Saturday, December 31, 2011

the annual year-end post

And then I wrote: 26 concert reviews and 2 other articles published at SFCV. That's one every other week on average, though of course it wasn't that regular. Twice I did three within a period of two weeks. Two of the concerts were not exactly musical.

Other than that: the annual review of the Year's Work in Tolkien Studies (co-authored with Merlin De Tardo) and the annual bibliography of the same subject (co-authored with the editor's student, whom I've never met) for the journal Tolkien Studies. Two reviews, one short article, and an obituary for the Mythopoeic Society's publications, some of it hacked from LJ posts. Another article there in press.

And then I went: to the following cities stayed overnight in:
Sacramento, CA (twice)
St. Louis, MO
Blytheville, AR
Arnold, MO
Santa Fe, NM
Albuquerque, NM
Reno, NV
Medford, OR
Albany, OR
Portland, OR
Yreka, CA

Other states set foot in: Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Washington.

I probably set an annual personal record for the number of SF conventions I attended without leaving town: Corflu, Potlatch, and Westercon (to which Fogcon would have been added had there been time), and I certainly set a record, both in-town and out, for the number of different public libraries I visited in one year: at least 30. (The reason for this is still to be named later.)
Longer day trips took me to various places around the area, in San Joaquin, El Dorado, Napa, Sonoma, and Monterey counties.

Friday, December 30, 2011

a wedding

When my friends of, already, several years' standing had their first child, I was delighted. I played with the baby: blonde, like her mother, bright-eyed and responsive from the start. Clearly a child of promise, which eventually was fulfilled. Little was I thinking at that early point that, mumbledy-mumble years later, I would be attending her wedding.

But 'twas so. A fine and dignified service in the family's church, with some cogent words on wedlock from the pastor, and recorded music by Mark O'Connor, Vaughan Williams, and Bach. Then on to the reception. The dinner was excellent; some of the best-prepared food I've ever had. After the usual speeches designed to embarrass the groom, it mutated into the usual DJ-run technopop overload. I usually have to duck out of these for a while to decompress; this time I huddled up in a back corner with a full introvert shutdown, a state with some resemblance to catatonia. I hadn't realized I could do that. I came out of it enough to give goodbye wishes to the bride and groom when we left, but I'm still a bit shaken. If you don't see me much for a bit, that's part of the reason.

But this should be about her. I've watched her mature, and I've been waiting for this stage. I don't look at her and think, "Why is this baby getting married?" Instead, I see a grown woman well-equipped for the great adventure on which she's embarking.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Guess what we just did, Pandora? We went out to see humans pretending to be cats. Wasn't that silly? Yes, they were singing words by a silly man named T.S. Eliot to music by a sillier man named Andrew Lloyd Webfoot (or something like that), and most of them were wearing body tights drawn over with cat fur patterns, except for a few who depicted elderly cats by wearing big hairy robes that made them look more like yeti, or a Ralph Bakshi drawing of an Ent, than cats. And they danced impressively well, but not very much like cats would dance. (Where is Randy Nelson with his "cat-like gestures" when we need him?) And most of them sang pretty well too, especially in the tough syncopated numbers about the Jellicle cats, the more pleasingly as it helped us to ignore the tinny sound of the pit band, which consisted mostly of two synthesizers and an over-miked drum kit. The dark sets were illuminated by flashing lights which would have made Pippin run and hide in the closet. And one little girl in the audience had her face made up as a cat also. I hope she had a good time too.

Monday, December 26, 2011

an answer I require

Jon Carroll's annual Christmas quiz and the answers. DO was already on it.

I did fine on the geography quiz, but muffed this one. The only questions I got right were 5 and 8, and not because I knew the answers but because they were multiple-choice and the other choices were all obviously wrong. I got parts of 6, 14, and 15. I ought to have known 11, but all I could say for sure was that it must be a place name from the correct linguistic region.

I query Jon's source for saying that the corpse being dressed for its funeral in the opening credits of The Big Chill was not Kevin Costner. (He'd been cast as the dead man in some flashback scenes which were cut before release.) Everything I've ever read about the subject says it was him. Which doesn't prove it right, but does make me wonder where Jon got contradictory information and which is more reliable.

I am useless on "think of a word which has these characteristics" questions like 4. I put 10 too far to the east in South America and too far to the west in North America. I do not know any Paul Simon songs that do not have "and Garfunkel" in the credits; does that make me too old or too young to have gotten the reference in 1? I thought that 2 might have something to do with the Knights Who Say ..., but they haven't been in the news lately. The answer to 3b is contradicted by the movie about Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, but it didn't know dip about Stravinsky so I'm not surprised it didn't know dip about Chanel either. I knew the first part of 14, but I've never seen the movie. If the answer to 16 isn't a), I'm stumped; I know there's somebody with a name resembling that to whom that is the answer. (ETA: Now I remember: it was Fred Harvey.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

the other Christmas quiz

The San Francisco Chronicle's geography quiz.

I always find most of this one very easy, but it's still fun to do. I got 32 of the 50 questions right without even having to think about it, and another five with having to think for a moment about it. (I particularly liked no. 21 as a brain-teaser.) Three I guessed right; four more I semi-got or partially got, and I might as well clarify the intent of no. 6 by saying that by "likely to have residents older than the states themselves" they do mean centenarians. I was figuring it was a trick question applying to long-lived trees, but if I'd been sure they meant exceedingly old humans I'd have gotten it right. Five more I didn't know (no. 44: I did not know that) and only one (no. 34) did I get wrong.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

and the day

So what did we do on Christmas Eve? Went to a Hanukah party, of course; it's the 5th night.

Whatever you're celebrating, may it be joyous.

Friday, December 23, 2011

C.S. Lewis anticipates Le Guin's "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie"

"Aren't all these economic problems and religious differences too like the politics of our own world? Why go to faerie for what we already have? Surely the wars of faerie should be high, reckless, heroical, romantic wars - concerned with the possession of a beautiful queen or an enchanted treasure? Surely the diplomatic phase of them should be represented not by conferences (which, on your own showing, are as dull as ours) but by ringing words of gay taunt, stern defiance, or Quixotic generosity, interchanged by great warriors with sword in hand before the battle joins?"

- Letter to Jane Gaskell, author of Strange Evil, 2 Sept 1957

Thursday, December 22, 2011

notes of the day

A Noted Tolkien Scholar says that if I don't like the Hobbit trailer I should just not see the movie. (And there is Jo Walton, proudly standing far away from the entire set.) Sorry, that's not an option for me. Unless I decamp entirely from Tolkien fandom, I can't avoid this movie by not seeing it. I am going to be living and breathing its atmosphere wherever I go. I know, because I did that of its predecessors. Just as an example, I have this day alone received six broadcast e-mails from various friends alerting readers to the trailer. So I might as well see it, and be able to have and express my own opinion of it, instead of seething patiently through everybody else's, because you know they're going to be talking about it.

Also, I can't do the job of defending and distinguishing Tolkien's work from the movies without knowing what they say. Half my conversations about Tolkien with non-specialists in the last ten years have consisted of "that's what the movies say, but the book says this" or untangling some movie-born (and -borne) misapprehension, which I'd never have understood or figured out if I hadn't seen the movies myself. "Know Thine Enemy" the proverb goes, and thereby for my own protection I am forced into the theatre.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"it's real, and it's coming" - on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help

John D. Rateliff, apparently (unless others are hiding in shame) the only top-rank Tolkien scholar who really likes the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies, has kindly posted a link to the first trailer for Jackson's upcoming film of The Hobbit, apparently the first of two movies. (The Hobbit is far briefer than any of the three volumes that make up The Lord of the Rings, yet Jackson managed to make that in only three movies.) John says, "after years of delay, it's real, and it's coming," which he says is a feeling to luxuriate in, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that the same words could equally evoke a feeling of deepest dread - and if said in the tone used throughout the trailer, they probably would. Which is why my response, in the title of this post, is to quote Aragorn on the Nazgul.

Whenever someone expresses negative anticipatory feelings about an upcoming movie on the basis of seeing the trailer, there's always some doofus around to say severely, "You can't judge a movie on its trailer," but you will see in the comments section of the trailer's post no shortage of people willing to express enthusiastic anticipatory feelings about it on the same basis. If they can feel pumped, I can with equal justification feel dismayed. One of them says, "feels like 01 over again," and the feeling of a retread of the previous set of movies is exactly the problem.

One of the less remarked flaws of the Lord of the Rings movies was that they turned the broad structure of the story into a debilitating slog. I discussed a specific example of this in regard to Moria in my essay in Janet Brennan Croft's Tolkien on Film (p. 52), but it's not a matter of concrete moments so much as one of broad perspectives. Near the end of the second movie, Jackson's Gandalf says, "The battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle-earth is about to begin," and even though he immediately goes on to say that all the hopes rest on two hobbits (Jackson says he knows where the heart of the story lies, but he doesn't act as if he believes it), my immediate feeling was a sinking one of "Oh no, do we have to go through all this again?" (Cue Douglas Adams's bowl of petunias.) The problem is that, even though Gandalf makes the same point in the book - he tells Theoden, "If we succeed [against Saruman], then we will face the next task" - Tolkien never gave me that feeling of a weary, endless, repetitive slog. (And if there are those who say the book feels like a slog and the movies are fast and zippy, that still proves my point: the two works have an entirely different ethos. And if some doofus then says, "Of course: a movie is not like a book," they're begging two important questions which are the topic of my aforementioned essay.)

Watching The Hobbit trailer after seeing the Lord of the Rings movies also gives me that feeling of going through the whole thing again. Again, this is not something I get from Tolkien. Maybe it ought to be. The Lord of the Rings starts out as a remarkably close copy of its predecessor: reluctant hobbit adventurer sets out on a journey, takes twelve chapters to go over the same geographic route that The Hobbit covered in a zippy two chapters, with almost interchangeable semi-comic, semi-horrific adventures on the way, before finally heading off in a different direction. But it isn't repetitive, and one major reason it isn't is the difference in tone. After The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings is a bigger, darker book, with a broader, deeper view of the world it's set in. They feel quite different from each other.

It's harder, though, to turn back from The Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit. Tolkien himself grew a bit embarrassed by the earlier book's lighter tone, and attempted a thorough rewriting more in the style of The Lord of the Rings. But he soon abandoned it, in part for just that reason - it would just repeat what he'd already done. (You may find the relics of this draft in John D. Rateliff's estimable The History of The Hobbit.) Jackson, though, has chosen to tread where a wise man decided not to go. He has decided, perhaps inevitably in the circumstances, to frame The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings - that is, a story told later though taking place earlier - and he has given it the tone of the other book, or, more precisely, of the other movies. Everything said in the trailer about the possible dangers and how the journey will change Bilbo is in the book in some way or other, but the feel is entirely different. In Tolkien's books, Frodo sets out with a miasma of danger already hanging over him - one which Jackson, typically, overplays, not knowing the difference between danger and action - but Bilbo rushes out in a whoosh of comic spirit, and his growing misery is based merely on physical discomfort. He knows there's a dragon ahead, and probably other dangers on the way, but he's not thinking about them because he can't even imagine them. They don't hang over the story. Everything hangs over this trailer. The dark ominous tone in which Jackson's Thorin refuses to guarantee Bilbo's safety, whereas in the book a more general warning is comically embedded in a pompous speech, the equally ominous shot of the Ring, whereas it's essential to the tone of The Hobbit that the Ring not have all the baggage that would be piled on it in the sequel.

More notes. The dwarves don't look like dwarves, unless they have comic bulbous noses on. Dear God, this aspect is going to be bad. I do hope that the clip from Howard Shore's LotR film music is just a placeholder until they get something new. And is that some kind of tender romantic moment between Gandalf and ... that must be Galadriel? Look, I'm not going to oppose putting Galadriel in The Hobbit just because Tolkien hadn't invented her yet; retroactively, she was around. The problem is, are you going to ask yourself, is she really appropriate for this story? I will give Jackson credit if he resists the temptation to put Arwen and ten-year-old Estel in his movie. And Martin Freeman as Bilbo seems to act well, though whether this character will really feel like Bilbo remains to be seen. And the words in the dwarves' song are all from Tolkien, hurrah, though that's a gloomier setting of them than any other I've heard. Typical.

ETA: Review saying it "looks like a fan trailer recut from the first three movies."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stands Snoopy where he did?

He does. An outing northward provided a chance to re-visit the Charles M. Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, which I'd been to before some years ago. The gift shop next door may be full of awful kitsch, but the museum is quite dignified. The current rotating exhibit is on the topic of women's (or I guess I should say girls') sports as depicted in Peanuts, which they were frequently. On display were the originals of the rarely-seen sequence from 1954 in which Lucy enters and nearly wins a golf tournament: rarely seen because it's the only occasion in Peanuts history in which adults are shown. Schulz decided that was a mistake and never allowed the sequence to be reprinted in his lifetime. (It is in the Fantagraphics complete Peanuts.)

I might not have noticed this before, but in the re-creation of Schulz' office upstairs, the record on the turntable is the Brahms Op. 25 Piano Quartet. Excellent choice, but unsurprising as I knew that Brahms was Schulz' favorite composer. (He assigned Beethoven to Schroeder because he thought "Beethoven" was a funnier-sounding name. Actually, Beethoven was himself quite aware of how funny his Dutch peasant name sounded in Vienna, and this was part of his class resentment. He took no opportunity to correct anyone who mistook his ordinary Dutch "van" for a German "von" which would mean he was of the nobility.)

Also visited the ice-skating rink next door (built at Schulz' initiative, and with his money) long enough to have some refreshment at its small cafe, regrettably named the Warm Puppy - supposedly as in "Happiness is ..." but suggesting to less star-crossed eyes something gruesome left on the grill or in the oven.

Monday, December 19, 2011

over the weekend and through the woods

was the annual caroling party, affording me the annual question, when faced with a score of four-part harmony, what do I sing?

It's not a question of my voice range, so much. My speaking voice is medium high, but I find it easier to sing low in my range than up at the top, and I'm more secure at the bottom of the parts than somewhere in the middle, so I sing bass rather than tenor.

No, the problem has to do with reading music. I can read music in the sense that I know what all the symbols mean, can follow along the score with almost anything I hear, can analyze harmonies, and can often recognize on sight music I already know. But I can't sight-read, that is, sing a tune I don't know from just seeing it. When I learn part-songs, I have to learn my part by ear, and then use the score as a crib. I learned Handel's Messiah that way, for instance, and managed to get along OK at sing-along Messiahs when we used to go to those.

At most part-song gatherings I go to, we just sing, so what I have to do is plant myself next to some basses who can sight-read, and by a combination of picking up from them and reading the score feel my way through. That depends on there being some, and the caroling party is small, but this year there were two such basses at least part of the time, so I ventured more than usual. Particularly rewarding were "Angels We Have Heard On High" with its broad contrapuntal "glooooooooooorrria", "Silent Night" which is easy because the bass line has only about three different notes, and "We Three Kings" which has a particularly rich and satisfying arrangement.

But trying to keep my eyes on both the music and the word simultaneously - that's tough. Sometimes I just look ahead and try to memorize the next line of words, if I don't already know it, so that I can keep my eye on the notes, which are the hard part.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

the more you know, the more jokes you get

If there's some joke or other allusion - a reference in a newspaper column, or an editorial cartoon, or something of that nature - that one of us doesn't get, the following is true:

1. If I get it, and B. doesn't, it's about politics.*

2. If she gets it, and I don't, it's about pop culture.**

3. If neither of us gets it, it must be about sports.***

*This is true. On our first trip to Britain together in 1995, I had to explain to her who John Major was.
**This is true. Recently she's had to explain to me who Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were.
***This is true. Neither of us had any clue about a joke in today's editorial cartoon referring to something called "tebowing". (Yes, I have since looked it up, but both the action and its namesake were complete news to me.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

the "don't have that before bedtime" nightmare before Christmas

Maybe I've just had too much hot cider, but the newspaper headline "Jobs Flowing Back into Region" conjures up for me an image of the spectral ectoplasm of Steve Jobs slowly spreading himself across the width of Silicon Valley, in a Tim Burton-ish sort of way.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

cat food

Whichever of us gets up first in the morning is greeted by hungry cats. Pandora gets fed canned food every few hours, but even right after eating, she's often hungry for more. (We have to be careful not to overfeed her, though.) She's always been a vocal cat, and figures that if she meows often enough, and darts ahead any time either of us moves vaguely in the direction of the food dishes, eventually she'll get fed. Unfortunately for logic, this is true.

Pippin, meanwhile, was not a vocal cat to begin with, but he's noticed that Pandora meows and gets fed, so he's trying meowing too. But he is only fed dried kibble twice a day, so meowing at Pandora's other feeding times does him no good. It's so pathetic watching him try, though. I'm reminded of the interaction between Papagena and Severian long ago. Poppy was an almost weightless cat composed principally of fur. When she was happy her legs would get wobbly, and she'd fall over with the gentle plop of an air-filled balloon floating to the ground. Seven saw this and concluded that that's what cats did. He, however, was heavy and solidly built, and he would fall with all the grace of a cow (which he rather resembled: a tiny black cow with trunk-like legs) tipping itself over.

Besides feeding the cats, it's my responsibility to deal with their leavings. I clean two catboxes once a day, and I've gradually found that I even dream about it. How professional catsitters refrain from going quietly insane escapes me. My coping mechanism is to sing to myself from my private repertoire of customized cat songs with extremely primitive lyrics. B. has her own repertoire of songs adapted to the topic of cats, but mine include:
  • "Little cat" to the tune of "Lollipop",
  • "Cat things" to the tune of the Batman tv show theme, and
  • "For She Is a Pussycat" by Gilbert and Sullivan
There might be something analyzable about that list.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

a book too far

Sitting around at Moe's yesterday were some copies of a new book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by Richard Paul Roe. This is not a neutral guide to Italian references in Shakespeare, but an Oxfordian rant.

Shakespeare's knowledge of Italy has long been a favorite topic of Oxfordian authorship theorists, as Oxford is known to have visited Italy, and William Shakespeare the actor isn't. (Actually, there's an unknown period in his life during which he might have visited Italy, or done many other things we know nothing about.)

This has always seemed to me to be a futile line of reasoning, because the Italy in Shakespeare's Italian plays has always struck me as superficial. My crack is that the plays show that the author had been no nearer Italy than a map, and not a very good one.

Roe disagrees. His thesis is that the Italian plays show a deep familiarity with both the geography and social customs of late 16th century Italy. To argue his point, Roe employs some impressively tenuous lines of reasoning. I've read a lot of Tolkien source criticism, so it takes some doing to impress me with the tenuousness of your reasoning. As a lawyer (which he is) arguing a case, Roe weaves improbably artful interpretations on plain or even clumsy wording, for instance claiming that Shylock's passing reference to his "Jewish gabardine" proves that the author of Shakespeare knew exactly what Venetian Jews wore, while brushing off the errors or gaping lacks of knowledge which he acknowledges exist in the same source.

The book as a whole is the most extended exercise I've read in seeing Jesus in a tortilla.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

day's outing

It takes about an hour to drive from here to San Francisco or Berkeley when the traffic isn't heavy. Once you get there, however, you may not be able to find a convenient or inexpensive parking space.

Today I wanted to go to both San Francisco and Berkeley, and because I didn't want to have to deal with parking in both, and because I had the time to do it and wouldn't be heading back late when CalTrain stops running, and not so much because I wanted to be a good little green traveler, though that was a bonus, I went by public transit.

It took about three hours each way, which I knew in advance. It would have taken longer still if I didn't drive the 3 miles to the CalTrain station (and try to find all-day parking there, a story in itself). I think about those who don't have any choice other than to travel this way, and am reminded of someone's wise comment that it's very time-consuming (and expensive) to be poor.

CalTrain to BART to AC Transit, the last now costing $2.10 a ride (OK, it's time for them to start taking credit cards), the last not because the distance isn't walkable but because I'd have had to leave an hour earlier to catch a train that would have gotten me there in time to make the walk by our appointment time, got me to the Clark Kerr Campus in Berkeley for a site visit and meeting-with-the-staff about next year's Mythcon. It looks as if we'll have to do a certain amount of juggling regarding the availability of some meeting rooms we'll want to use, but the relevant people are on that, so I'm sure it will work out somehow.

A walk down to Telegraph Avenue revealed some sad changes, including the old building that burned up last month, now a knocked-down pile of bricks (I wonder if the inhabitants of the upstairs apartments were allowed to retrieve any of their surviving possessions first), and some others I hadn't known about. My up-until-this-moment favorite Mexican restaurant has changed name and management, and revamped and "updated" its menu, removing the tamales which were my favorite tamales in all the world, so much so that in forty years of regularly eating there I never ordered anything else. Unless they bring them back I shall never eat there again. Amoeba Records has closed down the secret but large attic room where the classical stock sat in peaceful splendor, and has tucked it into a much smaller space in the back of the jazz section downstairs. I may not be shopping there much any more either. However, Moe's Books is still there, and I scored a good used copy of a $55 musicology book for $15. And Julia Vinograd, Telegraph's resident street poet, is still there, as has been the case as long as I've known Berkeley. With a practiced saleswoman's eye, she caught my smile and told me she had a new book out for $5. Pleased that something is still unchanged in Berkeley, and liking the poem about Joan Baez I turned to at random, I bought a copy.

What I then went to San Francisco for was another lecture-demonstration on the history of the SF Symphony in the city library auditorium. This one featured four musicians - a violinist, a French horn player, a flutist/piccolo player, and the orchestra's pianist/keyboard player - talking about what it's like being members of the orchestra. Some honesty mixed with some hedging. Yes, we love our work. Yes, the conductor's approach and personality makes a difference. Yes, practice every day - you lose your edge if you don't. (I believe this - my fingers feel stiff and clumsy when I begin typing after more than a couple days away from the keyboard.) The violinist said his old teacher had told him not to begin by plunging into the works being played that week, but always start with scale exercises: "First the scales, then the fish." The horn player said that playing the Wagner tuba (a rare instrument that, despite its name, is more like a French horn and is consequently played by the same people) is really quite different, and that she feels conspicuous coming on stage with one. "It's like you're carrying a small baby goat." The flutist said she'd never planned on specializing in piccolo, but drifted into it when she found she was good at it. "I didn't pick it: it picked me." The pianist, an aging man with a ponytail, said that the SFS is a loose outfit in collective personality, less prim than the visiting orchestras he sees. "They don't wear Hawaiian shirts."

Each of the other three played a solo piece with the pianist accompanying them. The flutist's was a Carmen fantasia with a lot of extra-musical goofings off, including waving a fan, weaving seductively, whirling her outer blouse over her head and throwing it into the audience, and shooting the pianist with a pop-gun when his part threatened to take over the show. The other two sat utterly motionless while this was going on.

Monday, December 12, 2011

errands of the day

1. Picking up a prescription renewal at the hospital pharmacy. They've given up the policy of only handing out a half-prescription if you pick up a renewal in person, which was intended to encourage patients to use mail-order. I prefer in-person when I can, partly because it's faster (a relevant point if on the verge of running out), and partly because of the strange things our mail carriers sometimes do when they find the package won't fit through the mail slot.

2. Unsuccessful search for a Goodwill donation truck. The nearby shopping center that used to have one is now under construction, and the truck is gone. Goodwill's web site shows a truck at another nearby shopping center, but there is no truck.

3. Post office, to mail little holiday packages to B's numerous relatives. I offered to let the woman behind me in line at the self-service machine, who had only one package and who also had a squirming toddler, go ahead of me, but she didn't understand what I was talking about (possibly an ESL problem). So I just tried to work quickly. The toddler stood underneath and gazed up quizzically as I did so.

4. Dentist, for a cleaning and checkup appointment postponed from when I had a cold. As I sat there being buzzed at, the inhouse sound system was playing jazz versions of the Nutcracker Suite and Peer Gynt. Not just an arrangement, but an alteration of the notes and their value and pitch and number: jazzing it up. Look, I kept wanting to say, if you don't like the Nutcracker then don't play it, but there's no need to demonstrate your disdain by mucking around with it like that.

5. To market, to market, to buy a little chicken to cook for tonight's dinner, made with a delicious but (alas) discontinued curry sauce I found at one of the upscale grocers.

And so, stomachs satisfied (the cats' too, at least momentarily), to the computer for the evening perusal.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

works with short titles

Movie: The Help. Less of a "see what a noble white person I was" story than I'd feared. The black women are individuals, tell their own stories, and get credited with them. One thing puzzles me. If the whites were really as paranoid about contacting black germs and diseases as depicted here - something I haven't seen in any previous discussions I've read of classic Southern white racism - then why did they let black servants prepare their food and handle their babies? Especially if, as the movie's chief racist character puts it, it's all to protect the children?

Book: Ash by Malinda Lo. First novel by our new Mythcon GoH, so it's about time I read it. Well-written and interesting to read. The first half is a novelization of most of the Cinderella story, up through the point that the stepsisters start going out to balls without her. Like all good fairy tale novelizations, it fleshes out the story: for instance, the cruel stepmother is still cruel, but is given reasonable motivation for her behavior. No traditional fairy godmother; instead, Scottish border ballad-type Quendi lurk eerily around the background; one of these (male) will take on the traditional role, with ominous overtones that blow away in a puff. The second half veers suddenly off into a tender first-love lesbian romance story, with Cinderella courted by a royal huntress, a woman not much older than herself but, until the very end, far more mature. No sex, but lots of horses. The famous ball becomes just an incident, with the prince pushed to the sidelines: he's intrigued by Cinderella, but when she disappears, he shrugs and marries someone else. OK, you can tell this story this way if you want to; the world has room for a number of things.

Friday, December 9, 2011

seeking Seattle transportative enlightenment

The Potlatch web page says that "the handy new light rail ... doesn't go quite as far as the Hotel."

And the light rail's web page shows the line going only as far as the Westlake station, which is at Fourth and Pine.

Google Maps, however, appears to show light rail continuing up Westlake Avenue as far as the lake and then turning east, with the last station at Fairview and Ward.

However, the light rail project website shows an under-construction extension going not in that direction at all, but heading up Pine towards Capitol Hill.

Is the Google Maps extension a phantom, or what?, and will I get in trouble with all the Google apologists again if I suggest that their maps are not perfect in every way?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

concert review: Boston Symphony

Of all the other great American orchestras that the San Francisco Symphony has invited to town on the occasion of its centennial, the Boston Symphony is the only one currently without a music director (or regular chief conductor in the case of Philadelphia, which has spent several years pretending it doesn't have a music director), as the artistically acclaimed but illness-plagued James Levine finally faced reality and resigned a few months ago.  To lead them on this tour, the BSO brought in Levine's former assistant Ludovic Morlot, the new music director in Seattle.

I'd never heard Morlot's work before.  For that matter, I'd never heard the BSO in person either (they were off the one time I've been in Boston during the season), so this concert turned out to be a chance to confirm why I've never been particularly fond of their recordings.  They sound really nice, but they lack drive and direction.

Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture opened the concert and illustrated this.  It was less pointlessly meandering than some performances, and a few transitional passages really did pick up and go for a few moments, but it didn't truly shape itself.  The main impression left was the astonishing smoothness of the strings, pure and silky without any overlushness.  The winds were more pungent and sounded at times as if they came from a different orchestra.

This approach led to predictable results when applied to a fat Mozart piano concerto like K. 503.  Richard Goode was soloist and played with the same plush tones as the strings.  It was very beautiful and it went absolutely nowhere.

Elliott Carter's Flute Concerto.  Twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter.

Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin suite was particularly sad because it's loud and ferocious and requires the orchestra to play with demonic passion, and they did, but it just didn't add up to anything.  A lot of sound and fury signifying, you know.  I heard the Vienna Philharmonic play this earlier this year, and anybody else trying it in their wake is going to be sorry.

What I did enjoy was the encore, one of the shortest encores on record.  Morlot remembered why the BSO had been invited and led them in Igor Stravinsky's version of "Happy Birthday To You", a thoroughly Stravinskified metamorphosis that resembles the original no more than a Frank Gehry structure resembles a building.  Fun to listen to and very brief.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

piano moove-cow

For the last 22 years or so, B. and I have been living with a piano. A beat-up old ex-school upright with old student carvings all over it and a top lid falling off, whose interior works are nevertheless in remarkably good condition, made by the Howard Piano Company, of Cincinnati. One of B's sisters had acquired it for something like $25. B. uses it to practice church music on, and sometimes to play for fun. I noodle on it occasionally or use it to sound out harmonies in scores that I'm studying.

B's mother also had an upright piano, made by the Conover Piano Company, of Chicago. It does not have a school in its history, so it's in much better exterior shape. We've inherited it from her estate, with the intention of finding a home for old Howard. It turned out that the music director at B's old church knew someone who wanted a cheap piano for her children to practice on.

So the match was made. The next step was making the plans, which included finding a feasible date for everyone involved and hiring a mover; thus all the phone calls I made last week. The movers were, of course, extremely interested in the size and shape of the instruments involved, which is how I learned that there are uprights, and there are uprights. This chart, though it is not from the movers we ultimately chose, illustrates the point. The Conover is a console upright, second class in the upright family. Old Howard is from the third class, and after seeing this chart I understood why, when I gave its height, the movers always asked if it had any player-piano works inside; they wanted to make sure that it wasn't of the fourth class, saloon pianos, which are much heavier.

This morning was the big day, absolutely packed with logistics. B. was at work, so I dealt with it all, driving early over to the senior center where her mother had lived. I'd been there before, but I had a very short time to clear some space in the still-cluttered apartment and to make myself into a momentary expert in the locations and workings of the delivery gates, back doors, gate openers et al, before the movers came.

After they did their thing, it was back to our home, out with the old and in with the new, watched by cats with "wtf?" expressions on their faces. Signed invoice, paid, phoned the mom with the piano-practicing kids to alert her to incoming arrival. Got another call from her half an hour later, confirming that Old Howard had arrived, and adding, "I'm admiring the carvings."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tolkien reconstructed

Adam Gopnik is one of those tiresome people who feel conspicuously guilty for liking Tolkien and wish they didn't.  Not surprisingly, then, his article in the December 5 New Yorker comparing Tolkien with his epigone (as the table of contents puts it, with refreshingly honest criticism) Christopher Paolini, is sophomoric, full of insights and clueless ignorance both in full measure.  It deserves a thorough commentary, and here it is.  Brace yourselves; this is going to be long.

1st p., "At Oxford in the 1940s ..."
Nasty of him to cite as proof of Tolkien's and Anglo-Saxon's boringness Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, two highly intelligent men who a) were pure modernists in their thinking, with no empathy with older modes at all, and b) affected a sort of lowbrow common-man ignorant mulishness in their literary judgments.  Ask W.H. Auden or Robert Burchfield about it and you'd get a totally different answer.

2nd p., "It is still one of the finest ..."
Gopnik is out of date if he thinks current fantasy literature is still an annex of Tolkien.  The day of Tolclones like Brooks and Donaldson and Eddings was over decades ago now.  Current top fantasists like George Martin are not trying to replicate Tolkien's spirit at all, well or poorly.  Their work has nothing to do with his beyond a medievalized imaginary-land setting, a world-shattering crisis, and keeping magic in the background rather than in front.  To the extent that Paolini is a Tolclone, he's an atavism today.

3rd-5th p.
Gopnik is absolutely right that the mixture of the homely hobbits and the vast Nordic background is what makes LOTR (and The Hobbit) work.  It's unfortunate that he thinks that the hobbit-less Silmarillion is "dull as dishwater."  For one thing, many readers disagree, especially ones who've come to it since its publication (as opposed to those who spent years expecting its appearance) and who were thus without LOTR-based expectations of its nature.  Gopnik's flat dismissal shows none of the charity that he expresses towards the wretched Paolini.  For another thing, if he'd actually read the Silmarillion, which apparently he hasn't, he wouldn't make some of the LOTR-based generalizations about Tolkien's thought of the next paragraph.

6th p., "Modernist ambiguity ..."
This one needs a lot of unpacking.  First off, Gandalf and Aragorn do express inner doubts, if "inner doubts" can be held to cover despair over whether they have the inner strength to carry on, or the wisdom to choose the best course to advance the cause in which they believe.  What they don't have doubts about is whether they've chosen the right side, but why should they?  I do not recall ever having read of any Allied generals in WW2 expressing inner doubts in the form of wondering if they should be fighting for the Nazis instead.  That was straightforward evil, and they were just not tempted.  Similarly, Gandalf and Aragorn recognize evil when they see it, and have made a conscious decision not to take any action that would lure them down that course.
In the real world, Tolkien was fully aware that the evilness of the Nazis did not make the leaders of the Allies entirely virtuous, or excuse misdeeds by the soldiers on their side.  This is clear from reading his letters.  (Has Gopnik read them?)  There is little of this to be found among the heroes in LOTR, though there are hints of it, in particular undercurrents of mutual hostility among the allied parties.  (One of Tolkien's themes is that goodness is culturally diverse, and thus sometimes mutually uncomprehending.)  But there are three more things to be noted here.  First, that he is always clear that virtue consists of actually being virtuous; it is in no way inherent in the white hats that the heroes wear.  They are the good guys only so long as they actually remain good.  (Denethor and Boromir are there to show what happens if they don't.)  Misdeeds are not excusable, but perilous.  Second, that the purity of the heroes, to the extent that it is unrealistic, comes from the fact that Tolkien is writing a romance, not a realistic novel, a point Gopnik already made earlier.  A large part of LOTR's appeal comes from the craving in our fallen world for a story about real, genuine, unsullied virtue.  We don't have it but we need it, and its presence marks the vast gap separating LOTR from such fantasy series as George Martin's, where nobody is virtuous, or even very nice, and if they try they get killed quickly.  It needs also to be noted in this connection that Gandalf and Aragorn, who in Tolkien's book (but not in Jackson's movies) already went through and survived any crisis of choice before the story started, are not the chief protagonists of LOTR.  LOTR's protagonists are Frodo and Sam - unmentioned as individuals by Gopnik, by the way, which suggests he has no idea where the center of the story lies.  From a character function analysis point of view, the purpose of Gandalf and Aragorn in the story is to serve as models for Frodo and Sam to look up to and try to emulate.  That's where the rubber of the humble hobbits really meets the road of the heroic background; that's what the feature that Gopnik praises is there for: normal folks facing stark challenges of moral virtue, who can see what's at stake.
The third point is that if Gopnik really wants characters who are torn and conflicted, who commit evil deeds in what they consider a noble and righteous cause, and who think their nobility and righteousness excuses them, he ought to read that supposedly dull book the Silmarillion.  Tolkien's least remarked virtue as an author is an absolute genius at showing situations in which no course is righteous, all are flawed and fraught with moral as well as practical peril, and no character is either a straw man of wrongness or a mouthpiece for the author; all have legitimate points and also express blindness towards others' legitimate points.  It's all terribly sad, and terribly real, and - as a work of art - terribly beautiful.  -- And, not incidentally, knowledge of this history is the fuel that feeds the determination of Gandalf and Aragorn, and even more that of Galadriel, who experienced all this personally, to avoid falling into those traps of self-righteous justification in LOTR.  The Elves have been there and done that, and they are chastened by the experience and are not going to do it again.
Now, back to LOTR and Gopnik's points about the morally ambiguous and evil characters.  First off, he has committed the common error of confusing the moral clarity of the situation with the moral status of the characters.  In LOTR it is always clear what is good and what leads to evil.  Characters, however, shift, and it's more than the occasional character as Gopnik says.  Both Saruman and Wormtongue were once virtuous and fell into evil.  (So, we are told, was Sauron, though we never see him as other than evil; there are, however, hints in the Silmarillion as to how he got that way.)  Boromir and Denethor are in the process of falling.  Gopnik doesn't discuss any of these.  He does mention Gollum, who is in the opposite situation of a character already fallen into evil, who is (sometimes) trying to climb out, but fails.  Gopnik is quite misleading in stating that Gollum teeters over self-interest rather than conscience.  Gollum is engaged in a literal argument with himself, his narrow greedy self-interest vs. his enlightened self-interest, that which will help others and save himself, and the latter is his conscience.  As for the generals of Mordor failing to reflect on duty vs. morality, well, we hardly ever see the generals of Mordor close-up doing much of anything.  LOTR is not a story about exploring the depths and nature of evil.  It's a story about the depths and nature of good, a much harder thing to write and accordingly much less often seen.  But though we don't see the reflections of the generals, we do, in a few scenes among the orcs, see the reflections of the evil infantry, and, as Tom Shippey pointed out in a brilliant paper, what we see is the boundless cognitive dissonance of people who can do what's evil by their own moral standards and never notice it.  They're not reflective; they're blind to their own follies; and looking at much of the evil in the world today, that seems a lot more common.

7th p., "What substitutes for psychology ..."
Here again Gopnik expresses well the sense of loss that Tolkien is able to convey to the reader, even the reader who doesn't know the thing that was lost.  He also mentions Tolkien's sense of history, though as I've suggested he doesn't understand it.  He also mentions the almost complete absense of what he calls "lust".  Well, yes, sexual lust is pretty much absent from LOTR; it's all too present in the vast majority of fiction, and it's a relief to take a break.  (Again, if Gopnik wants some of that, he should read the Silmarillion.)  But the guys who cataloged the seven deadly sins will tell you that sexuality is not the only form of lust, and lust for power, for immortality, for sheer personal possession, is all over LOTR.

8th p., "To see the road not taken ..."
Lin Carter was the first genre fantasy critic to state outright that The Once and Future King is a masterpiece where LOTR, whatever its virtues, is not.  But again, not everybody agrees.  OFK, in its final, hastily put together and rewritten form (it's actually very different from its previously published constituent parts), is a misshapen, off-balance book that lacks the courage of its own convictions.  One of the commenters in the MythSoc list discussion of this article calls OFK a desecration and hatchet job on the Arthurian mythos, and criticizes its heartlessness and the anachronisms that both date it and ruin any consistency of subcreation.  I wouldn't criticize it that harshly myself; I think it's a very fine book, but it does have serious flaws and is not a match for LOTR in quality.  What it does well, it does well indeed; but that is not a better thing than what LOTR does well.
At the end of the paragraph, Gopnik delivers himself of the stunning remark that "a Tolkienesque treatment [would focus] on clashes between armies."  That is true only if by "Tolkienesque" he means "characteristic of cheap, ignorant LOTR imitators," not of LOTR itself.  In LOTR, the clashes between armies are actually the sideshow, and if you don't get this, you don't get LOTR.  The real story is the quest of Frodo and Sam, the characters Gopnik never mentions.

10th p., "It is no insult ..."
Again Gopnik fails to note a major difference between Tolkien and Paolini.  Eragon is the hero of Paolini's book, while his equivalent Aragorn is not the hero of Tolkien's.  (Frodo and Sam again.  You see why it's so significant that Gopnik doesn't mention them?)  The other equivalences he mentions are, I trust it's clear, surface features.  Lastly: Tolkien doesn't "practice guilt by phoneme."  Gaah.  The idea that harsh or sibilant consonants are evil in Tolkien fails to consider Dwarvish, and to the extent that it is true, the sounds, like some of the color symbolism, are an aesthetic preference and a marker for the presence of evil, not the evidence of guilt.  It's really moronic to get this backwards.

14th p., "In one moment ..."
Gopnik says that "Tolkien would never have written about 'types of magical traps'."  Well, he did.  The Ring is a magical trap.  Old Man Willow is a magical trap, literally.  The barrow-wight is a magical trap ("They felt as if a trap was closing about them").  Frodo thinks Aragorn may be a trap.  For that matter, Aragorn thinks Frodo may be a trap ("The Enemy has set traps for me before now").  That's just from Book One.  Need I go on?

15th-21st p.
This is the meat of Gopnik's argument, in which he makes the very C.S. Lewis-type argument that, however awfully written Paolini, or Stephenie Meyer for that matter, may be, they're certainly appealing to something in their readers, and it's worth exploring what that something might be.  As they don't appeal to me, I can't judge the quality of Gopnik's answers, but I can wistfully regret that the author of this section of the article didn't communicate his insights to the author of the Tolkien section of the article.  "You don't 'identify' with Sherlock Holmes," he says.  Nor with Aragorn either; that's not what he's there for.  And his admonition that "the spell such works [as the Elder Edda] cast on their audience wasn't diminished by what we find tedious" (emphasis added) is a complete rebuttal to the unsympathetic critic who wrote that the Silmarillion is "dull as dishwater."  Now who was it who said that, again?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mythcon coming up

It's been announced elsewhere so I can say it here too: our Mythcon in Berkeley next year has a new Author Guest of Honor: Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Huntress. Our previously announced GoH, Grace Lin, told us last month that she had to withdraw because she's expecting a baby at a time that would make her attendance unworkable. We on the committee spent some time ruminating as to what to do next, and we're really happy with our choice's work and with her acceptance.

Now, to get the word out. The Mythopoeic Society website ought to be the first place to go for up-to-date information, but it hasn't been updated yet, sigh. For years, I've been telling every arts and cultural organization I have contact with that they have got to keep the internal factual information on their website urgently up to date, because that's the first place people look for information in our brave new world, but this advice is always met with something between incomprehension and hostility.

Eventually we'll get it right, though, and I hope you'll attend.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

reading and eating

The annual festive meeting of our local Mythopoeic book group was this evening. For our potluck, I made my roasted broccoli, a favorite at home which I've only recently figured out how to make portable and which I took to family Thanksgiving as well. (Skimp on the olive oil, so it doesn't get soggy after cooking, and do the final mixing of ingredients on site just before serving. Then remember to take all that stuff home, the step I haven't perfected yet.)

Before the readings, we talked for a bit about current movies, but my reading was inspired by a recent movie that hadn't gotten mentioned, and for good reason: Eric Idle's fantasia on Shakespeare authorship mania. Then I tried reading an excerpt from a paper I'd recently been asked to review, but instead of sounding hilariously bad it just came off as boring and ridiculous, so I soon stopped.

For next year, I have a couple of good pieces about cats saved up.

Friday, December 2, 2011

end of a journey

Two and a half weeks ago, B's mother died.

Today, she was well and truly buried. Many family, some kind friends.

The priest, current incumbent at her old parish where she hasn't been for a while, said that today we lay to rest our sister and gave the name of one of her daughters instead. Ouch. Sense of vertigo among the mourners. Profuse apologies to B's sister later.

The Navy came to the gravesite three strong, saluted slowly, played Taps from a boombox, folded a flag, spoke briefly and formally in honor of "my shipmate" (nice phrase) and got the name right.

That's not the whole story by any means. B. has been spending much of the interval going through belongings at her apartment. So have her siblings. There's more. Tuesday is my turn: I'm going over there to facilitate having the piano moved to our house, and our existing piano swapped out somewhere else. We already have her microwave oven in substitution for our own old one. Etc. Photo albums too. B. prepared the photo collage for the memorial service. And so.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

a trip by car

To get there, you turn off the highway at the colorful old mining town wedged in between the steep canyon slopes. You then drive up out of the canyon for about 15 miles through rugged countryside with only the occasional scattered house, on a series of continuously twisty roads, enough to make even me slightly queasy, each more precarious and doubtful than the last, starting with a narrow state highway and ending up, for the last half mile, on a dirt rut.

Later, of course, you have to return the same way.

It's a beautiful house, spacious and comfortable, with evergreen verdant slopes all around, and the inhabitants thereof seem happy, and they work at home. But every once in a while one needs to leave, if only to do the shopping, and it passeth my understanding ... how anyone can live in a place like that.