to communicate.

Then, she’d realize I wasn’t holding on, and she’d immediately crash.

So, so close …

Monday, October 11, 2010



Also known as “The Hopper’s Official Anthem”:

’Tis the great art of life to manage well
The restless mind. For ever on pursuit
Of knowledge bent, it starves the grosser powers:
Quite unemployed, against its own repose
It turns its fatal edge, and sharper pangs
Than what the body knows embitter life.
Chiefly where Solitude, sad nurse of Care,
To sickly musing gives the pensive mind,
There Madness enters; and the dim-eyed fiend,
Sour Melancholy, night and day provokes
Her own eternal wound. The sun grows pale;
A mournful visionary light o’erspreads
The cheerful face of nature: earth becomes
A dreary desert, and heaven frowns above.
Then various shapes of cursed illusion rise:
Whate’er the wretched fears, creating Fear
Forms out of nothing; and with monsters teems
Unknown in hell. The prostrate soul beneath
A load of huge imagination heaves;
And all the horrors that the guilty feel
With anxious flutterings wake the guiltless breast.

(from The Art of Preserving Health, section iii, [Madness]by John Armstrong, 1744)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Shiny Pretty Box

I have before me a shiny pretty box. It’s roughly the dimensions of a shoebox, but it’s much heavier. Now, I don’t often use the words “shiny” and “pretty” side-by-side in a sentence often, but, I must admit, they do apply to this box.

Darned if I can tell what it’s made of. Some type of metal, I’d guess, because it’s silvery and highly reflective, reminiscent of a perfectly polished mirror. It’s cool to the touch and so smooth I’d swear it was some high-tech liquid polymer confabulation.

Adorning all the edges and corners are tiny gemstones, and these, too, I can’t pinpoint. I highly doubt, of course, that they are legitimate diamonds and rubies and sapphires and opals, but they sure as heck look like it to my untrained eye. They reflect the overhead light beautifully, scattering it about like colorful Christmas tree lights connected to a high-voltage cable and thrown into a House of Mirrors.

I am entranced by this shiny, pretty box.

Somehow it is soundproof. How do I know? When I tilt the box side to side in my hands, I can sense something moving inside, but I cannot hear it. At least I think I can’t. Once I put my daughter’s stethoscope to it (a toy, but it does amplify sound) and received a surprise. I expected to hear a rolling or sliding noise as I tipped the box about, but instead I heard an odd slithering sound, a cross between what you might hear if you overturned a goblet of sand while a roomful of people whispered poetry in a foreign tongue.

I know your next question. No, there is no way of opening the box. At least no way that I can discern. Many hours have been wasted (?) seeking a way to open this simple container. Raiding my daughter’s toy chest again, I scooped up a magnifying glass and examined every square millimeter of the darn thing. No seams indicating a lid to be found. There isn’t even anything I can make out to be a lock, unless the lock is so tiny as to fit within or behind one of those mysterious gemstones.

Where did I get it? That’s the strangest part.

We bought our first home, a “starter” home, six years ago last spring. My wife was pregnant with our first child, so me and a buddy basically moved all of our furniture, clothes, and other stuff up from an apartment forty miles south, over the course of a long weekend. We thought we were done Monday night when Steve called out from just outside the front door, “Hey guys, what’s this?”

On our porch was the box.

Some kind of housewarming gift? Something we overlooked, perhaps some keepsake from my wife’s youth? No on both counts. None of us recalled leaving it there while unloading the truck. I glanced up and down the street. No one was out. Indeed, what had been a gorgeous day had turned dark and cloudy, my nose telling me a thunderstorm was a near possibility that night.

I brought it into our house, and by the end of the week it found a place in the basement, on a shelf next to the hot water boiler.

I take it down once or twice a month for study.

And now I ask you the question that never entirely leaves me mind, day or night:

What’s in the box?

Saturday, October 9, 2010


As you undoubtedly know, today would have been the 70th birthday of John Lennon.

You also probably know that my beliefs and values, right now, are probably 178 or 179 degrees opposite of Lennon’s. He made mistakes, he did stupid things; we all do a lot of the time. I’d hate to have my life under as big a microscope. For instance, I think “Imagine” contains some of the most insipid, gag-inducing, and potentially evil lyrics ever recorded.

I will concede one thing: Other than a few missteps here and there, overall, John Lennon was a musical genius. I know, that’s not exactly a bold, insightful, trailblazing thing to say. But it’s absolutely, one hundred percent true, and I’m writing today to acknowledge that.

Now, I never was a Beatles fan, in the sense that I never spent a dime on them. Never had an album or CD. Never watched any of their movies or concert footage. But I’m well aware of their catalogue of songs – over 300, and I’ve heard them all. If you grew up in the 80s and were disenchanted with 80s music, one alternative was the classic rock stations popping up all over. Classic rock stations played a Beatles song once every 42 minutes. I also had a friend (“Tank” from a previous post) who was into the Beatles, bought every one of their albums, and played for me all the odder, more unusual stuff you didn’t hear on the radio.

It’s also the hip thing to say that your favorite Beatle is Lennon. Me, being a guitarist, probably would say George Harrison, citing “Here Comes the Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I wish he had more input on the group’s output. However …

Lennon and McCartney were both incredible songwriters. I’m reminded of a scene from Amadeus, where Mozart, on his deathbed, is dictating to his nemesis Salieri. His old foe gleefully anticipates a chord – F! – that would be the natural, perfect resolution to the melody Wolfgang is envisioning, but Mozart says – No! F-sharp minor seventh! And it would be perfect! So perfect us normal mortals would not even anticipate it were we the authors of the piece. John and Paul’s songwriting was like that.

Since the compositions of both grew more and more complex over the six or seven years of Beatles productions, it all comes down to vocals. Not always so, but usually the main composer of a piece was the lead singer of it. McCartney had the soulful, melodious voice, while Lennon had that frenetic, frantic, edgier one. Paul would sound like he was gently singing in your ear, while John, with all the studio effects thrown on his pipes, would sound like that stressed-out dude from that Edvard Munch painting.

As a music aficionado who counts Geddy Lee of Rush and Bon Scott of old AC/DC among his favorite singers, can you guess which vocalist I find more appealing?

There’s a list on wikipedia of every Beatles song. I scanned through it and discovered I like – really like – 29 of them. For your reference, to get a sense of my musical tastes and compare them to your own, here they are. The ones in boldface were written primarily by Lennon:

A Day in the Life
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Carry that Weight
Day Tripper
Dear Prudence
Dig a Pony

Fixing a Hole
Golden Slumbers
Good Day Sunshine
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Helter Skelter
Here Comes the Sun
Hey Jude
I am the Walrus
I Me Mine
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
Let It Be
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Magical Mystery Tour
Mean Mr. Mustard
Norwegian Wood
Paperback Writer
Polythene Pam
Strawberry Fields Forever

The End
Two of Us
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
You Never Give Me Your Money

My all-time favorite Beatles song is “You Never Give Me Your Money,” plus that whole “Golden Slumbers” / “Carry that Weight” / “The End” thing. My favorite Lennon-composed Beatles song is probably “Walrus,” but I do enjoy the “Mr. Mustard”-“Pam” medley.

“Imagine” aside, there are a couple of really, really fantastic solo works. These I am not as expert on, since they all come only from what I’ve heard on the radio. I’ve never listened to a solo album or CD by John Lennon. Yoko’s influence may have helped keep me away. But there are a half-dozen that I dig:

Jealous Guy
Mind Games
#9 Dream
Cold Turkey
Watching the Wheels
Nobody Told Me

Absolutely my favorite is “#9 Dream.” Every now and then I listen to it on youtube. It never fails to raise goosebumps on the arms.

Well, Happy Birthday John. You got a raw deal thirty years ago, but you, your creative genius, and your music will still be talked about and listened to for hundreds of years in the future.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Inconvenient Values

WARNING: Extensive Use of Quotation Marks to Follow ...


Help me understand something, okay?

Let’s try to be as objective and as Vulcan as possible. (That’s nerdese for dispassionate reasoning.)


Is not “tolerance” one of the Left’s highest values?

Also, “non-judgmentalism” is too, correct? Since all avenues to Truth are valid, who has the right to cast aspersions upon someone else’s beliefs? Conservatives like me disagree with this proposition, but to liberals is this not a bedrock value held on par with “tolerance”?

So, “tolerance” and “non-judgmentalism” are at least two of the highest-held values of the Left.

Do we agree there?

Now … let’s take the Wiccan religion.

As a believing, practicing Catholic steeped in the rigor of the rationality of Thomas Aquinas (well, I’d like to think so, but I have such a long, long way to go), my opinion of Wicca is that it is pure nonsense. Utter rubbish. Foolishness. Paganism. Not the way to Truth. I can keep going if I want to. Point is, I am not non-judgmental when it comes to Ideas. But, remember, liberals are supposed to be. They themselves claim to be.

Liberals have to accept that the practice of Wicca is a valid “life journey” or “worldview” or whatever. Even if they don’t agree with its core values, because, hey, deep down, no one has a monopoly on the Truth, so therefore, no one can know the Truth. Wicca can be Truth, in a liberal worldview. As a liberal, one must not be judgmental in any way shape form, and one must be tolerant – supremely tolerant – of any and all viewpoints.

Still agree with me?

Now let me mention two words: Christine O’Donnell. Let me add six more: Republican Candidate for Senator from Delaware.

See where I’m about to go?

The media – and by “media” I include the Daily Show and SNL, because sizeable chunks of the public get their news only from these outlets – the media, to varying degrees are working to portray this woman as a kook because she experimented with Wicca in college two decades ago. Of course this plays wonderfully into the fortunes of her Democratic opponent. Now, I’m not familiar with the details of the race down in Delaware, but I believe O’Donnell is trailing by anywhere from 5-10 points, and this whole Wiccan thing has saddled her with a possibly insurmountable obstacle.

But specific details about her election race are not important to the wider point I want to make.

What happened to “tolerance” and “nonjudgmentalism”?

Why isn’t her opponent and his accomplices of varying degrees in the communication field not fully espousing their twin pillars of virtue in this instance?

In fact, shouldn’t they be “celebrating” her choice to “celebrate” the Wiccan “religion”?

Indeed, they are not. They are willingly insinuating and sometimes deliberating overstating that O’Donnell must be nutty for espousing such a view, even if it was twenty years ago.

They are willing to set aside their Principles (“tolerance”! “nonjudgmentalism”!) to allow a member of the Approved Political Party to achieve power.

Therefore, I can only come to the conclusion that any liberal who derides Ms. O’Donnell is a


Isn’t that the term for someone who insists others act in a certain way while simultaneously acting in the opposite way, often for personal gain, such as “power” via election in this case?

Now …

Please correct me if I am wrong in any of my assumptions or conclusions.



I think O’Donnell is an embarrassment. She is a living, breathing personification of George Bush’s speech impediment. I wish she wasn’t running. She makes us traditional conservatives look bad. She does.

That being said, if I lived in Delaware I would vote for her over her opponent. Simply because her political ideology is better suited to deal with the economic crisis this country faces than that of her opponent. Normally, I like gridlock in Congress. So we need a fair percentage of liberals in there. But right now, with our economy in tatters and getting worse by the minute, we need to get as many liberals out of Congress as possible, and I think we will do that in less than four weeks.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Get Him to the Iron Man 2


Want two short reviews of recently-watched movies written in incomplete sentences?


Iron Man 2:

Overrated and unfocused film canceled out by okay special effects.

Tony Stark: good … eventually annoying.
Scarlett Johanson: wooden and superfluous.
Samuel L: unnecessary.
Mickey Rourke: stene scealer.
Other bad guy: okay, but expected him to die at the hands of his robot army.
John Favreau: cool as limo driver, slightly less so as director.

Still, probably the best Summer Flick I didn’t see in the theaters this year.

Grade: B+

Get Him to the Greek:

Immensely uneven and often uncomfortable half-rock n roll, half-stoner, half buddy-buddy flick.

Jonah Hill: funny and drowning in fat-boy charisma.
Russell Brand: annoying with a hypnotically massive lower jaw.
Sean Diddy (or whatever he calls himself): strangely the best and funniest thing about the whole flick.

Best scene: the Geoffrey and furry wall business, or any of Puffie’s later scenes.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Recipe for Me

Dear Hopper,

How would you best describe your guitar style when you were actively playing?

Tank Brede
Ridgefield Park, NJ

Dear Tank,

Thanks for your question. Hmm. After a two or three minute’s thought, here’s the recipe for Me –


30 percent of Alex Lifeson, c. 1974-1978
25 percent of Neil Young, c. 1969-1978
20 percent of Jimmy Page, c. 1969-1975
20 percent of Malcolm Young, c. 1976-1983
5 percent of Tony Iommi, c. 1969-1975

Mix eclectically but allow lumps to coagulate.

Let sit by itself for three or four years.

Sprinkle with a dash of Metallica (pre-1986), Steve Vai (ditto), and a pinch of Edward Van Halen. (Influences from my main guitar mate.)


That’s me with a six-string in my hands that you’re hearing.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

PC Resume


I’m reading through my resume yesterday, and I notice the word “manager” pops up in a couple of spots.


How sexist!

What an incredibly insensitive resume I have! My job titles completely and boorishly ignore 51 percent of the population and about 15-18 percent of my industry. Does that not make me out to be some unenlightened cretinous neanderthal?

Why, my resume must make some people positively feel bad.

So I immediately go to the PC, open it up in Word, and replace every “manager” with the thinking person’s compassionate and inclusive term:


Monday, October 4, 2010

Rocket Ship Galileo

© 1947 by Robert Heinlein

Sigh. Invariably when you read anything about Heinlein you get the obligatory tar-and-feather treatment from too many alleged critics. Perhaps it’s a perceived threat to their closely-held socio-political beliefs. Perhaps it’s a case of reading too much peer-perpetuated pablum about Heinlein and not reading Heinlein himself. Hmmm. Naw, Heinlein is unabashedly “fascist”, to use that way-overused term as his judges, juries, and executioners use.

Except in Rocket Ship Galileo, Heinlein’s heroes are fighting actual fascists.

Before going further, let’s dispatch with this “fascist” nonsense. Like the word “racist”, it’s a commonly used ad hominem attack to discredit those who hold beliefs you don’t like without having to address directly those beliefs. Instead of saying, “Bob’s a guy who holds a strict conservative interpretation of the Constitution and adheres to the traditions our society was founded on,” they call Bob a “fascist.”

Here’s my belief: if Heinlein were alive today, he’d be down at one of those Washington DC protests with the Tea Partiers. Does that explain things?

From the handful of Heinleinian books I have read, a few things strike me. First, he is outspoken and proud about his beliefs. He is most certainly a full-fledged supporter of the right to bear arms. In certain cases he’s free-market and for small government, decentralized government. He is definitely not politically correct. His characters are all straight out of the Forties and Fifties, transplanted to Futuria, but they are all Heinlein.

Let’s talk only about his novels. Broadly speaking, they’re grouped into two types. He’s written a bunch of space adventures for youngsters and, generally later on chronologically, a bunch of more adult, more complex works. The latter will definitely make true-blue conservatives blanch quite a bit, as Heinlein often explores taboo counter-cultural and sexual material. The former series of books obviously do not breach such topics, but, I think, fall more squarely into the crosshairs of that “fascist” criticism.

Essentially, though, all this foolishness of “fascism” is overblown. These youth books are all darn good. They are uplifting, can-do epics that engage the imagination and bring a sense of wonder and a spirit of limitless adventure to those little skulls full of mush. There’s a dozen of them:

Rocket Ship Galileo (1947)
Space Cadet (1948)
Red Planet (1949)
Farmer in the Sky (1950)
Between Planets (1951)
The Rolling Stones (1952)
Starman Jones (1953)
The Star Beast (1954)
Tunnel in the Sky (1955)
Time for the Stars (1956)
Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)
Have Space Suit - Will Travel (1958)

I think I’ma gonna give my nephew a Christmas package of three or four.

If you’ve read my reviews, you know I have fond memories of the idealized Fifties as they’ve been presented to me via the classic SF movie and the classic SF novel (or short story). The roll-up-your-sleeves and get-your-hands-dirty can-do spirit. The dangling cigarette that never gave you emphysema or lung cancer. The women making their homes and the men bringing home the bacon as hard-drinkin’ hard-livin’ scientists, lassoing the atom and riding a bucking rocket across the skies.

Well, with Heinlein it’s the Forties. The fascist troglodytes who populate his stories are unenlightened enough to drive any college lit professor apoplectic. But you know what? I don’t care for that. That’s not what I’m looking for, nor are his legions of fans, when they open up a book, especially one of those “juvenile” novels.

What do you get? You get a crash course in physics. Throw in some engineering, chemistry, and astronomy. Also, heaping upon heaping of dash and daring. What is fear in a Heinlein novel except something that we all naturally overcome with guts, brawn, and brain? There is no scientific advance too risky, no alien invasion force too dastardly, no force of nature too overwhelming, that it can’t be conquered and mastered by a group of intelligent teenage boys.

In Rocket Ship Galileo, we have three high school grads pal’ing around at the Rocketry Club. Sure enough, an uncle, the Nobel-prize winning Doctor Cargraves, is seeking stealthy help to build a special rocket. As a boat-rocker, Doc Cargraves has been shunned or bureacracized into a straitjacket. These three young lads are precisely the inspiration and elbow grease he needs to reach the moon.

The first three-quarters of the book are wonderful! Perfect for any young kid interested in science fact and fiction, as I was and still am (though I’m an old kid now). Then, Rocket Ship Galileo gets a little weird. For what do our three young heroes and their middle-aged Manhattan Project mentor discover, three pages after landing on Luna?


The book was written in 1947, so I guess they were a readily handy villain. And it was written for kids, so they’re of the moustache-twirling variety of villain. And I must admit, Heinlein has that rare gift of pulling you into his prose. As ridiculous as it sounds, you are there, on the moon, fightin’ Nazis. (Why does this paragraph sound in my head likes its being recited by a Southern-inflected Brad Pitt?)

So, it’s good for what it is, and it’s good for more. Plus, it’s great for any ten-year-old SF enthusiasts you might know. It’ll entertain them and leave them a little better off once they’ve finished it. Don’t listen to those tweed-jacketed longhairs who see fascists under every bed and on every television set and at every tea party.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Unfinished Business


The following books, by me:

The Bicentenniel Man
Nine Tomorrows
The Earth Brain
I, Robot
The Black Hole
To Die in Italbar
The Crystal Cave
The Hollow Hills
Brave New World
Time For the Stars

I have unfinished business with you.

And two other of ye kin, but I don’t recall their proper names just yet.

I read you all as a young’n, and I’m looking fer you again, to see if you remained true to me.

If you have, I’ll be praisin’ ye.

But if you ain’t been true, ye better watch out.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Within You


“There is an old Hindu legend that at one time all men on earth were gods, but that men so sinned and abused the Divine that Brahma, the god of all gods, decided that the godhead should be taken away from man and hid some place where he would never again find it to abuse it.

‘We will bury it deep in the earth,’ said the other gods.

‘No,’ said Brahma, ‘because man will dig down in the earth and find it.’

‘Then we will sink it in the deepest ocean,’ they said.

‘No,’ said Brahma, ‘because man will learn to dive and find it there, too.’

‘We will hide it on the highest mountain,’ they said.

‘No,’ said Brahma, ‘because man will some day climb every mountain on the earth and again capture the godhead.’

‘Then we do not know where to hide it where he cannot find it,’ said the lesser gods.

‘I will tell you,’ said Brahma, ‘hide it down in man himself. He will never think to look there.’ ”

- Quoted from I Dare You by William H. Danforth, pg 81-82. Though I have read this parable in other books.

N. B. While they may not have buried the godhead down in the depths of the sea, they did put something there …

Friday, October 1, 2010



It’s been said – or written, what I’m about to tell you I read somewhere, sometime, someplace – that G. K. Chesterton, Catholic convert and apologist extraordinaire, was an exceptionally prolific writer.

If you take all his written works and divide it by the length of his literary career, you’ll find that his output averages to something like 4,000 words a day.

4,000 words a day. And I’m not talking first-draft words, either. 4,000 perfectly publishable words, every day, day in and day out.

By comparison, I average about 700 words a day, words that I think are okay, but that, so far, are not “perfectly publishable.” That’s a fraction more than a sixth of G. K.’s output.

“Don’t get so down on yourself, Hopper,” I hear you saying at your computer monitor. “He was a professional writer, and you are not. You have daily chores to do, two very young children to care for, an elusive job to hunt down.”

Well, thanks, that may be so. But if I was hardcore, there would be an hour of writing before the house wakes up. The two hours of Patch’s nap would be filled with the click-clacking of a laptop keyboard condensing thoughts and images out of the LE-noosphere. And there’d be two hours after the house quiets down in the evening for brainstorming and writing and revising. That’s five hours a day, 35 hours a week. That’s my 4,000 words a day, almost.

Just ask Lucien if you believe I’m being too hard on myself.

Okay. October goal to increase output by … a hundred percent. 1500 words a day. Not exactly Chestertonian, but easily doable. Easily.