Friday, October 20, 2017

two wildernesses, same wilderness

I sat in on an American Lit class today, and came to a realization. Here in our country's twenty-third decade, there seem to be two trains of thought about where we've come from and where we're going.

One train of thought says the land we've left is Eden. We're in the wilderness, and must go back.

The other says the land we've left is Egypt. We're in the wilderness, and must go forward.

Make America great for once? Make it great again? Most of our rhetoric, posturing, and genuine disagreement can be traced back to this vital difference in view.

Our dialogue, then, if it could ever get so plain, would look like this:
"Your promised land looks like it's going to be my hell."
"Your Eden *was* my hell."

The thing is, these two views catch on for a reason. They're deeply implanted. We have a very real memory of a Lost Eden, and a very real anticipation of a New Jerusalem.

So each of these narratives resonates chimingly with something central to our cosmic story. But we distort when we try to apply the narratives to our human nations, so fallible and so momentary.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

science kids and blue mountains

The Landa Library had their 70th birthday shindig Saturday. At the book sale, I spotted this gem, a well-worn edition of one of the Danny Dunn books. I gasped aloud.

Landa (and bookmobile) librarian Carl Bernal, whom we considered our family librarian for decades, turned me onto Danny Dunn, a series of slightly plausible science-fiction adventures (no Cat Women of the Moon but lots of tech that could theoretically happen, including, now that I think about it, virtual-reality drones).

Years later, Carl heard me on the radio and called the station. I told him Catherine and I were getting married soon, and invited him on the spot. On hearing we were going to Thailand for the honeymoon, he got excited because he'd been recently and loved it. He also immediately began recommending Thailand books. True to form.

At the reception, along with a more standard wedding gift, he passed me an envelope. Thai currency! Arriving in Bangkok at midnight, we were grateful not to have to deal with exchange. And there was enough to pay for the cab and our first hotel night, with a little left over.

Throughout our stay, I looked for some cool little thing to spend the last of Carl's money on. One day, down south, we were at a coffee place that had Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I'd never had it, but recognized it as the first better-than-Maxwell-House coffee I remember hearing about, well before the era of boutique coffee, back when i was 9 or 10. Where did I hear about it, you ask? The Danny Dunn books! (His mom and Professor Bullfinch liked it.) And it cost exactly the amount of Carl's money we'd had left over. I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent coffee, the superb coincidence, and the reminder, in this faraway land, of a dear friend, a guide to life well lived, then and now.

A lady who had heard my gasp came and found me on the grounds later, wondering what on earth could have produced it. I recounted the whole story to her and her young family, who were, or pretended to be, enchanted. I'd decided not to buy the book, even though it benefitted the library, so I was glad to see later that her husband had nabbed it. He said the whole thing was too good to resist. Just think: years from now his grandkids may remember, in their middle age, those great old 20th-century books he had lying around when they were kids.

So. I'm brewing some coffee (Yirgacheffe, if you must know). If you're drinking one, join me in a toast! to Carl, to the Landa, and to the many people who opened my first glimpses of faraway lands through books.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

happy and unhappy families in art

Watching a "This Is Us," I come to a realization: the big difference between scripted drama and unscripted (reality shows, daytime talk shows, all that) hinges on a false but compelling observation by Tolstoy.

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Scripted drama still adheres to this. ("This Is Us" does so with just the right recipe of grandeur and detail and tenderness and severity.) Time after time, we're presented with people who are lovable but flawed and whose flaws create the germ of the drama, always threatening to capsize things and sometimes succeeding.

Reality TV, though, has shattered this cozy illusion. We now know that Tolstoy had it wrong (in a way, if you squint): unhappy people and families are leadenly, stultifyingly, numbingly alike. Happy people and families are quirky, odd, a delicious blast in their uniqueness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

the metonymy of attraction

I had a funny conversation recently. Try it on yourself.

It was not about politics, but rather about the metonymic nature of attraction. (I've talked about this before, from the opposite direction.) My observation was that, if you dislike someone, you dislike how they look (and their stupid striped shirt too); if you love someone, you love how they look (and their cool striped shirt).

They try to get at this in the movies by frumping up the girl at the beginning and then dolling her up by the end as the guy begins to see what's good in her. (Of course, she's played by a glamorous actress.) But that's a kind of distrust of the audience. Better is the strategy of "Lost," which picked unlikely actors and then gazed at them up close as you the audience fell in love with them, with the result that you had the most compelling-looking ensemble cast there's ever been.

If you've spent years scoffing at Donald Trump, and a good solid year or more hating him, then you might not be *able* to see that he's a handsome guy. He is, and was, both in his younger years and now.

Similarly, if you've spent your entire adult life hating Hillary Clinton, then you might not be *able* to see that she's an attractive woman. In her younger years and now as well. She's got that Washington charisma — you can't get far in politics without it.

One friend said, "nope, he's an ugly man. Nasty." Another said, "Hillary? I don't see it. " Sure enough. You know who they voted for.

One of the greatest things you can do as a human is to remove the tinted glasses.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


This afternoon, a comment by a friend got me to watching "Frozen" in its entirety for only the second time. I'm sitting here undone by a superbly-told story. Once again, Disney, when they're on their game, taps into the mythos like no one can.

Again and again, they get it right: the way people can deceive and be deceived; the relationship of law (the parents' solution to Elsa) to love (Anna's solution), the use of gloves as metaphor for covering the true person. As Dennis Whittaker points out, aside from Elsa's gloved or bare hands, it's also how you know that the gloved prince is not to be believed. Only the touch of skin is truth.

The most arresting song, Elsa's stunning Byronic paean to Milton's Satan, is exposed in retrospect for the selfish ode that it is by a sister whose other-directedness winds up in a spectacular sacrifice.

The theme of fear is woven masterfully into the story from its first moments until the climax, when the visionary John's words "perfect love casteth out fear" become visual and musical and dramatic reality. What follows is an indelible image of the world being made over, a Northern New Jerusalem where brotherhood and sisterhood are finally possible, all our curses now tamed into powers.

The final musical motif, sounding as the camera retreats into the sky — should I spoil it by telling you? no! — is an affirmation of the film's highest principle.

Monday, October 2, 2017

today's etymology

Today's etymology:

Khwarezm: a region of central Asia.

Khwarizmi: a surname indicating origin there. (Like someone whose last name is Aleman probably came from a Spanish-speaking family that had immigrated from Germany)

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi: a dude. Not just any dude; he was a mathemetician.

al-Khwarizmi: his 'last name,' again. Say it a few times.

Algoritmi: his Latin name. (Dudes went by their Latin names because Latin was the lingua ... uh, Latina.)

algorithm: the multi-step formula named after him