Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount'in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go,--doesn't it?

-Stage Manager, Our Town (Act I) 

It seems a little strange to me that at this point in my life, as I'm six months away from turning fifty, that as ubiquitous as it is on amateur and school stages throughout the country, I have only seen the play Our Town produced exactly once.

It was in 1981 or 1982, thereabouts, when I was in fifth grade. The theater club at St. Bonaventure University, where my father was in second year of teaching, put it on, and that year my father was sharing an office with a guy who was very much involved with the theater, and who actually played the Stage Manager part in that production. I remember finding it an odd play at first: There were virtually no props, aside from the costumes. When one of the characters is supposedly in her kitchen making breakfast on May 7, 1901, she was pantomiming things like frying bacon and pouring milk from a pitcher. Later on, two high school sweethearts who live next door to one another are talking through their windows at night; this is done via two step ladders, which are placed side by side. And when the play's final scene, set in the graveyard, rolls around, there's just some chairs on stage. No stones, no backdrop other than the backstage curtain.

Ten-year-old me figured this was all because the college theater troupe couldn't afford props and decided to do the play as best they could. I didn't realize that this was quite deliberate on the part of playwright Thornton Wilder, who opens the play with the empty theater:

No curtain.

No scenery.

The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light.

Presently the STAGE MANAGER, hat on and pipe in mouth, enters and begins placing a table and three chairs downstage left, and a table and three chairs downstage right. He also places a low bench at the corner of what will be the Webb house, left.

After this, the Stage Manager begins addressing the audience in a monologue that literally introduces the play, starting: "This play is called Our Town." He proceeds to slowly bring the audience into the scene, through Wilder's meandering-by-design speech that creates the town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. Even though he's just set up the "set" that will be the houses of the two families we primarily follow, our Stage Manager gives a description of the town itself, pointing at things as though they're really there: Main Street, the railway station, where the Polish neighborhood is, the various churches. Only after a bit of this--which, in the hands of a good actor, is quite engrossing--do we get to seeing actual characters on stage, actually acting like they're in a play.

But that vacancy of physical props gives the whole thing a dreamy quality, which connected with the Stage Manager's lengthy meandering monologues about the history of Grover's Corners and what life there is like, keeps the audience feeling like they're not witnessing a story so much as inhabiting a few moments in this town's long life. Wilder knew what he was doing here: all the details he chooses for his town are familiar and somehow distant. Most of us probably think of our towns as having been like this, I suspect: an old town where nothing much happens, where people keep on living, and where no one notable ever really emerges. A few times Wilder presses the Stage Manager's constant breaking of the "fourth wall" even farther, at one point even enlisting a couple of members of the audience (who are planted actors, obviously) to ask questions about Grover's Corners ("What kind of culture is there?" and "Is no one in Grover's Corners aware of social injustice?")

Now, many years later, I see that Wilder's metatheatrical approach echoes something that has vexed playwrights not just in his time, but for all time. Even Shakespeare had to grapple with the nature of his stage versus the stories he wanted to tell within it, as we hear in the first speech of the Chorus in Henry V:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

In the end, of course, we start to get a hint of what Wilder is really driving at. Everything in our world is ultimately transitory, and all the remains is time and death. I suppose this is one thing that makes Our Town a staple of high school theater: along with being really cheap to produce, it's got the kind of big theme that appeals to young people, its main characters actually are young people, and the whole meta-theater thing somehow feels more modern than it actually is (the play is now more than eighty years old). None of which is to suggest that Our Town should not be as common as it is...but its appeal is pretty easy to understand.

All of which brings me to the Tone Poem for today! Our Town has been filmed several times, for television and for the movies, and the 1940 film featured an Americana score by none other than Aaron Copland. Copland would later reduce his score to a ten-minute orchestral suite, which he dedicated to his friend, Leonard Bernstein. It's a work of gentle sweetness, suggesting in its simple strains just the kind of town that Grover's Corners is.

Most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody's setting up late and talking.--Yes, it's clearing up. There are the stars--doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk...or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain's so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.

(He winds his watch.)

Hm...eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners.--You get a good rest, too. Good night.

--Stage Manager, Our Town, Act III



Monday, May 03, 2021

And now, some space art!

 I saw this on the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Flickr stream. It's a cool illustration of the formation of a planet. All that lightning and whatnot is, I must admit, somewhat inspirational as "sensawunda space opera" pictures go.

Hubble Watches How a Giant Planet Grows

Description from the photo page:

Five million years might sound like a long time, but it’s a young age for a planet!

 

Hubble studied an exoplanet that’s grown up to five times the mass of Jupiter over a period of about 5 million years.

 

This illustration of the newly forming exoplanet PDS 70b shows how material may be falling onto the giant world as it builds up mass. By employing Hubble’s ultraviolet light (UV) sensitivity, researchers got a unique look at radiation from extremely hot gas falling onto the planet, allowing them to directly measure the planet’s mass growth rate for the first time.

Cool!


Sunday, May 02, 2021

A 16 for Roger's 16

 Roger has been blogging for 16 years, so in honor of that, here is Chopin's Prelude No. 16 in B-flat minor, opus 28, for solo piano. Give it a listen, it's all of a minute long! Surely you can manage that. And go read Roger!


Thursday, April 29, 2021

Something for Thursday

 Today is Willie Nelson's birthday. He is 88 years old.

Sheila O'Malley has more on him, but suffice here to say that he's one of the great geniuses of American art in the last century. I truly believe this. His songs and his music will endure.

A few selections:

Also, do check out one of my favorite pieces of music writing ever, this article on Willie Nelson and his guitar, Trigger.


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

 One thing I've always believed about writing is that if an idea doesn't work out in one piece, that's no reason to put it aside forever. I've reused a lot of my own ideas over the years, a practice I learned in part from my beloved Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz wrote a concert overture based on Sir Walter Scott's novel Rob Roy, relatively early in his career. Berlioz wrote very little abstract music; just about everything he wrote had a literary antecedent of some kind, and Scott's novel was the thing for this piece. And it's quite a decent piece: it's not one of Berlioz's greater works, but it's a perfectly good concert overture.

Berlioz himself was never satisfied with the Rob Roy overture, but he knew a good idea when he had one: the slow melody in the central part of the overture stuck in his mind, so when it came to write his second symphony, itself based on a literary work (this time Byron's Childe Harold), a work that was to feature solo viola and orchestra after a generous commission from Nicolo Paganini, Berlioz basically lifted that entire section of his earlier Rob Roy overture and dropped it into the first movement of Harold In Italy, which is one of Berlioz's greatest works.

Learn from mistakes and lesser works--but don't be afraid to mine them for ideas!

Here's the Rob Roy overture by Hector Berlioz.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Images from an April

 April is a strange month around these parts. I've maintained for years that of Buffalo-Niagara's four seasons, spring is the worst. Summers can be too hot and humid, but are mild compared to the South or the Eastern Seaboard; our autumns are spectacular and frankly, our winters are fine. Really. I'll take the snow. But spring? It's always an unpleasant March and April, usually stubbornly cold and stubbornly cloudy and just persistently unpleasant until May.

This April, though, has been...not bad. Not bad at all. It's been mixed, certainly! But all in all? Not bad.

In baseball terms, May is on deck and warming up, but April has hit a solid single that it's stretched into a double with some deft baserunning.

Here are some images of April 2021.

Always good wisdom to remember. #KnoxFarm #eastaurora #wny #spring #nature #hiking #trees #sign

Knox Farm, 4-18-2021

Knox Farm, 4-18-2021

April snow makes up for being slightly annoying by being short-lived and really pretty. #snow #wny #the716

In the interests of fairness, this is ALSO April in the 716. #wny #spring #the716

D9 of #AuthorLifeMonth: COVID Coping. A whole lot of it involved doggos and overalls (among other things). #Cane #dogsofinstagram #greyhound #greyhoundsofinstagram #Carla #pitbullsofinstagram #pitbullmix #pittie #staffordshirebullterrier #staffiesofinstag


Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Year of Masking

 It's been a little over a year since Governor Cuomo issued an executive order requiring people to wear masks when in public. I remember the week or two leading up to that order, as it was pretty clear that masks were coming, and soon. People were saying things like "I hope we don't all have to wear masks!", but I was thinking, It's just a matter of time. And sure enough, it was.

And now, a year later, we're still wearing them...or at least, we should be wearing them. I've still got mine:

Masked

Yes, I took that picture outside, just [day]. And yes, I still wear mine outside...depending on where I am. More on that later.

Like many people, it took me a while to figure out the whole mask thing. The first mask I had was the "tissue paper" variety of disposable surgical mask, which left me feeling like I was struggling for oxygen and unable to see because just two months earlier I had returned to wearing glasses most of the time. It didn't take me all that long to figure out how to shape the little wire thing to my nose, thus cutting the glasses-fogging down significantly. I also got accustomed to breathing through the mask pretty quickly; my brain was pretty fast in getting over the Oh shit I can't breathe all my exhaled CO2 isn't going anywhere and I'm going to faint for lack of oxygen OH NOES!!! thing. Yeah, that was complete nonsense that my brain was cooking up, as demonstrated by people all over the interwebs posting photos of their blood-O2 readings after hours of mask-wearing.

(I did buy an blood-O2 device, which I was at one point using daily to make sure I wasn't heading into trouble. I never was; I have received exactly three readings less than 97%, and each of those became a 97 or better when I took it off my finger, waited ten seconds, and re-tested.)

A week or so later, my company provided white cotton masks for all of us to wear. This wasn't entirely an improvement, as these didn't have the wire in the nose and it wasn't entirely clear which end was up. I didn't much care for this one, as it was thicker and made my mouth a bit hotter and the glasses problem got worse with this one.

This may make my RBF worse. #Mask

For me, the main comfort issue was not with breathing or the warmth around my mouth and nose, which are things I actually got used to. The serious source of discomfort came from the ear loops. I don't know how many other people had the same problem, but the flesh behind my ears would start to ache after an hour of wearing the mask, and after several hours, the pain was bad. I am lucky at my workplace in that I have a small workroom that's all mine, into which I can go and where only one person is allowed at any time, due to social distancing guidelines. Thus I could get a "mask break" when I needed one, but long-term, this kind of mask wasn't the answer. I did see gadgets on the market where you could tighten the loops to fasten around a strap that then tensioned against the back of the neck, thus relieving the ear issue...but instead I bought some hand-made masks from a guy I know who just happens to be an artisanal denim maker who makes, among other things, designer bib overalls.

Here I am with his mask and a pair of his overalls:

At the Farmers Market! Rocking the @zacebrand overalls AND mask! #ootd #overalls #dungarees #biboveralls #zacedenim #hickorystripe #denimoveralls #overallsarelife

Not only was I able to purchase from an artisan directly, but these are very well-made, with good thick layers of cotton, an opening for a filter, and the brass nosepiece that folds to the nose easily and holds its shape. Best of all, though, is that the elastic loops go around the head and tighten via a spring clip. At last I had masking comfort and safety!

If you're interested, those masks are still available, I believe! His current site is https://buttonbandana.com/; his usual web address, ZaceDenim.com, currently points to the Button Bandana site.

As the pandemic dragged on, I did buy another trio of masks, these from Proper Cloth. These also come with around-the-head loops, a nose-bridge stiffening wire, an internal filter and are made with thick-weave cotton. And if you want color choices, these are good, too. (I got navy blue.)

Out and about #winter #WinterInThe716 #ootd #overalls #dungarees #biboveralls #vintage #lee #leeoveralls #hickorystripe #denimoveralls #overallsarelife #vintageoveralls #sweatersandoveralls #scarf

When I bought my masks, I bought three each time, so I still have one of each that I haven't even worn yet. This seemed wise to me, given that it does not seem that masking is going to go away completely in the foreseeable future.

So that's the mechanics of my mask-wearing. But how do I feel about masks in general?

Meh, I'm fine with them.

An awful lot of people have seized on mandated mask-wearing as the kind of tyrannical government overreach that fuels the fevered nightmares of all libertarians, which is in all honesty an over-the-top reaction that makes me either laugh or shake my head every time I encounter it. Masks are a pretty simple thing to do, but a whole damn lot of folks in this country hate them and go out of their way to make their feelings plain. I've seen people wearing MAGA masks, and masks reading "Worn by FORCE not FEAR!!!" (as if fear is the motivation, as opposed to thinking collectively about being a member of a functioning society). Once I was in a store and saw a woman wearing a mask that was imprinted: "THIS MASK IS USELESS!!!" That's a big claim for the anti-mask folks, that mask-wearing is utterly useless and serves no purpose whatsoever. I've heard a lot of very bizarre claims, like "How can masks protect you from COVID if you can still smell a fart!" Thus demonstrating the speaker's complete ignorance of the size difference in gas molecules and respiratory droplets. Or the goofy claims about how masks make your exhaled CO2 cloud around your mouth, stealing your oxygen, which I've already noted as disproved.

And then there are people who note the stubborn persistence of this pandemic, usually with a simple and pithy "I thought you said masks work!" Thus proving that they don't understand that nobody ever said that masks were a simple cure-all. So it goes.

Oh, and the woman mentioned above with the "THIS MASK IS USELESS!!!" mask? I was deeply tempted to walk up to her and say, "You're right, your mask IS useless, since you're not wearing it over your nose, you idiot." I did not do this, but damn, was I tempted.

I have not found mask-wearing in any way an impediment to my life or my job, and I do work that is occasionally fairly strenuous. In truth, sometimes I forget that I'm actually wearing the thing! More than once I've gone to sip from the mug of coffee in my hand, only to remember that I've got a mask on and I need to wait. Some commenters, usually right-wingers, will gripe about seeing people wearing masks in their car when they are driving by themselves; my response is that I do this because I'm usually combining multiple errands and multiple stops into the same trip, and I am simply not bothered enough by the mask to put it on, take it off, put it on, take it off, lather rinse repeat, all day until I'm done.

I also tire of the performative mask-removers. These are the people who will, upon exiting the store or business in which they've had to wear a mask to enter, will rip it from their faces and take in a huge breath of air, as if they're breaking the surface of the water after a deep dive to the limits of their lung capacity. Cut the shit, folks. You're not fooling anybody. Ditto the "I have mah rights!" crowd who insist that some tortured reading of the Constitution gives them the right to not wear a mask in a private business.

The newest wrinkle on mask-wearing, now that the vaccinations are proceeding nicely across the country*, is to insist that now we should all be able to stop wearing masks at least outdoors, and they should be a lot less necessary indoors. And yet, you can see by the topmost photo, I'm still wearing my mask outdoors. Why? Well, I don't always wear a mask outdoors. When I take The Dee-oh-gee(s) for walks, either around the neighborhood or at a local park, I am very much still social distancing, and in nearly all such cases I am not encountering anyone at all other than to wave hello from the other side of the street.

However, when we venture into, say, the Village of Hamburg for our weekly trip to the local bakery we like, I'm putting the mask on. It's a village, and I run into a lot more people there for fifteen minutes than I do in an hour of walking in the woods. Even though we're outside and the outside breezes should disperse respiratory droplets pretty quickly, I'm not comfortable risking that...even though I'm vaccinated. The vaccines we have are amazing science, but all the science isn't in yet, and we don't know enough about whether fully-vaccinated people** can carry the COVID virus in sufficient supply as to pose a threat to non-vaccinated individuals. I choose not to risk it.

I choose to think collectively. I have thoughts on the recent history of America's ability to think collectively, but I'll save them for another time; suffice it to say that right now, the American addiction to "rugged individualism" is starting to strongly appear to me like the thing that's going to ultimately doom this country to receding into the historical fog. But that's for another time.

And you know what else is nice? When I'm wearing a mask, if you irritate me, you're not going to be able to read my lips when I mutter, "F*** you!" And it's over a year since the last time some self-appointed Enforcer Of Required Happiness told me to smile, so that's something.

So yeah, I'm gonna keep wearing my mask. And if that bothers you, well, that's your problem, not mine.


(swiped from someone on Facebook; actual credit unknown)



* If you haven't had your vaccine, and you don't have a doctor telling you not to get your vaccine for whatever reason, go get your damned vaccine. Anti-vax preciousness is absurd and indefensible.

** I reached the "fully vaccinated" threshold of two weeks past my second dose of the Moderna vaccine over a week ago.

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Friday, April 23, 2021

Mr. Mannion

 Blogger Lance Mannion, whose real-life name was David Reilly, has died suddenly. I've been reading Lance for...I honestly don't know. At least seventeen years, I would guess. He was a deeply literate man, with wide interests and voracious reading that informed his bright and curious writings. I didn't visit his blog daily, but that's OK, since he didn't post to it daily. He was one of those bloggers whom you could tell worked hard on every post. He ignored the often-cited "laws" of writing online that advised brevity at all costs; even when he did do a short post, there was a thoughtfulness at work that you don't find often.

Lance was also not precious about his tastes. He would write about literary figures and comic book movies at equal length, and that was just that. And he deeply loved his family, often posting about their own travails, like his sons' educations (oh, the pride that shone through at their accomplishments!) and his wife's own health struggles. There's no love quite so tender as the person whose spouse is suffering.

He often began his blog posts by indicating that the text to come was taken from his notebooks. Apparently he liked to go to Barnes and Noble and sit in the cafe with his coffee and his notebooks and...write. There's a certain charm to this, and it's a kind of approach that I've often considered adopting.

A quote:

Yesterday morning we Mannions made a pilgrimage to Barnes & Noble where I built this stack of books on our table in the cafe. I had no plans to buy any of them---as our poet pal Steve Kuusisto is wont to call it, B&N serves to its corporate dismay as a loitering library for too many of its customers, including me, most of the time. I’ve been known to buy more than a coffee on occasion---I was only looking through them to see which I wanted to put on reserve at the library. Mrs M looked aghast at the stack. She didn’t trust me to limit my choices. We’re in the process of being crowded out of our house by books I’ve taken out of the library that I intend to read, knowing I won’t get around to reading, but can’t bring myself to send back because, you know, just in case. I assured her I would be realistic this time.

Lance wrote easily about sports...

It’s been a long time since I was a football fan, and I haven’t watched it regularly in ages, since Joe Montana left San Francisco, in fact. But I watched Buffalo play Baltimore last week and I’m watching them play Kansas City tonight, because a good friend from my college days is an ardent Bills fan and I feel I have to root for them for her sake, but geez! Football is boring.

What are we watching? Two committees of old men playing eleven-level chess using young men as the pieces?

When I tweeted that point last week, a friend quoted George Will: “Football combines two of the worst things in American life. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” But Will was talking about the play on the field; the committee meetings he meant were the huddles. I mean the way football games are covered on television and the way we’re made to see them. The committees are the coaches, and the cameras and commentary focus on them as if what they’re doing is why fans at home are watching and who we’re rooting for.

...and politics (this post written in 2010, as it became clear to Democrats that the Tea Party was about to swamp them and there wasn't shit they could do about it)...

After reading the article, though, I see Palin selling them something else, a magic ingredient of her own concoction. She’s selling them her unhappinesses and resentments, her sense of injury, her insecurities based on her sense that she is not what she ought to be.

She is selling them her own self-loathing.

Which makes her like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, obvious self-loathers who’ve made careers out of peddling their own insecurities to audiences willing to feel abused, misused, exploited, and despised by their betters.

There were hypocrites who sat in the meeting houses and nodded along as preachers like Jonathan Edwards told them they were sinners in the hands of an angry God who was looking for a reason to drop them like spiders into the fire and thought, “Yes, that’s exactly what they need to hear.”

But there were more members of the congregations who wanted to hear how much God despised them, how unworthy they were of His mercy and even His notice.

It’s another perversion of pride.  “See, God, what a wretch and a sinner I am.”  People can become as addicted to their self-loathing as to any other feeling.

Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck are enablers.

Pointing this out won’t do us any good come November.

...and Star Wars.

But the core of the original movies is the tale of the last Jedi Knights, and now I am going to say something complimentary about George Lucas.

Lucas based his knights on the Knights of the Round Table.  Luke is King Arthur.  (Interestingly, but fittingly, in the Expanded Universe, it's Han and Leia who go on to rule over Camelot, while Luke becomes a version of Merlin.  The Jedi don't want power, after all.)  Obi-wan and then Yoda share the role of Merlin.  That's always been obvious.  The three prequels/sequels have underscored it.

And in the first three movies Lucas cared more about his main characters' stories as knight's tales than he did about their roles in the war that drives the plot.  The war is only the background to the important stuff, which is why Lucas allows the war to be mainly fought and won by secondary and minor characters.  Luke, Leia, and Han help save the day, but Lucas makes it clear that the rebellion itself doesn't need them.  This is why Wedge Antilles, Luke's ace pilot pal, is an important character even though he appears only briefly in each of the original three movies.  Wedge must be at least as good a pilot as Luke, but as far as we know he's not strong in the force nor is he a famous hero.  He's one very good pilot among many.  The Rebel Alliance has all the troops, all the Wedges, it needs to fight the war.

Which leaves Luke free to pursue his own ends.

Which he does.

That one kills me, because Lance name-checks me in it:

In Attack of the Clones, Obi-wan sets out to solve the mystery of who is trying to murder Padme, which reminds me that I promised Jaquandor that I would write a post about Obi-wan's career as the Jedi's top private detective.

I never got that post about Obi Wan Kenobi, Jedi detective. It's OK, Lance...but if there is an afterlife, I expect you to have that shit ready for me.

Lance wrote about his father a lot. His father only died a couple of years ago. I occasionally got a sense in Lance's writings, maybe a bit more frequently these past years, that he was beginning to sense that he was no longer the young man, that his own sun was closer to his own Western horizon than the Eastern one. I don't know for sure if he thought any such thing, but it's something I felt lurking in his writings.

This one I remember. He liked doing this kind of post, in which he just reported straight on things he saw unfold out there in the world. I think it was because of Lance that I started really noticing the intersection between "aggrieved white guy who votes Republican" and "owner of a pristine pickup truck"...but this isn't political. It's just a capturing-in-words of what happened when two people might have passed in the night...but didn't.

Tonight I was at Barnes and Noble, having a dad's night out, and not enjoying myself as much as I would have even five years ago---browsing through the new fiction I kept coming across author biographies that began, "So and so was born in 1980..."

While I'm in the cafe drinking my coffee, a barely 20 something girl sits down at the table next to mine.  A golden blonde, with languid, shy eyes and a determined chin. She wears a black tunic dress with spaghetti straps and a slit up to her thigh, a red cardigan over her shoulders (which she lets fall to her chair and onto the floor when she gets up to go to the counter later) and she stirs the ice in her iced latte a hundred times as she looks deeply into one of the books she has brought from home in a ragged canvass pouch. She reads with her lips slightly parted in a small, enigmatic smile.

My middle aged male vanity kicks in when I notice her. There are many empty tables all over the cafe, why pick the one next to mine?  I get the answer when I go to get a refill on my coffee.

At the table behind mine, and so directly across from hers, sits a young hero, another 20 something, with a granite chin, dark wavy hair, blue eyes, broad chest, a three day stubble and black rimmed Ben Franklins on the end of his nose. On the table in front of him is an empty coffee cup and a large cup of Pepsi.

Remember these props.  The coffee and the Pepsi.  They're Chekhov's gun, the one he said that if you bring it on stage in Act One has to go off in Act Three.

I wouldn't dream of spoiling it; you'll have to read the entire thing.

Sometimes when times got tight, Lance would reach out to his readers for a bit of financial help. One time I sent him $20...and a copy of Stardancer. I have no idea if he read it, or if he did, if he liked it. I'm not sure I need to know. There's a GoFundMe for his surviving family. 

Farewell, Lance Mannion. You inspired me to write better. I hope I did...and still will.



Thursday, April 22, 2021

Something for Thursday

 Songwriter Jim Steinman, one of the biggest contributors to the "bigger than life" aura of a lot of rock music of the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and beyond, has died. He was 73.

Steinman's songs were the stuff of excess: in a genre where radio play discourages songs much longer than four or five minutes, Steinman filled artists' albums with epic anthems eight, nine, even twelve minutes long. His songs were huge-sounding, too, seemingly written to take advantage of a singer's full range (and God help a singer of limited range who tries to enter the juuuust-this-side-of-campy emotional world of a Steinman song). In Steinman's lyrics, relationships are all about intensity and emotion and sensuality; Steinman's songs are the stuff of wild love affairs that leave the participants in a breathless, sweaty heap, lit either by the final flickerings of the guttering candles or by the lonely lights of the car's dashboard after a long night of...well, a long night.

Steinman's songs may seem to be a marriage of the adolescent and the epic, but I find them wonderful just because it's nice sometimes to remember what it all felt like in those awkward years when every emotion was a feeling large enough to tilt the world on its axis. That is what Jim Steinman captures in his best songs, that sheer, white-hot intensity of feeling that adult protestations aside, really is a lot more than just raging hormones. An inexperienced heart feels things wildly, in the kind of way of a Jim Steinman song.

While a lot of people might cite his work for Meat Loaf, my personal favorite Jim Steinman song is one he wrote for Celine Dion, "It's All Coming Back To Me Now". It's a song where passion and anger and rage and death and tragedy all come together, and say what you will about it, you surely have to admit that this song belongs to Celine Dion's enormous arena-filler of a voice.

Thanks for the music, Jim Steinman.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Figure out a new funny.

 For years, Ken Levine has done a "summation" post of the annual Oscar telecast, full of pithy humor. I don't normally do much more than skim these over, because I don't watch the Oscars and therefore I never have the full context for what Levine is making fun of, and in all honesty, I occasionally find Levine's sense of humor a bit mean-spirited.

Well, yesterday he wrote a surprisingly whiny post announcing that he's not doing the Oscar posts anymore, and not for the obvious reason (this year's telecast is likely to be a colossally unentertaining train wreck), but because of...sigh...he doesn't want to run afoul of "cancel culture" or "the woke crowd".

But the major reason is the current woke culture.  God forbid I offend anybody.  What good is being snarky if you’re not allowed to criticize?  And it goes beyond possibly being insensitive.  Now you’re branded as a racist.

In the privacy of our homes, part of the attraction of watching the Oscars (and especially at Oscar parties) is taking shots at the horrible gowns and stupid tuxedos and ridiculous hairdos.  What makes them so funny is how those offenders thought they were looking so glamorous and elegant.  Bringing down people who take themselves too seriously is a comedy staple.   And you may not be proud of yourself for making fun of these entitled people, but you do. 

However, if I say one despairing thing about Viola Davis’ dress I’m loudly pegged a racist.  If Penelope Cruz mangles her turn announcing the nominees and I point it out, I’m a racist.   If I’m happy for a deserving winner who happens to be white I’m a racist.

I find this incredibly disappointing, and it's really tiresome hearing from comedians who are upset that they apparently have no avenue to being funny other than by offending somebody. Maybe a Black actor is wearing a dress inspired by traditional African tribal wear; maybe Cruz has a speech impediment. I don't know, and maybe it's occasionally unfair if someone takes your funmaking moment that's directed at someone and interprets as not being motivated simply by a desire to be funny. But then, maybe your little joke actually is rooted in a preconceived notion, a prejudice, and maybe we should be a bit more intellectually curious about that. In short, I have become very weary of white people who whine about "the race card" getting played.

And to be honest, elevating "Hahaha, look at what someone decided to wear!" isn't punching up. It's just making fun of someone's looks, whether they're rich or poor or whatever, and I suppose it's up to the person laughing to decide if it's even "comedy". It frankly isn't to me. It's why the least appealing part of Joan Rivers's career was her "make fun of the people on the Oscar carpet" phase.

Levine wraps up thusly, though, which just made my jaw drop:

It’s a shame because comedy suffers.  And as a society we need comedy.  Now more than ever.  But if those who provide it have to walk on eggshells, then what’s the point?  

Yet another comedy writer or comedian complaining that comedy is all hard, now! It's so hard! But we need comedy! I'm providing a desperately needed service in dark and gloomy times, but you're all being mean to me for it!

Well, look. I grant the premise that we need to laugh and we need comedy. Absolutely. But...do we really need this particular kind of mean-spirited comedy that's not so much motivated by finding the funny things in life but by primarily making fun of specific people? Levine sounds like everybody else who I ever hear complaining about "Everybody's offended now!" When I hear people talking about this, I like to ask: "Just what specifically do you feel you can't get away with saying now?" The hemming and hawing starts immediately, because no matter how hard I press, they're never going to admit that they really want to be able to tell mean and sadistic jokes about n*gg*rs or k*kes or sp*cs or f*gg*ts or whatever. But that's what it almost always boils down to, in my experience.

Maybe not for Levine specifically, but as I look around at a world where certain things are not really seen as viable sources for comedy, I'm not seeing comedy itself suffer as a whole. There's funny stuff out there a-plenty. The last ten years have seen shows like Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Unicorn and Kim's Convenience, all of which are funny without resorting (much) to potentially offensive minefields. (B99 has come in for some criticism for its treatment of asexual/aromatic people). Christopher Moore and other humorists are still writing books. Daily comic strips still generate humor; the venerable Nancy has been rejuvenated of late by a new writer/artist, and no "offensive" content is needed.

What's more--and this is what's really bugging me about Levine's rant--is that comedy has not always needed to rely heavily on the kind of material that's now seen as unfunny or outright offensive, and Levine of all people should know this. He's been writing comedy for years! He wrote episodes of M*A*S*H, for God's sake, and that show was on almost fifty years ago. The idea that comedy is somehow being hobbled today by "the woke crowd" simply doesn't hold up when one considers just how much older comedy is still funny and didn't need to do any of the eggshell-walking stuff to be funny.

Recently The Wife was on bed rest following a medical procedure (she's fine!), and one thing she did to pass the time, during which I joined her a bit, is watch a lot of old episodes of Bewitched. That show holds up as being pretty damned funny, even if its sense of humor is dated by being a sixty-year-old show. Some jokes fall flat because we've moved on in a lot of ways, but the show really does hold up. A lot of M*A*S*H still holds up. Monty Python's Flying Circus was airing fifty years ago and a ton of that material is still hysterical, and not much of it at all needed to lean on anything that might get 'canceled' now to get laughs. The "Reverend Jim takes his driving test" scene from Taxi? Forty years old, and funny. The "Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton figure out golf" scene from The Honeymooners? Still funny, and nothing to be canceled here (unless it's Ralph's absurd pseudo-Scottish outfit). We also watched an older George Carlin HBO special, one from the late 1980s (Carlin wore a light blue shirt, which tells you something since he spent his last several decades only wearing black), and it was still hysterical, despite a few jokes that didn't age well.

Of course there's a lot of comedy that has not withstood the test of time; I never see Sam Kinison or Andrew Dice Clay mentioned much these days when the subject of older comedy that's still funny comes up. I never found either of those two amusing, even when they were popular and using their shock value to generate nervous laughter. My point isn't that everything stays funny, but that shifting mores and evolving societal choices don't neuter all old comedy, which would have to be the case if we really were making comedy so much more difficult now.

There's plenty of stuff that's making me laugh, so what am I to make of the idea that comedy is somehow in handcuffs now, that it's so hard to be funny without offending? Frankly, not much, because I'm too busy laughing. And sure, maybe I'm not a great test subject--I'm one who is still amused by a pie in the face, after all--but the material that makes me laugh exists, so I can't be the only one. It's not comedy that's suffering, it seems to me; it's people who want to make people laugh a certain way and are discovering that people don't want to be made to laugh that way anymore. And how surprising is that, really? An awful lot of people probably never found that stuff funny, and if amplifying their voices means some jokes don't get told, well, that's a trade I'm willing to make.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

 It's April 20! Which means that it's 4/20, and for a sequence of strange reasons involving some stuff some stoners did years ago, "420" is now a cannabis reference. This stuff is weird, really. I've nicked the following from Wikipedia:

In 1971, five high school students in San Rafael, California, used the term "4:20" in connection with a plan to search for an abandoned cannabis crop, based on a treasure map made by the grower. Calling themselves the Waldos, because their typical hang-out spot "was a wall outside the school", the five students — Steve Capper, Dave Reddix, Jeffrey Noel, Larry Schwartz, and Mark Gravich —designated the Louis Pasteur statue on the grounds of San Rafael High School as their meeting place, and 4:20 pm as their meeting time. The Waldos referred to this plan with the phrase "4:20 Louis". After several failed attempts to find the crop, the group eventually shortened their phrase to "4:20", which ultimately evolved into a code-word the teens used to refer to consuming cannabis.

OK, then. I think that story seems pretty accurate, at least as far as my personal dealings with the occasional stoners have gone.

Well, anyway, since it's 420, I got to thinking about composers and their drug habits. When you read histories of classical music, you quickly realize that a lot of composers spent a lot of their time under the influence of a lot of different stuff. Beethoven loved alcohol, and Berlioz leaned heavily on opium. Cannabis, though? For that I had to do a Google search, and while a number of names did crop up, one cropped up a lot: minimalist and electronica composer Terry Riley. As one writer notes:

One obvious point of consensus emerged right away: If you’re talking about the confluence of marijuana and new music, you’re talking about Terry Riley. The prolific Northern California minimalist composer and performer has never been coy about his recreational predilections (one of his pieces, “Autodreamographical Tales,” includes the sung lyric “Cannabis is a wonderful drug/ Sometimes you’re like a cat on a rug”).

That in turn feeds into some of the distinctive qualities of his music, including gentle, lapping rhythms, beguilingly sweet harmonies, and a seductive dream logic that provides a quasi-improvisatory feel. One person proposed including Riley’s entire discography on such a playlist, which has a certain simple appeal.

I'm not sure I've ever heard of Riley before this, but I do find him interesting after listening to today's selection. I grant that you might not be all that interested in this, but I do like non-traditional approaches to music-making and composition. Riley's approaches and use of electronics and repetitions of sound proved highly influential, providing ideas that later surface in the music of The Who and in the work of musicians like Mike Oldfield.

Today's piece, A Rainbow in Curved Air, is an exercise in the dreamy soundscape of repeated sounds, modal improvisations, and experiments in pure sound. Over time the work seems to almost suggest melody, without actually coming out and stating one; it's a hypnotic and expansive work...which one might well expect from a composer who enjoys his 420 action.

Here is A Rainbow in Curved Air.


Monday, April 19, 2021

Composer Focus: Jean Sibelius (part three)

 Written when was 30, and thus nearing the halfway mark of his productive career, Sibelius's The Swan of Tuonela is one movement from his Lemminkainen Suite, a collection of four tone poems that tell the story of one of the heroes of The Kalevala, the national epic of Findland. Lemminkainen undergoes a number of tests and trials, one of which is that he is tasked with killing the Swan of Tuonela. Tuonela is the land of the dead, and the swan is a mystical beast living in Tuonela's waters. Lemminkainen tries to kill the swan, but is himself shot with a poisoned arrow and dies. He is apparently restored to life later in the story, but this particular movement is primarily concerned with the swan itself.

This work is meditative and almost without bombast of any kind, instead engaging a kind of brooding mysticism that reminds me of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead. A solo English horn portrays our swan, moving with churning placidity through its mournful waters, as the orchestra sings plaintively along with it. It's a remarkable work.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Something for Thursday

 Robert Schumann's Traumerai is one of classical music's best-known melodies. The original work is for solo piano, and many piano students learn it (though, to my recollection, this one never came to me during my years of piano instruction). There's a wonderful book by NPR's Noah Adams, Piano Lessons: Music, Love, and True Adventures, in which Adams chronicles his year of piano lessons at the age of 52 when he wants to learn Traumerai so he can play it for his wife.

Even though the piece is best known and loved as a piano work, it has--like all the great classical works--been ported to other instruments and ensembles. This one, I find especially appealing: it's for solo cello with piano accompaniment. I hope Schumann would approve.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

 I have a two-fer today, because I couldn't decide between these two selections and I figured, since they do kind of go together, why not just use both?

Music for percussion only tends to be somewhat of a novelty, which is a shame since there's a great deal of musicianship involved in playing percussion, as much as any musical instrument. Percussion is about a lot more than just providing a good, solid whack at particularly dramatic moments in the music. Think of the timpani providing the rolling thunder of the distant, and approaching, storm clouds in the third movement of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, or the almost demonic energy of the snare drummer in Carl Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. Or the glockenspiel in The Magic Flute, or those mighty pounding timpani in the opening chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra. (Or, if you want to admire the sheer musical thanklessness of a task, consider the poor snare drummer in Ravel's Bolero, who has to play the same rhythm over and over and over and over and over again, for the work's entire fifteen-minute reign of terror.

Many laypeople will know about bells and marimbas and that sort of thing, but they won't realize just how many percussion instruments are actually pitched or how much a percussionist has to think about how they want to produce the exact sound they're looking for. Timpani, for example, are tuned to specific pitches, so the performer has to have good pitch sense to tune the instrument, and that's just where it starts. How hard do you hit the surface of the drum? Where on the head do you hit it? It makes a different quality of sound toward the middle as opposed to near the edge. Do you use soft mallets, or hard ones? It all depends! Percussion requires physical skill and every bit as much precision and focus as any other instrument. So if you're one of those who thinks that the drums are where the musicians who can't carry a tune go to live, well, get that notion out of your heads, folks!

Here are two works for percussion ensemble alone. The first is Music for Pieces of Wood, by Steve Reich. Five players perform this piece, using instruments called "claves", which come in different varieties. Claves are pitched, which gives this work a polyphonal feel even as its spellbinding rhythms unfold. The piece almost feels like a bunch of clocks which are all not quite synchronized, and imagine the degree of rhythmic precision it requires for the ensemble to pull off this work!

The other piece I want to feature makes a really interesting contrast with the previous work, even though both are works for percussion. David Crowell's Music for Percussion Quartet uses pitched instruments like marimbas, giving the work a tonal and melodic element that the Reich piece doesn't. There are some amazing sounds here too, though: note in the second movement, when the sounds are produced not by striking the marimba's bars, but by drawing cello bows against them. The result is a kind of droning chord work that reminds me of the pedal drone of a hurdy gurdy or a set of pipes.

So next time you're listening to your favorite classical work, pay special attention to the percussionists! There's a lot going on back there.


Monday, April 12, 2021

"Can you tell me how to get to Mandalore?" "This is the way."


 A couple weeks ago, we finished watching Season Two of The Mandalorian, so here are my thoughts on the show, including thoughts on Season One. None of this is in any particular order. In fact, it's pretty damned random, because that's how I blog. This is the way.

(Note: I know that his name is actually "Din Djarin", but I'm going to refer to him as either "The Mandalorian" or "Mando", as he is dubbed by the Carl Weathers character.)

ITEM the ZEROTH: OK, before I begin talking specifically about The Mandalorian, I have to once again complain about how lax the Internet is with spoilers. Many are careful, but it seems to me that most are not, and even if the ones who are not do not actually constitute a majority, there are enough of them out there that it really doesn't matter. We did not watch The Mandalorian as it unfolded; we waited until the seasons were complete to enjoy them. This, of course, meant that nearly every major development was spoiled for us.

When the era of streaming shows began, the original Netflix-led model was to make the entire show and then put all the episodes online at once, so you could watch the entire series in a weekend if you wanted to. Now, the streaming services seem to be leaning more toward an adaptation of the original broadcast model, in which one episode is dropped a week for however many weeks it takes to get the entire thing out there. That's how The Mandalorian worked, with the result that within a day or two of each episode appearing online, the major events would be spoiled. And brazenly so! I'm not talking about people posting "WHOA!!! Did you SEE what happened on MANDALORIAN tonite!!!" and then discussing in the threads. No, they would post the spoiler right in the text so you had no chance to avoid it...or they'd post "SPOILERS!" but then also attach a screenshot from the show that had the spoiler right in it.

Disney very clearly structured the marketing of The Mandalorian, before Season One, to keep the appearance of Grogu (then dubbed by fandom "Baby Yoda") a surprise at the end of Episode One. That surprise lasted, I think, mere hours. I knew about "Baby Yoda" before noon of the very next day, and this went on for every major development in the show, over both seasons, right up to the appearance of Luke Skywalker.

I don't know that there's a solution to this, but it is most definitely an irritating aspect of 21st century fandom and geek culture. I'm not super-militant about maintaining my spoiler-virginity on everything I watch, but I would like the choice there to be mine.

On to actual stuff from the show:

ITEM THE FIRST: It's cool how this show has easily added its catchphrase, "This is the way", to the Star Wars lexicon. A lot of Star Wars teminology eventually does so, starting with "May the Force be with you!" being on everybody's lips way back in 1977, and leading up to Prequel terms like padawan and youngling showing up in general conversation. Now we have "This is the way". I also liked [character]'s habit of finishing his thoughts with "I have spoken!". This one hasn't caught on as well, but I like it and I try to use it from time to time.

This is a good thing for writers of sci-fi and fantasy to do, I think. People have things that they say repeatedly, out of ritual or habit, and I like it when writers of such material create such--is there a word for what I'm talking about?--slogans. George RR Martin is really good at this in A Song of Ice and Fire, as an example.

Having Mandalorians salute each other with "This is the way" is a really cool way of establishing their insular, internal culture.

ITEM THE SECOND: It's something of an article of faith that Star Wars, at least at first in A New Hope, was essentially a Western translated into a space opera. I've never quite bought into this notion. It seems to me less that Star Wars was a space Western than Star Wars used older tropes that many Westerns use as well. Star Wars's influences do include Westerns, but they also include the films of Akira Kurasawa, many of which also share tropes with Westerns without actually being Westerns. This show, more than any other of the Star Wars projects of the post-George Lucas era, put those tropes on display. You have the lone hero who lives his lonely life going from place to place, you have the dusty frontier outposts, you have the minor chieftains or warlords or outlaws who are ruling their little regions.

But again, I wouldn't say that The Mandalorian is a Western. I'd say that it shares a similar feel, with all those tropes. The closest analogue is the great Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub, which has a lone Samurai warrior traveling throughout old Japan, as he cares for his infant companion.

ITEM THE THIRD: In all honesty, I was never a big Boba Fett fan (more on him below). That said, it's interesting to finally get some of the backstory about the Mandalorian warriors. Our hero's commitment to his order's rules and laws gives him plenty of opportunity for internal conflict as he negotiates a deeply dangerous universe.

ITEM THE FOURTH: This story is set in the years after Return of the Jedi, when the Empire has fallen but the New Republic is still trying to gather its strength. This is a largely unexplored part of Star Wars lore. I liked seeing pockets of remaining Imperial strength, as surely much of the old infrastructure will keep on functioning, even in the absence of the Emperor. Factions will be jockeying for power, which is definitely something we see in this show. The show's structure dealt with this better in Season One, I think, as it showed our hero and baby Grogu moving into and out of these stories that are still going on.

But in Season Two, we start off with thrilling episodic adventures that take us from one world to another as Mando and baby Grogu have interesting adventures. This part of the series felt like the old Marvel Star Wars comics, the ones that were the first-ever tales told in the Star Wars universe beyond the scope of any movie. At that time, there was only one movie and just the barest beginnings of all the mythology that would unfold over the next four-and-a-half decades of Star Wars storytelling, so you had tales that had Han and Chewie going to a dusty backwater world for a Magnificent Seven type of adventure (and that was way more of a "space Western" than A New Hope ever was!), and then Luke and company had an adventure in a little local war on a planet that was nothing but oceans, and then there was some intrigue on a space casino...well, you get the point. Back then, the only Star Wars storytelling in town was a sequence of fun space adventures. In its best episodes, for me, The Mandalorian hearkened back to that feel.

Toward the end of Season One, our hero and his young charge run afoul of an Imperial official and his still-loyal soldiers who are looking for young Grogu (who hasn't been named yet, by this point), and the first season ended with a bit of a cliffhanger that made clear that our Imperial official, Moff Gideon, was going to be a continued problem. And that was pretty cool, as it's still interesting that all the Big! Grand! Events! that have redefined Galactic history elsewhere (Vader killing Palpatine, the Rebels defeating the Empire) really haven't had that great an effect in the Outer Rim. Still, my hope was that all the Empire-versus-New Republic stuff would be kept firmly in the background.

Sadly, about halfway through Season Two, the tone shifts completely, away from the cool adventures and into Bigger Mythology, which is when I started to lose a bit of my enthusiasm. Mando learns that Grogu is clearly a powerful being, and that he can only be safe with a member of a race of wizards called "Jedi", who were apparently a major enemy of the Mandalorians at one point. This quest, for Mando to deliver Grogu to "his people" (not necessarily his species, which has still never been named!), forms the backbone of the second season: Moff Gideon is still searching for Grogu for his own purposes, while Mando is trying to get him to the Jedi. As this story takes over, we're squarely back in Empire-versus-Jedi again, albeit looking in from the outside.

Structurally, this quest takes on a repetitive note: someone tells Mando that they've heard of a Jedi or something Jedi-like on some planet; he goes to that planet and finds what he can find, but it's not the right place, so he's told..."Go to this planet instead." There's a kind of lather-rinse-repeat feel in the middle episodes of Season Two because of this.

Then there's an episode which a lot of fans were really looking forward to: Mando goes to a planet where he's heard there's a Jedi, but it's actually Ahsoka Tano, a character from the Clone Wars animated series (which I haven't watched). Ahsoka was a Jedi padawan way back when, but since the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire she's been on her own (and my understanding is that she's actually left the Jedi order, for whatever reason). There's an adventure here, and then at the end of the episode, Ahsoka says that no, she can't take Grogu and train him, but if Mando goes to [insert planet], he'll find someone! So off we go again. Meanwhile, Ahsoka captures the episode's Villain-of-the-Week and demands, before the episode ends, "Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?"

Nothing ever comes of that. It's just there.

And that's my main problem with the back half of Season Two: just about all of it feels like set-up for stuff to come later, or fan service, or an odd tying together of seemingly every story and every character who is already out there.

This has actually been a long-time problem with Star Wars, and it can infect other large franchises, too: for worlds that are supposedly incredibly vast, it sure is odd how everyone ends up knowing everyone else. When Boba Fett showed up in Season Two, I had to go look up the character's history post-Return of the Jedi, because I just haven't kept up with a lot of it. (Remember, if all you watch is the movies, the last word on Boba Fett was that he got eaten by the Sarlacc, so to find him quite alive and well is a bit of a shock...but then, in every post-ROTJ story ever, starting with Marvel's own comics back in 1983, he's gotten himself spit out by the Sarlacc, because writers just can't quit the guy.) In The Mandalorian, it's never mentioned how Fett got out of the Sarlacc, so I figured I'd check it out. It turns out that in all the comics and books (and maybe shows too, which I haven't watched), Boba Fett has had a long history in which he has interacted at one point or another with everybody in the Star Wars universe.

Surely not all of Star Wars needs to boil down to "Ain't nothin' but a family thing."

But to go back to Ahsoka Tano's mention of Grand Admiral Thrawn...that's nothing but set-up for something to come. Ditto all the mentions of retaking the Mandalorian home planet, or whatever. For the entire back half of Season Two, I felt like I wasn't watching a story but rather a long sequence of set-up events, like the end-credits scenes from MCU movies, each expanded to episode length.

ITEM the FIFTH: There's a lot more fan service in Season Two than there is in Season One, but for the most part I was cool with it...until the very end. It was nice seeing Boba Fett's ship again, and yes, I'll admit an internal squeal when I realized he was going to deploy the seismic charges (the most underrated weaponry in all of Star Wars: how can you not love a bomb that detonates with a colossal electric-guitar TWANGGGGG!) But this show really went way too far with the idea that Imperial Stormtroopers are terrible shots. In scene after scene after scene after scene, we see Mando and his allies picking off the Stormtroopers one by one, while the Stormtroopers flail and fire randomly and seemingly can only win by virtue of sending hundreds of themselves into battle against two people.

But the worst fan service comes at the very end of the last episode.

Judging by the reactions I saw online after this episode aired, I am in a very small minority here...but I did not like Luke Skywalker's appearance.

First, from a pure storytelling stance, it was pure Deus ex machina. Our heroes are backed into the corner, there seems to be no way out...and along comes, at just the right moment, the Greatest (and, currently, Only) Jedi in the Galaxy to bail them out, carving his way effortlessly through the legion of battle droids (who, having been disposed of earlier in episode, manage to turn around and show back up again, in a kind of Diabolis ex machina to make the Deus necessary). This whole scene seems visually designed to echo the Darth Vader scene at the end of Rogue One, which is another scene that I, contrary to just about everyone else, greatly dislike.

Now, by the time I got around to watching this I had been long-spoiled (thanks, Internet!), but even so...while everyone else was cheering at this, I found it just...well, sigh. And not just because it was Deus ex machina, but it put me in mind of the Sequel Trilogy of movies, whose events lie a decade or two in the future of these characters. Luke takes Grogu off to properly train him in the ways of the Force...but here's the thing. We know from those movies (about which I need to write some final thoughts, I guess) that Luke's efforts to establish a new Jedi order come to spectacular ruin. It's entirely possible that Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Favreau, and Dave Filoni (the current High Poobahs of the Star Wars enterprise) have ideas to the contrary, but since we know that eventually Luke Skywalker ends up depressed and dejected on Ahch To as the Empire's remnants rise again as the First Order and come very close to retaking the Galaxy, and since in none of those events does an older and fully-trained Grogu show up to do useful stuff, I have to assume for now that Grogu is simply one of Luke's students who is later murdered by Ben Solo/Kylo Ren.

I know, there's a lot of story that can unfold between now and then, and maybe we do get a story later on someday of Grogu's Last Stand...or maybe the Star Wars writers can actually come up with a satisfying way of sparing Grogu the fate of falling before the Knights of Ren and also not playing a part in the whole First Order War. (Or maybe they end up just retconning those movies out of existence, which would in all honesty not bother me at all, as much as I love The Last Jedi.)

ITEM the SIXTH: To bring this back to a positive note, since I really did enjoy both seasons on balance even with my reservations and my genuine distaste for Season Two's ending, I love this show as a production. It just looks fantastic, with a lot of imagination in its visuals and yet still firmly tied to familiar Star Wars aesthetic. The end credits are even worth watching, as they scroll over illustrations of scenes from each episode that stylistically hearken back to the great Ralph McQuarrie paintings that helped George Lucas establish his visual vocabulary for Star Wars in the first place. The music is neat, adding a whole new sound world to the Star Wars universe and moving well beyond the general John Williams sound. And despite my misgivings noted above, the writing is often excellent! Individual episodes move quickly and the dialogue is surprisingly crisp and witty.

What really makes The Mandalorian work as well as it does is the acting, though. There's not a bad performance to be had here, and each actor in this show creates a unique character. I would single out Pedro Pascal for special mention here, since except for a couple of scenes, he has to convey everything through body language and his voice work...and it works completely. Mando is as vivid a character as any in the Star Wars universe.

As for the other main lead? Grogu is terribly well-done, isn't he? I haven't looked it up at all, but I assume that he is a blend of CGI and puppetry. He's cute, but not nauseatingly so; he has real facial expressions and at times his behavior is not cute at all. I have to admit that I hope Season Three somehow manages to reunite our Lone Wolf with his cub.

ITEM the SEVENTH: I also want to note the nifty spaceship design in The Mandalorian. The aesthetic here is much more Original Trilogy Star Wars than Prequel Trilogy Star Wars; everything here is old and used and lived-in and beaten up. Living spaces are tight and cockpits are cramped and ships look and sound like what they are: machines that have been put through their paces and asked to do things that they were never built to do in the first place. Mando's ship, in particular, is great, and it's quickly become one of the iconic ships in all of Star Wars. It's sad that it got destroyed at the end of Season Two. (I do note that its outboard thrusters, which rotate on their axes depending on where the thrust is directed to go, owe a conceptual debt to the Serenity of Firefly fame.)

ITEM the EIGHTH: I loved the music for this show! It's Star Wars meets the spaghetti westerns, indebted both to John Williams and to Ennio Morricone.

IN CONCLUSION, YOUR HONOR: I really did enjoy both seasons of The Mandalorian and I'm looking forward to what is to come. I do hope, however, that the show steers back toward being its own mostly-self-contained thing, and not a vehicle for backdoor-piloting other Star Wars stories. I also hope that it doesn't delve too much into larger stories about Galactic politics and ancient wars. I have absolutely nothing against those things! But...I'd like to think that Star Wars can still be more than that. There's nothing wrong with smaller stories where the stakes aren't galactically high. In fact, sometimes the most compelling stakes are the small ones, and I prefer The Mandalorian when it's concerned with a few people trying to hold on to what they have.

Like a Western. In space.

I have spoken.


(art credit)


Thursday, April 08, 2021

Something for Thursday

 On the off chance you need something atmospherically calming, in the best way that looking up at the stars is atmospherically calming, here is some Vangelis. This selection was one of many used by Carl Sagan and company in the soundtrack to Cosmos. It's called "Creation du Monde".


Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Tone Poem Tuesday

 Today was annoying and obnoxious, so I'm just declaring today done. Feh.

(No, nothing bad, just one of those days where the planned work not only doesn't go as easily as it should, but it also keeps getting interrupted by people who think that their new work outranks my planned work. And yes, in a couple cases, they were right, but still...Feh! Feh, indeed.)

Anyway, on days like this I resort to stuff I can just toss up here without a whole lot of commentary. Here's Tchaikovsky, with cannons. Because hey: cannons.


Monday, April 05, 2021

Orange Soda

 A favorite treat of mine is orange soda, but it's on my list of tastes that I rarely indulge because it's just not super-healthy. (OK, it's not really healthy at all, but you know what I mean.)

But now...orange soda is back on the menu! Behold!

Sunkist Zero

I saw this product at The Store a couple weeks back and tried it first in a two-liter bottle, in case I didn't like it. And now, we are finishing our first twelve-pack.

The whole "Zero Sugar" thing is really something to behold the last few years. So-called "diet sodas" have been pretty dodgy for years, but now they're really starting to get the flavors close to the real thing. Coke Zero is more Coke-like than any diet incarnation of the stuff ever, and Sunkist Zero is incredibly close to the sugar-laden original.

Not that artificial sweeteners are super for you either, so it's not like I'm going to be indulging this stuff by the boatload either (my go-to these days for fizzy is sparkling water), but damn, am I happy to be able to enjoy orange soda again!


Saturday, April 03, 2021

An Extremely Short Post about Roots

 The other day I casually joked about my Icelandic-patterned sweater reflecting my "Icelandic roots", to which Roger responded, "So, what are your roots, anyway?"

Well...as far as I know, it's mainly German on my father's side and Irish on my mother's, and that's about the extent of my knowledge on the subject. I have to admit that I simply have never had a great deal of interest in the whole genealogy thing, which does make me feel slightly guilty at times, but the whole thing of being able to trace one's family tree back to Ye Olde Worlde and to the tiny village in East Glumpferjonton where one's great-great-great-great-grand-blah-blah was a seven-fingered cobbler who fathered eleven children before succumbing to cholera at 36 has never really been an activity that much appealed to me. Which is weird, I admit, because I also have a lifelong love of history and the deeds of the people that populate it.

I know that Americans tend to be very interested in such things--maybe that's because our country is still relatively young, and in almost all cases you don't have to go too many generations back to get to people living in Germany or wherever, and I know that this sort of thing commands tremendous interest for members of the Mormon church (I'm not really sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with their doctrine of being able to "save" people, i.e., baptizing them into the Mormon church, after they're dead). For me, though...I can take or leave it, and I usually end up leaving it. Go figure!

How about you, readers? Are you interested in your genealogies?