Thursday, March 31, 2011

Love Me Some Rush

Some of the best times I had, musically speaking, happened during 1989. I was between bands, had some live and recording studio experience under my belt, and was actually becoming confident and pretty good on the electric guitar. Most of that year I jammed twice a week with the drummer from my previous band, Rob. I was going to night school for business (blech) and Rob was going to night school for accounting. On our free nights I’d drive over to his house with a 12-pack of beer and a pack of cigarettes, and we’d play in his basement for two hours.

What would we play? Some of our old originals from the band we were in and some old originals from the other band I was in. We’d play a couple of cover tunes, such as Starship Trooper and maybe some Led Zeppelin. We even played a few Living Color (!) tunes. But primarily we played Rush songs, because both of us were huuuuuuuuuge Rush fans.

I don’t know if I can adequately convey the appeal of Rush to any non-musicians reading this. Rush is a trio of virtuoso musicians who write complex songs best described, I’d guess, as progressive rock, whatever that is. Different time signatures, often within the same piece of music; off-the-beaten-track chordage; timbre pallets from acoustic twelve-string to syrupy overflanged crunch guitar. The drummer writes the lyrics sung by the bass player, and the lyrics range from science fiction to libertarian philosophy to workingman blues. If you are a drummer, you worship Neil Peart; if you are a guitarist, you worship Alex Lifeson; if you are a bass player, you worship Geddy Lee. It’s as simple as that.

These were pre-Internet days, so access to guitar tab was extremely limited to non-existent. You developed your ear and your musical chops by figuring out the songs while listening to the CDs. (Yes, these were the days of CDs, though the first two works by Rush I had were vinyl.) Or else you learned piano music, i.e., traditional music notation. When I first got into Rush back in my freshman year in college, I got a Rush compendium of songs from their first six albums in traditional music notation. So I had a general idea of the chords and such from most of their early tunes.

So me and Rob would guzzle beer, smoke cigs, and jam on Rush tunes two hours a night twice a week over the course of a year. He grew as a drummer and I developed as a guitarist. We fiddled around with my Tascam 4-track recorder, and I still have the evidence 20-plus years later. And though we never became good friends, as I would later do with other bandmates, it was probably the highlight of my life during that period. If you are familiar with Rush, you may be wondering what songs we played regularly. Well, okay, off the top of my head, these –

The Analog Kid
Finding My Way
What You’re Doing
Bastille Day
Lakeside Park
No One at the Bridge
Making Memories
The Trees
La Villa Strangiato
Cygnus X-1
Jacob’s Ladder
Red Barchetta
Passage to Bangkok
I Think I’m Going Bald
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Something for Nothing
Working Man
In the End
Fly By Night
The Necromancer
2112 (various parts of this 22-min epic)

to varying degrees of competency and coolness. While I had decent guitars at this point (a brand new Les Paul and a 1969 Gibson SG), I was kinda limited by the amplification I could afford: a Peavey practice amp and a Roland Jazz Chorus 100 Watt amp, both enhanced with an assortment of foot pedals (distortion, flange, chorus, and delay boxes). To be heard over Rob’s drums in that tiled, wood-paneled basement I had to be loud, and the louder I got the greater the loss of distinction, so to speak.

But it was still a blast. I’d love to revisit those days ...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Square that Circle

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Casey Agonistes

What a truly pleasant surprise! What a great writer! The payoff I got from this short story collection is exactly the reason I spend hours perusing old dusty used book stores, be they in actual physical buildings or in cyberspace. This book gave me about eight hours of reading pleasure.

Calling it a short story collection is a little bit misrepresentative. There are five stories, three of which clock in around twenty pages. These were very good, well-written, imaginative stories that hook you from the first paragraph and pull you in for a half-hour ride. The longer stories, the novellas, I liked better. There’s a sixty-pager that’s maybe the best science fiction I’ve read this decade. Then there’s the longest one, eighty-seven pages, which develops such a fascinating world out of such a nasty premise that I burned my fingers turning the pages.

“Casey Agonistes” – The eponymous story, an intriguing tale of sick warders during what seems to be World War II. Attempts to answer the question of whether mass hallucinations can attain physical reality, and, if so, for what reason? Likeable characters skirting the edge of cliché because you get the feel McKenna is using men he actually knew. Strange ending, unsure of its meaning. B+.

“Hunter, Come Home” – Best of the bunch. McKenna creates an incredibly rich, wonderful world and fills it with two cultures best described as Spocks and Klingons (story was written four years before ST:TOS ever aired). Conflict, on both a personal, racial, and biological level. Multiple antagonists. A very bad man-made bio-weapon called Thanasis. A love story, too, of sorts. The hero a schmuck outsider – can he possibly redeem himself? A+.

“The Secret Place” – I’m sensing a trend here. McKenna has (had) the uncanny ability to create detailed, fantastical worlds. In this story, a childlike woman’s magical world somehow corresponds with the real terrain of the Oregonian outback in the military’s hunt for uranium. One hapless Joe is tasked to find the mine by unraveling the riddle of the woman before angry townsfolk turn angry stares into angry fisticuffs. B.

“Mine Own Ways” – This was good, too. What would happen if, say, a thousand years in the future, human anthropologists studying developing humanoids on another planet are discovered? But wait, as in any good tale, there are twists. Not everyone is who he seems, and the victims are put to a tribal test which challenges each one to his very core. Hard to put this story down. A.

“Fiddler’s Green” - The longest story, one I have mixed feelings. It could have been the best of the bunch, but it ended kinda abruptly and still I’m not sure what it all meant. But I’m recommending it anyway. A group of World War II sailors are adrift in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere and no one knows their ship’s gone down. Thirst and starvation are driving them mad, and they draw straws for ... you know what. Then, one has an idea, and is able to conjure up a dream world that, in their dire straits, they are able to anchor in reality. This mystical world grows and grows, some sailors go mad, some adopt, new characters are brought in, and the man who created it becomes a mad deity of sorts. B+.

In the paperback copy I have there’s a neat little piece by Damon Knight on McKenna’s life. Apparently he did serve as a sailor in World War II, hence the characters in many of the stories here. After the Navy he set out to get a college education, but wound up becoming an autodidact. He is also the author of The Sand Pebbles, which you may know as that four-hour Steve McQueen movie from the sixties. In the 597-page novel about sailors he famously uses no vulgarities save a g.d. here and there. Unfortunately, he only put pen to paper for about ten or twelve years before a premature heart attack killed him. Based on these five stories alone, I think I may put Sand Pebbles on the Acquisitions List. As a writer, he does have the rare gift of an easy voice and a talent for luring the reader, helpless, deeper and deeper into his tales.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Delicious Lish

DADDY: What’s two and two?

PATCH: (pause) Are we buying or selling?

Yesterday I had my well-deserved Afternoon Without Children. Especially since I had them earlier in the week while the wife was at her sales conference, and extensively later in the week as my wife then had tours of her stores. But before the Afternoon Without Children began, I had to take Patch with me to church and the grocery store because the wife had to stay home with Little One, recuperating from a weekend of headaches, fever, and a sore throat.

Church turned out to be exceedingly long, due to RCIA catechumens receiving baptism and confirmation rites, a long gospel reading, and an even longer sermon. Normally I wouldn’t mind this, but Patch is at that quite unpredictable age, two and a half, the age where there really is no predicting how she will act during a 75-minute mass. Plus, I had a whole bunch of coupons expiring, so I wanted to hit not one but two grocery stores and cash in on over $20 in savings.

Well, my fears, founded as they may be, were forgotten. Patch was phenomenal! What an exceptional, well-behaved little thing. And believe me, that’s not always the case with my littlest firecracker. Somehow, that bribe of [cookie, candy, or chocolate milk] must have registered in that still-developing psyche, and she made me proud. During the peacing at mass, she walked down the length of the pew, extending her little paw and shaking hands with the adults, male and female, in front and in back of her. When she walked up with me in the communion line, she had her hands folded in front of her and smiled ear-to-ear when the priest laid his hand on her forehead in blessing.

At the grocery store she was patient and good-natured, willing to wait until everything was paid for until I handed over her bribe [M&Ms] in the car. * She was mimicking the lady over the PA who announced periodically that order such-and-such was ready and available at the deli kiosk. “Thank You,” they’d both say at the same time, and Patch would crack me up with her perfect timing.

We call her “the Mayor,” for she is super-friendly and has no fear. Little One was intimidated at that age by big men with white hair (i.e., all three of her grandfathers). Not Patch. She’ll chat anyone up (priest, fellow pew people, checkout lady, random customers). When asked her age she’ll say she’s two and hold up all five fingers. But don’t think you can pull any fast ones over on her. She’s perfected the hairy eyeball, the furrowed brow, and the folded arms. I get those looks in various combinations and permutations several times a day when trying to reason with her.

Which leads me to believe she’ll be the tougher of my two daughters. The haggler, as the introductory dialogue is meant to imply. My oldest seems to be more me while Patch is her mom. And her mom is an extroverted businesswoman with dual degrees in communication and political science. In other words, she’s me twisted round 180 degrees. But, as we often caution ourselves, anything can happen in these formative years, so Patch could be and do, quite possibly, just about anything under the sun.

But whatever she does, she’ll be successful at it.

* The wife said, “Can’t you give her a non-caloric treat for being good? Like a sticker or something? She doesn’t fit into any of her 4-Ts!”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

God, Science, Morality

“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

“If science is true, then God does not exist.”

- the conclusion of the militant atheist, a lá Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Taner Edis, Emile Zuckerkandl, Peter Atkins, Steven Weinberg, et. al.


“If science is true, then everything is permitted.”

(argument found in The Devil’s Delusion, by David Berlinksi, pg. 20)

Hence, our culture’s moral befuddlement over the abortion of Down syndrome babies, in vitro fertilization and designer children, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, genetic tinkering with the food supply, genetic experimentation with animal DNA, and euthanasia.

After a period of time in the wastelands, I’m entrenched in the camp of Catholic teaching regarding these issues. Though I sincerely hope neither you nor I be put to the test.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Common Philosophy

The philosophy of the common man is an old wife that gives him no pleasure, yet he cannot live without her, and resents any aspersions that strangers may cast on her character.

- George Santayana

For some reason, reading this, the image of me surrounded by a group of belligerent WW2 sailors popped into mind. They were beating me up, kicking me, shoving me. "Teach you to doubt yer reality!" Pow! "Look boys, he's reading Kant! Here's your ding an sich!" Bam! "Say, he's got an Aquinas book! Mister High 'n Mighty's judging us!" Punch! Slap! Kick!

And Santayana's lurking there in the background, hands in his pockets, whistling and avoiding all eye contact ...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hotdog Supercar

No, it’s not a 70s exploitation flick.

But it does require a short backstory:

Me and my pal Rick were driving up the winding California coast – Route 1, I think, lots of S curves over high cliffs overlooking dark, expansive rocks. The dull rush of the ocean on the air. A long trip up from Los Angeles began a little too late. We took turns behind the wheel of the rental car, zipping along as fast as we dared, because we wanted to get to San Francisco before dark.

That goal proved unreachable. The sun sank into the Pacific, and inky blackness descended upon the mountains we drove through. We drove as fast as we could. Since we were living one day at a time we still had no idea where we’d be crashing that night.

Rick was behind the wheel, I was dozing as best I could in the uncomfortable bucket seat. Must’ve been around 10 or 10:30 at night when I heard him curse under his breath. I stirred, and he sensed it. “Idiot behind me tailgating me,” he said, annoyed. I sat up and tilted my head to check the right side rear view mirror and, sure enough, was blinded by bright headlights of a fast-moving vehicle ten or twelve feet behind us on the one-lane highway.

I threw out a few supportive vulgarities. Rick prodded the old rental a little faster, but his mind was elsewhere.

“It’s times like these,” I noted, “One of those James Bond supercars would come in handy.”

“Yeah, and I know exactly what mine will have,” he said with much enthusiasm. “For one, there would be headlights right over the brake lights in the back. And they’d be high beams, too!” His mind raced as he considered the possibilities. “And there would be two small doors on each side of the trunk, and when I flicked a switch on the dashboard they’d open and gallons of hot dogs would spill out onto the road behind us!”

“That would certainly take care of this jerk behind us.”

Think about the Hotdog Supercar next time you’re being tailgated ...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Devil Review

O M. Night! What’s going on?

I was skeptical all through that Sixth Sense movie oh those many years ago – until the very ending, and you made me, against my will, a believer! I knew then and there, M, that you could do no wrong!

On the last day of my honeymoon a decade ago, exhausted from vacationing, the wife and I half-dozed in an airport motel. I struggled for the remote, and discovered your Unbreakable advertised. I gladly paid for that view. We sat, entranced, as the movie steamrollered ever so gently towards its twisting, slap-your-head-in-how-did-I-miss-that? glory. While I was slightly disappointed at the actual reveal (I felt I could pen a more effective ending), it was still a better motion picture experience than 99.99 percent of the crap Hollywood puts out. For one, it was different!

Then – Signs! One of my top-ten all-time science fiction flicks. And get this – you combined my other love, religion, with it! SF and religion. You only realized that they are not mutually exclusive. They do not have to tear at each other’s throats. They are yin and yang, complementary, different facets of the jewel and gemstone representing our earthly experience. I left the movie theater that summer with goosebumps traveling up and down my arms. I pondered that movie in a daze for days. Couldn’t get it out of my mind, and perhaps that is the best compliment any artist can receive. I eagerly bought the DVD once it came out and watch it at least twice a year, usually when the family is away because stone-cold-me gets so emotional watching it.

With great anticipation we bought our tickets to see The Village at the local movie house, me and my pregnant wife, taking a break from fixing up the new-bought house. Perhaps it was a mistake to see it with scads of tweens, but, hey, live and learn. And when your fourth major film’s reveal was, er, revealed, well, it was good, I suppose. Reminiscent of Sixth Sense. If pressed, I suppose I could say I enjoyed those monster thingies. But I left the theater somewhat unfulfilled. Well, I thought, even Joe DiMaggio struck out every now and then. But in my heart of hearts I didn’t really consider it a K. More like a 5-3 or, at best, a 1B with an E in parentheses next to it.

Two years later, what the f----? What is this thing called Lady in the Water? Mermaids? Mermaids?? Well, Signs was about invading aliens, so who am I to disparage mermaids. Still, though, poor reviews made us wait for a rental, and after renting and viewing this misfire, the ember of my love for your movies grayed out. I did like the evil wolf critter, but that stereotypical multi-culti overacting cast only fed us softball after softball for laughs.

Devastatingly bad reviews plus a tangible anti-human stance in your next flick, The Happening, kept us away from both theater and video store. Never seen it, and don’t plan on it. Did not see The Last Airbender, either, though that may because I am no longer a twelve-year-old boy.

But then – Devil came out. And that caught my attention.

What an intriguing setup. Minimalist. Gritty. A mental exercise in justified paranoia. Five seemingly innocent random people trapped in an elevator dying one by one. Dying in gruesome ways. I had to watch just for the execution (pun intended) alone. I know, Mr. Night Shyamalan, you did not direct Devil, but as producer and writer your personality saturates every scene. Eerie, shocking, scary – it even has your trademarked twist ending, though not as forceful or shattering as those in your early works. Perhaps it was too heavily foreshadowed; I should have anticipated it but was too wrapped up in discovering who, exactly, was the devil in the movie.

While not your best work, may I humbly announce my opinion that it is a definite return to your prior form? If I had to place it in your pantheon, I’d put it above The Village but below Unbreakable. And at a lean and mean 91 minutes, the perfect length for a decent night’s scares.

Grade: B+.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Did you hear? There’s a car crash right in front of the house with the white picket fence down on Maple Street. Little Billy Johnson wasn’t paying attention and rode his bike right out into the road. Mr. Davis, on his way to his hardware shop, swerved to avoid the boy, went up on the curb, and plowed his Ford right through that fence and into the great big elm that sits plum in the middle of Mrs. Baker’s front yard.

Aside from the participants, there are three witnesses to the accident. One, Charlie Taylor, is a reporter for the local Gazette. Another, Mrs. Samuels, is married to a young novelist. The third is old Mr. Wells, out for his daily stroll and pipe smoke.

The next day Charlie Taylor writes up a small article for the paper. Mrs. Samuel’s husband, interested in small town life, includes his wife’s report as a pivotal scene in the novel he’s writing. Mr. Wells, closest to the accident, speaks at length to the investigating officer, and his account is the primary source for the police report. And Mr. Davis, garrulous Mr. Davis, enthralls his children with colorful re-enactments of the event, and his oldest daughter writes a term paper on it for her social studies class.

There. One event, and four written versions of it.

Here’s the all-important, all-encompassing question:

Did the accident happen?

Of course it did, you say. There are at least four reputable witnesses to it.

But maybe, the skeptic says, and hear me out, maybe the accident didn’t happen.

What do you mean? you ask.

Surely something as dramatic as Mr. Davis plowing his Ford into a giant elm would be remembered accurately, if it really happened. I mean, just read these reports. Charlie Taylor’s article says Billy Johnson rode out between two parked cars, and Mrs. Samuels said (or her husband wrote) that the little kid swerved out of a driveway. And neither Mr. Wells nor Mr. Davis, the driver of the car, even report a boy at all!

So what’s your point? you respond. It’s fairly common knowledge that witnesses of traffic accidents will report wild discrepancies at later recollection of the event. Trial lawyers make their bread and butter off of such discrepancies.

Yes, the skeptic retorts. There are traffic accidents. And there are also ... world shattering events. Surely something that changes the world, changes the way we think about life, the universe, and everything, surely something as weighty as that would be reported by those closest to it with more accuracy than some random citizens jolted out of their daily haze by the crash of metal on wood.

You see now where this is going. You sigh. So, you say, you’re going to deny the Resurrection. Or the miracles of Christ. Or the words of Christ, specifically, Who He said He is. Or you’re going to deny that He even existed, walked the earth, and taught a select group of followers.

The skeptic acts offended. No such thing! he cries. I merely wonder why there are so many items that don’t match up in the gospels. I mean, the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are entirely different, and Mark doesn’t even include one! The miracles and parables don’t add up. Once I made a list of every miracle and a separate one for every parable and checked off which gospels they appear in, and they don’t match! And surely you Christians view the Crucifixion as one of the supreme events in the life of Christ, right? Yet rarely do the gospel writers agree on the words Christ spoke from the Cross! And if the Crucifixion is important, what do you make of the Resurrection? A man rising from the dead! Each gospel writer gives a different account of this monumental event in the history of mankind.

You hold up a hand. Fortunately, as an apologist, you’ve dealt with these amateur arguments before. There’s nothing new under the sun.

The gospels were not written in our times, you begin. They should not be read as a piece of 21st century journalism. They don’t purport to answer the five w’s - who, what, where, when, and why - with objective, scientific, Aristotelian accuracy. That’s a fairly common mistake so many of the ‘learned’ make thinking, writing, and speaking of the gospels. In actuality, the gospels are designed to tell a story about a man, an incredible Man, Who was and is the Son of God, Who walked among us and taught us and gave His life for our salvation. And the purpose of these stories is to define a relationship with a real, living person.

And yes, you continue, the law of traffic accidents applies to the gospel writers, too. Matthew and John were apostles, part of Christ’s inner circle, though they differed in age and occupation. Further, John was a member of the innermost circle, present at many events in Christ’s life that Matthew wasn’t, and, presumably, experienced many things different from Matthew. Mark was Peter’s assistant, so-to-speak, and as so learned all about Christ from yet another angle. Finally, Luke was a companion of Paul, and heard of the Christ from a man who never met the non-risen Jesus.

Different backgrounds, different perspectives, different aims, different styles, different emphases.

Got it?

But your friend, the skeptic, scoffing, has left long ago.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I’ve been listening lately, still with only one ear, to all the hand-wringing over nuclear reactors here in the United States in the media. Particularly the facility at Indian Point in New York. I also heard Charles Krauthammer, a political commentator I respect tremendously though do not always agree with, flatly state that the Japanese crisis has effectively ended nuclear power in the US. Again, I do not have a firm opinion one way or the other, due mostly to a lack of background knowledge, and I can see and agree with many points on both sides of the issue. Normally, I would feel all this panic over a similar crisis occurring here, especially in New York, is ludicrous and irrational, except for the fact that ...


If I remember correctly, my wife and I were staying at a bed & breakfast in Hyde Park, New York. It was April 2002, the weekend around the date of our first wedding anniversary. Sometime in the early morning, five or six or so, I stirred in bed and half-heard half-felt a 4-point-something earthquake. The immediate thought that entered my mind was that someone in the room next door was taking a 200-pound hutch filled with china and silverware and dragging it roughly across a hardwood floor. That was the noise I heard. I did not feel anything, though the fact I was in bed no doubt played a part. If I was standing up I probably would have felt a small vibration or sway through the floor. My wife slept through the whole thing.

Now I’m told a 4-point-something earthquake is small beans. Certainly, major orders of magnitude smaller than the quake that caused the tsunami that ravaged Japan two weeks ago. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Richter scale is a logarithmic scale, meaning the difference between two numbers is a factor of 10, not of 1. There are 5 factors of difference between a 4.0 quake and a 9.0 quake, or 10-to-the-5, which translates to a difference in power of 100,000. The decibel scale is similarly logarithmic. To compare my quake to the Japanese quake would be like comparing watching TV in your living room to putting your head three feet away from Pete Townsend’s Marshall cabinets during Live at Leeds.

My point is, earthquakes do happen in New York. Admittedly, it’s a very, very rare occurrence, and when a quake does occur, it’s generally on the small-beans end of the Richter scale. So I can’t in full conscience harrumph all over the libs and environmentalists who are using the Japanese crisis as a lever to shut down nuclear power in the US. The best I can do, should it ever come up in conversation in a room I’m in, is to advise restraint and (yech) moderation.

And if we’re going to completely freeze our nuclear program, I’ll have three words to add: Drill baby drill.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Snow


This is the sight I was blessed with at 7:45 this morning, getting ready to walk the little ones to school four blocks away.

Just cements even further the notion that’s been in my mind the past five or six years. If, when, and, preferably, as soon as, I get me some coin on this earth me and the family are moving down south. Now I’m not a big fan of Heat and Humidity, but a small piece of equipment known as central air conditioning I can deal with a lot better than shoveling seven feet of snow nine times in three months. I mean, two days ago I was at the park with bicycles and big wheels and little ones, sweating up a storm. Now – this.

Oh, and this is what typically happens when I leave a room for five minutes. No kidding.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sales Conference

My wife left at 7 am this morning for Florida. It’s her company’s annual sales conference, where she and her co-workers, bosses, and subordinates get to frolic in an air conditioned resort for four whole days of meetings, symposiums, ceremonies, and break-out sessions. The only thing that enables her to keep her sanity are the cocktails and dancing in the evenings.

Anyway, we’re excited because she’s in the running for Account Executive of the Year. This prestigious award is a very big deal in her company, and we’re all very proud of her here at home. Keep your fingers crossed for us. If she wins, she gets use of the company villa in Puerto Rico, and we get to go for a week and invite up to ten other people. It would be our first vacation since … well, since we were at Puerto Rico in 2007 when her best friend won the award.

So I’m watching the two little ones for the next 86 hours. 79 hours, as I write this. Yes, I’m counting down. Don’t get me wrong, I love my children and I enjoy them immensely. But here’s the primary piece of wisdom I’ve learned over the past six years as a father and one I never tire mentioning to my longsuffering wife: One child easy, two children not so much. Especially now that Patch is interacting on a much more assertive level with her big sister. That’s mentally, verbally, and, uh, physically assertive.

We have baths, church and a trip to the grocery store already under our belts. The girls are going to watch Megamind camping out on the living room floor with some popcorn while I bang away at the laptop in the dining room later this afternoon. Then they’ll play outside in the backyard while I make dinner. Then it’s bedtime promptly at 8. And I have three or four hours to kill. Maybe I’ll watch a DVD or something. Maybe read. Maybe write.

Then the next three days are just like any other Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, except that the wife won’t be around to help. I need her most during the morning rush to get Little One off to school and that 90-minute period between dinner and bedtime, what with baths and jammas and stories and all. But I’m getting very used to all this stay-at-home parenting, for better or worse.

I have noticed that the job market, at least where I’m concerned, is picking up. I now have two or three things a week going, whether its suitable job applications or call backs. This is opposed to two or three things every two or three months six months ago and more. We’re very optimistic I’ll be working soon, which is a good thing for all of us, my sanity especially. Hopefully, God willing, we’ll have to hire a babysitter or fly in a grandparent for next year’s sales conference.

Lots of good stuff on the horizon, here at the Hopper. Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sathington Willoughby

We are gathered here
Today in these majestic
Halls of old to honor
A man they call
Sathington Willoughby.
There's a joke or two,
A pun or three
I feel that must be told
Then I go on to speak of
Sathington Willoughby.
Sathington Willoughby
The legislator that
Penned us up a bill
That banned the use
Of certain things like
this and that
this and that
this and that
this and that
this and that

- “Sathington Willoughby”, written by Les Claypool of Primus, off their 1990 CD Frizzle Fry

Posted in honor of Chuck Schumer and his congressional ilk, who seek to legislate all the badness out of our lives. There isn’t a tragedy they can’t keep from happening again due to the mighty power of their pens. Whatever would we do without them!

Friday, March 18, 2011


Imagine yourself in the forest of the Amazon, looking for something new, because you wanted to feel the earth, trees, nature. You suddenly come across a small temple of an ancient, lost civilization. You are not simply going to come back and say: "Well I found a temple, a civilization nobody knows." You would stay there, try to understand it, try to decipher it ... And then you discover that 100 kilometers further on is another temple, only the main temple this time. Would you return?

– round-the-world solo sailor Bernard Moitessier, attempting to explain why he U-turned a few hundred miles from winning the Golden Globe Race for fastest circling of the globe to begin a second circumnavigation (quoted in The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, ch. 14.)

What a strange and appealing man, this Moitessier, adventurer, monk, poet, philosopher, explorer of the inner essence of what it means to exist. Typically French, atypically French. If I may be permitted a conceit, I know a bit what he feels. Though, of course, as a man who sailed, both solo and with a long-suffering wife, over nearly 100,000 miles of the unforgiving fury of the sea, he has explored existence in a way completely alien to some of the ways I’ve considered.

Rhetoric: How do you define your existence? Tough question, for a variety of reasons, so – why are you here? What are you supposed to do? Are you doing it? When are you going to? A neat way of answering these questions is to imagine yourself financially independent. You’re a billionaire. You can buy anything you want. All your needs can be taken care of. What would you do?

In my attempts at answering that question I think I’d mirror what young John Milton did before he became old John Milton. But that, too, might be self-conceit. Maybe I’d be dead of alcohol poisoning after six months. Wish I had the Hopper equivalent Bernard Moitessier’s self-imposed solo ten-month exile on the cusp of death. With a little bit less of that “cusp of death” thing ...

Thursday, March 17, 2011


There’s a huge book store conglomeration chain just a few miles down the road from my house. The only real reason I go there is that it has a used book section – rarity of rarities! Despite being a relatively shallow and not too productive source of cool finds, I’m there often because of its location. My real treasure troves are a local shop devoted solely to used books that’s a half-hour hike down the toll highways and a pair of smaller used book shops in an adjacent state near where my folks live.

Anyway, I’m at the conglomerate once a week or so and on occasion I do find a treat in their used book section. Not lately, though. Lately, though, I’ve been noticing a trend that’s starting to grow on me. I’m finding a lot of SF short story anthologies. They’re usually titled Orbit-number-something or Universe-number-something or the generic Years Best SF [short stories]. I’m thinking of delving into these for a number of reasons.

First of all, I read them as a kid. I distinctly remember both the Orbit and Universe series in my local library way back when. For the life of me, though, I can’t recall which ones aside from the fact they were probably mid- to late-70s volumes. So if I decide to pick up these books (they’re usually about five bucks a pop), not only will I be exposing myself to some well-written and famous SF stories, there might even be an element of surprised familiarity.

Second, I do need to expose myself to some quality short stories. I’ve sent out a handful of my own originals, all to rejection. Primarily I’ve been reading either good or nostalgic SF novels over the past decade or so, at a rate of about two a month. I’m somewhat lacking in feeding my mind with good SF short stories, though, having really only read maybe two dozen since I started blogging three years back.

Third, I have quite the backlog of SF short story anthologies on the shelf, staring balefully at the back of my head as I write this. There’s some high-quality Stanislaw Lem, Arthur C. Clarke, a trio of Bradburys. There’s an anthology called Alpha 6 edited by Robert Silverberg (there must be Alphas 1 through 5 out there, no?). And I have two by Harlan Ellison – Shatterday and the infamous Dangerous Visions, both demanding a digestion. Plus about a half-dozen lesser known short story collections by lesser known SF authors.

I have a serious reservation about SF short stories. Quintessentially, I read SF to enter a different world, a world that’s (hopefully) intriguing, riveting, fascinating, dangerous, different, and (maybe) better than the world I currently occupy. On all different levels – emotional, intellectual, guttural, sometimes even spiritual. The problem is that this is seldom actualized. Perhaps 5 - 10 percent of the time. The rest is still reading for escape, but it’s shallow reading, soon forgotten after the cover is closed for the final time.

Now, when one is working one’s way through a 400-page novel, a lot of time is wasted when one realizes that the current work falls into that 90 - 95 percent “dud” category. Time wasted, but time wasted in this way is preferable to time wasted in a myriad of other ways. I probably derive the same quality of pleasure that someone else may watching their 1,874th regular-season major league baseball game. So with reading an SF novel the danger lies in being stuck in a dud for the long haul.

The exact converse is true with a short story. What if the short story one is reading falls splendidly in that rarest of rare 1 percent? A few hundred words into the story one finds oneself in that intriguing, riveting, fascinating, dangerously different better world. Then, after five or six pages – the story ends! Ahh! One feels robbed. As for myself, I would rather risk a purgatory week or two in a mediocre novel to find that rare gem than find a rare gem and only live in that world for a half-hour or so.

Make sense?

However, I’m sensing continental drift in my reading navigation. I think I’ll hit some of those anthologies, and maybe pick up a few Orbits and Universes on my next trip to the book store. After Easter, I suppose, in about five or six weeks.

Don’t worry; I’ll keep you all posted, since now I’ve done gone put you all on the edge of your seats.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Deep Sea Puzzle

Wanna test your deep sea survival skills?

C’mon, let’s give it the old college try!


You are in a trimaran in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A trimaran is one of those three-hulled boats. The center hull houses the living, storage, steering, and generator compartments. The left and right hulls are there, for the sake of this puzzle, solely for buoyancy reasons. Hollow and attached by struts and a thick, wide deck to the center hull, they serve to keep the boat upright and afloat.

The boat is powered by sails. Only by sails. All the sails are in good working condition, as are the masts, poles, and ropes. You also have one set of replacements for each sail and plenty of rope.

You are two weeks away from land, though you have six months of food stashed safely away in hundreds of Tupperware containers in storage. Hydration, too, is not a concern as you have two ten-gallon drums of potable water safely stowed under the pilot's chair.

Got a good mental picture of everything? Good! Let’s continue.

The Crisis:

There’s a fierce storm and a rogue wave nearly topples the trimaran (very dangerous because once overturned, a trimaran can almost never be righted). The next day it is discovered the radio was damaged beyond repair. Also, both left and right hulls are cracked and taking in water at about 20 gallons a day. In calm weather, you can bail out the water by opening a hatch atop each hull and scooping it out with a pail. In another storm, a very likely occurrence before you reach port, you won’t be able to do this. Too much water will enter both left and right hulls too fast and the ship will sink.


What do you do?


I am not a sailor, so forgive any misuse of terms or illogical inconsistencies. But I believe a working solution can be proposed by the data given. I read something similar in the book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall and thought this would make a neat brain teaser. Solution will only be provided if comments are posted.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear Thoughts

Been watching, out the corner of my eye, a bit of the drama surrounding the smoking Japanese nuclear reactors. Aside from hoping for a safe resolution, I’m not quite sure what to make about the big picture and how it’s being framed to us.

Unfortunately, the issue of nuclear energy is highly politicized. Much like the whole global cooling, er, global warming, er, climate change debate. The widespread politicization of nuclear energy dates back to the late 70s, with the coinciding of the movie The China Syndrome with the Three Mile Island crisis. I was a youngling at that time and only remember vague and scary images from the time period.

There was a commercial for The China Syndrome that truly freaked Little Me out. While an ominous narrator speaks in hushed tones of what occurs during a nuclear meltdown, the camera slowly creeps forward focusing upon something resembling a bubbling cauldron. Also, both my parents and my grandparents subscribed to Time magazine, and I remember reading (or skimming) a lot of the coverage about Three Mile Island. Very confusing to me, particularly since I couldn’t reconcile the dangers described with, say, such optimistic can-do physics and technology I found in my awesome physics book which I was madly in love with at the time.

I must confess this whole nuclear energy / nuclear reactor thing has me on the fence. I do understand the physics and engineering of it. I do realize that under most circumstances, like 99.999 percent of the time or something close, it is extremely safe, considering the technological developments in the 25 to 30 years since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Yet there is something very frightening about nuclear reactors and nuclear energy when things go wrong. I recall reading a book about a decade ago that chronicled every single nuclear accident and fatality since the days of the Manhattan Project. That book is absolutely terrifying.

Perhaps I am just victim to far-Right propaganda (“nuclear energy is the safest cleanest bestest energy ever devised by man!”) and to far-Left propaganda (“nuclear energy is the greatest potential environmental and human catastrophe ever wielded by corrupt corporations!”). Perhaps we all are. A nuclear reactor in crisis is the Media’s second-most-slobbering-juicy-tastic story (first is any national Republican figure accused of a moral indiscretion). What I think we need, and man do I really detest this expression, is some moderation. We need clear heads and clearer facts. Because, as in so many hot-topics on the home pages of news sites today, the truth lies somewhere near the equidistant middle.

(Though probably more towards the Right side than the Left.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Water Water Everywhere

Two weeks ago, the screen door from our bedroom to the top of our garage was torn off its hinges by some crazy winds. When it rains, water leaks into the garage and the bedroom. Water is no friend of interior walls and ceilings.

One week ago the pipes beneath the sink in the downstairs half-bath began leaking. Water spilled all over the wife’s cosmetics and Patch’s spare diaperage. Water is no friend to cabinets, floors, sheet-rocked walls and the impossible-to-reach corners where they all meet.

Four days ago the dryer stopped spinning. With a full load of just about all my clothes sitting inside. Yeah, heat from the gas line still pipes in, but without the drum spinning none of my threads could dry. Water-soaked clothes are no friend to anyone.

Six-and-a-half feet of snow over eleven-and-a-half weeks plus four or five recent days of heavy rains have pretty much eroded and erased every trace of stain and sealant from my deck and outdoor furniture. I’m afraid I’m going to walk out there and fall right through thanks to the rot. Water is no friend to wood, especially wood in dire need of care and attention.

Don’t get me started on loose bathroom tiles, water-logged gutters, cold water pipes going to hot water boilers, and the little ones constantly and consistently overturning glasses of water upon rugs, tables, and sofas. My house is drowning in water, and I can barely remember to drink three or four glasses a day, let alone eight.

But – despite any possible hits to this macho image of mine – I must admit my evening bath is perhaps the highlight of my day. 45 minutes in a hot tub with a good book is the key to maintaining sanity. It’s my isolation tank, my portal to other worlds, the recharging of my batteries.

So maybe water isn’t that bad after all. It depends, I guess, on the degree of control we have over it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I hereby renounce and reject all dogma … in favor of catma.

(Note: the above statement does not imply an endorsement of the ideas stated in the Principia Discordia. I have never read the book, only of it, but should “forces conspire” to bring it into my possession, I will give it a perusal.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Head of Christ

This portrait of Jesus Christ was painted by Warner Sallman in 1941. You’ve probably seen it in your travels, because, I learned yesterday, this picture has been reproduced 500 million times. I had a picture of Sallman’s Head of Christ on the wall of my childhood bedroom. Critics may scoff at it, may describe it as “kitsch”, but there’s something I find immensely stirring about it. Not sure if it has something to do with it being a comforting presence from the relative safety of my earliest youth, or if it has something to do with those eyes and that paradoxical expression of intense serenity.

I just found it interesting in my online travels.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Screaming Katabatic Williwaws

A few nights ago I was reading the following paragraph when suddenly I felt upsmacked with a baseball bat while simultaneously ferociously massaged by a 120-volt current.

The seaman’s traditional rounding of Cape Horn was really the whole passage from 50 degrees south to 50 degrees south around the bottom of South America, either from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the harder, meaner passage against the prevailing westerlies. That 1,000-mile passage contained so many attendant terrors – storms, drifting glacial ice, currents, and the screaming katabatic williwaws of Tierra del Fuego, Slocum’s white-arched squall – that could stop a ship and shove her backward along her wake, making her lose in an afternoon sea miles that had taken weeks of desperate struggle to gain, that not until the latitude of 50 degrees south in the destination ocean had been reached could the Horn be safely said to be astern. That was the full meaning of rounding the false cape Moitessier saw across the moonlit sea.

A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols, chapter 23.

I don’t exactly know what it means, but I promise you this: If I ever get a novel published, I will sneak that phrase


into it.

Bet on it. I have never heard a more awesome conjunction of consonance before. Or since. If I was a Stevie Ray Vaughan, that’d be the name of my backing band. If I was a member of a Supergroup, like CSN&Y, GTR, ABBA, ETC, that’d be the name of my solo album. If I was the next Scorsese, the next Hitchcock, the next Shyamalan, the next Welles, that would be the whispered clue that explains The Whole Thing in my cinematic masterpiece, a la “rosebud” in Citizen Kane.

Screaming Katabatic Williwaws. You will be in my dreams – or nightmares – tonight.

(Note: a couple minutes googling tells me that a “screaming katabatic williwaw” is, basically, a very fast, nasty down-wave whirlwind. “Williwaw” is Inuit for “whirlwind.” Williwaws in the region described above have been noted to travel as fast as 150 to 200 mph.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

American Monarchy

Noting that there have been 44 presidents in the 234-year history of the United States, consider the following:

* John Adams and John Quincy Adams were father and son.

* George H. Bush and George W. Bush were father and son.

* William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison were grandfather and grandson.

* Adlai Stevenson’s similarly-named grandfather was Grover Cleveland’s vice president.

* Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were 5th cousins.

* Franklin Delano Roosevelt was related to John Adams.

* Richard Nixon was related to James Monroe.

* Franklin Pierce, James Garfield, and Grover Cleveland were all cousins.

* William Henry Harrison was related to Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and John Tyler.

* Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were more distantly related to Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and the Harrisons.

* If the family trees of 21 presidents are analyzed (a supposed pool of 224 ancestors), one will find 13 Roosevelts, 16 Coolidges, and 14 Tylers.

Most of the above taken is from Robert Anton Wilson’s book Everything Is Under Control, so I wouldn’t quote it in its entirety unless you can find corroboration from other sources. I, however, lack the time and inclination at the moment to do just that, so I will post the data here simply because I found it of momentary interest.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash and Dust

Certainly in a century, a hundred years from now, my body will be dust. As will those of my wife and my two daughters. For me, statistically, it will probably happen in much less time. Today, when the priest dips his finger in the ashes and traces a cross across my forehead, he will invoke a prayer specifically designed to remind me of this.

Do you believe you have a soul? A part of you that will exist beyond bodily death? If not I wholeheartedly encourage you to read the Bible, attend some form of weekly mass, and talk with a spiritual counselor. Don’t wait until you find yourself in a hospital or facing some overwhelming obstacle.

If you do, what are you going to do to ensure the best possibly outcome for your soul after your body dies? That’s what the next forty or so days are all about.

My parish handed out these little black books for Lent last Sunday. You’re supposed to read a page a day, then meditate on the Bible verse and the commentary. This year I’m actually doing it, instead of thinking about doing it. I have two goals over the next forty days. They feel right. Hopefully, I will make some progress toward them by Easter.

How about you? Have any Lenten plans (Hopper asks rhetorically)?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


© 1956 by Lester Del Rey

Forgive me, but I hated this book. And I was so looking forward to it, based on some rave reviews I read in an SF encyclopedia-of-sorts. Taut! Tense! A story about a meltdown at a nuclear power plant entitled Nerves has got to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller, right? I envisioned some high-tech (for the 50s, that is) hard science and perhaps a demented madman bent on sabotage. Something Cusslerian or Clancyish, combined with the slick psychological melodrama of, maybe, Koontz?

Not so, not so.

My first warning: the SF cliche of having a character named “Doc.” In this case, the main character. The only author who gets a pass here is Robert Heinlein, who seemingly puts a Doc in every other novel and short story. And for some reason, “Doc” in Nerves planted himself visually in my mind as crotchety old Uncle Lewis from Christmas Vacation. How’s that for a novel’s hero, huh?

Nerves takes place in what’s labeled an “atomic power plant.” Not an atomic power plant as we know it, i.e., a nuclear power plant. No, here they manufacture heavy isotopes that do not occur in nature. Why do we need heavy isotopes that do not occur in nature? Well, the only application Del Rey gives is for killing boll weevils. Though some military purpose (rocket fuel, perhaps?) may have been casually mentioned; I don’t recall. I had a hard time concentrating on the story, so flimsy details vaguely tossed out at me may not have been picked up.

No details of the setting are given. Imagine reading a ten-page story about two nondescript chaps shooting the breeze in a “room,” where the “room” is mentioned or referenced two or three times a page. After a while, wouldn’t you want to know something – anything! – about this room? Size, shape, purpose, decor, etc, etc? Well, change “ten-page story” to “180-page novel” and “room” to “atomic power plant” and you’ll see where I’m going.

The suspense is stated, violating the “show don’t tell” fundamental theorem of creative writing. Apparently, what's at risk is a multi-megaton nuclear explosion that can happen “in a billionth of a second”, effectively cratering the entire middle third of the United States. That’s okay, I guess, but I was thinking that maybe vividly detailing a smaller-scale explosion in the past or during the storyline might be more effective than every other character informing us that at any moment there might be a multi-megaton nuclear explosion that can happen “in a billionth of a second.”

The science is sketchy at best. To be fair, the story was originally published in 1942 in the pulp mags, before the Manhattan Project was even formed. So I suppose a lot of it had to be made up on the fly. Which is okay, not that big a sin, but the story was rewritten into novel form in 1956, and the paperback I read was printed in 1977. If I was the author of this piece, I’d have tightened up the science a bit over that span of 35 years. Just sayin’.

The MacGuffin in Nerves is Isotope R, which explodes (yes, in a billionth of a second) when it transforms into Mahler’s Isotope. What causes the trigger? I don’t know. What exactly is Isotope R? I don’t know. What exactly is Mahler’s Isotope? Again, I don’t know. But after the vague production process goes awry, we’re told there’s magma flowing through the plant. Cool, I can deal with “magma” to refer to this runaway isotope. But: how much? where is it? is it moving? is it still being created? I don’t know the answers to any of this. So while I’m reading through pages and pages of Doc and whiz-kid Jenkins navel-gazing about their “nerves,” all I’m thinking about are all these unanswered questions.

Now, I’m no scientist, and I have only a layman’s grasp of radiation sickness, but do doctors give victims curare? You know, the jungle toxin that paralyzes muscles? And do they cut out “radiation” from the victim’s body, i.e., cells and tissues that have become saturated with “radiation”? Can a man whose ribs have been roughly sawed off so his heart can by physically massaged by four pairs of hands over forty minutes help out with “equations” an hour or two later?

Listen, this review gives me no pleasure. But since I subjected myself to finishing this book over the course of seven hours in the hope of some redemption, I’m going to tell it like it is. The book stunk. Maybe it’s me, maybe I missed the mark, maybe I couldn’t connect with Lester Del Rey. It’s happened before to me with a Golden Age SF writer (Damon Knight comes immediately to mind). I’ve never read Del Rey before, and the only way I really know him is from Asimov’s oft-witty and always personal vignettes in his short story anthologies. But I gotta say, based on Nerves, I’m going to wait a good long while before spending more time with this writer.

Grade: D

Monday, March 7, 2011

Conspiratorial Lingo

In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves, “Whoa.”

Over the weekend, waiting for the hunk of junk to get its oil changed, I browsed through a copy of Everything Is Under Control, Robert Anton Wilson’s compendium of every whisper of conspiracy ever uttered under the sun. The essential learning aid for the conspiracy theorist in your family.

Uh oh. Now they know about me. I’ve left an electronic paper trail. Oh well.

Anyway, I picked it up to search for a new conspiracy, now that I’ve been convinced to my satisfaction that the JFK assassination was the result of a conspiracy of One Lone Nut. In some bizarre, campy, creepy, nerdy, titillating way, I enjoy these things. I love the Medved show when he has Conspiracy Day and challenges his callers to provide him with a conspiracy he can’t debunk. As a kid I was heavily into all the UFO and sasquatch stuff, and as I got older I got into the more sinister, man-made shadiness of history and politics. Of which the JFK conspiracy was probably the most consuming, especially every November.

So I’m thumbing through Wilson’s One-Stop-Cover-Up-Shop in search of something to catch my eye. Very distracted by the little ones feuding and fighting over scraps of pizza crust. But this caught my eye, and I like it:

But Korzybski made a more radical discovery, namely, that our perceptions / conceptions (reality-tunnels) are also shaped by the structure of the language we use. A Native American, an African, a Chinese, etc. – anyone using a non-Indo-European language structure – will live in a different universe than those who only know Indo-European. Considering mathematics a language, Korzybski also claimed that the mathematically literate live in a different semantic system than those who only know verbal structures.

- “Language as Conspiracy,” Everything Is Under Control, by Robert Anton Wilson, pg. 277

What does this mean? What can this possibly mean? Is this to be taken literally, or ... metaphorically, I guess? In the immortal words of PeeWee Herman, “I ... DON’T ... KNOW!”

It does call to mind a post from two weeks’ back about Songlines. The whole suchness that I’ve only partially explored about those Australian Aborigines whose experience of reality and dreamtime is precisely perpendicular to ours. I have had a book about that – and how the whole dang thing ties into quantum physics, nonetheless – in my basement for years that I’ve never delved into past the first chapter. I should read that book someday.

How could you test out Korzybski’s theory? Maybe you could find a set of identical twins separated at birth. One would be raised in, say, an African or Asian socio-linguistic culture, another in a Western one. Reintroduce them to each other as well-matured adults, and teach them the other’s language. Then get Korzybski or one of his disciples to psychoanalyze the two. Mix shake stir. Serve the results over ice.

As a coda to all this, last night I was surfing online and discovered Korzybski talks about all this in his book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. And this insomnia cure is actually in my local library!


Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Revenge

Yesterday I’m driving around with the little ones on our usual Saturday morning errand run. The list in front of me has seven items – library 1, dry cleaners, post office, recycling center, library 2, Brake-O-Rama, and pizza – and I know we’ll be on the road for a good three hours. So it was not a good sign when, right after the dry cleaners, they started bickering in the back seat.

Little One, age 6, is in the midst of her first love affair with reading. There is this series of fairy books, two dozen or so, that she’s in the middle of reading. She’s so hooked she’ll have her nose in the book while we’re crossing the street. I have to yell at her to stop reading – me! Anyway, she brought her newest book with her this morning and was a hundred percent focused on Penny the Puppy Fairy when Patch, age 2, decided she wanted some interaction.

I allow a few minutes of back-and-forth snarling back there before I jump in with fatherly – and ineffectual – reprimands. It escalates to the point where Little One begins her sing-song:

Zip it,
Lock it,
Put it in your pocket.

And then completely ignores her little sister. Oh no you didn’t!

Patch, though, is not to be denied. She immediately parrots:

Zip it,
Lock it,
Put it in your pocket.

Which requires an echo from Little One. Which is then promptly repeated, again, by Patch. This ping-pongs for ten or twelve times, escalating in volume and emotion, until I have to step in.

In my most off-key and loud Las Vegas crooner voice, fingers snapping, I begin:

Zip it,
Lock it,
Put it in your … JACKET!

And I keep going, repeating it over and over, oblivious to the audience in the back seat.

This horrifies the girls. Whether it’s me singing, or my disturbing off-rhyme, or the fact that I’m not stopping while ignoring their pleas, I don’t know, nor do I necessarily care. But they stop, and they’re freaking out. Cries of “Daddy, please!” “No!” “Stop!” “It’s POCKET!!!” turn the Rav into an ear-splitting reverberation chamber.

I allow a few minutes of this before I am properly assured they’ve been tortured enough. I hold up my hand and put a Stern Look on my face, signaling “Enough!” Relieved, they silently agree, and all is well until we hit our next stop on the errand list.

Sometimes I think I permit all their nonsense so I can join in the fun.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


The most dangerous thing about an idea … is that it might be completely disconnected from reality.

- paraphrased from the superb 2006 documentary, Deep Water.

The tricky part is when one considers reality itself. Or when one considers one’s self.

Friday, March 4, 2011

... Gone Wild

All right, I know you’ve heard of those trashy DVDs sold on late night teevee called “Girls Gone Wild.”

Now, I present to you …

Atomic Power Plants … Gone Wild!

Talk about hype. This is the back cover of my current read, Lester Del Rey’s Nerves, first published as a short story in 1942 and expanded fourteen years later into a novel. I know Mr. Del Rey had little or nothing to do with what’s written here. Most authors don’t. It’s up to the publisher, specifically, the publisher’s marketing department.

But, man, is this one enthusiastic back cover. I mean, count ’em – six exclamation marks! That’s six!!!!!! There are seven statements, and 86 percent of them end in an exclamation point.

I also love that last quote, from “Book News”: “A real blood chiller with the immediacy of tomorrow’s headlines.” Maybe it’s me, but what’s the “immediacy” of something that’s going to happen, proverbially, “tomorrow”? “Today’s headlines” have “immediacy.” Tomorrow’s … eh, not so much.

Regardless, I’m halfway through it. It’s China Syndrome 35 years before there was the movie of the same name. So far I have mixed feelings, but we’ll see in two or three days. A well-written powerful punch of an ending can overcome a whole slew of literary sins. Review early next week, I’d expect.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Sphinx's View

I watched Riddles of the Sphinx the other day while eating lunch. It’s an hour-long Nova program about the 4,500-year-old Egyptian monument of the crouching lion with a pharaoh’s noseless head. It’s seventy feet high and the length of a football field, carved out of a mound of solid limestone over the span of a couple of years, which is crazy because the ancient Egyptians had only stone and copper tools to work with, each of which only lasted a few minutes at a time.

One of the things that struck me the hardest, I think, you’ll see at the beginning of the program. The Sphinx does not lie out in the vast wasteland of the desert, with bleak panoramas of rolling dunes in every direction as far as the eye can see. Civilization has crept up to its paws. In fact, the Sphinx looks straight ahead at ... a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant a couple hundred yards away.

Now, I’m not a big hand-wringer over modern progress, so long as we’re progressing in the right direction. But that little tidbit about the Sphinx’s view in a throwaway comment and the accompanying scene on the screen – which only lasts a few seconds – felt so wrong and so sad that I have not been able to get it out of my mind.

Just something to ponder, I guess.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Inherit the Stars

© 1977 by James P. Hogan

I never read a science fiction story quite like Inherit the Stars.* This was a great little read. As a matter of fact, I’m going to keep it handy for a quick weekend re-read.

The story as it is takes place in the year 2027, which would have been fifty years in the future for Hogan when he published the book. The body of a dead astronaut is found on the Moon. It’s human, but none of the lunar bases report any crewman missing. Then, the entire scientific establishment is thrown into uproar as carbon dating establishes the body – nicknamed “Charlie” – to be 50,000 years old.

A young hot-shot physicist-engineer-jack-of-all-trades, or -sciences, is called in, but in reality, the book’s protagonist is us. As a modern-day cross between Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s a technological mystery for us to solve. Throughout the first two-thirds of the novel we're supplied clues, Deus ex Machina style. Then, we tag along with the scientists as hypotheses are tossed around, debated, thrown out or reformulated.

And by novel’s end, our whole place in the universe will have been turned upside down.

Sounds like a lot? It is, but it’s readable, and though dry never reads like a textbook. Some of the sciences and disciplines touched on, to varying degrees of depth, are: human biology, planetary physics, geology, evolution, linguistics, climatology, and faster-than-light travel. By the end of the book you’ll have a decent understanding of the Moon. Or it may be a new understanding of the Moon. You’ll see.

Consider the following data:

* A 50,000-year-old human body found on the Moon.
* A logbook or journal on the body, written in some unknown alphabet.
* A planet – called Minerva – once existed in what is now the Asteroid Belt.
* A 25-million-year-old ship is discovered buried in the ice crust of Ganymede.

Can you come up with a theory which covers all these points?

Maybe, but the heroes of Inherit the Stars will, aided with a few more clues, much deductive reasoning and experimentation, and lots of speculation. Hint: my initial guess of time travel was wrong.

The characters, while not quite one-dimensional, never really make the transition to realism. There’s a lot of Seventies-isms, too, such as constant cigarette smoking and expletives of “Christ!” every time there’s a breakthrough or a revelation. But I quickly realized that’s all irrelevant, because Inherit the Stars is a mental puzzle with you along for the ride. An exercise in the application of the Scientific Method in the form of a science fiction novel.

What pushed the novel, for me, from B plus to A minus territory is the surprisingly touching and “human”-izing ending (and I do mean ending – don’t skip ahead and read the very last page under any circumstances!). Definitely will be re-read. **

* Colin Wilson’s Mind Parasites comes close, but that had some rudimentary scenes of action.

** Inherit the Stars is the first in a five-book series. Each novel gets crazier and crazier, from what I’ve read – and the “crazier” I mean is in an intellectual-idea sense. I have the fourth book in the series, Entoverse, in the cue for a reading, but I haven’t decided whether I want to skip three books ahead or not.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

In the Red

When Terri Schiavo was killed in March of 2005, I sent a $100 donation to one of the numerous Catholic Pro-life groups active in that fight. I felt satisfied that I did something, however meager, and as long as I could afford it, I decided I would contribute every now and then.

Well, I never did. Our family does about 99 percent of our charity by donating to and through our local parish. The amount has fluctuated over the years due to the varying economic circumstances we find ourselves in. And though we don’t come close to the magical 10% figure for tithing (thanks to unemployment, multiple children, high taxes, high mortgage, etc), I’m not guilty over our level of giving.

But there is one thing about the whole $100 donation that bugs me to no end. On a daily basis, in fact. You see, that pro-life organization put me on a mailing list. So every day, on average, I get something from someone looking for money.

Now, I don’t begrudge them this. Every week I get anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen letters asking for a contribution. In return, I get religious-themed stamps, religious-themed address labels, prayer cards, newsletters, Catholic voting guides, Congressional voting records, the occasional pamphlet, the occasional rosary. (The pink rosaries I give to my daughters.) I even got a small 65-page book that I read over the summer and gave me some peace of mind. In return, I sent that particular group a $10 donation. And thus put myself on even more mailing lists.

Here’s my concern. Let’s say I get one piece of mail a day. They probably qualify for business discounts in their postage, but a lot of the stuff I get is bigger than a regular mailing envelope. So, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say each piece of mail I get costs the organization on average 44 cents, the price of a normal stamp.

So, these groups are spending $160 a year on postage to send me solicitations for money. It’ll be six years at the end of this month that Terri Schiavo was put to death and I donated that money. Since then, pro-life groups have spent about $960 on postage alone (forget printing and other manufacturing costs) to get their donation requests into my mailbox.

$110 - $960 = $850 in the red. Losses. Write-offs. Even if I’m overestimating all this by a hundred percent, they’ve still lost $370 since they met me.

Maybe I’m just one small cog in a gigantic machine. Maybe if you add up all the donors these organizations have, so much flows into the coffers that they can afford me. Indeed, maybe they expect a large amount of me’s on the off-chance this me might have millions and millions in the bank and an itchy trigger finger for write-offs at tax-time. And assuming there are a dozen groups sending me stuff, when you divide those losses by twelve, it really doesn’t amount to much per group.

But it still bugs me, every day at 12:30, when I hear the mailbox clanking closed after my postal worker’s daily visit.