Tuesday, May 31, 2005

tolkien's weaknesses?

I've gotten into a couple of conversations lately about the strengths and weaknesses of Lord of the Rings. So many people have, over the years, responded so defensively to my accusations of bad writing that I feel the need to explain a bit. Tolkien isn't a bad writer: when his brain is on, he's fluid and brilliant. It's just that he got sloppy and became guilty of tone drift. To see how badly written the epic is in places, just read The Hobbit, a model of elegant, sleek prose.

At the beginning of the series, you feel a gentle consonance that makes a paragraph pop and bounce pleasurably without calling attention to itself; toward the end, it's self-conscious Beowulf pastiche, turgid and pretentious, the verbal equivalent of those vases you see at Hobby Lobby that are painted to look antique.

I played a little round of Put The Finger On The Page in both books:

Soon the passage that had been sloping down began to go up again, and after a while it climbed steeply. That slowed Bilbo down. But at last the slope stopped, the passage turned a corner and dipped down again, and there, at the bottom of a short incline, he saw, filtering round another corner — a glimpse of light. Not red light, as of fire or lantern, but a pale out-of-doors sort of light. Then Bilbo began to run.

* * * * *

Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

cigar flashback

In midcigar, I had a flashback: a couple of Memorial Days ago, we were all sitting out on the deck at my parents' house. Paul had brought some Cubans to share. Rich and Paul and I were smoking one; Wendy and Kathy were not; Catherine was. Mom and Dad were inside. Actually, maybe Wendy and Kathy were too.

Mom came out to say something. Before she did, though, she took my cigar in a don't-mind-if-I-do sort of way, and took a puff, gave an evaluative nod, said, "Mm, nice," and then went on with whatever she was saying. Mom often clucks about our cigar smoking, so it was unusual to see her do that; more amusing was the boys' reaction, ranging from delighted surprise to the Are You Crazy stare.

Every once in a while, you get to see your parents when they were young. That evening, we caught a glimpse of the Southern belle, innocent but not naïve, in the world but not of it, who made 1957 such a fun year in Austin, raising some hipster's eyebrows at a horn-rimmed shindig.

Friday, May 27, 2005

conversations with mark

I just had an hour-long conversation with Mark Cole. He's an old friend from college, who lived two doors down on my dorm hall, and who immediately became a friend and kindred spirit. His new venture, Conversations From the Past, is a self-help-meets-men's-movement franchise, with newsletters, articles, tapes, and the like, all inspired by the lives of remarkable men — Winston Churchill, JS Bach, George Whitefield, Talleyrand.

He's starting a new series of interviews with remarkable men of the present, as well. And his first interview subject was — me! I was a bit surprised by this, but also energized and pleased by our wide-ranging conversation on career, culture, and the examined life.

One of the first things I remember him doing our freshman year — can it be twenty years ago now? — was an English paper he had to write on the life of a "remarkable" person. His subject was — me! I was flattered then, and I'm flattered now. Can't wait to hear the result.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

good little church boy

I heard someone using the term "little church girl" the other day, and it brought back memories of being called a "good little church boy," even well into adulthood. That phrase and its variants, applied to me so many times in my life, always somewhat bothered me, but I never put my finger on it till yesterday.

It's interesting, isn't it, that the word "good" gets attached to the word "little." Of course, "big" goes with "bad." Is that because corruption is perceived to be simultaneous with growing up? Inevitable? Or maybe being "good" is something that seems an appropriate topic only for the young. This is why we try to keep children from cussing, but as soon as they reach — what age? — we stop, and it's okay for them to cuss. Well, if it's okay for adults, why isn't it okay for children? And if it's not okay for children, then is it for adults?

Maybe there's a self-preserving reason why adherence to moral virtue is the equivalent in many people's minds of velvet dresses and mary janes; why being good is something you're assumed to grow up and out of, so that an adult who still adheres is somehow not entirely adult.

To understand this, only think about why a girl I was on a date with several years ago called me a "good little church boy" when she found out about the cluster of behaviors that includes not getting drunk, not trash-talking about people, actually going to church, preserving my sexual behavior for marriage. She didn't say it scornfully; she actually sounded a bit impressed. But still, that was her phrase. After all, she could just as easily have said, "You're an admirable man of honor and integrity." That sounds more grown up, yes? But those words also put a burden on her that she may not want. She may not have wanted the responsibility of my integrity. Because integrity is something to aspire to; being a little boy is, by definition, not.

Mother Theresa hit on this in her Nobel Prize speech. We'd shut her off in the ghetto of Nobel Prize winners, saying, in effect, "You're so remarkable! You feed the poor! You deserve a prize!" In her speech, she punctured all that by saying that she didn't deserve any prize. She was only doing what Christ commands us all to do. I can only imagine the cricket-sound in the hall when she said it. She's of course right: feeding the poor is something good that we all can and should do. By giving her a gold star, we relieve ourselves of the burden of basic goodness, allowing ourselves to be categorized as normal while she's remarkable. If she's normal, then maybe we're deficient.

So I understand why so many people have tried to characterize me as either Goldilocks or Jerry Falwell, even when they know me well and know that I'm neither naïve nor hypocritical nor, I hope, on a high horse about my own blameless perfection. I'm merely a person who has decided to try to live by a set of principles. I've failed horrifically, but at least I've tried to build some strength of character out of it.

Meanwhile, I have female friends who do not have one man in their life — not one — who doesn't cheat on women. They watch their mothers and sisters and friends get cheated on, they watch their fathers, brothers, uncles, boyfriends, and husbands being unfaithful, and they think, "that's just men for you."

Why wouldn't they want to see our culture's definitions grow up?


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

the odd political spectrum

What struck me today was how strangely aligned our current political spectrum is. The thing that got me started was global capitalism and its adherents and opponents.

It makes perfect sense, for instance, that Jason, who is more politically conservative than I am, would complain so strongly against Wal-Martization — the way it replaces home-crafted stuff with less expensive foreign stuff, displacing American jobs overseas — while I, being slightly more liberal than he, would be more positive about it (though I have no love for Wal-Mart).

But perhaps Jason and I are much more consistent in our views than the average person. As you must be aware, the average conservative is rather affable on the subject of globalization, whereas the average liberal is militantly against it. So you get the spectacle of left-wingers marching in the streets, and John Kerry declaiming loudly, about "keeping our jobs at home." Meanwhile, Bush sounds positively progressive, encouraging the equalization that global trade permits, and proposing plans to allow illegal temporary workers in places like south Texas to be considered legal.

What's going on here? Of course, this isn't the only weirdly inverted issue: after all, for 30 years now the party that has stood for giving voice to the voiceless has fought strongly for the right to abortion, while the party that should by all rights be saying "let the market decide" fights strongly against.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

dispatches from a different world

To file under the heading of "Things I'd Like To See Dramatized": Jim Harrison, in writing about a thirty-seven-course lunch, writes, "When I wanted a taste of Calvados as an entremets the waiter actually told me that I'd have to be patient until after the cheese course, an hour distant. Luckily, an intemperate French count who was at my table told the waiter to bring my Calvados immediately or he would slap his face."

The gentry are useful, after all.

Monday, May 23, 2005

three lands, three covers

Today I show you three magazine covers. All three are from the same publisher, same magazine, same week, all with the same article critical of American foreign policy. All three mention the article somewhere on their covers. The only difference is that one cover is from the japanese editon, one is from the international edition, and one is from the american edition.

The thing is, if it were a joke on Conan, it would be funny.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

a music industry first

Yesterday, I got a first in the mail. I got my first royalty check from ASCAP. Been a member for a year, and still haven't figured the thing out entirely, but they sent a check that reflects the second round of foreign performances of works, and Poland apparently came through for me, to the tune of one dollar and eighty-eight cents.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

verdict: it was really good.

I finally saw it. I knew I didn't want to stand in line on opening night or get dressed up or anything; I just sauntered in to an afternoon showing yesterday, not knowing what to expect, but prepared to be a bit disappointed.

I gotta tell you, I loved it.

It's not a masterpiece, but it's a masterfully executed film. Anyone who tells you that it in any way diminishes the series is just wrong. I know that especially those of us who were around in the 1970s for the original can get nostalgic about it, but this work honors the works that came before, giving us new insights into characters we met when we were kids and who are part of the culture now.

I need not go much into the visual aspects of it, because you already know that the visual imaginations involved are among the best — in a couple of scenes of breathtaking beauty, you wonder (for the first time in a long time) how on earth they were done. At one point, our hero covers his mouth, astonished at the sight before him — exactly the sort of corny-clueless move that George Lucas would do — but it works: instead of guffawing, we immediately understand, because we're right there with him. What's around him is that astonishing.

Speaking of the actors, let me be the first to say that the acting isn't bad at all. In fact, it's quite good, partially because the actors all go together so well and the casting was brilliant, and partially because they were given a superb script, incisive and mythologically true and funny in all the right places and reverent in all the right places. Honestly, I couldn't be more pleased.

As for the music, it might be dismissed as the same old bunch of John Williams cliches, but, in the best John Williams tradition, it's extremely well done, providing real emotional support in a series not known for its depth of emotion.

The thing is, I did get teary a couple of times. That may be because I get teary easily at movies. But this series has more human heart to it than is usually conceded. In short, even if you'd sort of waved it off in your mind as a crass corruption of a once-great idea, you should give it a chance.

Go to the movie theater and see it on the big screen, and be thankful that, amid all the stuff that's nothing but franchise extensions and 3-hour-long ads for the video game and action characters, there's at least one beautifully done science-fiction fantasy that's made by people who care about putting on a good show.

And, like me, you'll likely be looking forward to the sequel.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

roll out the barrel.

Monday, May 16, 2005

birthday weekend

I had a wonderful birthday weekend. Friday night, I played a gig where the bass player didn't show up, leaving me with a drummer and an aux percussionist. Since I had complete harmonic and melodic sway, with no worries about whether anyone else could follow the form or knew an arcane song, we simply soared for four hours. Then, a Taiko drum troupe happened in to the place — they were in town for the grand opening of the museum's new asian wing — and, each taking a drum or two, did a 20-minute musical dance. I stayed at the piano and applied judicious riffs, which seemed to delight them. Overall, what a gig.

Then, Saturday, we got to sit around and share with some folks from Catherine's church in their young adult retreat, an annual oasis. Saturday night, Catherine threw me a party with a crew whose age spanned at least 60 years. Sunday, Paul and Kathy had a dual birthday party for Kathy and me, for which Catherine baked two spectacular cakes. Then, after a slight disco nap, Catherine fixed a three-star dinner, with filet mignon, penne in olive and wine sauce, and pesto baguettes.

What a fortunate man I am! Thanks to Paul and Kathy, to all the good folks who gave such insightful gifts, and especially to my loving wife.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

a curious menu item

One of the restaurants we loved in Boquete had an unusual note on their menu:

Maybe one of those retiree expats is Isaac Asimov.

Friday, May 13, 2005

contractions galore

Have you ever noticed that some people say the word "Abso'ly?" As in, "That's abso'ly marvelous! I was abso'ly amazed." Of course, several times a night and several nights a week, Conan O'Brien uses the word "Mus'al." As in, "Our mus'al guest for the evening is..."

Have we suddenly become midshipmen? Fo's'wain's 'a th' bo'sl, Cap'n!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


I'm beginning to like Bob Dylan more. I've always thought that he was okay, but nothing special. Catherine, though, has a mix CD that includes a couple of his tunes, "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "Girl of the North Country." I still think his affectlessness is affected, but nonetheless the tunes are haunting, and I can't imagine another way of delivering them.

Monday, May 9, 2005

churchill onomastics

Take, for instance, Churchill Baptist. It's a church on a hill, and it's named Churchill. Of course, it's not named that because it's on a hill. It's named that because that general area of town has lots of neighborhoods and businesses named Churchill, and the reason for that is that the school district named its schools after great war leaders (MacArthur, Eisenhower, Bradley, ...Lee). So, I went to Churchill High School.

Surnames arose in the Middle Ages, when there began to be too many people around to simply have "John the Butcher." (By the way, German Jews have a particularly colorful surname history because of their refusal to take surnames at first. That's a story for a different day.) They then took names from their professions (Miller, Cook), or their fathers (Johnson), or their hometowns (Churchill, in Oxfordshire).

So, what we've got here is a church on a hill, named Churchill, after a school that's named after Winston Churchill, whose name traces, generations back, to a town, which is named after — a church on a hill.

Friday, May 6, 2005

the black jelly bean

Today I ate a handful of jelly beans, without looking too closely at them or weeding out the black one. Like most people, I can't stand licorice jelly beans. Well, I started in on this handful, and, sure enough, there was a black one in there. And, strangely enough, I didn't hate it. I thought, "Hey. This isn't as awful as I've always thought it was before." Thus do tastes begin to change.

Monday, May 2, 2005

on a peak

We're sitting in an internet room in Ciudad David, on our way back to Panama City, where we'll do some canaling, and then it's off to the fascinating land of home. What a relaxing and beautiful two weeks it's been! And just yesterday we were at the top of the highest peak in Panama.

Which means, ladies and gentlemen, that we looked one way and saw the Atlantic Ocean, and looked the other and saw the Pacific. I've never felt dizzier, in every way, in my life.

But what does it say about me that my second thought, as I stood and looked over the seas and the forest of mountains with clouds rolling through them, was: "Boy, now I really have to read Chapman's Homer!"...?