Being the Ongoing Chronicle of the Anticks, Misadventures, and Odd Deeds of an Overalls-clad Wanderer.

Saturday, November 30, 2002

The cover article of TIME Magazine this week was about the impending release (but not impending enough, drool drool drool) of The Two Towers, the second film of Lord of the Rings. That article was followed by another, about the more general rebirth of fantasy as a central part of American popular culture. It is a fascinating article, but as a longtime reader and hopeful practitioner of fantasy, I found it a bit disappointing.

Firstly, I'm not sure if the current fantasy boom is really indicative of something deep or if it is more a fad. I'd like to believe that fantasy as a genre is gaining some new respect and that the potential it offers for storytelling and for the exploration of complex themes is at long last to be recognized. It would be nice to see a mainstream magazine's book review section actually review a fantasy book as a book, instead of conveying a clear message that fantasy is like romance novels -- OK in small doses, and as long as when you're done you dutifully return to your John Updike or Norman Mailer like a good literatus. I'd love it if the current boom led to a weakening of the barriers that mark out the SF and fantasy ghetto, inside which authors like Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman and Patricia McKillip are valued for the wonderful voices they are but outside which are barely even conceded to exist, when people like Oprah Winfrey sagely announce that they would never read a work of speculative fiction.

The authors of the article seem to view the shift toward the fantastic as happening for two basic reasons: a reaction against technology, and a desire for moral clarity in our own time of darkness. The latter is easily understood -- we appear to be looking for comfort in our stories, seeking out tales in which the lines of good and evil are clearly marked, when the villains stand on one side of the battlefield and the heroes on the other, and the heroes and villains alike are unwavering in their pursuit of either heroism or villainy. We are looking for solace in the antiquated moral clarity of fantasy, even as we confront a real world where moral clarity is hard to come by and where the villains are not so easily found. I find this view erroneous, because it seriously underestimates the ability of fantasy to address questions of morality.

It all seems so easy in Lord of the Rings: Frodo, Gandalf and the rest are good, and Sauron and Saruman are bad. Those are the battlelines, and the entire epic is the tale of the confrontation of those two camps. But it really isn't that simple, because Tolkien introduces a tertiary concept, that of temptation. The acts of evil that precipitate the story and drive it along are committed by persons who were once good. This is an aspect of Tolkien's good-versus-evil dynamic that is easily overlooked and underestimated.

The lines between good and evil are also initially obvious in the Star Wars films, but then too the lines are blurred through temptation and justification. George Lucas postulates a view of evil that strongly suggests that evil does not arise in a vacuum, but more frighteningly it arises from the misapplication of a desire to do good. This is clearly seen in the way the Republic is not conquered by the Empire; instead, the Republic becomes the Empire. And this doesn't even begin to discuss the possibilities Lucas raises about the subject of redemption.

Moral clarity is blurred spectacularly in the finest fantasy literature being written today. Guy Gavriel Kay's seminal novel Tigana, for instance, depicts heroes who are at times less than sympathetic and willing to commit wrongs in the pursuit of their goals, and villains who -- while certainly monstrous -- are also very human in their motivations. The dualism of Kay's moral questioning -- "Is it possible for good to employ evil in its ends, and can a person be good and still do evil" -- is pervasive in the work, part of which makes it so memorable. And then there is George R. R. Martin's amazing Song of Ice and Fire series, in which as the series now stands -- three books completed of a projected six -- one would be hardpressed to even name who the villains and heroes are in the work. It goes on and on. Fantasy is not just "knights in shining armor taking on the evil wizard in black".

The reaction against technology angle is also interesting but faulty. The authors of the TIME article suggest that the current fascination with fantasy may be due to a more pessimistic outlook toward technology and the future on our part, which has in turn resulted in our desire for lands of the past, lands that never were, a time when chivalry was the norm. Since a futuristic utopia does not appear to be in the offing, the authors say, a utopia of the past is desirable instead.

But I'm not really sure that this holds up. The fact that we didn't get the world of The Jetsons, and don't seem likely to, does not strike me as a reason for a newfound interest in fantasy. Not in a world of cell-phones, DVD players, MP3 file-trading, a computer in every living room, and cars that look like Star Trek shuttlecraft on wheels. Surely the big Civil War craze of a few years back did not imply an inner desire on the part of all those re-enactors to actually go storming the fields of North Carolina or to spill fresh blood on the field at Gettysburg; but that pop-culture phenomenon -- as much as the current fantasy craze -- is reflective of something. Something deep in the human soul, which is sometimes latent but always present.

I'm thinking that the current fantasy boom has to do with fantasy's folkloric underpinnings, its roots in myth and legend and the archetypal stories that have woven through centuries of narratives since before the invention of writing. And there is nothing inherent to fantasy that makes it more successful than other genres at this; consider the above-mention Civil War craze. Yes, that had a great deal to do with American History and the repercussions of that war that are still being felt, but it also had to do with the heroic stories within it, and the treatment of that War in a way that is almost Homeric in nature.

The authors of the TIME article make a tenuous suggestion that the recent years of pop culture in America have been dominated by science fiction franchises, which are now moving aside as the Jetsons future fades from consciousness. But the franchises they name are not illustrative of the point they make. Star Wars, for all its SF trappings, is a fantasy, and an archetypal, Campbellian-structured story to boot. The Matrix is only beginning as a franchise, but its SF acoutrements -- like Star Wars, are awash in mythic and religious subtext. Independence Day is not even a franchise. That leaves Star Trek, which alone gives some credence to the authors' claim of fantasy's rebirth arising from growing pessimism about the future. But is Trek on the wane because our tastes have changed? or could it also be because of the franchise's oft-cited decline in quality?

Children's literature is awash in fantasy right now, what with Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Philip Pullman's brilliant His Dark Materials sequence. Why are the children so entranced? Are they picking up on the pessimism that has reshaped adult attitudes toward fantasy? I somehow doubt that. More likely, I think, that they are responding with the "sense of wonder" that adults tend to lose. There is a reason that Damon Knight once said "The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve", and I don't think he was being entirely derisive.

What I think is ultimately at work here is a swinging of the pendulum, away from the Age of Irony. I think we are returning to fantasy, in large part, because we want emotion in our art again. We want excitement, and we want to feel that things matter. We want to cheer the arrival of the Riders of Rohan, to hiss at the turning of Saruman, to dread the fall of Anakin, to cower in the darkness of Khazad-dum, to cry as Padme gives up her children. We want more than what the Age of Irony had to offer in its stories, when jaded cynicism was the rule, when boredom was embraced, and when a rolling of the eyes was the standard emotional reaction. I don't think fantasy is more popular now because we want escapism from a dangerous world. I think it's more popular now because we want to savor our world and our reactions to it.

Cute Daughterly Deed, No. 4537:

Today my daughter comes to me holding her hands clasped together in that "I've got something!" stance all kids use. I ask her what she has in her hands, and she shows me her mother's wedding and engagement rings. I'm about to gently scold her for absconding with her mother's precious things, when she says: "Daddy, I'm the Lord of the Rings!"

Three years old, and already I've got her loving Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. That ought to be worth some "Good Parent Points", if such points are ever awarded....

There are some "product pitch" meetings at which I would dearly love to have been a fly in the wall:

PRODUCER: "So, what have you guys got?"

CREATOR #1: "Well, it's an animated show for kids."

PRODUCER: "Who are your characters?"

CREATOR #2: "Vegetables."

PRODUCER: "What?"

CREATOR #1: "Vegetables! We've got an animated tomato, a stalk of celery, a couple of squashes, maybe a blueberry and some others...."

PRODUCER: "Talking vegetables."

CREATOR #2: "Sure!"

PRODUCER: "And what do these vegetables do? Have battles? Fight off evil fruits from outer space?"

CREATOR #1: "Nope. Our veggies will actually perform little skits and stories, some of which will be based on Bible stories, but all of which will teach constructive values to the kids!"

PRODUCER: "Vegetables."

CREATOR #2: "Yup."

PRODUCER: "Teaching values."

CREATOR #1: "Yup."

PRODUCER: "Veggies teaching values."

BOTH CREATORS: "Yes!!"

PRODUCER: "Are we calling it The Righteous Produce?"

CREATOR #1: "Uhhh....no. VeggieTales."

PRODUCER: "VeggieTales." [thinks a minute] "OK, here's your development money. How wacky can it be?"

[Exeunt CREATORS.]

PRODUCER: "Those guys are gonna lost their shirts...."

[Six months later....]

CREATOR #1: "Hey, the PRODUCER just sent us a Christmas card. Guess we're a hit!"

CREATOR #2: "Of course we're a hit! Who couldn't like Veggies?"

CREATOR #1: "There's a postscript here....he wants us to think about adding an evil lima bean colony from Mars."

CREATOR #2: "No."

(VeggieTales is one of the cleverest things I've ever seen in a kid's show. Seriously. Sometimes the goofiest concepts are the best.)

Friday, November 29, 2002

The Image of the Week will return next week.

Speaking of James Bond, FilmScoreMonthly just dropped the news that reissues of all the score CDs to the Bond films will be issued, in remastered editions some of which will include previously unreleased music, next February. This is huge news to film music afficionadoes like myself, for whom the prospect of an expanded release of the score to On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a wish-come-true.

I saw Die Another Day on Wednesday night. In short, it's a fine film -- probably the best of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films.

What I liked about the film was the way it subtly tweaked the classic Bond formula in spots, not completely diverting from formula but turning it upside-down a bit. There is the standard pre-titles sequence, in which Bond escapes certain death to make a thrilling escape that actually doesn't quite work -- instead, he's taken prisoner and held in torturous captivity by the North Koreans for fourteen months. (In fact, the existence of any time frame at all is something of a departure for a Bond film, since lengthy periods of time are rarely spelled out in these films.) The torture of Bond actually plays out during the film's titles, which is another bold departure from the standard. (In this sense, the theme song by Madonna actually makes sense -- it's really connected to the images on the screen, and not really intended to be a stand-alone song at all.) Then, Bond doesn't escape -- he is actually traded by the North Koreans, in one of those spy-trade scenes we all know from espionage movies. ("OK, here's the bridge. Start walking, and don't look back.") After some unpleasant confrontations with M, with the result that Bond is basically "fired", he escapes -- from the British, his own people -- and embarks on his own journey of investigation and revenge.

I won't say anything more about the plot, so as not to spoil anything, if anything really can be spoiled at all in a Bond film. I will note that all the classic, Bond elements are here: the globetrotting (Korea to Hong Kong to Cuba to England to Iceland); the initial meeting with the bad guy on his own home turf; the initial "friendly wager" between Bond and the bad guy (Bond, it turns out, is very good with a sword); the villain's grotesque henchman (who got his grotesque nature via an explosion set off by Bond); et cetera. Most of these moments, though, are shifted a bit in their subtext, so they take on different light. For instance, there is the obligatory moment that Roger Ebert calls the "Fallacy of the Talking Killer": this is where the villain has Bond at gunpoint and has only to pull the trigger to achieve victory, but he instead talks long enough to give Bond a chance to wriggle out of his clutches. However, this time it is Bond who fails to kill the villain when he should, and to his detriment. (I should note that this also happened in the prior film, The World Is Not Enough, but not nearly as convincingly as it's handled here.) Another example is the typical scene where Bond saunters into a posh hotel and boldly demands "his usual suite" -- only he's just escaped the British after his fourteen-month captivity, and thus has long hair, a beard, crappy threadbare clothes, and no identification.

The film is also full of tiny, throwaway moments and sight-gags meant for devoted fans of Bond. For instance, there is a scene when Bond is in Cuba where he picks up a copy of a "Field Guide to Birds". The joke here is that Ian Fleming first decided on the name "James Bond" for his British spy because he was trying to come up with a dull-sounding name for him, the concept being that the spy is a boring man to whom exciting things happen, and then he spied a "Field Guide to Birds" written by one James Bond, and Fleming thought, "My God, that is the dullest name I've ever seen." Also fun is the scene where Bond is given his gadgets by Q, the background of which is decorated with many old gadgets from Bond films past.

Much press has been given to Halle Berry, the first Oscar-winning actress to play a Bond heroine. She does a fine job, but the script shortchanges her a bit: she's given a great deal to do, thankfully, but she has fairly little to say. There is a lot of potential here for one of the more memorable Bond heroines, but we simply get no background on her at all. Nevertheless, I liked her a great deal. Her initial appearance -- a visual homage to Ursula Andress's first appearance in Dr. No -- is stunning, she acquits herself very well in the action sequences (with a very nice fight scene of her own at the end), and even in the couple of scenes where she's a Bondian damsel-in-distress she doesn't sink to shrieking "James! James!" like the other Bond heroines so often do. She reminds me of the Lois Chiles character in Moonraker, in her competence and boldness. (Chiles is one of my favorite Bond women.) I just wish Berry had been given more dialogue and her character a background.

The only other significant flaw in the film is the look of some of the latter action sequences, which involve some fake-looking CGI instead of the more traditional high-quality Bond stuntwork. One of these, in particular, looks very bad as Bond somehow manages to escape a crumbling glacier. This has to be seen to be believed. It is NOT good. There are also some moments of unbelievability during the action climax, but thankfully they're not as bad as the escape from the glacier.

The script also has a couple of "Duh!" moments, when I wanted nothing but to yell at the characters, "Duh!". One of them involves M complaining about the fact that she was ignorant of something she really should have known, if she had done her own homework. The bit of info she's upset about doesn't strike me as something that would be hard to find out. But those moments are, thankfully, fewer than the similar moments in TWINE and Tomorrow Never Dies.

Finally, a quick word about Pierce Brosnan. I've liked him as Bond in all four of his films, but never so much as in this one. He's got some gray at the temples, and some lines in his face, that give his Bond some heft and some age. I do think that these Bond films are still a bit heavy on the "action hero" aspect of the Bond character and light on the "spy" aspect, but Die Another Day begins to get the balance back a bit toward the "spy" side of the ledger, which is a welcome change. Brosnan can have the role as long as he wants it, as far as I am concerned. (Provided, of course, that he stops wanting it before he looks as old as Roger Moore did in A View To A Kill.)

Die Another Day is a fine addition to the Bond corpus.

I've bounced off books before -- actually, it's not that uncommon. By "bouncing off" a book I mean that I read a ways into the book, maybe a quarter of the way in, and realize that I am so uninvolved in the book that I can't tell who the characters are, what they are trying to accomplish, what the key conflicts are, or anything. Sometimes this indicates a lousy book, but I've often had it be the case that the particular book in question simply wasn't what I wanted to read at that time. It's not unlike when you think you want to have a certain dish for dinner, but when it's on the plate and you're at the table, it suddenly appears less than appealing and you pick at it until you ultimately decide to spoon it into some Tupperware for tomorrow and order a pizza for tonight. (Or Chinese....or BK....or Don Pablo's....or whatever.) So, in the case of books like these, I just put them aside and come back to them later. This is the case for the vast majority of instances where I do not finish a book, and I can honestly report that in most cases when I've gone back, I've turned out to enjoy the work very much (and, in a few cases, loved it deeply). So it's actually quite rare that I stop reading a book on the basis that I don't like it -- that rather than believing that I'm not "in the mood" or it's not "my cup of tea" at that moment, I actually believe that it's a bad book. This happened this week, and I'm still surprised by it.

The book is The Blood of the Lamb, by Thomas F. Monteleone. The book is subtitled "A Novel of the Second Coming", and the cover image is a dagger whose hilt is the shape of a Catholic cross. I've always enjoyed thrillers and horror stories set amidst the backdrop of Christian Millennialism, and this sure sounded like one of those. End-of-the-world, Second Coming stuff, with some inner-circle-of-the-Vatican shenanigans thrown in -- it's all good. Or I thought it was. This book has a grabber of a premise: that a secret Vatican cabal somehow manages to extract enough of a blood sample from the Shroud of Turin to clone the man whose image is on the shroud, a man who therefore may (or may not) be the bodily resurrection of Christ. This man, Peter Carenza, is a Jesuit Priest in New York City when his Christ-like powers start to manifest (he blasts a would-be mugger with lightning from his hands, reducing the unfortunate hood to a crisp), thus attracting the attention of the Vatican individuals who cloned him in the first place.

Now, what's not to like about a scenario like that?

Sadly, Monteleone's execution goes awry, pretty much almost immediately. One of the major problems is that Monteleone partly tells the story from Carenza's own point-of-view. This sets up roadblocks to believability almost immediately, because I as the reader am thrust into the position of wondering, "Would Jesus really think that? Would Jesus really do that? Is that what a man would really say upon learning that he may be the Son of God? And, would he go through the first part of his life so blissfully unaware of it?" And it goes on and on. Peter Carenza's inner turmoil -- inasmuch as he should even feel any inner turmoil at all -- comes off like all those superhero comics, where the young man or woman first starts to learn about their special gifts. So, I guess my problem is that I don't think that a man learning that he may be the Son of God should be similar, tonewise, to another man learning the effects of being bitten by the radioactive spider.

Other problems arise, of the "Show, don't tell" variety. Once Peter Carenza starts to embrace his, well, "Inner Christ", he starts wandering about the country performing various acts of ministry. As one might expect, this "New Christ" ends up attracting quite a raft of followers. The problem is, none of this is believable as it's handled in the book, because Monteleone can't show us how remarkable this guy is. The reader doesn't feel it, because we are only ever told about it. Disparate incidents happen, some people shout "It's a miracle!" and "Hosannah!" and "Halleluia!", but I didn't get any sense that it was because of what Peter Carenza did or said, because in a lot of these episodes Monteleone doesn't even tell me what Carenza said. Imagine if the Book of Matthew cut from 5:1 and 5:2 directly to 7:28:

5:1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

5:2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them,

[And he gave a wondrous sermon, full of beauty and Grace,]

7:28 And it came to pass....


Basically, what Monteleone does is the equivalent of, "Jesus went up on the mount, and there he delivered a magnificent sermon, and after that he had a lot more followers", with no hint of what the sermon actually said. So I never got a feeling of Peter Carenza as a religious figure, or really a figure at all; instead, he's a plot device, a character-as-Macguffin. Monteleone's failure, then, is twofold: he cannot show us, convincingly, the inner workings of the soul of one who may be Christ; and he can't show us this man's ability to stir the souls of his new followers.

There is another large problem with the novel, one of language. When writing fiction, one must take care to select the words one uses so as to effectively convey the mood. One magnificent example for this can be found in the last paragraph of the chapter "The Siege of Gondor" from Tolkien's The Return of the King, where the hopes of Minas Tirith look bleakest, and a dead silence settles over the city and the battlefield. The only sound, Tolkien tells us, is the call of some bird -- followed by the war-horns of Rohan as the battle is at last joined. The way Tolkien writes that paragraph makes it one of the most amazingly heroic passages in literature I have ever read. Or, for another example, we might consider something from the Bard himself: Shakespeare's play Henry V, and the great "St. Crispin's Day" speech in Act IV. Shakespeare doesn't give any direction as to how the actor playing the King should deliver this speech, but he doesn't need to. The speech is so brilliantly constructed that one cannot read it aloud and not feel one's voice slipping into the cadences of a King exhorting his outnumbered troops to victory. The point of all this is that language is important. It's the coin-of-the-realm, where storytelling is concerned.

So, let me consider one episode in The Blood of the Lamb. One of the book's characters is a shadowy enforcer-type, who is occasionally dispatched by the shadowy Vatican cabal for various deeds of information-gathering. It's basic, "Go break some kneecaps"-type stuff, only more horrific. This guy is sent to find Peter Carenza, who has managed to escape from the Vatican (a passage that in itself is none-too-believeable, but I digress) and he decides to viscerally torture one of Carenza's close friends. The torture is very graphic -- he cuts large amounts of flesh from the man's arms, he staples his lips shut, he burns the guy's hands terribly with a hot-plate. It's a scene of actual, visceral horror, and it is followed by Peter Carenza's first miracle in the book, when he finds his horribly maimed friend and, in a manner befitting the Christ, heals him. This should be a scene of immense emotional power -- it's a spiritual moment. The reader should, upon reading this scene, be of one thought: "This man may be the Son of God." But Monteleone uses language that completely destroys the atmosphere of sanctity that should exist here, all in a single sentence:

Within seconds, Dan Ellington's [the maimed man] arm had become whole again, the flesh pink and new like a baby's ass. (Emphasis added.)

Now, come on. I don't know if a baby's rump is really the best metaphor to use for what Monteleone is trying to convey here, but even if it is, surely the wording "like a baby's ass" is not the way to convey that metaphor. There is a reason why Jonah 2:10 does not read, "And the Lord spake unto the fish, and He told it that Jonah would irritate its bowels and give it a gas attack come morning, and the fish vomited Jonah onto the dry land."

So, what it all adds up to is that The Blood of the Lamb fails utterly to cast a spell on me, as the reader. I've read many a book whose lackluster prose was overcome by the momentum of the plot, but that's simply not the case here. This book was as gigantic a disappointment as I've ever had in a reading experience.

So I wonder what John Madden and Pat Summerall did yesterday. I wonder if they sat on the couch, watching the game on FOX, and became strangely fidgetty as the day wore on....

....and I don't like it when the Redskins and Cowboys play each other on Thanksgiving, because that matchup invariably sends my brain into overdrive as I try to discern which of those two franchises I like less, and which I want to lose more than the other. A holiday like Thanksgiving should not be given over to such mental perambulations.

....and I really could have done without looking at the Patriots' old uniforms. (Not that I much like their current uniforms, mind you.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Eric Raymond, to whose blog my reactions vaccilate between "Hmmm, that was certainly interesting" and "Eric, this is Houston! Please return to Earth!", wrote an interesting set of suggestions for the American Left, which as of late has been the political equivalent of two guys in a canoe, in the middle of the lake, paddling on the same side of the boat. I agree with most of what he says, with the exception being school vouchers, which I still think are a bad, bad idea.

I wrote a pretty nifty, if I do say so myself, post about fantasy films and literature earlier....but sadly the post wandered too close to Blogger's cage, and it was devoured in a single gulp. So I'll write it again tomorrow. Watch this space.

(It's my future....I see Movable Type....)

Some people have defended Warren Sapp's actions in the Green Bay-Tampa Bay game on Sunday, purely on the basis that it was a legal hit, he did nothing that was against the rules, it's a violent game, so deal with it. The suggestion that Sapp should have shown some class -- either in choosing not to level the guy or, failing that, not celebrating it while the guy was still down on the ground -- is met with deaf ears.

Well, the hit in last night's game that put Eagles' QB Koy Detmer out of the game was also a legal hit, in which nothing was done that was against the rules. So those who want to know how Sapp should have behaved need only look at the way the 49ers defensive players came to wish Detmer well before the golf cart wheeled him to the locker room.

Football is a violent game, and it is an emotional game. But it doesn't have to be a classless game.

There is a bit of a tempest-in-a-teapot brewing lately over a new linking policy over on The Rittenhouse Review. Specifically, James Capozzola, the writer of Rittenhouse, has decided that the goings-on at Little Green Footballs have become so repugnant that not only will he not link to LGF, but he will go one step farther: he won't link to anyone already linking to LGF. As Capozzola notes, "We are the company we keep."

But are we, really?

One can learn a lot about a person by looking at the books on their bookshelf. If someone's personal library includes titles by Carl Sagan, Stephen Gould, Martin Rees, John Gribbin and Martin Gardner, we can probably conclude that this person has some interest in science. But that does not mean that we can conclude that this person is, say, an evolutionist; they could very well be a Creationist who keeps a collection of evolutionist writings, for instance. The presence of several different translations of the Bible on my shelf does not make me a Christian, nor does the presence of several Bertrand Russell volumes make me an atheist. Interest does not equal agreement, and linking to a site does not imply endorsement of that site's content. I've been reading USS Clueless since several months before I launched Byzantium's Shores, I still visit that site at least four times a day, and it was one of the first blogs to which I linked, but I'd be surprised if I agree with what Steven Den Beste writes more than forty percent of the time. I keep the link for several reasons: one, because he's a fine writer and a very rigorous thinker; two, because he links to a number of other fine writers and rigorous thinkers whose viewpoints I nevertheless do not share; three, well, because he's a fine writer. (Good writing goes a long way with me; that's why I list that reason twice.) I don't agree with him, I don't endorse his views, and sometimes he even angers me, but still I link to him. The same goes for the other side of the spectrum: I'm definitely a liberal, but I'm not as far left as some of the left-wing blogs to which I link, so my linking to them should no more be taken to mean endorsement and acceptance than my linking of USS Clueless. (By the way, SDB addressed this issue here, from the standpoint of sheer futility.)

There is another problem with Capozzola's new policy: it seems a bit, well, intellectually barren. The implication is that, while we can't eliminate those voices with which we disagree, we can do the next best thing: we can pretend that they don't exist. Too much of that will, in the end, lead to an echo-chamber effect on the left-wing blogosphere, which would be highly ironic given the chorus of complaints from the left about the right-wing blogosphere. If there is a degree, perhaps even a large degree, to which the political right in America has turned within itself, it hardly counts as a solution to that problem for the left to likewise turn inward on itself. I've been reading The Rittenhouse Review for a while now -- probably about six months or so -- and I think that James Capozzola is a fine writer, and his work on Rittenhouse is an impressive achievement. That said, I'm disappointed that he thinks this a worthwhile step to take, and doubly so that he thinks it will have any effect on, well, anything. He maintains a very lengthy Blogroll, so it will be a lot of work for him to implement this policy, and it's not likely to have any effect other than to make the right-wing blogosphere laugh and engage in cyber-backslapping and high-fives for a job well done.

And I'm most disappointed that he believes that we are the company we keep. To say so, and to act on such a belief, is to divide the world further into camps and factions, who are ever doomed to eyeing each other suspiciously through chain-link fences topped with razor-wire, and to look with derision on those who would keep one foot in both camps. That's not the foundation of good debate, and it's certainly not the foundation of a healthy society.

(For the record, I have visited Little Green Footballs a handful of times, and each time I came away feeling a bit unclean. I have no intention of ever linking to it, except for the above mention. What disturbs me is not the intimation that I shouldn't link to it, but that there will be repercussions amounting to censorship if I do link to it.)

Monday, November 25, 2002

A few weeks ago, the PBS program The American Experience aired a two-part film about the life and Presidency of Jimmy Carter. Being something of an amateur Presidential historian, I taped the program and watched it over a series of nights.

Carter was not the first President of my life -- that would be Nixon -- but he is the first that I remember, during the tempestuous days of the late 1970s. Carter's single term spanned my years from Kindergarten to fourth grade, so my memories are probably not the strongest, but I recall frustrating times economically (gas lines, inflation, et cetera) and in foreign policy (the hostage crisis being the first significant hostile act against Americans that I can remember). I remember the annoyance with President Carter that many adults seemed to feel, and I remember the sense of near-salvation when January 20, 1981 finally rolled around when Ronald Reagan was sworn in. (Yeah, yeah....little did I know....)

It was interesting, then, to watch this documentary and see just how accurate my memories had been. Carter was a lackluster President, whose substantial accomplishments were overshadowed (and still are) by his failings at home. He grossly misunderstood the nature of the Washington power establishment; he made no effort to either acknowledge his shortcomings or compensate for them; he assumed that the moral strength of his positions would prove sufficient, thus eschewing the types of political leadership and maneuverings that savvy pols know are necessary to the advancement of an agenda. Watching this film after the Democratic party suffered serious losses in this year's midterm elections, losses which in many ways are a result of the same errors on the part of the Democrats of today that Carter committed, was particularly interesting. That old canard about those who fail to learn from history being doomed to repeat it really does bear some truth.

If Carter's Presidency was something of a failure, though, his post-Presidency has most certainly not. The way that Carter has parlayed his status as a former President into one of the most successful careers as an Elder Statesman is nothing short of remarkable. This is a man who has worked, virtually his entire life, in service to the same set of fundamental principles, promoting the cause of human rights wherever and whenever he can. Jimmy Carter may not have been a great President, but he has most certainly been a great man.

I've added a permalink under "Other Journeys", to The New Companion. I've been reading this site for a while, and I basically keep forgetting to add it to my links. It's not a typical blog, but rather a collection of evocative essays, some of which must be read rather than described. Highly recommended.

The theme of the 2002 NFL season seems to be "Schizophrenia". I can't think of how else to explain why so many teams are spending parts of the year looking like they can beat anybody, and then immediately turn around and look like they can be beaten by anybody. How else to explain the Raiders opening 4-0, then dropping to 4-4, and then starting to win again? How else to explain how dominant the Packers looked until the last two games, when they've looked pretty lousy? And how to explain the fact that the Kurt Warner Rams are 0-6 this year, while the Marc Bulger Rams are 5-0? Weirdness galore, I tell you. Anyhow, the weekly round-up awaits.

:: The Bills lost their third straight, this time to the Jets who earlier this year looked marginally better than the Bengals but who now look like a serious threat to get into the playoffs. The Bills sputtered on offense, with Drew Bledsoe committing three turnovers (two INTs, one fumble), Eric Moulds and Peerless Price having eight receptions combined, and generally being unable to get the ball moving consistently. The lone offensive bright spot was Travis Henry, who had 83 yards on 17 carries, but the game got away from the Bills and thus they got away from Henry. The Bills have been sputtering for a while now on offense, which would not be cause for so much concern if the defense was not so lousy. Their tackling has improved somewhat, and they hit hard, but they are getting overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage (Jets RB Curtis Martin was able to gain 120 yards rushing) and they are generating no pass-rush at all (they had one sack yesterday). They have to get some defensive help for next year if they want to be an improved team.

So now they're 5-6, with five games left. My original prediction for them, 6-10, is looking more realistic now than it did a few weeks ago when they had a modest winning streak going. Their schedule includes games against Miami (at home) and New England (on the road), both of whom will be jockeying for AFC East position; San Diego (at home), who will be jockeying for AFC West position; Green Bay (on the road), who will be jockeying for home-field advantage or a first-round bye; and -- the lone bright spot -- the Bengals. Going 1-4 in those five games will put them at 6-10, and that's a strong possibility.

:: Note to Warren Sapp: what you do can be perfectly legal, perfectly in keeping with league rules, perfectly OK as far as the rule-book goes....and still make you a jerk.

:: The Steelers won, so I can still hold onto the barely-flickering light that is my pick for AFC Champion, but they almost lost to the Bengals yesterday. You're not helping, guys. The Eagles play tonight. They may do OK, but Koy Detmer in place of Donovan McNabb doesn't fill me with confidence.

That's all, really, for this week. I wasn't much in a football mood yesterday, so I didn't watch too much of it.

In the interests of creating shelf-space in my home (or floor-space in the closet), I have decided to start selling some of my older books on Ebay. Titles, with links to the active auctions, can be found in a new section in the sidebar which I've provocatively titled, "Marketplace". Check them out, and bid on my books. You will bid....you WILL bid....these aren't the droids you're looking for....resistance is futile....all your base are belong to us....

Saturday, November 23, 2002

Apropos of yesterday's anniversary of the JFK assassination is NPR's unveiling of tapes of ground-to-air communications between Air Force One and authorities in Washington in the aftermath of the death of the President. I haven't listened to it all yet, but much of it is compelling -- especially the necessarily cold detachment these people had to display on one of the most trying days in American history. The discussion of the means of transportation for JFK's body is particularly chilling and heartbreaking.

One small item of pride for me is the fact that while I have been overweight pretty much my entire life, I've never tried the Atkins Diet. Just about every other person I know who has ever wanted to lose weight has done so, and in every case they've done it for a few months, taken off twenty or so pounds, declared victory and abandoned it, and then put the weight back on. It sounds miraculous, indeed: eat all the fat and protein your heart desires, just cut the carbs back to almost nothing, drink four gallons of water a day, and watch the weight melt away; it's the "miracle" nature of the thing that makes it so alluring, I guess. I've never done it because I've never been able to convince myself that eating one thing -- protein -- for an extended period of time is healthy. I still believe that, despite the recent studies that have the Atkins-believers dancing with joy.

Not so fast, folks.

These studies contain, from my point of view, only one real surprise: that people on the Atkins diet don't experience a sudden spike in their cholesterol. Other than that, though, these studies are basically telling me what I already knew. Is it really a surprise that if you go on the Atkins diet for six months, you'll lose weight? We've all known people who have done that, so the studies aren't really yielding any great revelations. And I fear that people are not reading the fine print, where the researchers admit that the studies aren't indicative of what will happen to people who go on the Atkins diet for longer periods. Real, permanent weight loss -- where you don't put it back on as soon as you stop doing whatever it was that made you lose the weight -- is a matter of lifestyle, and I have yet to see any evidence at all for Atkins as a lifestyle. Don't show me people who have done the Atkins diet for six months. Show me someone who went on the Atkins diet in November, 1997 -- and is still on it. Show me that person's cholesterol; show me that person's overall health. Then I'll be impressed. I've never encountered a single person who has managed to stay on Atkins for anything longer than a hockey season. We all know that the Atkins diet works, in that one loses weight while doing it. But I see no evidence of an Atkins lifestyle.

I've also seen people suggesting, in the wake of the studies "confirming" Atkins, that we should return to the diet that prehistoric man enjoyed. The problem with that, as is explained so well here, is that we don't live like cavemen. We don't hunt and gather our food, we're not nomads, and in any case, there is a vast difference between the meat of a wild boar or a deer and that of a domesticated, grain-fed steer. There are also numerous cultures around our planet that eat heavy amounts of grain-based foods, who also have far less incidence of obesity than America does. Considering that, I have to conclude that "All protein, all the time" does not seem terribly adequate.

"Balance" is a fetish in news reportage circles -- the idea that both sides of a story must be equally described. In reality, it's a chimera -- one side always gets more airtime, or is otherwise favoured. You pick a moderate on one side, and an extremist on the other, assert that it's a balanced debate -- and you've just shifted the centre ground towards the second faction's territory.


Much has been written recently about the growing disconnect between American and European attitudes on world affairs. Science fiction author Charles Stross has a particularly interesting take on the phenomenon, which he has titled The Manufacture of Dissent. Stross feels that attitudes, for better or worse, are being shaped by biases both hidden and unhidden in the media on both sides of the Atlantic. I can't help but think that he's on to something here. I don't know much about European media (Stross is from Scotland), but I see this kind of thing very definitely playing out here in the United States, where commonplace belief now holds that our news media is relentlessly biased toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, despite all manner of evidence to the contrary.

(Crossposted to Collaboratory.)

Friday, November 22, 2002

Last week I was watching The McLaughlin Group on PBS, a political show that for some reason I've always liked -- especially the Saturday Night Live parodies of it, in which McLaughlin (played by Dana Carvey) would let his commentators get halfway through a sentence and then bark, "WRONG!" before moving on to the next thing.

But there was a fascinating segment, toward the end of the show, on a problem facing the military. Veterans of World War II and Korea are dying at a pretty brisk clip these days, pushing up the number of funerals with full military honors -- but the military only has something like five hundred buglers worldwide, which makes the playing of "Taps" at each funeral a difficult or impossible proposition. The military's solution is to use an electronic doohickey to sound "Taps" while a member of the military holds up a bugle and, well, fake it. I'm thinking, in the event of a funeral where there can be no actual bugler, why not just have a civilian trumpeter play "Taps"?

I played the trumpet in high school and college -- pretty well, too; I actually majored in it my first two years of college before I switched to philosophy -- and I had the high honor of playing "Taps" for several military funerals while I was in high school. They weren't official military funerals, actually; they were done under the auspices of the American Legion, which I'm sure is a different matter requiring a different protocol. But the men being buried on those occasions were veterans or former servicemen, and I was immensely proud to be able to play "Taps" for their funerals -- a small way for me, as a civilian, to pay tribute to the service they had done for their country. If there aren't enough official buglers around, then I suggest that civilian trumpeters are the way to go. I doubt there is a community anywhere in the country where one trumpet player can't be found, and believe me, playing "Taps" for a funeral is a surprisingly moving experience.

I don't know the first thing about the military regulations for such things, but surely they could be changed so that a civilian could sound the call for a departed veteran. At the very least, it seems to me that having a non-military person actually playing "Taps" is preferable to having a military person who can't play the instrument "acting the part" while the call is sounded electronically.



Thirty-nine years ago today, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas by either a lone gunman firing from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository building, or by a team of snipers including a gunman behind the fence on the grassy knoll, or blanks were shot into the air and Kennedy then made a secret escape to the hills above Buenos Aires, where he lived to old age in anonymity and seclusion. I've never really formulated my own beliefs on the assassination; I find the idea of a conspiracy seductive, but the case is not entirely convincing. (Of course, the case for a lone gunman is not entirely convincing, either, which is the whole problem anyway.)

The Kennedy assassination is one of history's greatest "What if" moments, as in, "What if things had happened differently?" What if Kennedy had survived? Would Viet Nam still have happened? Would Nixon's rise to power have occurred? I don't know, but it's interesting to consider the possibilities.

A hypothetical transcript of a foreign policy briefing for President Bush can be found over on William Burton's blog. I found this quite amusing. (I didn't take it as making fun of Bush, but rather using the name of our current President to riff on a classic comedy routine. But, if you're offended, just pretend that it's a President Gore and whoever he would have made his National Security Advisor talking.)



It's time for a progress report on the Space Elevator. I really do hope that I get to see this in my lifetime, although I'm concerned about the security of such a project. This would surely be one of the most tempting objects in the world for terrorist activity, and if Kim Stanley Robinson's depiction in Red Mars of what a space elevator crashing to the planet is accurate, I'd be very frightened indeed.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Tintagel, Cornwall, Great Britain.

Continuing my brief tour of British sites important to the Arthurian legend -- and, therefore, to the novel I'm writing -- we have this photograph of Tintagel. This spit of land, connected to the mainland by a very narrow spit of land, is the legendary birthplace of King Arthur himself -- in the castle whose ruins still occupy the island.

As the legend tells, King Uther Pendragon fought a war against some British Lords. He was at a feast following a victory when he caught the eye of Igraine, the wife of one of his staunchest allies, Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, who dwelt in Tintagel Castle. Uther ordered Gorlois to give him Igraine, but Gorlois refused and fled the meadhall to return to his castle. A new war began, this between the former friends Uther and Gorlois.

While the war went on, Merlyn came to Uther and helped him gain entrance to the castle by using a magic spell to make Uther take on the appearance of Gorlois, so that Igraine would think it was her husband just returning from battle and coming to bed. Thus Uther took Igraine, not knowing as he did so that on the nearby battlefield Gorlois had been struck down and killed. So when Uther got Igraine with child, the child was illegitimate. When it was born -- a boy, named Arthur -- he was given to Merlyn to raise. All that happened here, on Tintagel.

One of my dreams is to travel to Britain and see at last all of the places that I've been writing about.

In children's literature, it sometimes seems that the lines of good and evil are very clearly drawn, in classic "Western" style: the good guys where white, the bad guys wear black, the innocent scurry to get out of the main street lest they get shot. This is illustrated, to give one big example, in the Harry Potter books. Whatever the charms of J.K. Rowling's novels -- and there are charms a plenty in them -- moral ambiguity is not one of them. (I'm talking real moral ambiguity here, of the type where what is right and what is wrong are blurred and when right can possibly arise from wrong and vice versa; not the "mistaken identity" or "evil in disguise" that is a common thread in the Potter works.) There is a Dark Lord, and a host of heroic figures arrayed in opposition to him, and that's that.

But the lines are not so clearly drawn in many other works of children's lit. One of the finest examples is Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy. This series tells the story of a kingdom whose monarchy is controlled by corrupt forces, and whose populace is slowly moving toward revolution. It is almost a French Revolution story, except that it doesn't occur in France; it occurs in the fantasy realm of Westmark. A young printer's assistant named Theo is working in a time when the presses are being told by the government what to print or, even worse, shut down entirely. Theo's master is killed by the King's men after he prints something he shouldn't have, and Theo flees. He then encounters two roaming criminals, a ragtag group of university students led by a particularly charismatic man who has revolutionary thoughts brewing in his mind, and a girl with a hidden past. As would be expected of such a story, moral questions arise constantly: if the monarchy is failing, do the people have the right to do away with it, or the responsibility to repair it? Are men to be given self-rule? And, most importantly, is it ever right to take the life of another, even in the pursuit of the most lofty goals?

Alexander's books address these questions, and many like them. Easy answers are not forthcoming, but in a way that is more satisfying than if they were. The books are not merely studies in morality, though -- they are rollicking tales of war and deceit, adventure and mayhem, crime and revolution. If the plots rely a bit heavily on coincidence of the "chance encounter with some unnamed character early in the book turns out to be a crucial event because of who that character was" variety, it can be forgiven on the grounds that everything else in them works so well. Alexander has always been best known for his wonderful Prydain Chronicles, an epic fantasy based in part on the Welsh epic The Mabinogion, but Westmark is almost as good.

I'm a PC person, mainly because it's what I'm used to. I don't get particularly worked up when Windows crashes -- which isn't nearly as often, in my case, as it is apparently for others -- and I've never had a significant hardware problem. I've never had to crack open the CPU box and mess around with cards and whatnot. I'm on my second computer in five years, and that's because the first one just got too old. It didn't have enough memory, and the Web has finally reached a point where a 28K modem is not only slow but simply insufficient. (I'm on a 56K modem right now, which is sufficient for my needs. I don't do a lot of downloading of movies and video files, nor do I engage in music trading.)

However, it's hard not to feel occasionally inferior after listening to Mac users -- especially given the current Mac advertising campaign, which is basically this: "Dump your PC, ya dope!" The prevailing meme is that Macs are clearly the better machine, and it's only through a mass delusion on the part of the public and a conspiratorial manipulation of the marketplace by Microsoft that PCs are dominant. (Come to think of it, that's not unlike the recent Democratic Party campaign strategy.) So, as a PC user who is currently happy as a clam with his machine, I'm generally glad to read Steven Den Beste's regular shots across the Macintosh bow. Much of it goes straight over my head, but I found the recent post of his -- on Mac virus security -- especially fascinating. He argues, in short, that virus-writers devote their energies to probing Windows for security holes, because Windows and PC systems are so prevalent. The resulting lack of viruses attacking Macs is mistaken for superior Mac virus security. What we have here, Steven argues, is an example of the old fallacy: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

There is an interesting and rather creepy post over on S. L. Viehl's blog StarLines about the letters authors receive in the mail...and the fact that some of them come from convicts serving out their sentences. I like reading StarLines because Sheila shares a lot of details about what it's really like to be a writer, the day to day minutiae that fill a writer's life, a lot of which I have never before considered because I've never realized that it needed to be considered. This is one such example. Normal writer website advice tends to run along the lines of, "Write every day", "Be prepared for lots of rejection", "Read read read" et cetera -- all valuable and essential advice, to be sure. But I'm really thankful that Sheila is out there to provide advice along the lines of "Prepare for the day when convicted murderers read your work".

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

I've never cared much for those big Biblical epics they used to make -- films like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. They always strike me as overwrought spectacles, with the actors within them Emoting! Every! Word! Because! It's! All! So! Important!! Every gesture becomes exaggerated hugely, every emotion is felt deeply, every line of dialogue is followed by an exchange of serious glances. In truth, the only thing that I ever really like about these movies is the music. Some of the greatest filmscores ever written come from the Biblical epics: Alex North's Cleopatra, Alfred Newman's The Greatest Story Ever Told, Miklos Rozsa's King of Kings. (OK, Cleopatra probably isn't actually a Biblical epic....)

Yesterday I finally managed to get through Ben-Hur in its entirety. I've seen it in bits-and-pieces over the years, but never from start to finish, and I've owned the score album for a while now. (The Rhino Records release of the Ben-Hur score, on two CDs with a lavishly illustrated booklet and copious liner notes, is one of the classiest film score releases I've ever seen.) I found the film in the local library's video collection, and figured, Hey, why not? I ended up being fairly surprised at how much I enjoyed the film.

I still observed some of the flaws I've observed in other Biblical epics: scenes that go on too long, overacting, spectacle-for-the-sake-of-spectacle, occasionally stilted dialogue. But I found a lot more in Ben-Hur to enjoy. Without going into the film too deeply, what struck me most was the way the story is structured so that the life of Judah Ben-Hur occasionally intersected the life of "a young Rabbi from Nazareth", and the way that Ben-Hur is constantly aware of something larger happening, that the events of his life are mirroring other events that are to change the world although he knows not how. I liked how the religious elements of the film are muted, so that our focus is constantly on Ben-Hur's reactions to them rather than on the events themselves. The film never shows Jesus directly -- he is not even named -- and yet his presence is felt all through the film, a bit of subtlety in a film genre that was never known for subtlety.

I also admired the film's pacing. Most Biblical epics, I have found, are the cinematic equivalent of Christmas fruitcake: heavy, leaden things that are digested for very long periods of time. Ben-Hur, though, somehow manages the feat of seeming shorter than it really is, by keeping the focus on Ben-Hur himself and his journey to revenge and redemption. The pacing isn't perfect, of course; the scenes of Ben-Hur as a galley slave go on and on, and the film comes dangerously close to grinding to a halt after the chariot race, but the film does not bog down nearly as much and not remotely as often as other Biblical epics.

Ben-Hur isn't a perfect movie, by any means, but I was surprised by how much I liked it, considering that it is part of a genre that usually makes my eyes glaze over and my hand grope for the nearest book or magazine.



James Coburn has sadly passed. He'll be missed.

Sometimes when I sign on to Blogger, I'll check one or two of the "Most Recently Published" blogs in the sidebar before starting work on Byzantium's Shores. So I glanced at this blog, and now I'm thinking: what on Earth is happening to written English? I'm generally forgiving of spelling errors, and I'm willing to overlook the occasional grammatical hiccup, but reading things like this particular blog make me wonder just what is going on with our language, as the spelling and grammar -- such as they are -- are so consistent as to suggest that it's intentional. Is this something of a new, urban-style dialect? Is English evolving apace, as it has for centuries? It's taken centuries to get to the point where readers of English need to have the earliest works in their own language -- Beowulf, say -- translated for readability, but now it seems to be happening in a time-frame better measured in individual years.

Or, is this just another bit of evidence that we're simply gathering up our standards and tossing them out with yesterday's newspaper?

Monday, November 18, 2002

The group read of The Brothers Karamazov that I announced a few days ago is about to get underway. Check Collaboratory for details.

The folks over at Soundtrack.net are online with the first detailed listen of Howard Shore's certain-to-be-magnificent score to The Two Towers, complete with audio clips. I, for one, cannot wait.

In other filmscore news, the CD for the new Bond flick, Die Another Day is now out. The music is by Bond-composer-in-residence David Arnold, and the title song is by Madonna. I haven't played the CD all the way through yet, but I like Arnold's music a good deal -- even the techno aspects of it, which are fairly controversial with score-hounds like myself. Madonna's song, though, is going to take a while for me. My immediate impression of it is: "Decent song, but it is not a Bond song." This song is about as far as you can get from the Shirley Bassey-Tom Jones Bond songs of yore.

Unique to the NFL season, of all the major sports, is the "weird day". Because everyone plays on the same day (except for the Monday night teams), whenever the weirdness all hits in a single day, it's more notable than in the other sports.

:: I'm not surprised that the Bills lost to the Chiefs. Arrowhead Stadium is a very hard place to play, if you're the visitor, for which reason I've become used to seeing me beloved Bills go in there and get clobbered. It used to be a yearly ritual in the Jim Kelly years, when the Bills were pounding everyone on the way to the Super Bowl, they would at some point in the regular season go to Kansas City and get beat 30-3 or something like that. So the Bills lost. But there were a ton of surprising aspects to the way they lost.

First, the game featured two of the league's highest scoring offenses matching up porous opposing defenses. That the margin of victory was a single point didn't surprise me. That the two teams combined for only 33 points did. In his "Two Minute Drill" this weekend, Chris Berman suggested a final score of 67-66, or something like that. So, 17-16 was something of a shock.

Despite the loss, this was probably the best job of coaching I have seen done by the Bills' staff. The game plan was perfectly devised: execute a ball-control offensive scheme, which would keep the Chiefs' firepower-laden offense off the field and thus keep the crowd quiet. On defense, the Bills brought a new focus on -- gasp! -- tackling, which paid off rather well. (Of course, I have to wonder why, if the Bills can evidently play this well defensively against a scoring machine on the road, they therefore got crunched against a less-high powered offense at home two weeks ago.) It would still be nice to see the Bills generate some more pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, and it would be really nice if the Bills' DBs could actually come up with the ball sometimes when it's going through their hands or bouncing off their chests. I counted three possible interceptions that the Bills didn't reel in yesterday, in a game where a turnover could make the difference...

...as it did in the end, when Drew Bledsoe threw a fateful interception with four minutes left, killing the Bills' drive for the potential game-winning score. (They were only down by one, remember; all they needed was a field goal, and the crucial INT took place very near the end zone, if not inside it.) The Bills have played a bunch of games this year that were won by a great Bledsoe play. This one, sadly, is the first which they lost because of a bad Bledsoe play. Oh well.

So now the Bills are 5-5, and 1-2 in the AFC East. I hate to be a nay-sayer, but I think their playoff hopes are barely flickering. I see them splitting the six games that are left, to finish 8-8.

:: If you want to see "parity", look at today's NFL standings. Seventeen of the NFL's thirty-two teams have between four and six wins, with all the teams (except St. Louis and Chicago, tonight's teams) having played ten games. Seven teams have won seven or more, and only two have won two or fewer. Two divisions -- the AFCs East and West -- have all their teams at or above .500. Only one division leader -- Green Bay -- is running away with its division, and they are still by no means a lock for home-field advantage. That's what you call, "competitive balance". I actually prefer it this way.

:: I think that the football gods have been looking down upon me as I've been tracking the progress of my Super Bowl picks, the Eagles and the Steelers, and they've been shaking their heads and saying, "He just isn't getting it." So they decided to make it crystal clear yesterday, by taking out both teams' starting quarterbacks with bad injuries. Maybe Kordell Stewart can find his on-again, off-again form and get the Steelers back into the playoffs (assuming that Tommy Maddox doesn't come back for a while), but I wouldn't bet on Koy Detmer being the answer in Philly. Here's hoping, though, that Maddox's injury is not serious, and here's toasting Donovan McNabb's heart for playing the entire game with his broken ankle. Wow.

:: I think that the best Super Bowl matchup right now would be the Jets and the Rams, both teams who are in the hunt after being almost certainly dead-in-the-water just three weeks ago.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Michael Kinsley is one of my favorite political writers, but he's written a funny article today on the phenomenon of women who watch Law & Order obsessively. I rarely watch L&O, partly because I don't like formula shows; I prefer story arcs and shows that depict progressions in their characters' lives. For some people the attraction to L&O is precisely that its formula is so entrenched that the actors themselves are interchangeable, but that's what turns me off -- that, and a general boredom with courtroom dramas that set in with me years ago. (I think that David E. Kelley's one-note, "quirky" writing on L.A.Law is part of what's soured me on courtroom stories.)

(And I'd love to see NBC do a promo for L&O that said "We made this entire story up, without help from the headlines!" and "Don't miss the first five minutes after the first commercial break!". Just for a change.)

If you want to see a Buffalo sports fan go into an immediate bout of hysterics, just whisper one of the following pairs of words into his or her ear: "Wide right", "Homerun Throwback", or "No goal".

I mention this because two of these three items ("Homerun Throwback" and "No goal") are mentioned in ESPN's survey of the Most Controversial Plays in sports history. It's interesting how plays like this can still arouse controversy and, in such cases as the "Oh, give the Russians another three seconds" Olympic basketball snafu in 1972, anger.

In response to this post in which I complained a bit about the direction taken on the NBC show Ed, someone asked for my thoughts on what makes a successful long-term relationship.

I wish I knew.

The only answer that I can safely offer is that in a successful relationship, one should always find the idea of parting from the other person completely unpalatable, and always so -- even when a problem has occurred, when a bump in the road has been discovered, even when one is so fed up with the other person that (s)he wants nothing better than to go away. I think it was said best in When Harry Met Sally..., when at the very end, Harry (Billy Crystal) is rattling off a list of things he loves about Sally (Meg Ryan), and he concludes with: "And I love that you are the last person I want to speak to before I go to sleep at night." So, I think for a relationship to be successful, a person should believe of their partner: "Even when you've got me so mad that I don't want to be around you, the thought of not being around you disgusts me."

Not a very good answer, I suppose, but I think it's a start.

I recently went into a bit of a reading slump, where nothing I was reading was satisfying me, so I changed things up and read some graphic novels instead of the usual prose works that I read. I read three of these in particular:

:: Planetary: All Over the World and Other Stories by Warren Ellis (writer) and John Cassaday (artist). This book is actually a collection of the first seven issues or so of the Planetary comic series that Warren Ellis wrote before moving on to his major work, Transmetropolitan (which I have yet to read). As an initial volume, I enjoyed it, but I suspect that I will find the second volume of Planetary more to my liking. These first issues are mainly concerned with setting up Ellis's characters and their goals and relationships, with the actual stories being self-contained and episodic in nature. They are interesting stories, though: one involves the ghost of a murdered Hong Kong police officer; another deals with an island near Japan (or part of Japan, I can't remember) that is home to some horrible and huge beasts. The stories are reminiscent of The X-Files, but with a world-wide focus, and they are investigated by a team of "heroes" who are working for a shadowy organization called "Planetary". This is really an appetite-whetting type of book, and on that basis it succeeds. I want to read more.

:: Watchmen by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator). Moore is one of the most renowned writers working in comics today, with his work on Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen standing out in his ouevre. His greatest work, though, is still Watchmen, the deeply cynical and dystopian story of masked superheroes in an alternate history where Richard Nixon did not fall after Watergate, but remained President and oversaw disastrous results in Viet Nam. As the book opens, a group of heroes called the Watchmen has broken up, with its members going their separate ways -- until one, the Comedian (the most bitter and cynical of the bunch) is brutally murdered. The story involves the search for the Comedian's murder, as well as a lot of delving into the lives of the Comedian's former colleagues, the most striking of whom is the masked vigilante Rorschach. The characters in Watchmen are no sanitized, "Avengers"-style heroes who always act on the side of Right. "Truth, Justice and the American Way" is no part of the equation here. Instead, we get broken relationships, shocking violence, an emergent subplot involving a plot to do something unbelievably monstrous to New York City (which, in the post-9/11/01 world, is even more horrific than Moore had intended), explorations of the psychological causes of vigilantism, and examinations of the whole morality of vigilantism in the first place. The book also plays tricks of viewpoint and subtext, including after each chapter extraneous material such as a psychologist's notes on the deeply disturbed Rorschach character and portions from books about the other characters. Another startling device is the constant return to a NYC sidewalk news vendor and the guy who sits on the ground nearby, reading a comic book about a shipwreck victim in the 1700s, whose plight somehow mirrors the events of Moore's own fictional world. The "comic-within-a-comic" that reveals other facets of the larger story reminds the reader of Hamlet, and like the Bard's best dramas, Watchmen provides no easy answers to the questions it asks. This is one of those stories that lingers in the mind for a long, long time once it's done. (Watchmen is also apparently being made into a film.)

:: Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs (story and art). I don't think I could possibly have picked a graphic novel farther in tone and style from Watchmen than Ethel and Ernest. Briggs is a noted author-illustrator, and this book tells the story of his parents -- of how they met in Depression-era London, how they courted and married, how they lived through World War II and the years after, how they coped with all of the changes that the twentieth century wrought on English culture, and how they grew old and passed on. They were poor commoners, Ernest a milkman and Ethel a maid, and they appear to have remained poor commoners all their lives, and yet the book conveys the simple ingenuity with which they approached their lives and the deep love they shared, despite the fact that they differed on many things. Ethel is the more conservative of the two, and when Ernest's favored Labour governments are not successful, Ethel seems to delight in poking fun at Ernest and his earlier promises of the good life for all. Despite all that, Ernest seems to be the more optimistic of the two, always able to find some way to get through in a shortage or down period, and he is able to get back by poking fun at the British Royalty as they encounter hard times. Briggs's art is warm and lovely, evoking the best of those sunny Merchant-Ivory films.

These three books, with their mix of horror, superheroes, English city and country life, each in their own way demonstrate the vitality and power possible in the comics medium. Ethel and Ernest is a surprising little gem, Planetary is a fun beginning to (hopefully) something grand, and Watchmen is a masterpiece.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Glastonbury Tor, Glastonbury, England.

Glastonbury Tor is a unique hill in southern England, 512 feet above sea level and topped with a tower and the remains of a church that was destroyed in an earthquake. The Tor is one of England's most mystical and spiritual sites, both in pagan Druidic tradition and in English Christianity. Glastonbury is said to be the spot where Joseph of Arimathea arrived on Britain, and by this association plus the site's association to British paganism, the Tor and the nearby ruin of Glastonbury Abbey are closely associated with the Arthurian legends. The Tor is sometimes taken to be the Isle of Avalon (the surrounding landscape may have once been covered by water), and the Abbey is one legendary burial place of King Arthur.

The image links to the finest collection of Glastonbury-related photographs I have found on the Net, with photos of the Tor, the Abbey, the Chalice Well (a place related to the Grail legend), and others.


In the "I don't believe my amazing luck!" department, Spirited Away opens in Syracuse tomorrow. I'm going to see it next week, and I am thrilled beyond measure.

Today on the local classical music station I was privileged to hear Aaron Copland's wonderful ballet, Appalachian Spring. I've heard the work many times before, as it is a favorite of mine. (My favorite recording of it is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.) What was different today was that the radio station played the original version that Copland wrote for chamber orchestra, as opposed to the version for full symphony orchestra with which I am very familiar. Hearing the work in this new light -- with sections of the work executed in the more intimate tonal qualities of a chamber ensemble -- was very illuminating.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

My referral log today reveals that someone came here looking for results of the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs in 1990. Assuming that this person wants to know the results of a game that year between the Bills and Chiefs, here's the answer: there was no game in 1990 between the Bills and Chiefs. They did meet in 1991, though, in a Monday night game from Kansas City which the Bills lost, 33-6. Later on that year, the two teams met in the second round of the playoffs -- the Chiefs were a wildcard team, whilst the Bills were the AFC top seed -- at Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium), with the Bills winning 37-14.

We adults -- especially those of us lumped into "Generation X" -- may lament the wonderful children's TV shows that were on when we were kids, shows like Electric Company and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (still on, but no longer in production). But there are some really fine shows out there these days, primarily on PBS. (Note to Republicans: Don't even think of trying to kill PBS, the way you did last time you swept the mid-terms!) These are a couple of new favorites in our household:

:: Caillou. This is a show about a four-year-old boy named Caillou (pronounced "Kye-you", some kind of French name) and his family. What I like about this show is the way it depicts a normal family and the normal things that Caillou learns about as he goes through life. I haven't yet figured out, though, why Caillou is bald when everyone else in his family -- including little sister Rosie -- have full heads of hair.

:: Between the Lions. Now this is a clever show. Aimed at literacy and hosted by some muppet-like lions, the show has a number of clever recurring segments like "Gawain's Word" ("Wayne's World", get it?) in which an armored knight unveils a new word, and a segment featuring "The Word Doctor: Dr. Ruth Wordheimer", starring the real Dr. Ruth. There's good stuff here.

:: Liberty's Kids. This one's a bit over-the-head of our three-year-old, but she still likes it. It's set during the Revolutionary War and tells the story of a trio of kids who are journalists for a newspaper done by Ben Franklin (voiced, utterly appropriately, by Walter Cronkite). The show actually examines some of the issues in the American Revolution, at a fun and basic level.

There are a bunch of other good shows out there as well. TV for kids isn't all about Pokemon and the Disney Channel, so check out PBS!!

Announcement.

Over on Collaboratory we're about to launch a group-read of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevski. I'm not sure how soon we'll be starting, but I assume we'll finalize things by early next week. The translations currently in use are this one and this one.

Front-page posting on Collaboratory is members-only, although we're on the constant prowl for more members. The site is a kind-of "MetaFilter Lite", although much cooler. (Well, it would have to be, wouldn't it?) Posting on the comments, though, is totally public. So, if anyone would like to join us in reading Brothers K, come along for the ride! I'm pretty excited about this, because I've never dabbled much in Russian literature (using "not much" in the sense of, "not at all").

Artist Ted Nasmith, who is particularly notable for his Tolkien-related illustrations, now has an official website. I love Nasmith's work, but the website -- in its initial launch -- is in dire need of some tweaking. The thing extends off the edge of the browser window, with no way to scroll that I can discern. But what can be seen of Nasmith's paintings are beautiful.

(Crossposted to Collaboratory.)

Monday, November 11, 2002

I've been waffling a while on whether I wanted to do this, but I figured, oh, what the hey. What follows is the opening of my novel-in-progress, The Promised King, Book One: The Welcomer. Comments are always welcome.

:: CHAPTER ONE ::

In the first of the dreams that Gwynwhyfar would remember, she was a bird flying above the sea.
***
Over the waves she flew, the spray from the wind-driven waves splashing upon the underside of her body. Below her, beneath the surface of the water, she saw a pod of dolphins racing with the waves, periodically leaping up into the air and then back down into the sea. Then a huge gray shape formed beneath the waters; it was the great gray body of a whale rising from the depths. The whale broke the surface of the water and blasted spray into the air from a hole on the back of its head. It then plunged down again into the deep. A sudden darkness fell, and she turned to see where the sun had gone. The clouds were gathering behind her, great black storm clouds she prayed that she could outpace. She turned and flew again, speeding in a direction that she hoped would take her away from the mustering storm.

Ahead of her there appeared an island, thirty leagues long and twenty wide. She dropped down until she was just skimming the surface. The waters around the island were clear as glass, and beneath them she caught glimpses of schools of many-colored fish cavorting amidst the underwater reefs. There were sharks too, including one that tried to snatch her from the sky, but she was too fast. The beaches that ringed the island were marked by sand as white as snow. The island was green and verdant, and she found herself flying over orchards of apple trees.

There was a city of alabaster buildings and wide streets paved with white stone, but she saw no people. The city appeared to be utterly deserted, even as she flew over a building that was clearly a place of worship. In the courtyard of this building there was a golden disc shaped to look like the moon, marking this place as a temple to the Goddess. After the temple she flew over a long series of grasslands and then into the hilly country. At last she was flying over the three great mountains that rose from the center of the island into the sky. Their heights soared above where she could fly, and their peaks were covered with snow. Soon she was flying back down toward the sea on the other side of the island where there were dense forests of pine, and in these forests she looked for shelter from the coming storm.

There was thunder then, impossibly close behind her. She turned and, hovering above the trees, saw that the three mountains had exploded with fire and smoke in great columns that tore the sky asunder. And then the storm came, and she again flew away, trying to escape the fire and rain and smoke and wind. She flew over the island’s other beaches and again out to sea, but her strength was not enough by any measure, and she was driven down, down toward the boiling waters. Rivers of liquid rock streamed down from the mountaintops, and the island of green beauty, the island of apples, crumbled and sank beneath her into the depths of the sea. The storm raged around her, finally striking her down into the sea itself. Waves crashed over her, and in a flash her strength was gone. The water was cold, very very cold and she gasped for air as the winds howled and the waves mounted.

As the last wave towered above her, she glimpsed something out away from her, something golden….and then the waves took her down, down to the bottom of the sea.

***
"Gwyn! Gwyn! Wake up!"

Someone shook her, not exactly gently but not very roughly either, and she opened her eyes. The dream was still with her; usually her dreams vanished with a quick awakening, but this one had been far more vivid than any she’d had before. She shook her head to dispel the image and looked up into Brother Malcolm’s eyes.

:: To Be Continued ::

Now that I have arrived at The Climax of the novel-in-progress, I've realized something either cool or disconcerting: I'm writing a George Lucas-style climax. This is a climax where the action is taking place in three (or more) different locations, and I'm switching back and forth among them. I have a huge battle taking place outside a city; I have a smaller battle taking place at Stonehenge; and I have my heroine embarking on her mystical journey to Avalon to fetch King Arthur. The problem with such a complex climax is sequencing: first, I have to identify the order in which each event happens, or at least the order in which each event has to be shown. It's not necessarily the case that events occur in the order that they are shown, but they have to come in a certain narrative order to work together if tension is to be properly built so that when the Big Heroic Moment finally arrives, it actually feels like a Big Heroic Moment and that it's not anticlimactic, coming so late in the proceedings that the reader's reaction is "OK, I get it", as opposed to "Wow!".

The prime problem that I'm having is that the heroine's "mystical journey" is just that, and as such it kind of takes place outside the general timeframe of the other events. I'm afraid that if I include her journey in the cutting back-and-forth between the other places of action, I'll be forced to establish a framework in which that journey exists, and I don't want to do that. So what I'm leaning toward doing is sending her on her journey, and then moving the other two scenes along until their "pregnant moment" -- and at that point I'll cut to what the heroine is doing, which may take an entire chapter in itself. What to do once her journey is complete is not an issue; I could write that stuff in my sleep. So I think I know what to do, and my concern now is simply that I don't want to bore the reader with the "mystical journey" stuff.

Anyway, time to pick up the pen.

An interesting take on Harry Potter appeared on Slate the other day. The basic gyst of the article is that although all of the action of the books (and now the movies) revolves around Harry Potter, young Harry himself doesn't really do anything to influence that action on his own. He seems to coast through his various problems and antagonisms, achieving his victories more through his own inate abilities than through his own actions. Everything that happens to him, does so because of who Harry Potter IS rather than because of what he DOES. It's an interesting take, and to a degree I agree with it. I've noticed, even as the books have gotten darker and better, that everyone in the supporting cast -- all of the people around Harry -- are more interesting, as characters, than Harry himself. I hope that changes in the remaining books.

I don't have too much to say about football this week, primarily because the Bills did not play. Their bye week mercifully came immediately after the shellacking they received courtesy of the Patriots, so they could lick their wounds and maybe practice a bit on defense and get ready for what remains of their schedule. Notes on yesterday's action:

:: The AFC East is now a logjam, with the Dolphins, Patriots and Bills all at 5-4, and the J-E-T-S JetsJetsJetsJets still alive at 4-5. That said, it's starting to look like it's another year for the Pats, I'm sorry to say. The Bills have been overachieving, and with them heading into the tough part of their schedule I expect their defensive weaknesses to finally prove fatal. The Dolphins are in free-fall, and we're not even in December yet, which is when the Dolphins usually collapse. The Jets may have some surprise left in them, but right now the Pats are the most experienced and best coached team in the division. Ugh, but that seems to be the lay of the land.

:: Neither of my Super Bowl picks won yesterday, although at least the Steelers didn't lose, either -- they blew a big lead and came away with that rarest of NFL results, a tie. (I find it interesting that a tie occurred in the NFL so soon after a lot of public discussion as to whether the NFL should abandon sudden-death OT in favor of the college system.) The Eagles, though, got clobbered at home by the Colts in a game that featured four former Syracuse University players. Philadelphia is still leading the division, but they are well behind in the hunt for home-field advantage, which actually matters in the NFC. The Steelers are also leading their division, but it's a crappy division, so it's hard to gauge them accordingly.

:: The Rams are looking like the Rams these days, instead of the Bengals. Weird. I'll be interested to see what happens in the off-season this year, as I would expect other teams to be interested in Marc Bulger. I don't know if the Rams will make the playoffs -- they still would need to go 6-1 the rest of the way to have a real shot -- but they may finish up 8-8, which given their 0-5 start would appear miraculous. Of course, Mike Martz may end up getting a lot of the credit, which may not be a good thing.

:: The Vikings are 2-7. They benched Culpepper yesterday, but they nearly rallied for a win. Their first-round pick played his first game after a long, stupid holdout. This franchise is a total mess.

:: Am I missing it entirely, or does nobody ever talk about moving the Cardinals? Why does that franchise exist, where it does? Consider: Sun Devil Stadium, where the Cards play, has a seating capacity of 73,234. Attendance at yesterday's game (Seahawks 27, Cards 6) was 29,252. That means that the following cities could have sent every person living within their borders to the game: Jamestown, NY; Burlington, VT; Cedar Falls, IA; Hillsboro, OR. Amazing. (That's based on 1990 population figures, though -- I couldn't find any 2000 numbers. But I didn't look very hard.)

:: If the Packers get home-field throughout the playoffs, fuhgeddaboudit.

:: Speaking of the Packers: on his "Two Minute Drill" segment on SportsCenter last week, Chris Berman noted that the Pack excels at scoring just before halftime, which can be crucial to setting the tone of a game. Yesterday, against the Lions, they scored 14 points after the two-minute warning in the second quarter.

Friday, November 08, 2002

You may have thought that a thesaurus, while definitely a useful item, is also inherently nerdy and clunky.

Well, think again.

I recently read Evenings With Horowitz: A Personal Portrait, by David Dubal. This book recounts the relationship that classical musician and author Dubal formed with the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, during the Maestro's last years of life when he was called "The Last Romantic" and his every public performance took on the feel of a visitation by the Pontiff. It's a very readable book, notable for its biographical portrait of Horowitz and the first-hand look we get at both the way Horowitz loomed over the classical music community and the way he was, in many ways, a mercurial and selfish man. Horowitz, like all great artists, is a very demanding soul: demanding of his art, demanding of the people in his life, demanding of himself. It has been well documented how Horowitz had to leave his native Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, never to return until 1986 when he was in his 80s; Dubal's book recounts a lot of that, as well, but it also gives us the sense that Horowitz never formed a true sense of belonging in the American society that he eventually took as his home.

The book is episodic in structure, and at times it feels like a series of vignettes about the Maestro, some of which are frankly more interesting than others. It also ends on something of a sad note, not only with Horowitz's death but with the fact that he and Dubal had a falling-out just months before his passing. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating account of a great musician and his relationship with a lesser musician who was no less passionate for music.

As a companion experience to reading this book, the other day I listened to my copy of Horowitz in Moscow, the recording of the monumental concert Horowitz gave when he finally returned to Moscow in 1986. The recording is magical and amazing. Even if Horowitz's Mozart Sonata (C Major, K. 330) is a bit uneven in the opening movement, the Romantic works on the disc -- Romantic music forming the spine of Horowitz's repertoire -- are staggering, particularly the Scriabin Etudes, which are played in a white heat that can still be felt listening to the CD in my living room instead of in the concert hall in 1986. Horowitz in Moscow is a great recording of one of classical music's premier events.

I only had four dollars in my pocket when I went to the public library today, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing. They were having a book sale, and this one was a good one. Library book sales are a "feast-or-famine" proposition, and this one's definitely a "feast". I'll probably go back before it ends. Today I picked up the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago (which I have wanted to read for years) and Walter Cronkite's A Reporter's Life. (The biggest table, of course, was loaded with Harlequin romances; and there were lots of outdated computer books from Those Ancient Days of Yore....1998.)

I appear to be running the risk of turning into a political blog, but I just have a couple of notes and thoughts that I want to get out of my system.

:: So Dick Gephardt has stepped down as Majority Leader. This is hardly surprising, given the Democratic failure in this week's elections, but I don't think his departure is quite like Newt Gingrich's in 1998, in that when Gingrich departed he really departed: he resigned his seat entirely and left Congress. Gephardt's decision, to me, seems more like a bit of positioning for a 2004 Presidential run. (Not that he has a chance of winning the nomination, but that's what I think is going on here.)

:: As long as Democrats are sobbing in their beer this week, it might be helpful to consider the numbers. This was not a Reagan-vs-Mondale type of political blow-out; it was actually a very close election. The majority in the Senate that just changed hands was razor-thin to begin with, and now it's widened to paper-thin status. There seems to be a meme forming that the Republicans delivered a staggering knock-out type punch to the Democrats, but that's simply not the case. The races were sufficiently close that if 100,000 votes in the right races had changed hands (out of 40,000,000 cast), the Democrats would be doing all the chest-thumping about their mandate. I'm reminded of 1992, when the USA Today ran the headline "LANDSLIDE!" after Bill Clinton won the Presidency, despite the fact that Clinton failed to even win a majority of the votes.

:: I'm not running a warblog, but noting today's passage of a "This is your last chance" UN resolution, I'm thinking that it's time for the anti-war voices in the US to finally answer the question that keeps vexing me as I try to decide whether or not I'm for this war: What do we do if and when Saddam Hussein fails to comply? I really do not want to favor the war against Iraq, but I'm not seeing that there's much choice in the matter. It's sort of like that old chestnut: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains -- however improbable -- must be the truth." It's distasteful as hell, because I'm not convinced we have any plan for after the war that will make things appreciably safer, and because maybe we wouldn't be in this damnable mess if we hadn't created Saddam Hussein in the first place, and, well, because I don't like the company I'd be in if I decided that I favored the war. So, if the anti-war crowd is going to make the convincing argument for their position, now's the time. (By the way, one of the most convincing arguments for war that I've encountered can be found here.)