Saturday, March 25, 2017

the sonicon and the zone

I spent something like 47 hours a while back working on a piece of music that's 2.11 seconds long.

It's a corporate sonicon, or sound trademark, like the NBC major chord tones, or the "Law & Order" chung-chung, or the Intel "bum-beem-bum-BEEM." It's a very small but incredibly important little sound that they'll use in all their radio and TV and web ads and other things — eventually you'll begin to just hear the sound and know what it means. (No, you may not hear it yet.)

Like those other sounds, it has about 15 layers of samples, instruments, musical things, percussive things, atmospheric recording, and other stuff all blended together into a unique thing. So, with each hour I spend on it, it really does get better and better — it's been a total blast.

The initial idea — a basic sound effect and a simple cadence — took me literally 2 minutes. Then the whole rest of the time it's been tweaking and polishing, sanding away with finer and finer grains. Allllllllllmost done now. I'll come out of a long tweak, covering the final quarter-second, and realize it's 5am, and I've been going at it non-stop for hours. This kind of zone, where skill and interest and absorption-cum-obsession meet, is one of my favorite ways to live. And yet it's kind of the opposite of the usual sentimental myth of creativity. (My friend says, "so I guess one 2.11 second note on a tuba wouldn't have done the trick.")

Friday, March 17, 2017

a saint patrick's day thought

How technology shapes and limits us, in so many invisible ways. Think, for instance, about the fact that you very rarely see green on news and talk shows — ties and shirts and dresses and desk elements and even background decor always avoid that part of the spectrum — simply because they all use green screens.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


After an unhurried search that lasted a decade, I have finally found the ideal chambray shirt. As is usual for me, it's actually not quite chambray, but has a very slight little herringbone pattern to it.

Manly, distinctive, casually sophisticated. How nice, to now and then find what one is looking for.

Friday, February 3, 2017

that's all, folks

Tonight we reached a milestone. Tonight was the night the Alberich Stories ended. (Greta has referred to the stories of the Ring Cycle as "Alberich Stories.")

I've been telling the entire thing, from the first moments, with the magic gold shining in the riverbed of the Rhine, guarded by Rheinmaidens, and stolen by the evil dwarf, right to the end, with Brünnhilde immolating herself on Siegfried's funeral pyre and returning the gold to its rightful place, for nearly a year now at bedtime.

Giants, dragons, birds, blood, greed, love, triumph, disaster, the whole thing. Both girls have been absolutely absorbed. Greta's requested it more than Clara, but whenever Clara joins in to listen, she's more attentive to me than she ever is in any other context.

Greta has often stopped and asked questions and gotten clarification, as well as offered insights of her own. When she first heard about the terms under which Alberich could forge a ring of power from magic gold — namely, that he had to forswear love — she had the same reaction as her cousins Hannah and Trey had had back in the 90s: Complete power and untold riches? "I would give up love for that!" But when it was explained that they could no longer love anyone, whether a mother or father or grandparents or siblings or friends, and could no longer be loved, ever, for the rest of their lives, they (and now Greta) thought long and hard about it.

When we got to the spine-chilling confrontation in which Siegfried and Brünnhilde and Gunther swear to be telling the truth and that the others are lying, all taking a death-oath on Hagen's spear, Greta stopped the story to point out that none of them was lying, going through each character and telling it from his or her point of view. She then circled back around and, since there was a mitigating fact in each case, pointed out that they were all speaking an untruth. When she realized what that meant (the death-oath!) I could see it dawning on her with a shudder.

What fun!! What depth! I love to think past the Wagner version and even past the Elder Edda and other mythological sources, to people gathered around fires and children in beds listening to these stories over and over, thrilling to the tales of love and betrayal and redemption, expressed through magic helmets and speaking birds and rings of power and potions — fire, water, earth, and sky all peopled, playing host to a story for the ages.

Friday, January 6, 2017

boys and better boys

Joe Biden's continually-repeated anecdote: "My dad used to say, 'you have one job: keep the boys away from your sister.' "

Michelle Wolf's response: "Boys wouldn't have to protect their sisters if they would stop being so crappy to girls who aren't their sister. How about instead of teaching boys to protect women we just teach boys to be better boys?"

Sunday, November 20, 2016

the healthy effect of advertising on content

(click for larger view)

Friday, November 11, 2016

the incompetent adult in kids' stories

An author friend says that, on occasion, an adult will write to him, expressing annoyance about how incompetent many of the adult spies are in his books. They feel this isn't very realistic.

This kind of reaction, which most children's authors will tell you they get in a steady stream, mainly comes from people who believe that children's literature exists to instruct children in some way.

Interestingly, it's that very concern that leads to the problem: throughout history, human cultures have seen need for stories with children protagonists who must display resourcefulness and bravery (or whatever other virtues we're trying to instill). They must, then, be in situations where an adult would ordinarily intervene — but without the adult. A great number of stories solve the problem by dispatching the parents on the first page. But that still leaves stories where a kid must encounter an adult world that somehow leaves an authority-and-safety vacuum that a kid protagonist can fill.

So, today's parents often complain about the "stupid dad" meme or the "incompetent adult" meme, because of their concern for the teaching duty of stories — a concern that created the very memes they complain about.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

putting on the pantsuit

Ah, the pantsuit. It's been an object of derision for as long as it's been around. Of course, it's little different from the suit — leaving aside the essential difference, namely who's wearing it.

There's a tidy iconographical rhyme in the phenomenon of Pantsuit Nation. It's yet another way in which a group of Davids reclaims a symbol or term ("bitch"; "queer") to wield against Goliath.

Anne Hollander was talking about this in the 90s. She pointed out that the Western woman's silhouette was denied legs, the symbol of action and agency. Every time women got a bit of power — say, in the 20s, when women, newly enfranchised to vote, entered the urban workforce in a new way, or in the 60s, when they began to clamor against other forms of disenfranchisement — the female silhouette gained legs. It happened either through the raising of hemlines to reveal the leg, or through pants.

At this fun moment, our culture seems ready to embrace all it considered dorky a moment ago. Men are embracing the previously unsexy mantle of soccer-dadhood. (Witness the ads for the newly revamped Chrysler Pacifica, which aim to make the minivan an object of neighborly admiration. Minivan: The New Grill!)

And, this Election Day, women are putting on pantsuits, the fluorescent-lit symbol of all that is dreary about the workplace. For five minutes, the pantsuit has become a badge of honor and a tribute to the strength of those who paved the way.

Hope that idea has legs.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

costume and custom

I was delighted to see that this week's poem for memorization in Greta's class was by Gelett Burgess. (It's his most-known work, the nonsense poem "The Purple Cow.")

Early in my adult life I came across a first edition of his 1901 book The Romance of the Commonplace, and I've gotten it out and enjoyed its prose (purpler than his cow, I'm afraid) every couple of years since. I guess he's my second-favorite essayist, the first being the incomparable Robert Benchley, whose collections I discovered in my parents' library and read and loved from 8th grade on.

Only a short while back, before the poem came along, I'd pulled it off the shelf again. I especially love one piece, "Costume and Custom," which puts forth so much of what I've always thought a man should be: whimsy, standards, a mind opened and closed to the right things.

Click on the book cover to read.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

every weapon wounds its wielder

Monday, September 26, 2016

the princess and the pilgrim 2

A friend told me that he feels weird about it, but can't help but watch The Princess Diaries when it's on. The 2001 film about an American teen who discovers she's the princess of the Ruritanian kingdom of Genovia is another in the passel of recent princess movies that amount to pilgrim narratives. (See also my discussion of Sofia The First)

I like it, too, and invariably dissolve into tears throughout the show. Perhaps the reason we can't help it is that we love to hear the old old story.

It is, after all, a recounting of our human experience of the Gospel. It's a symbolic Pilgrim's Progress.

Mia (thoroughly inhabited by the fearless teen Anne Hathaway) leads an ordinary under-the-sun life, laden with sorrow and discomfort, till it's revealed to her that she has a royal destiny. She's a beloved daughter of the king.

Soon enough, she's besieged with rules and regulations about how to behave, which she is hopelessly inadequate to follow. She must learn that her identity as the king's daughter isn't dependent on her behavior and condition, though better behavior and condition should flow from her identity.

She runs away from her obligations. But then she connects directly with her Father, and reads his words to her. It completely changes her.

She shows up at the palace, dirty and wet and unworthy, but is accepted because she's ordained to be there. Finally, at the palace, she is *made* worthy — literally cleansed and clothed, to abide in the kingdom ever after.

This is why the movie taps so deeply into the human psyche: it's true in the deepest sense. It's the only true thing in all the world.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

the princess and the pilgrim 1

Fairy tales have been about princesses and castles and witches and peasants and kings and queens and shepherds and forests all along. And when I say all along, for once, that's not a hyperbole: Little Red Riding Hood is thought to be 2600 years old or older.

Many of our Northern European fairy tales, the ones English speakers know best, are Christological: the hero defeats the evil one (at some cost to himself), and redeems the endangered bride to live in happy eternity. The despised pauper discovers she's the bride of the prince.

Recently we've had a series of princess tales that strikingly echo pilgrim narratives. The pilgrim, discovering he or she is a child of God, goes through a series of challenges and tests, symbolizing the trials of the Christian life, before reaching the final goal, symbolizing the soul's passage into heaven. Pilgrim's Progress is the ur-example in the Christian world, a redemption of older journey tales like the Odyssey. For two centuries it was second only to the Bible in popularity. Generations of authors were weaned on its structure and language, which worked their way into our general culture and are still with us.

My daughters have, with every girl their age in the civilized world, been devouring Sofia The First, Disney's newest princess franchise. Alone amid kid entertainment's avalanche of numbers and colors and lessons, Sofia taps into deep mythos in the best Disney tradition. Thankfully, nearly alone amid the avalanche of cheapo production values, Sofia also feels luxurious, with depthy animation and a full (though mostly synthetic) orchestral score, supervised by music wizard Richard Sherman, and featuring Broadway-style (and -quality) songs.

With sparkling stars like Cary Elwes, Mandy Moore, Hugh Bonneville (of Downton Abbey), Sean Astin, Megan Mullally, Isla Fisher, Kiernan Shipka (of Mad Men), Robert Morse, Lea Salonga, Catherine O'Hara, Vivica Fox, Chris Parnell, Shari Belafonte, Alyson Hannigan, Phylicia Rashad, Tracey Ullman showing up as guest stars, and the superb Tim Gunn serving as Sofia's fussy-but-tender butler and mentor Baileywick, it's more like a big Disney feature than a TV show. (Of course, they figured out that it's essentially a 30-minute commercial, so they poured resources into it. Every once in a while in American TV, that calculation turns into first-rate entertainment.)

But the main thing is the main thing: Sofia, a peasant girl whose widowed mother marries the widower king, is now a princess. She must now be caught up to speed on all things royal. Sincere and true, Sofia (voiced by the perfect Ariel Winter, Modern Family's biggest, though modest, star) is both pilgrim and Pippa, learning the ways of the castle and the expectations of a princess, while injecting light and life into her sometimes corrupt surroundings, particularly her spoiled stepsiblings.

One of my favorite episodes, "The Princess Test," tells a familiar story. Sofia is in a kind of Hogwarts-for-royalty course, along with her fellow kid princesses from various lands. (The stories all take place in the Ruritanian kingdom of Enchancia. The other kingdoms cleverly cue to real-life world regions.)

Today is the day of the Princess Test. All will show what they've learned. At the library, Sofia is flummoxed by all the rules and regulations. The other princesses, born to it, have absorbed much. Each tells Sofia that it all boils down to something, different in each girl's account: just flutter your fan properly; just keep your dress immaculate; just curtsy; know the dance steps.

On their way to the ballroom, the librarian, Mrs. Higgins, asks for help. Her book-cart has broken down. The other princesses proceed to the test, but Sofia stays by to help. It turns out, though, that Mrs. Higgins's house is further than she thought. Then the bridge is out, so they have to go the long way. Time stretches on; the test is surely half over. We see the other princesses worry about Sofia, while also choking at even the tests that should be showing their strengths. Meanwhile Sofia loses or ruins everything she needs for the test: her fan, her books, her clean dress which finally gets spectacularly muddy.

At last, they reach Mrs. Higgins's house. But ah! it magically fades to show that they are in the castle ballroom. The others had ignored the old woman in need in their zeal to get to the test; but the old woman in need *was* the test. Sofia wins a golden prize, for a true princess helps people, even if it means giving up something important.

It's not just a powerful retelling of Jesus of Nazareth's forecast of Judgment Day: the episode pulls in well-digested and sound references to the Good Samaritan, the letters of Paul, the book of Micah, and more. This can't be accidental. Not in Disney.

The soul, like our heroine, is beset by Pharisaical rules and regulations in the great library of Religion; finds tidy, trivial definitions of success among differing sects; and is above all tempted to put rules before the treatment of people. The other princesses, in their side-story, show the futility of Law — and the redemption that Grace brings, with Sofia's often-mean-girl sister playing the encouraging Good Pharisee of Acts. Then the finale, Matthew chapter 25: a little-girl gathering of nations. The author surprises both the worthy and the unworthy by revealing that when you ignored or aided the down-and-out you ignored or aided the test-giver in disguise.

Sofia doesn't pass all such tests, of course. Nor does every episode bring this level of moral and spiritual depth. But each episode knocks itself out trying, and more often than not surpasses much children's entertainment in the process. More than once, Greta has paused the show just to revel in the sheer beauty and visual imagination displayed on the screen; more than once, she's rewound to hear a particularly beautiful melody or orchestration again.

All the while, lessons are being taught, with Bunyanesque eye, around the pitfalls and challenges of life in our journey to adulthood — boys and girls.

Disney goes in and out of periods of firing on all cylinders. Right now they're in a season of pop perfection. Ride the wave while it lasts.

Friday, September 16, 2016


The idea that each human being is a unique and beloved creation, as individual as each snowflake, is a worthy one.

But the metaphor itself has been mocked so much that I now can't remember the last time someone used it sincerely.

The word "snowflake" has been kumbayahed.

Monday, September 12, 2016

my H E B

Yes, he went to this or that school; yes, he accomplished this or that thing. It's important that he recognized the value of therapy at a time when many in his religious world scoffed at it; it's important that he built a space of beauty and healing that has nourished many. But here's the important thing about Howard E. Butt, Jr.

I was sitting next to him at a conference at Laity. The woman on the other side of him had a 40-ounce Big Guzzle (this was in an era when 40-ounce Big Guzzles seemed big). She, of course, immediately dropped it on the floor. Within one second, the man next to me was on his hands and knees on the floor, using nearby napkins, calling for towels, and cleaning up after this woman.

He was in his mid-70s. He was at a station in life where he might be expected to let someone else do the dirty work. His pants undoubtedly cost more than five dollars. But there he was, a grocer's son all over again, on his hands and knees, mopping up someone's mess, just as the Savior he loved and resembled commanded.

As it turns out, that *is* what he did in life: over and over again, he saw a need and got to the task of meeting it, no matter how unglamorous or nitty-gritty.

The world will miss Howard. Rightly so: the world is a better place for his life in it — right in the middle of it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

why you should em-quad

Thursday, August 18, 2016

fun with toponyms

2 things named after the city of Xalapa: the hot pepper that comes from around there, and the old cars patched together there from parts.
(Jalapeños and jalopies)

3 things named after Turkey, the very symbol of all that is strange and exotic in the Western European mind: the odd New World bird, the unreal sky-blue–earth-green stone, and the odd New World grain.
(Turkeys, turquoise, and 'granturco,' the Italian term for corn that means "Turkish grain")

Monday, August 15, 2016


I've been thinking about benemendacia — untruths that it's acceptable (both socially and morally) to tell. It's revealing that we don't have a more familiar go-to word for this in our language. We have "white lie," but generally that only refers to trivial things we say to avoid hurt feelings. Modern Americans in general and modern Christians in particular have really failed in not giving our children good guidance in the telling of benemendacia.

You have to think clearly about several issues all at once, including gentleness, candor, the real definition of "love" and not just namby-pamby "niceness." As is often the case, the Harry Potter books explore these topics well, though not didactically or explicitly. Over the course of the books, it becomes clear that sometimes it's best to tell a truth, no matter how uncomfortable, and sometimes it's best to tell a truth bordered with piles of love and diplomacy, and sometimes it's best to know the truth but shut up about it, and sometimes it's best to actively conceal the truth, and sometimes it may even be best to completely mislead.

Oddly, we think that those qualifications muddy the moral waters, but it's the opposite: refusing to teach children how to think discerningly about such things, both in what they hear and what they say, is what muddies the waters for them and for all of us.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

the humor-importance graph

In discussing an aspect of current politics, the phrase "court jester" helped me to isolate an issue I've seen cropping up in several places lately.

Let's look at four people on a graph that measures attempted humor and importance of topic:

(With all love to Steven Covey, who addled a generation of businesspeople, the quadrants go counterclockwise.)

The Boor is the radiologist who corners you at a party and solemnly recounts the entire plot of a movie on finding out you haven't seen it.

In the same no-humor hemisphere, the Statesman in Quadrant II is also humorless and possibly boring, but [ideally] is tackling important issues; you're [ideally] more motivated to stick with these people.

Down in Quadrant IV, the Class Clown uses humor to deflect from even the most serious issue — especially the most serious, even. Whether from shallowness or hurt, this frustrating person blockades any real topic.

Up in Quadrant I, the Court Jester uses humor in precisely the opposite way, to delve *in* to a serious issue — especially the most serious. Court Jesters therefore do the opposite of blockading real topics, because they're more likely to open that topic where it may have been closed before.

Each Quadrant has its temptations. The Court Jester's temptation is to put so much mayonnaise on the sandwich (in the form of Quadrant IV fart jokes) that you miss the meat. The Statesman's temptation is to think the meat, served dry, is the whole meal.

My least favorite kind of teacher, for obvious reasons, was the kind who could never tell the difference between class clown and court jester.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

picnic with Clara and company

Clara invites me to a picnic on the living-room floor. It's a French-fry–and–watermelon picnic, during which we build some stuff with Lincoln logs.

Abraham Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright's son, and ingenious Native American horticulturists gave us a delightful noon.

It's always noon somewhere, isn't it? There's always some aspect of your life that is reaching its height, its heat, to be enjoyed for a moment before it falls away.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

pocahontas and the west

I spent a moment rewatching some of my favorite parts of "Pocahontas" — "Colors of the Wind" and "Just Around the Riverbend."

Of course, the movie had so many bad choices, from the WonderPoncho to the complete rape of the historical record (which, most dispiriting of all, would have been far more entertaining). But many of its critics derided it for being "anti-Western" in its revisionist white-guys-get-it-wrong sentiment. They were wrong. That sentiment is one of the strongest themes of the West, from Socrates to the present moment.

Whenever you see Lord Byron in a turban, or his great-great-grandson, a white suburban kid in hip-hop gear, you're looking at the same thing. "Orientalism," as Edward Said called it, that suspicion that the Truth lies outside the West, in the exotic Other. It's one of our great traditions.

Plus, some really good songs there.

Monday, July 18, 2016

hyphens, en-dashes, em-dashes

I did this after seeing a web page that just used hyphens for everything. Take a nice close look.

Monday, July 4, 2016

july 4th and all

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."

Generation after generation has held us to those words, insisting that all means all. Over and over: all means all. That point is never made without shrillness, haranguing, and bovine objection. But it keeps getting made.

To independence, interdependence, and a shining city on a hill.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

flag day

I've been thinking more about Flag Day. The mere sight of our flag stirs up great feelings of patriotism and love of our country in me. I see it and I see freedom and justice and equality and opportunity — a radical vision of how life on earth can be.

Maybe we should take Flag Day as a day to vow that that's what this flag will mean to *everyone* who sees it. During various blips of history, the American flag has indeed meant those things to just about everyone. In other times, when people see it they might think "That flag represents the people who needlessly slaughtered my innocent-bystander cousins," or "That flag represents victimization of my entire people." And validly so.

Old Glory is never more than a generation away from being a symbol of pure evil, and it's never more than a generation away from surpassing even what it has stood for at its very best.

It all comes down to how I talk, how I vote, how I spend my money and time. I renew my pledge that they will point toward liberty and justice — for all.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

kids and abridgement

A friend asks: what do you think about having kids read abridged versions of classics as a whet for the real thing later?

There are classics and then there are classics and then there are classics.

1. Folktales (broadly considered - Norse and Greek and Roman myth, for instance)
2. Children's books that have been around (Pooh, Stuart Little, Wind in the Willows)
3. Canonical literature that's often marketed to kids (Treasure Island, Ivanhoe)

1 - I see no reason not to have several versions of the various tales around, from simple picture-books to readers of various levels — there's often no one "real" version anyway.

2 - In general, children's books should be in their original version, so you may have to wait a bit till the kid is old enough. Abridged Narnia? Harry Potter? It seems almost not worth doing at all, right?

3 - All those Walter Scott and Alice Tisdale Hobarth books are wonderful campfire storytelling but I don't see any crime in adaptations so that younger ones can get to the stories. I had a "Moby-Dick (Abridged Version)" that was no more than about 20 pages when I was a kid! Hah! What on earth! But hey, what the heck. Certainly we do the same thing with our bowdlerized and simplified (and often heretical) Noah and Jonah and David and Daniel books, and rarely think anything of it.

The question, then, is where you'd put Little Women and Jo's Boys. Is it a 2 or a 3? Hm. On reflection I think I'd call it a 2 and let 'em read the real thing when ready. Same with the "Little House" books.

As a rule, 2s are good for reading aloud to the kid — the parental voice has its own rhythm and logic, and a kid can be thereby expanded.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

farewell miz oliver

In 80 and 81, I was in middle school. Every Wednesday, we would pile into Jay Victory's van and carpool to Amory Oliver's Dance Studio, where we foxtrotted to the Bee Gees, two-stepped to George Strait, and cha-chaed to Santana.

The girls would be seated along the wall. The boys would walk by to choose partners; then for the next dance the boys would line up and the girls would choose. If you were seated, you looked at the parade of choosers, knowing you were being evaluated and wondering who would deem you suitable; if you were the chooser, you walked and walked, wondering whether you were passing up your best choice or whether a better one was down the way. It was a mortifying and thrilling microcosm of dating and relationships, a one-minute picture of the next 20 years of my life.

The fact is that you are being evaluated, and you may as well put your best foot forward. Miraculously, during your most awkward time of life, you got guidance in manners, morals, and motion from Miz Oliver.

(That's right, Miz. She never ordered us to call her "Mrs," to my recollection, nor "Miss." You could in retrospect spell it "Ms," but spelling it "Miz" reminds you that the women of Texas had their own brand of feminism, and a form of address that fit it perfectly, decades before all that national handwringing that wound up with everyone saying ... Miz.)

She ushered San Antonio's cotillion-going crowd into the room. No exaggeration. I was on a date with an Oliverite when we both found out she was closing her doors. We stared at each other blankly and wondered what on earth people were going to do. To tell the truth, I still don't know — a world without Amory Oliver? How could younger generations have survived?

How indeed: she died the other day, loved by a terrific family and by countless people whose handshake is firmer and step more confident because of her. Maybe St Peter will finally win himself a chocolate bar.

Thank you, Miz Oliver. I just wish I could hear you remind me to smile one last time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

vow to refuse clickbait

DO NOT click on this link. The writers of the headline (not Maher and not the interviewer, but editors of Salon) crafted the headline as clickbait. Every time you see something like this, your first question should be, "What did he *really* say, if anything?"

In fact, he *didn't* say, "I refuse to watch John Oliver" (as the URL implies), nor did he say "I won't watch John Oliver" (as the headline implies).

The interviewer asked if he watched Oliver, commenting that he'd heard Maher didn't watch other comedians. Maher responded that that's right: he tries to stay away from other people's comedy because he doesn't want to be influenced, subconsciously or not, by what they're doing. It's a way to stay original.

I post this not because of Maher's merits, or the merits of the interview, or even the wisdom or unwisdom of staying away from other people's work. I post this because this kind of headline is bad for you. It's not nutritious; it's bad for the brain; it's bad for discourse; it's bad for democracy.

Monday, May 2, 2016

that's my girl

5-year-old Greta announces from the back seat that she must use the restroom. I tell her not to worry; we'll pull over immediately.

Fortunately, we're just that moment passing by a business owned by a friend, who's there. We stop in and ask if we can use their restroom.

Back in the car, I mention to Greta that this is our friend's business and this is where he works. She says, "Well, he's not dressed for it."