Tuesday, December 31, 2019

the annual year-end post

Off today to get my car serviced. I usually do this around the half-year change, but not usually so tightly up against the moment.

In the meantime, for record-keeping and general entertainment, here's the cities I stayed in away from home in 2019:

Costa Mesa, CA
New York, NY
Windsor, CT (2)
Williamstown, MA
San Diego, CA (2)
Santa Maria, CA
Moreno Valley, CA
Banff, AB
Ashland, OR

That amounts to four Inklings-related conferences (I think a record in one year for me), plus one musical expedition and one theatrical one. Of these six, the two reached by car were the ones shared with B., who achieved her goal of not having to set foot in an airport for the entire year.

San Diego was twice from a pre-Mythcon planning trip as well as the conference itself, and Windsor was twice for stays near the airport on the way to and from Williamstown.

Other states I ventured into slightly (very slightly) were corners of Vermont and New Jersey.

None of these were anywhere I hadn't been before, though nearly a whole week in Manhattan gave me a view of the place different from anything offered by earlier, more hurried visits. As I noted at the time, I appreciated the chance to finally figure out the subway system, but despite some extremely appealing cultural amenities, I would find living there far too exhausting. Everywhere else I visited this year was much less stressful.

During the year I had 34 professionally published concert reviews, plus a CD review and an article describing a new venue. I co-edited one volume of Tolkien Studies, to which I made contributions to the bibliography, book reviews, and Year's Work, and I had one of my conference papers published, which I whipped into written form at the earnest entreaty of the organizers.

One other note, since sure enough this is going to come up: yes, today is the end of the decade. It's the end of the decade whose third digit is 1. That's just as much a decade as any theoretical "2010s" which still has a year to run, and since it's all arbitrary number-slinging anyway - the Earth continues to orbit regardless of what labels we use - it's illogical to refuse to acknowledge the more popular usage.

Monday, December 30, 2019

on the eighth night of Hanukkah

Instead of lighting the candles quietly at home, I went out to a religious ceremony at our synagogue. (B. would have been with me, but she's feeling under the weather and didn't want to pass it on.) It was a ceremony of an unusual kind, dubbed a service of renaming and rededication.

One of my colleagues at the library has come out as a trans man and decided to mark this with a small ceremony surrounded by invited friends and colleagues. He had been hesitant about coming out, and approached it slowly, for several reasons, among them uncertainty as to how others would react. But everyone at the synagogue was welcoming. (My own practical response to the news, as the person in charge of the catalog, was to take the initiative to use the global change function to update the name in the donor field for all of his past donations.)

As I told L. in response to the invitation, B. and I have a number of trans friends and acquaintances (of both sexes), so we've seen this change of life before. What we hadn't seen before was a religious ceremony for it, and one to be of such thoughtfulness and spiritual significance. It was conducted by our principal rabbi, started with the lighting of five hanukkiyot, and continued with prayers, songs, sermons, and the ubiquitous Jewish blessings. And afterwards, the noshing of jelly donuts.

Throughout, the intertwining of this ceremony with other aspects of Jewish religious tradition was deep and thorough. This is the kind of thing that keeps me at home in my religion, even though I'm not much of a practitioner. Blessings on dedication and on namings were numerous. Some friends gave a Torah lesson in the form of recounting name changes in scripture, ranging from Abraham to Joshua. L. in his sermon compared this ceremony with the private one he held a few years ago to dedicate his apartment, which he'd done to make himself feel more at home in it. Now, he said, he's rededicating his home in another sense for the same reason. He wants to feel at home here too.

So I made a point of saying, when I talked with L. afterwards, that - on this first seeing of him in his new identity - that I thought it fits him, that he looks at home in it. I've noticed this before with trans people whom I knew before transition, that they look more at ease, more themselves, now than they did before. And it's this observation that - I started to say "convinced me," but I needed no convincing - showed to me that transition is a real thing.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Pride and Prejudice: the musical

World premiere of this Austen adaptation at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto), going on through January 4. Written and composed by Paul Gordon, who's also given the world similar adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Jane Eyre.

To make time for the songs (though they're pretty brisk and efficient ones here), musicals require even more condensation of a novel than spoken plays do, and this one paints Austen's characters in pretty broad strokes. Every time in the first act that Lizzy (Mary Mattison) and Darcy (Justin Mortelliti) have an argument, it's immediately succeeded by a soliloquy song in which Darcy exclaims how ravishing he finds her. The second act is similarly filled with soliloquy songs for Lizzy exclaiming on the new light in which she sees Darcy.

Despite its brevity, it gives Lizzy a lot to say. She already says a lot in the book, but everything else you've always wished she could say to the plot's assorted fatheads, she says it here. For instance, after telling Wickham (Taylor Crousore) off, he stalks offstage, and Lizzy turns to the audience and says, "That felt fabulous!"

Most of the letters read by characters are depicted by having the character who wrote them appear downstage to give the text. Naturally, the patent insincerity of the greetings of Miss Bingley (Monique Hafen Adams) are most amusing. Some characters are a bit sketchy: all five sisters are there, but pretty much all that Mary (Melissa WolfKlain) gets to do is introduce the scene changes.

The songs are not particularly memorable, but they're pleasant, and are well placed to underline emotions. The most effective was the song for Jane (Sharon Rietkerk) in which she acknowledges that Bingley (Travis Leland) seems to have given her up, in which she sadly describes him as being now merely "a man of my acquaintance."

The actors are mostly Equity professionals. They act well; I'm not so sure how well they sing. The sets (just a few furnishings scattered here and there) and costumes are good, but the amplification was horribly tinny and hard to get used to. The instruments, at least, are live and not synthesized.

Lizzy is dressed and made up in a way that resembles Saoirse Ronan playing Jo March. (I've been immersing myself in old adaptations of Little Women in anticipation of seeing the new movie, and the parallels in character between Jo and Meg on the one hand, and Lizzy and Jane on the other, are striking. The other sisters on each side, not so much.) Darcy facially resembles a young Richard Burton, and has the iron-laced speaking voice of James Mason, though his singing voice is higher and smoother. Mr Collins (Brian Herndon) bears the facial mien of Alan Rickman: think Snape, but without the hair. But the same actor plays Mr Gardiner, and then looks entirely different. Mrs Bennet is written to be a flibbertigibit, but Heather Orth doesn't play her that way, which is refreshing. Mr Bennet (Christopher Vettel) is more sympathetic than sarcastic. Lady Catherine (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) swoops down with all the pomposity one could desire.

I enjoyed this and am very glad I saw it.

Friday, December 27, 2019

on the sixth night of Hanukkah

All this time it's been Hanukkah, and I've been lighting the candles each evening, followed by B. with her Advent and Christmastide candles. The candles can be perilous. This year's set came with unusually long wicks, and one shamas, after I lighted the end of the wick, snuffed out at the candle tip while the drooping end of the wick continued to burn, hollowing out the middle of the candle as I recited the blessings. I had to snuff it out, discard it, and start over. Don't tell me if some halakhic responsum forbids this. Since then I've trimmed the wicks.

Tonight was the Jewish celebratory dinner, another breaking of our diets. Matzo ball soup and challah (plus veggies). I made the soup and veggies, and I'm not revealing where I bought the challah, but it was good. What, no latkes? No, because B. is the only one who'd eat them. In years gone, we'd have my mother and (if he was in town) my brother over, and three people would eat enough latkes to make it worthwhile making them. But my mother is no longer with us and my brother isn't here, so we skipped that.

B. also bought two donuts for dessert. But I came downstairs to fix dinner to find a bag on the floor that now contained only one and a half donuts. No prize for guessing the species of the culprit.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

milk latin

One of B.'s current activities is studying languages, including Latin. So when she left me a note this morning asking me to pick up some milk, I applied my small Latin to report success by sending her an e-mail reading, in full, "habemus lacte".

Her reply? "deo gratias"

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

on Christmas day in the afternoon

Since B.'s brother and his wife, who've traditionally hosted the family Christmas, have moved up to Seattle to be near their grandchildren, her niece (sister's daughter) T., who's already taken both Thanksgiving and Easter, has claimed this as well.

So thither we went. A few other scattered relatives and several of T's friends. Not too many to crowd out the house this time, but enough to make a serious dent on the fixings, which included both turkey and roast beast. Having had luck with my green bean casserole last time, I made it again, although the making was much interrupted by my sous chef. Cut ends off bean, pick up cat from counter and put him on the floor, cut ends off bean, pick up cat from counter and put him on the floor, cut ends off bean ...

Only this time, since B. doesn't like mushrooms, I changed the cream of mushroom part of the recipe. I'd figured the "cream of" part could be used to make cream of something else, and had previously experimented by using the recipe to make myself for lunch cream of shrimp, which worked very well, and cream of chicken, which tasted a little burnt. This time I made cream of celery, which was blander than I expected, but served.

After exchange of presents (I having received both Amazon and B&N gift cards), we headed home just in time to feed hungry cats. Toasty afternoon on a cool but not inclement day.

Christmas reading

Santa Claus, this is your life.

Melania, this is your holiday taste.

Louisa, these are your adaptations (and what happens when the viewer becomes punch-drunk before writing about them)

Rudy, old buddy, this is what anti-semitism looks like

To all, why you should have a merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

When I heard that song on some commercial sound system a while ago, I thought, "beginning??" But in fact there's a difference between the "holiday season" and the actual imminence of Christmas, even for a non-Christian like myself, when that person is married into Christmas-celebrating.

For one thing, there's presents. B. likes books, but these days prefers electronic ones: easier to carry around, take up less room. The problem I've found in the past is that specific books, as opposed to gift cards, are hard to arrange to give as gifts. However, Amazon's Kindle - the platform B. finds easiest to use - has introduced a gift function into their online purchase system. You enter the recipient's e-mail and a delivery date, and on that date they send the person a pick-up link. (And, it turns out, they send you, the sender, a note when it's been picked up.)

This was perfect because the last time I was in a physical store I saw a book that was ideal for B., except that its physical form was larger and heavier than she'd have liked even before e-books. She's been reading a lot of popular medieval history, especially English, of late - Alison Weir and authors like that - and this was an ideal book in that category: Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World by Christopher de Hamel, who is the manuscripts and rare books librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (two points for the Tolkien connection here, though it isn't mentioned in the book). It's a detailed account of the making, physical form, and contents of a dozen varied and colorful medieval mss., most of them of course religious, with the aim of giving the reader a sense of what it would be like to sit down with them and physically turn their pages, since few of us will ever have that opportunity. De Hamel writes that his aim is to bring "a well-informed but non-specialist reader into intimate contact with major medieval manuscripts," and I thought: perfect, since that's exactly the level B. is reading at, and this will be a gateway to further exploration, and in just the fields of study that most interest her. And: lots of photos of mss. pages.

Since we'll be busy Christmas morning - B. with mass, I with cooking - I set the delivery date of the e-book for today, and it made a good present. She found another one on getting home from work at noon (because there's another mass this afternoon). I went shopping early this morning for ingredients for my contribution to the family Christmas dinner, and I had another geas on my list: kale. This is B's favorite green for lunch, but the packages she's been getting from Safeway recently have all been spoiled, even if supposedly not past expiration date, and she's asked me if I go shopping to find her some more. Having found earlier that Lucky's didn't have it in a convenient package, for my shopping today I decided to try a higher-end store, and went up the road to Draeger's, where I found an entirely different brand of baby kale, with eleven days remaining on its shelf life, so I hope it'll be good. It was expensive, but this was Draeger's.

So that's what we have so far.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

a realization

A conversation I was having online led me to a further step in understanding why I like Tolkien, what made him special the way other authors were not. When I was a youngster and said I liked Tolkien, friends and other well-meaning people would direct me for further reading to sword and sorcery like Howard and Leiber, and later to the Tolclones like Brooks and Eddings. But despite the obvious superficial similarities of setting, I did not enjoy these other authors at all. And I've been spending the over forty years since then wondering, why not?

I've come up with various reasons for this - the morality of Tolkien's stories and characters, the quality of his prose - but now I have what is perhaps a different other one.

The conversation started with Star Wars, the original one. My reaction to that movie at the time was a shrug and a "not bad." If it had been up to me, it would have been noted and then quickly forgotten. (Since then, my opinion of it has only gone down, especially as I've learned how to recognize in the struggles of the actors how bad the dialogue is.) But my friend reported being cheered by the discovery that other people liked SF too.

That didn't hit me. The problem was that Star Wars was not the kind of SF I was interested in reading. Demotic space opera, which is what it was, had never appealed to me. But that didn't mean that I was a real highbrow SF reader either: high literary and experimental authors like Delany, Ellison, or Russ were not really my cuppa. I liked authors with a plainer storytelling style but equally rich content. Le Guin above all, but also among then-contemporary younger authors the likes of McIntyre, Silverberg, Zelazny. Well, Zelazny's prose was pretty ornate, but it was a kind of ornateness I could see my way through.

Same was true with fantasy. The newer fantasies I liked had different kinds of settings than Tolkien, but shared his need for a moral sense, for depth of character and creation, and especially in the last a sense of the mythic. Earthsea (Le Guin again), Watership Down, McKillip. (No, Star Wars isn't mythic in that sense. It's plug-and-play Campbellian hero. Myths are imbued and organic.)

So that's where I was in my thinking. What led me to my new realization was remembering that the SF movie of my youth which gave me the "wow" that Star Wars gave others was 2001. No, I didn't claim to understand it at the age of 12 (and in fact I think even most adults didn't). What I did perceive was that it meant something and wasn't just random nonsense. As most of my media consumption at that age was children's lit and silly 1960s tv comedy shows, I craved something that stretched my capacity to understand it. The only tv show I saw in childhood that I yearned to see again when I was older was Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, because it stretched me: it was beyond my ability to fully understand it at 11, and I thought I'd appreciate it better when I was older. In the case of The Prisoner, I was able to see it again a decade later when I was in college (no videocassette releases yet then), at which time sure enough it clarified itself for me, though still posing tantalizing questions. As for 2001, the mystery of that was clarified for me a year or two after the film when I read Arthur C. Clarke's novel, which Explained All. But it didn't crush the movie into simplicity for me, just rendered it graspable.

The point is, all these things were neither trivial on the one hand nor pretentious on the other. They had substance, substance whose presence could be perceived by the youthful and unsophisticated viewer/reader even if that person could not understand or analyze that substance. Maturity or further study, or both, would lead to greater enlightenment, and that meant, incidentally but inherently, that the work would repay multiple encounters.

And all this was true of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn't as mysterious or hard to understand as some of these others, but it did demand sophisticated understanding. And that's why I loved and admired it.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

the spelling of Cats

There have been a whole lot, a really whole lot of negative reviews of the new Cats movie (including one, ghu help us, written as a bad Eliot pastiche), but what's amused me is the trouble that a few of the reviewers are having with the Heaviside Layer.

The Heaviside Layer is a real thing; it was a scientific discovery of Eliot's younger years, so he must have come across references to it somewhere. It's the part of the upper atmosphere that reflects radio waves. It got its name from the English physicist who originally postulated its existence, Oliver Heaviside.

But the fact that the musical uses the name as a metaphor for rebirth (it says here) doesn't mean you can respell it as Heavyside Layer or, even worse, Heavenside Layer. Heavenside Layer: that's the kind of normalization to the reviewer's mindset that produced "Nazi-ghoul" in Tolkien.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

victory over circumstances

We do a kind of quick and dirty cataloging at my congregational library, partly because our cataloging program isn't professional-level and because the inputting is done by volunteers. For most of our books, the inputter types in the ISBN, the program fetches a record from the LC or other online library database, and they make changes (local subject headings and call numbers) as I've trained them, and that's it.

Tougher material I usually do myself, and that includes all of the media cataloging. Only a few of these have ISBNs, and for movies on DVD I'm mostly just looking for directors, screenwriters, and principal stars to make as entries, a brief thematic plot summary for the notes, and appropriate subject headings and (if it's a documentary) call number to go with. This is often easily enough done from the box, and I don't even have to look up an online record.

But I was faced today with a batch of Israeli films in Hebrew only, which we're taking because of increased interest as the demographics of the membership evolve. My secret confession is, I don't really know Hebrew. I know the alphabet, and I can recognize individual words I know, and I can tell if a given Latin-alphabet transcript matches a Hebrew work in hand, but outside of the words I know, I can't tell the vowels without vowel signs so I can't transcribe myself, and of course I have no idea what the bulk of it is saying.

Some of these DVD boxes have the English-language title of the movie on them. So those I look up on IMDB to get the creators' names and the summary, with help from online records at WorldCat (which often have better, i.e. briefer, summaries). But some of them don't. The Hebrew-alphabet titles are now encoded in the WorldCat records, but I lack the technical capacity to enter those letters myself to make a search.

However, there are two things most of the DVD boxes have which are in English: the name of the distributor, and the date. That's good enough. The magic of Boolean sets and of cataloging fixed fields will come to my rescue. I search the name of the distributor in Worldcat as a corporate added entry. I limit this by form DVD, date, and language Hebrew. This gives me a result of 40-50 items, and it's easy enough to scan through these and look for the right Hebrew title. That entry gives me the English-language title, and it's back to IMDB for further info as before.

I get a dozen done in one afternoon, and that's a satisfying day's work.

Friday, December 13, 2019

musical outing

In which music was made, not just listened to.

Tonight was Stanford's annual singalong Messiah, held as usual in the reverberant and gaudily decorated quarters of its Memorial Church. As last year, B. went to play violin in the orchestra, while I went to sit with the phalanx of basses who occupy the opposite front. This time I sat in the front of the group, so I could hear them better than they could hear me. It worked out well, and with the support I could also determine which choral numbers I most need to practice before next year's sing.

But! That was not all. A local woman who plays the flute (and, occasionally, the cello, so she has one) was hosting her visiting nephew who is a more skilled cellist, so she went looking for a violinist and violist so they could have a session playing flute quartets together. A couple degrees of separation away was B., so we stopped by the house for some music-making and dinner before heading Messiahward. B. - who would have had her violin with her anyway - was the violinist, and I and the family dog were the audience. Chamber music is supposed to be played in a small room (hence the name) by friends, and this fit the description. They played Mozart's K. 285 and K. 298 and some other stuff. Maybe after B. retires she'll have time for more music-making of this sort.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

if it had happened otherwise

The Library of America is currently running through James Thurber pieces for their "story of the week" feature, and last week's was his "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox."

The introduction notes that this was a parody of a series of alternate-history articles that had been running in Scribner's Magazine in 1930, and which was quickly brought to a close with its third item after Thurber published his parody in The New Yorker. The implication is that Thurber embarrassed the series, whose items the intro claims were "quickly forgotten," into silence.

What the intro doesn't tell you is that all three items, plus eleven others, were published the next year, 1931, in book form, as If It Had Happened Otherwise, edited by J.C. Squire. Rather than being forgotten, this collection became a classic of alternate history. I have a copy of the 1972 reprint edition, which is available used, though since it runs about $200 a copy, it looks like time for another reprint.

The implication is that the "forgotten" essays are dull and pompous, but they're anything but. "If Booth had Missed Lincoln," which is by Milton Waldman (best remembered now as the editor to whom J.R.R. Tolkien sent a long explication of his mythology in 1950 when Waldman was trying to wrest the works away from Tolkien's previous publisher), takes the form of a review of an imaginary biography of Lincoln, and focuses on the peace-minded Lincoln having a postwar standoff with the Radical Republicans in Congress - which I agree would probably have happened, if not quite so gruesomely or with the tragic ending depicted here.

"If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg" by Winston Churchill (yes, the Winston Churchill), is a goofy attempt to write an alternate-history from the alternate-history's point of view, trying to imagine our history. Churchill quickly drops American affairs and turns to British politics, claiming that a Confederate victory in the war would have led to Gladstone and Disraeli exchanging parties, with the severe Gladstone reverting to his Tory origins and Disraeli leading the Radicals, and an end result of the squashing of the breakout of World War I. In contrast to the Waldman, I'm not sure I believe any of this, but it's an amusing notion.

"If Napoleon Had Escaped to America," by the noted historian H.A.L. Fisher, is written as a memoir by Napoleon's U.S. aide-de-camp, who follows the Emperor in his attempt to establish a new empire in South America. Like Waldman's Lincoln, the story terminates abruptly, but it's an amusing conceit.

Of the other eleven essays, only a couple, like Churchill's, deal with the all-too-common turning point of the losing of a war, and some are a bit imaginative, like "If Louis XVI had had an Atom of Firmness" (by André Maurois) or "If the General Strike [in the UK in 1926] had Succeeded," a rather nasty imaginary newspaper (set in newsprint type) by Ronald Knox. Most of the authors are notable: G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Philip Guedalla and Emil Ludwig. I won't go through them all, but I will point to my favorite: it's by the editor, John Squire, and it's the furthest removed from political history: "If It Had Been Discovered in 1930 that Bacon Really Did Write Shakespeare," which treats popular culture reaction to the news ("What does it matter who wrote such romantic and reactionary rubbish?" - Mr. G. Bernard Shaw), and is altogether to my taste the funniest piece of alternate-history I've ever read. Even funnier than Thurber's.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

clueless in techieland

I've had this question for years but it had never been in the forefront of my mind enough to ask it. But the same mysterious formulation that I've seen occasionally all that time is cropping up on political candidate signs, and I thought I'd ask about it.

It consists of an instruction, "Text [word] to [number]." For instance, on Elizabeth Warren's campaign signs, it reads "Text IOWA to 24477."

What does this mean? What is this number? It's usually five digits long, and it's printed without hyphens, so it's not a regular phone number. What kind of number is it, and by what means do you text to it? And what happens if you do? What sort of responses do these instructions generate, and by what means do they reach you?

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

Here's the review.

I knew exactly what I wanted to say here, but am not satisfied that I said it with any elegance or complete clarity. Especially with the Brahms. Did I convey what was odd about this performance? It's not that it was badly played, though there were more clams than in the other pieces, often a sign that the musicians haven't been fully inculcated into what the conductor wants them to do.

What he evidently wanted this time was the same kind of playing they gave Khachaturian and Glinka, which was fine for those pieces but doesn't really fit Brahms, like the wrong size clothes. But whether that was responsible for the enervated feeling in the opening movements, I'm not sure.

I am pleased that my editors let me get away with calling playing the Khachaturian piano concerto "exhuming" it. That kind of language is my critique of the modernist hegemony, which for decades buried works like this because they were too good: they show that standards other than severe modernism are still viable. This wouldn't be news in any other realm of music.

I had one research tickle here, when I looked up my old review of the SFS concert with a musical saw in it and confirmed that, yep, it was the same player. Since this concerto has been played with a saw or a flexatone or no added instrument at all, I wrote the orchestra management in advance to ask, and they told me their whole story.

And one challenge: I recognized the pianist's encore as a Strauss waltz, but I didn't know which one. Doubting that I'd be able to keep the tune in mind over the second half of the concert, I adopted something new to me as a memory device: I went outside during intermission, pulled out my phone, and sent myself a voicemail humming the melody. It was easy enough to look up in Barlow & Morgenstern when I got home.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Tom Lehrer: The Next Generation

It's often been observed that Weird Al Yankovic is the Allan Sherman of his day, and I endorse that view (and would more enthusiastically were Weird Al more likely to parody songs I know, or which at least have an actual tune).

But what I hadn't seen was a successor to Tom Lehrer, the other humorous songsmith who was a star of my youth. Lehrer's distinctive characteristic, besides the fact that he almost always wrote his own tunes (rather than making parodies) and accompanied himself on the piano, was his utterly black sense of humor. He would take politically touchy or downright gruesome topics and treat them with light and fetching wit. Songs like "We Will All Go Together When We Go" (cheerfully mulling the prospect of World War III) or "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" (self-explanatory) disgusted some people, but if you accepted Lehrer's sense of comedy they were hilarious.

Recently I had call to link to a video of Lehrer's "National Brotherhood Week" (wading boldly into a politically sensitive realm) and noticed in the YouTube comments several remarks to the effect that this was like Bo Burnham.

So who is Bo Burnham? Besides being the writer/director of the recent movie Eighth Grade (painfully realistic, and not as funny as it thinks it is), he's a stand-up comic whose specialty is ... writing his own songs, both words and melody, and accompanying himself on the keyboard. And doing so with a Tom Lehrer-like dark sense of humor.

I found that I only liked about half of the Bo Burnham songs I listened to online, which is a low percentage by Lehrer standards, but some of them were good, and the absolute winner was this one. Warning: if you do not like Tom Lehrer, do not listen to this song. You'll be horribly offended. (It's also more misogynist than the author probably realizes.) But the resemblance, not in style but in aesthetic approach, to Lehrer's most evil-minded moods is uncanny.

The title of that one would give it away, but I also enjoyed listening to "Lower Your Expectations," "From God's Perspective," and his parody of glossy commercial country music, "Pandering." He's been around for a bit but hadn't come to my attention.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

reading and eating

Our Mythopoeic group had its annual yule-festive reading and eating meeting yesterday. It was kind of small. Our one new member didn't come, because when the hostess gave us an unusual date for the meeting I passed it along to him; this turned out to have been a mistake, but when I gave him the correction he neglected to put it on his calendar, so he didn't come.

For a food contribution, I made the same fresh green-bean-and-mushroom cream casserole that I'd made for Thanksgiving. It has mushrooms, right? We're supposed to be Tolkien fans, right? Hobbits love mushrooms, therefore we're also supposed to love mushrooms, so it's appropriate.

I don't actually see how that follows, since hobbits also love to smoke, but I don't see many Tolkien fans doing that. Furthermore, I don't love mushrooms. I can tolerate fresh ones, though, which unlike canned mushrooms haven't achieved a degree of sliminess that only Gollum could love, so I can eat these. B. is more stringent, and picks them out. Anyway, most of it got eaten and complimented, but there was enough for leftovers.

My readings this year were inspired by earlier ones. Last year, A.S. read a passage from Good Omens that declared a rule that any cassette tape left in your car turns into The Best of Queen. That reminded me of something, and I succeeded in digging it out because I'd once copied it for an apazine. It was a column from the heyday of the San Francisco Chronicle's great columnists. It was by Steve Rubinstein, not the better-remembered Jon Carroll, as Steve Rubinstein was more likely to write about music. (He once did a column, which I also kept, about going to the symphony, in which he called out a piece by Elliott Carter as the unintelligible and unappealing glop that it is, and didn't that generate furious letters from the modernist hegemony.)

This one dated from 1987, and dealt with that new technology, the compact disc. It tells of a friend who bought a James Brown CD but found when playing it that, contrary to the label and everything else, it was Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. ("This must be a new arrangement of 'Prisoner of Love,'" said Dan. He wasn't kidding.) And of how hard it is to convince anyone, from his friend to the clerk back at the record store, that the label is wrong.

We often get old classics at the meeting. This year, A.W. pleasurably reminded us of the opening of The Hobbit. One earlier year, she read Eliot's "Macavity," and I was interested in how different her style and emphasis were from the way I'd do it. So this year I did it, with appropriate dramatics. Comment afterwards was on how much my reading differed from the musical setting. Yes, well, I had Old Possum's Book half-memorized long before Cats ever came out, and while I like the musical, I'm not enamored of it enough to internalize the songs, so to me they're still poems, not song lyrics.

Had to leave fairly promptly, by which time the drizzling rain had erupted into a torrent, drop B. off at home and then head down to San Jose for a concert to review. More on that when it's published.

Friday, December 6, 2019

news of the

1. The first sign of the impending Violins of Hope residency, as I previously reported on, has made its appearance: an exhibit of action photos taken at the shop of the Israeli luthier, the man who's collected and repaired all these violins. He's shown unpacking and evaluating a new arrival. He says from the pattern of wear on the fingerboard that it was a klezmer violin. I'm impressed one can tell.

Some of the violins have a mother of pearl Mogen David on the back.

More disturbing is the photo of the dismantled interior of, I think, a different violin. Its Jewish owner was still in Berlin in 1936 when he took it in to a luthier there for an extensive tuneup. Taking the violin apart, the repairer inscribed on the inside, where he knew the owner wouldn't see it, the words "Heil Hitler" and a swastika.

The photos are posted on the corridor walls of the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, in Foster City.

2. Cats to the vet today. Tybalt was in when we first got him, nearly a year ago, but this time he knows what to expect and doesn't want it. Great effort and a blooding of poor B. get him into the cat carrier. In response to which he howls piercingly, and tries to break out by physical force. As the carrier shakes on the floor I think of our friends' application of Dunsany's "Chu-bu and Sheemish" to the relationship between their cats, and remember the line, "he had chosen a little earthquake as the miracle most easily accomplished by a small god."

Thursday, December 5, 2019

sign of the

An article in the Guardian concerning a renewed exchange of incivilities between DT and Kim bears the headline: I shall taunt you a second time.

Thus proving both the cultural ubiquity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the extreme silliness of the subjects of the article.

(PS: And there's an article in the New Yorker this week which could have, after Tom Lehrer, been called "And the Hindus hate the Moslems ..." We've already had enough articles proving the truth of the next line.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


1. Kamala Harris has dropped out of the presidential race. Too bad, as she was our candidate. This is what happens when the race is all-in from the beginning, with debates this early out and so on: the sorting process occurs before anybody has had the chance to vote. There'll probably be only two or three candidates, excluding obscure cranks, left by New Hampshire, or by the day after.

2. Today is something called Giving Tuesday. Never heard of it, don't actually believe it. It seems merely an excuse for a lot of arts groups, that I don't want to block or unsubscribe to, to send me spam. I hope they stop quick.

3. I don't know if Americans reading this have heard the story of the heroic Lukasz, a Polish chef resident in London, who faced off the murderous terrorist at London Bridge armed with nothing but a narwhal tusk he'd grabbed from the wall. It's been making the rounds in Britain, even used as armament in the Brexit wars (see, immigrants! useful in an emergency!). But if you listen carefully to this account of the details, you'll be told that Lukasz and the guy wielding the narwhal tusk are TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. What Lukasz takes down from the wall is described as "a long stick" and later as a "pole". He fights off the terrorist by himself for a minute, and then is joined by two other guys, the one with the fire extinguisher (conspicuous in some of the video of the event) and the one who grabs the narwhal tusk. The transcript caption writes "animal" but the speaker clearly says "narwhal", and later he uses the word again in the same context. All of these defenders were heroic, but, if this is to be believed, the solo facedown with the narwhal tusk NEVER HAPPENED. He had some other long stick or pole instead, probably a lot larger. Even the person who put this on Twitter didn't notice that the story contradicts the popular narrative. Is the speaker confused, or has EVERYBODY ELSE got it WRONG?

not what it might look like

A potentially misleading entry in the contents list for Tolkien Studies 16, for instance as displayed here, has been brought to my attention.

In this display, the separated sub-entry for most of the article entries is the author of the article. Thus, Richard C. West is the author of this year's "In Memoriam," he is not the subject of it. The subject is the late scholar Jared C. Lobdell, who died in March of 2019. Richard West kindly supplied us a bio and appreciation. His authorship is not listed in the table of contents of our issue, but his byline does appear at the end of the obituary, so some enthusiastic analyzers of our issue (also breaking apart the book reviews section into individual contributions, which we also don't do) may have added this. (I haven't yet checked Project MUSE, our online distributor, to see if that's where this comes from.)

Monday, December 2, 2019

silent night

The tree is up. The (non-fragile) ornaments are up. The cats are (mostly) leaving it alone. So far so good. On to other things,


1) Some carols and some more carols, played by an ensemble of four bass clarinets. Wild!

1a) The ensemble is named Edmund Welles. They don't say where they got that name from, but could it have been from here?

2) Some people wonder how to incorporate acknowledgement of Hanukkah into their holiday celebrations. Easy: Don't let Christmas co-opt Hanukkah. Don't treat Hanukkah as some exotic variety of Christmas, and don't act as if Christmas is the universal celebration and all the non-Christians ought to just join in. Here's a cautionary tale of how not to do it.

and not:

3) The state law to protect Uber and Lyft drivers that could affect my job too. It's all freelancers, and I'm a freelance journalist. It sets a limit of 35 bylines a year before you're a staffer. I think that leaves me all right, especially if (as implied) it means per client instead of total. Many are indignant, but I tend to think that if you're writing every week for a weekly paper, then you are a staffer and ought to be treated and paid like one. That doesn't mean you have to be full-time, as people apparently think.

4) What happens to children separated from their parents. This is about things like Trump's border patrols and Ceaușescu's orphanages, but I think of the time when, aged 2, I wandered away from home before my mother noticed. I was found on a nearby high-school campus by some students, who called the police who quickly restored me to my mother, but these days they'd probably suspect her of neglect and put me, at least temporarily, into foster care. Knowing myself as a small child, that would have been utterly traumatic and would probably have scarred me for life. And that's how they think they're protecting the children.